Why Teachers Union Leaders Have to be Tougher

union, education, schools, teachers, administrators
Oklahoma teachers, administrators, parents and students gather at The Capitol in March, 2014 to demand better funding for public education.

Now, more than in the last 50 years, teachers have to be tougher in fighting for our profession. It’s time to overcome our desire to elect model teachers as our union leaders. Instead, for that particular role, we need model advocates.  

For a teacher, it’s hardly a thought process to give a student another chance. It’s in our nature, or we wouldn’t be in this profession in the first place.

The professional problem with that instinct comes when we are choosing and retaining our union leaders at the local, state, and national levels. We just want to give them another chance even when we catch them giving away the farm.

Especially in the red states, they have given away the farm far too often.

Ground zero for a new teachers union activism

I first became aware of the change in leadership of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) from Diane Ravitch’s Blog. You may read about it in detail in the Jacobin piece “No More Backroom Deals”.

The bulk of the teachers within that association became concerned, and then incensed that their elected leadership had been cutting secret deals with the right-wing reformist outfit “Stand for Children” that had threatened an anti-seniority referendum if the MTA didn’t deal. Even though the original proposal was weakened, “Stand for Children” still got some of their reforms in just by back room dealing.

The leadership’s argument was that there needed to be the teacher’s voice in the halls of power. If you’ve been in teaching for any time at all, you will recognize that’s just about the same excuse that any teachers local, state, or national leader gives for their enjoying being courted by seemingly powerful people and forgetting who they represent and who put them there in the first place.

In the next MTA officer elections, the tradition of just about every teachers union in the country was broken. The rank-and-file teachers of the MTA rose up and elected a new, progressive, activist president, Barbara Madeloni instead of simply moving the vice-president up into the president’s role.

This is what should happen to every teachers union officer from local all the way up to national if they forget who they represent.

This October the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, or DESE,  proposed that teachers who got a “needs improvement” rating would simply lose their job. But not only that, they would lose their license and not be allowed to teach anywhere else in the state.

As Jacobin pointed out, no other profession has the loss of a license as the result of just a single bad review from a supervisor. Clearly this was intended to remove experienced, unionized teachers.

Madeloni led the MTA in a quick and decisive set of demonstrations and email campaigns that made the DESE finally back down from the draconian measures.

Jacobin made this conclusion in their piece about the success of the MTA:

The victory should serve as a reminder that a mobilized rank-and-file and implacable leadership can defeat attacks on public school educators. Backroom deals don’t get the goods. And because the proposal will likely appear in other states, teachers around the country should take note.

Indeed, we must.

The seduction of negotiation

The smartest negotiators will try to make union leaders feel like insiders – their friends.

Because of that reality, union leaders need to be constantly reminded of this: Once you become comfortable in the halls of power, eventually you will start advocating for the powerful forces that undermine public education and teaching. You will be playing their game, by their rules, with their refs.

As Diane Ravitch pointed out, we’ve tried meeting anti-education forces half-way only to be asked to go half again in following years.

That’s why teachers unions have lost more than they have gained over the last 20 years. The attacks have gotten stronger as the teachers unions have grown weaker, all in the name of compromise.

There is a particular strategy of undermining union leadership that I have witnessed not only at the national and state level, but even at the level of the local unit.  It goes like this:

Top school district administrators or leaders of attack groups reach out to the persons of union leaders and start inviting them into what seems like their circle. Actually it’s not.

Once union leaders feel like insiders, they begin to feel personally powerful, which is the intent of the inclusion process. After that has been achieved, then those powerful people no longer have to  convince the rank-and-file. The union leaders themselves will do that for them.

If the powerful people get the union leaders to agree to a deal before presenting it to the members, then those union leaders are stuck. In order to save face and continue to look powerful, they now have to go out and hard-sell the deal to the membership.

Over the last 20 years this is the point where the wheels have come off for teachers. Teachers are naturally sympathetic and would rather compromise than fight. If their elected leaders are saying that they think this deal is a good one, by nature, we will just go along.

That’s how we got to where we are today. In many states, especially the red ones like mine, teachers have allowed their own leaders to make compromises for them instead of asking the tough questions and demanding that no deal be made without first processing that with the members.

Any time a union leader assures you that they know inside information that they can’t talk about openly, then they have been compromised. “I’m not at liberty to tell you the details, but trust me, it could be worse,” should be a statement that raises an alarm every time.

Union elections matter

Now, more than ever, no teachers union member should agree with an elected leader who urges you to trust them and go along. Remind them that:

  • there is wisdom in a wider group of thinkers.
  • you, the rank-and-file, were the ones who elected them.
  • your dues pay them to be an independent voice for members, not someone else.
  • someone else’s ideas should be processed with the membership first before any agreement is made.
  • you didn’t elect them to lobby you for any other group’s or administrator’s agenda.
  • it is their job to lead on the issues, not operate with the fear that someone might not like what they are saying.
  • even administrators are often secretly – if not openly – glad for the unions to stand up to legislative and lobbying forces that want to grind down all of public education.

If they can’t respect you in those ways, eagerly vote them out in the next election.

All teachers and administrators – not just union members – are depending on you to resist forces that would destroy the teaching profession and true public education for all people. If the unions won’t be the spine that supports this effort, then what will?