The Battle for Education and a Revitalized Teachers’ Union

English: Protesters demonstrating at the Wisco...

English: Protesters demonstrating at the Wisconsin State Capitol against the collective bargaining restriction on unions by Governor Scott Walker (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


If we don’t transform teacher unions now, our schools, our profession, and our democracy—what’s left of it—will likely be destroyed. I know. I am from Wisconsin, the home of Scott Walker and Paul Ryan.


Bob Peterson.


In 2011, in the wake of the largest workers uprising in recent U.S. history, I was elected president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA). Unfortunately, that spring uprising, although massive and inspirational, was not strong enough to stop Gov. Walker from enacting the most draconian anti-public sector labor law in the nation.


That law, known as Act 10, received support from the Koch brothers and a cabal of national right-wing funders and organizations. It was imposed on all public sector workers except the police and firefighter unions that endorsed Walker and whose members are predominantly white and male.


Act 10 took away virtually all collective bargaining rights, including the right to arbitration. It left intact only the right to bargain base-wage increases up to the cost of living. The new law prohibited “agency shops,” in which all employees of a bargaining unit pay union dues. It also prohibited payroll deduction of dues. It imposed an unprecedented annual recertification requirement on public sector unions, requiring a 51 percent (not 50 percent plus one) vote of all eligible employees, counting anyone who does not vote as a “no.” Using those criteria, Walker would never have been elected.


Immediately following Act 10, Walker and the Republican-dominated state legislature made the largest cuts to public education of any state in the nation and gerrymandered state legislative districts to privilege conservative, white-populated areas of the state.


Having decimated labor law and defunded public education, Walker proceeded to expand statewide the private school voucher program that has wreaked havoc on Milwaukee, and enacted one of the nation’s most generous income tax deductions for private school tuition.


Under these conditions, public sector union membership has plummeted, staff has been reduced, and resources to lobby, organize, and influence elections have shrunk.


People familiar with Wisconsin’s progressive history—in 1959, for example, we were the first state to legalize collective bargaining for public sector workers—find these events startling. And they should. If it happened in Wisconsin, it could happen anywhere…


Fortunately, teacher union activists across the country are revitalizing their unions and standing up to these relentless attacks. And this growing transformation of the teachers’ union movement may well be the most important force in our nation to defend and improve public schools and, in so doing, defend and improve our communities and what’s left of our democratic institutions.


The revitalization builds on the strengths of traditional “bread and butter” unionism. But it recognizes that our future depends on redefining unionism from a narrow trade union model, focused almost exclusively on protecting union members, to a broader vision that sees the future of unionized workers tied directly to the interests of the entire working class and the communities, particularly communities of color, in which we live and work.


This is a sea change for teacher unions (and other unions, too). But it’s not an easy one to make. It requires confronting racist attitudes and past practices that have marginalized people of color both inside and outside unions. It also means overcoming old habits and stagnant organizational structures that weigh down efforts to expand internal democracy and member engagement.


From Bread and Butter to Social Justice


Social justice unionism is an organizing model that calls for a radical boost in internal union democracy and increased member participation. This contrasts to a business model that is so dependent on staff providing services that it disempowers members and concentrates power in the hands of a small group of elected leaders and/or paid staff. An organizing model, while still providing services to members, focuses on building union power at the school level in alliance with parents, community groups, and other social movements.


Three components of social justice unionism are like the legs of a stool. Unions need all three to be balanced and strong:


  • We organize around bread and butter issues.
  • We organize around teaching and learning issues to reclaim our profession and our classrooms.
  • We organize for social justice in our community and in our curriculum.


Unfortunately, few public sector unions in Wisconsin adopted this model of unionism. As long as we had an agency shop and could protect our members’ compensation and benefits, most members were happy.


We are now paying the price for defining our unions as contract bargainers and enforcers. Today, when we try to sign up members, many are aware that our collective bargaining rights have been severely limited. Often they respond, “Why should I join?” Others think we don’t even exist, as our identity has been so tightly woven to the contract.




Edited for space. Read the entire piece.


 Currently the coalition’s three committees focus on fighting school privatization, promoting community schools, and supporting progressive legislation. We are part of a national community schools movement that sees schools as hubs for social and health support, not only for the students of the school but also for their families and the surrounding community. The model seeks to build strong community-school ties and help empower parents and community activists.

The coalition work is difficult. All participants have other organizational priorities, making meetings and communication a challenge. As we broaden the coalition, differences in strategies and priorities emerge. This work reminds me of the words of activist/musician Bernice Johnson Reagon, of Sweet Honey in the Rock: “If you are in a coalition and you are comfortable, that coalition is not broad enough.”


