Education Opinion

Rethinking Union Strategy A Year After the Failed Merger

By Bob Peterson & Michael Charney — September 08, 1999 10 min read

This summer marked the one-year anniversary of the tumultuous debate over a proposed merger between the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. Even though merger was ultimately rejected, a central theme of the debate--how unions can best fight off attacks against public education--continues.

How a union positions itself in educational debates will demonstrate whether it is serious about educating all children, or whether it is merely paying lip service to such a goal.

As two teachers’ union activists in cities that have the nation’s first publicly funded voucher programs, we believe that never in the history of teacher unionism has there been a greater urgency to rethink strategy. To put the matter succinctly, those who understand the vital importance of a system of public education must simultaneously defend and transform public schools so that they equitably serve all students. And those who understand the vital role teachers’ unions can play in improving public education must simultaneously defend members’ rights while building a new vision of teacher unionism.

Too often, teachers’ unions--like public education itself--have had a mixed record on fighting for an equitable and high-quality education for all children. Too often, they have been accomplices in maintaining an unsatisfactory status quo. This doesn’t have to be the case. We believe the unions can and must embrace a new vision of unionism, one we define as social- justice unionism.

Underlying such a vision is a commitment to both equity and excellence. Already, a number of activists and leaders nationwide have taken steps to define and implement aspects of this vision. We believe it has three main components:

  • Defending public education and the rights of teachers. Teachers’ unions must continue to militantly defend the very concept of public education, uphold the rights of teachers as workers, and demand improved conditions of teaching and learning.
  • Strong emphasis on professionalism. Teachers’ unions must take responsibility for the quality of the teacher corps. Teacher mentoring and peer review, collaborative staff development, and high-quality teaching must be ever- present issues, ensuring that all children are learning and that all teachers are quality teachers.
  • Commitment to children and community. Teachers’ unions must build a strategic alliance with parents and communities in which all are respectful partners in fighting for what is best for children in schools and in society. To effectively build such an alliance, teachers’ unions must forthrightly address the issues of race that dominate both our schools and our social and political institutions.

Also integral to social-justice unionism is the question of union democracy and increased rank-and-file participation. Too often, teachers don’t view themselves as an essential part of their union, seeing “the union” as only the small group in leadership or the paid staff. Certain practices in some locals--ranging from questionable election procedures to boring, top-down meetings--discourage teachers from full participation.

In addition, there has been a historic divide between those who commit themselves to union activities and those who commit themselves to improving teaching practices by starting innovative schools, leading district curriculum committees, being active in the community, or participating in state and national professional organizations. Clearly, teachers’ unions must devise better ways of bridging that divide and involving such experienced teachers.

Teachers’ unions (and many other unions, for that matter) need to rethink their strategies and move beyond narrow trade-union protectionism. Otherwise, they will remain isolated from their natural allies. Free-market conservatives will take advantage of such isolation to help destroy not only teachers’ unions but public schools.

In examining these complicated questions, we have found it helpful to look at three different models of teacher unionism: “industrial- style,” “professional,” and “social justice.” While these models represent somewhat arbitrary distinctions, they are useful in helping to frame discussion. In practice, the models are rarely so purely implemented and often overlap, blending into one another depending on circumstances.

The industrial- unionism model focuses on defending the working conditions and rights of teachers. It would be foolhardy not to recognize the strengths of the industrial model. Indeed, it is an unfortunate commentary that many current teachers are unaware of the history of teacher unionism.

New teachers need to understand that a key strength of teacher unionism has been organizing and winning the right to bargain collectively. Paying teachers respectable wages and benefits and defending their academic and procedural rights can contribute to the overall quality of education. While some teachers, particularly in the NEA, don’t wish to admit it, this strength depends on teachers’ having a “trade- union consciousness,” one which recognizes that teachers, like other working people, sell their labor power in order to survive and need protection from management.

There are several crucial shortcomings to the industrial approach, however. A “them vs. us” mentality has too frequently pitted unions against local educational authorities. Often, this approach has led teachers’ unions to negotiate contracts that rarely address broader educational and professional issues. They’ve also missed opportunities to collaborate with management in common educational efforts. To be fair, this has happened not solely because of narrow attitudes on the part of union leaders, but also because of restrictive state laws and management’s desire to dominate school operations. These factors engender a “serve the contract” mentality that narrowly focuses on individual members’ concerns, rather than raising larger professional or social issues.

Both at grassroots and national levels, there has been increasing discomfort with the constraints of the industrial-union approach. As a result, calls for “professional unionism,” a model that suggests unions play a leading role in issues such as teacher accountability and the quality of school programs, have begun. This approach also understands the interdependency of teachers with the local school authorities; collaboration, not confrontation, is the preferred approach.

