RETHINKING OUR STRATEGY
June 1, 2010
While local education unions have compared
themselves with other similar districts, it has been equally true that there was
a core belief that bargaining was a local matter, locals engaged the process
without much concern for the ramifications of their decisions on other unions.
Though they belonged to state and national unions, their collectivity
rarely extends to bargaining issues. To
be sure, most of us answer calls for help. We
attend demonstrations, walk picket lines, give advice and sometimes raise money
for a challenged sister local. In
the end, however, the message from state and national unions to locals has been
the same. Work together on politics,
but when it comes to collective bargaining, every local will do what it has to
do. That approach probably wasn’t
the smartest thing we could have used over the years, but it worked well enough
for there to be a general upward trend to the salaries and working conditions of
our members. We counted on our state
and national organizations to create a supportive political climate and provide
us with professional expertise that only their economy of scale could provide.
We could prosper then because by and large
our opposition was the local school board and we were dealing with local issues.
Those times have changed. Today,
the President of the United States, a substantial portion of the Congress, our
Governor in New York and much of the state senate – across party lines, seem
willing to blame everything from the financial troubles of our nation, the
debilitating effects of poverty and racism, the effects of the misdistribution
of wealth to the shrinkage of the coffee can on public employees, especially
teachers. Wall Street investment
bankers bundle mortgages known to be toxic into AAA rated bonds thereby plunging
the world into recession, and the media encourages citizens to wage war on
public employees. Private
corporations rape the pension plans of their employees, public employee defined
benefit pensions become too rich – unsustainable – a theft of public funds
committed by public sector unions. Tax
revenues fall during an economic slump, elected officials call upon the public
to demand wage freezes and other wage and benefit concessions.
Cowardly, school officials turn that into either the unions grant us
economic concessions or we will lay off a significant number of your members.
Next door in
I want to be absolutely clear.
I am not criticizing those who have made these concessions.
What I am saying is that we have organized ourselves very poorly to
contend with the forces arrayed against us. Those who want more charter schools,
those who support tying teacher evaluations to student test scores, those who
want to lure us into a system in which getting state or federal aid is
determined by a competition rather than objective need, those who would make of
our public schools test prep mills in which both students and teachers can bore
themselves into delirium – these people are much more powerful than any local
union can battle. They are
organized; they have money; they have the media behind them, and they often have
the power of government behind as well. When
Long Island’s excuse for a newspaper does whatever it can to undermine the
public’s confidence in the way their schools are run, when that paper creates
a place for itself at the bargaining table in each school district, I submit
that we are no longer bargaining local contracts anymore but allowing ourselves
to be picked off one by one by a coalition of forces bent the retrenchment of
all the progress we have made for our memberships over the last fifty years.
To continue on our current path of
bargaining state and national issues locally is madness.
Rather, the time has come to demonstrate that we are not weak and
isolated. The time has come to use
our numbers and creativity to think of imaginative ways to indicate that we’re
fed up and we’re not going to sit back and take it anymore.
Sadly, here too, we are not organized to fight.
In too many places, union leaders don’t even think it’s possible to
fight back, resorting instead to futile attempts to buy good will by supporting
anti-education, anti-teacher measures out of a belief that the best that can be
done is to limit the damage – that some how if we self-inflict a few wounds
the public will take pity on us. It’s
in this dispirited state that NYSUT, the New York merged affiliate of the AFT
and NEA, cooked a deal with the state ed department and the legislature to do
what just about every educator knows is wrong, use the results of state tests to
evaluate teachers. Not only will
this so-called accountability scheme not improve the education of a single
child, it will simply increase the pressure to further narrow the curriculum and
cause us to take a giant step toward making our schools test prep mills.
As Diane Ravitch says in her new book Death and Life of The Great American School System, “ …despite
the ‘slipshod nature of the tests, despite the random variability among them,
despite the fact that they diverge dramatically in quality, the lives of
students, teachers and principals – and the fate of schools – are to be
based on them.”
It’s time for our national unions to recognize that the Obama administration is no friend of public education or the people who staff the schools. When our members voted for change, they didn’t have in mind a more sophisticated plan to privatize our nation’s schools and destroy the education union movement in the process. There is no real bargain to be struck with a crowd that believes in charter schools, judging teachers on the basis of their students’ scores on unreliable tests, merit pay schemes without objective measures of merit and firing the entire staff of schools deemed to have made no progress. Their record on public education is enough to make us long for the Bush regime. Both approaches are without any supporting evidence; both have served to dumb-down the curriculum; both stand no chance to improve the performance of our nation’s children. Sitting at the table with these people, trying to accommodate their pop education reforms does nothing in the long run to improve our public image. When these foolish remedies don’t work, craven politicians will surely find a way to blame the unions for undermining these efforts to change the system. How much more sensible it would be to counter those who have no faith in public education with a real, fleshed out program to improve our schools, a program aimed at appealing to the conscience of America to once and for all address the economic, medical, social and educational barriers that prevent too many of our students from accomplishing all that they might academically. It’s time to be accountable as a nation for the neglect of our children.
return to pct homepage