Differences emerge in various ways. For example, as we’ve discussed how schools need to improve, some community members believe that a strong phonics emphasis will solve reading problems. Others see forced adherence to a rigid basal reading program that downplays literature as a key culprit. One way we have sought to bring such divergent perspectives together is by focusing on proven practices that we can all agree on—such as developmentally appropriate practices at the early childhood level.


Reclaiming Our Profession


Another essential pathway to a revitalized teachers’ union movement is organizing our members to be leaders on all K–12 educational issues. Although some locals have taken on the hard issues of teacher evaluation through peer assistance and review programs, that is only the beginning.


It’s clear to me that what is necessary is a national movement led by activists at the local, state, and national levels within the AFT and NEA—in alliance with parents, students, and community groups—to take back our classrooms and our profession.


Promoting Social Justice Teaching


A key, but less talked about, aspect of social justice unionism is promoting social justice content in our curriculum. We need to fight for curriculum that is anti-racist, pro-justice and that prepares our students for the civic and ecological challenges ahead.


A Final Challenge


With the Wisconsin state legislature dominated by right-wing Republicans waiting to use any perceived or real weakness in public schools as an excuse to accelerate their school privatization schemes, we must proceed with caution in our public criticism of and organizing around school district policies.


On the one hand, we need to fight to improve our public schools by organizing our members and allies to speak out against a variety of problems, including poorly rolled-out initiatives; large class sizes; lack of music, art, physical education, counselors, and librarians; restrictive curriculum mandates; and rogue principals. On the other hand, speaking out can play into the hands of the privatizers as they seek to expand privately run charters in what is already the nation’s largest publicly funded private school voucher program.


This dilemma forces us to carefully consider our approach at the district level. We use a variety of tactics, including participation on labor/management committees, lobbying school board members, and balancing mass mobilizations with the threat of mass mobilizations. In the end, we recognize a key element in fighting privatization is to improve our public schools.


A Social Movement for Educational Justice


And that’s a hard thing to do in face of the corporate shit storm that has engulfed much of public education over the past few decades. But, just as I have been amazed at the resilience of some of my most beleaguered students, so, too, am I heartened by the increasing number of teacher, student, and community activists organizing for educational justice.


Rank-and-file union members and growing numbers of union leaders recognize the need for new approaches to fight attacks on public schools and our profession. In addition to the work in Milwaukee, Chicago, Portland, and St. Paul, rank-and-file caucuses and local leaders in many areas of the country are having increased success moving their unions toward a social justice, member-based stance.


In Los Angeles, an activist caucus, Union Power, won leadership of the United Teachers Los Angeles, the second largest teacher local in the country. The Union Power slate, headed by Alex Caputo-Pearl, has an organizing vision for their union. They have worked with parents fighting school cuts and recognize the importance of teacher-community alliances.


In Massachusetts, Barbara Madeloni, a leader of the University of Massachusetts EdTPA boycott (see “Stanford/Pearson Test for New Teachers Draws Fire,” winter 2012–13), was elected president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association last May. She ran with the Educators for a Democratic Union caucus and promises to mobilize teachers in the struggle against high-stakes standardized testing.


On the national level, the sentiments and actions of members attending recent AFT and NEA conventions are more militant and focused on building organizing capacity internally and in alliance with other groups to fight the corporate reformers, obsessive testing, and privatization. The national “days of action” of the recently formed Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools have encouraged locals to build community coalitions and take an activist approach to fighting privatization and promoting public school-based improvements.


Will it be enough, soon enough? Will unions be able to transform themselves to go beyond their past limitations, reclaim our profession, and participate in the broader social justice movements? Will progressive union leadership and caucuses be able to convince recalcitrant members and staff stuck in an untenable past?


Those are the questions activists will answer in the next few years as we organize for social justice in our classrooms, our schools, our unions, and our communities.


A Call to Education Activists


In August 1994, at an institute sponsored by the National Coalition of Education Activists, grassroots teachers’ union activists affiliated with both the NEA and AFT developed a statement: “Social Justice Unionism: A Call to Education Activists.“ Here are the key components. The full statement is available at Social justice unionism retains the best of traditional unionism, borrows from what has been called “professional unionism,” and is informed by a broader concept of our members’ self-interests and by a deeper social vision. Social justice unionism should:

Reprinted from Rethinking Schools.  With Permission.


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