The most successful advocates of professional unionism have kept, yet moved beyond, the strengths of the industrial model. In particular, several pioneering locals have maintained a focus on defending teachers’ economic and social well-being, while at the same time promoting innovative reforms that speak to the interests of students. These locals include the Rochester (N.Y.) Teachers Association, led by Adam Urbanski; the Columbus (Ohio) Education Association, led by John Grossman; and the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers, led by Tom Mooney. Many of these locals are members of the Teacher Union Reform Network, or TURN, a grouping of 21 AFT- and NEA-local presidents.

The new vision of unionism that would go beyond professional concerns and ground itself in a commitment to social justice finds its clearest articulation in “Social Justice Unionism: A Working Draft,” written in the summer of 1994 during a union institute sponsored by the National Coalition of Education Activists and attended by a cross section of AFT and NEA members.

That document outlined seven key components of social-justice unionism. The first three give a flavor of the document, arguing that social-justice unionism should:

  • Defend the rights of its members while fighting for the rights and needs of the broader community and students;
  • Recognize that the parents and neighbors of our students are key allies, and build strategic alliances with parents, labor unions, and community groups; and
  • Fully involve rank-and-file members in running the union and initiate widespread discussion on how education unions should respond to the crises in education and society.

We see social-justice unionism as moving beyond a trade-union or professional perspective to a class-conscious perspective. This class consciousness recognizes that teachers’ long-term interests are closer to those of poor and working people whose children are in our public schools than to those of the corporate leaders and politicians who run our society. It views parents and community as essential partners in reform, with a stress in urban areas on developing ties with communities of color. It is committed to a bottom-up, grassroots mobilization-- of teachers, parents, community members, and rank-and-file union members. Dealing with the issue of race, which has long divided our communities and schools, is an essential element of this approach. (An example of the latter can be found in Canada, where the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation runs an education program tackling the question of race on personal, political, and pedagogical levels through a combination of workshops, training sessions, policy statements, and youth organizing.)

Essential to this concept of social-justice unionism is a recognition that schools have played a dual, contradictory role in society. On the one hand, they reinforce and reproduce class, racial, and gender divisions and inequality. On the other hand, they provide an opportunity to break down those divisions and inequalities. For all their faults, public schools are one of the most democratically controlled institutions in society. They are a constant battleground of competing visions and priorities.

A social-justice perspective struggles against those practices that mirror and replicate society’s inequalities--practices such as tracking, narrowly defined standards, infatuation with standardized testing, and admissions requirements for public schools. Moreover, such a perspective mobilizes teachers and parents to overturn such inequitable policies and construct workable alternatives. How a union positions itself in such educational debates will demonstrate whether it is serious about educating all children, or whether it is merely paying lip service to such a goal.

Historically, teachers’ unions have operated on the premise that their overarching responsibility is to protect their members. We would argue, however, that in the long run, unions will be able to protect their members only if they adopt a social- justice model.

Unions are under ferocious attack and will not survive unless they are seen as advocates of school reform. Of necessity, they must adopt more responsibility for the teaching profession and the academic achievement of students. Further, only by building alliances with the community and with parents and by fully involving their members in activities will unions be able to withstand the conservative onslaught.

But even the best-run school district in the world cannot, over time, compensate for all the inequalities in our society--which is why a commitment to social justice must go beyond education and reach into all aspects of society. If teachers want true equal educational opportunity for their students, they must work for equal opportunity throughout society, not just in education but in health care, employment, and housing.

Social-justice unionism also makes sense on a more individual level. Our success as teachers depends on students’ experiencing optimism and not despair. Teachers, as all workers, want to go home at night and know they have been successful during the day. When their students live in poverty and without health care, when their students are without hope because they see unemployment everywhere in their community--then teachers’ jobs are all the more difficult.

In the past, other unions have faced difficult challenges and set ambitious goals. Today, teachers’ unions face a similar challenge. We must demand and build a democratic teachers’ union movement that recognizes its interests are bound up with the interests of the children and communities we serve. Only then will we be able to gather sufficient forces to ensure that public education gets the resources that schools deserve and that children need.

Bob Peterson teaches 5th grade in the Milwaukee public schools and is an editor of Rethinking Schools. He has been a teachers’ union activist in the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association for nearly two decades. Michael Charney has been a member of the executive board of the Cleveland Teachers Union for over a decade as a middle school representative and edits its newspaper, Critique. They are the co-editors of Transforming Teacher Unions: Fighting for Better Schools and Social Justice, from which this essay is adapted. Information on the book is available by phone at (800) 669-4192 or online at www.rethinkingschools.org.