Education Opinion

Unions Behind the Scenes

By David B. Cohen — November 12, 2014 4 min read
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Last week, Californians re-elected our State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Tom Torlakson, in one of the most expensive and closely watched races in the nation. Torlakson’s return to Sacramento is, for various analysts and pundits, indicative of the organizing power of the state’s teacher unions. For many observers who opposed Torlakson, or who typically oppose union positions, union organization and activity seem almost conspiratorial, driven by a political calculus more than a commitment to public education. As someone who has spoken with and worked with union presidents and leaders from all over California, and who was a small part of the California Teachers Association (CTA) effort to get out the vote for Torlakson, I’m going to pull back the curtain to share with you some insider information.

When I work with the CTA’s Institute for Teaching (IFT), or the California region of the Teacher Union Reform Network (CalTURN)* I’m collaborating with teachers in either a regional group, or, a few times a year, in a statewide group. Among the members are a number of union presidents and other local leaders, and although our purpose in coming together is to work on postive steps to improve teaching and schools, sometimes the negatives come up in casual conversation. To hear union critics, you’d expect that behind closed doors, we’d hypothetically be plotting to defend “bad” teachers and obstruct reforms. In fact, we’re talking about how to be innovative and proactive about teaching quality. No one wants ineffective teachers in schools, and union leaders I know don’t relish the chance to fight for teachers whose work is suspect. However, we also hear about administrators and school board members abusing power, trying to isolate or frustrate teachers for a variety of reasons. The union leader’s role is to uphold the contract and ensure fairness under the terms of the contract, to be an advocate for due process, not “a job for life.”

And when I was making phone calls on behalf of Tom Torlakson, was I simply repeating what the union told me to say? Of course not. My support for Torlakson and my opposition to Tuck were both grounded in decades of teaching experience and years of participating in policy discussions at the local and state level. I don’t need CTA talking points to understand the issues, nor do my fellow teachers. Nor do we all have the same opinions. If you look at Tuck’s campaign Facebook page, you’ll see the occasional supportive comment from a teacher, and I made phone calls to CTA members who did not support Torlakson.

When you think of “the union” organizing to elect a candidate, here are some images that should come to mind. Some of your kids’ teachers, your friends, members of your community, meet up at someone’s house one weekend morning. There are some muffins and coffee, maybe apples or bananas, granola bars to take along while walking precincts. Someone hands out lists of some likely voters in our area. Then these teachers go out into the community, volunteering their time to talk about issues or candidates that will make a positive difference in their ability to do a good job for students. They walk for a long time, several miles, maybe all day, and maybe reach a few dozen voters. Or, perhaps “the union” is working the phones. It’s a weekend, or a weeknight, and teachers who’ve already put in a full day’s work, teachers with lessons to plan and papers to grade before Monday, are wolfing down some sandwiches or burritos, grabbing a bottled water or soft drink. Then everyone takes a list of voters and a phone, and sits at a desk or a cubicle in some non-descript office space, and dials up voters until finger tips are slightly numb, and every phone number starts to look familiar. Again, hours and hours of work, and the number of direct contacts can be counted in the dozens.

That’s the big union machine at work. Your neighbors. Your kids’ teachers. Volunteering. Contacting one voter at a time. Speaking from the heart and from professional experience, out of a sincere desire to see better schools, better teaching, and a better future for our children. With thousands of us willing to do that, I’m proud of our effort, and think union organizing should be praised as authentic grassroots success, a local antidote to the out-of-state millions donated by a few wealthy individuals seeking to weaken unions.

Still, looking to the next election, our unions and members need to recognize some political realities. While we can point to ways that we have been advocates for educational improvements and solutions, our opponents have succeeded at focusing much of the public on what unions oppose. Let’s put as much effort into producing wins for students and communities as we do for candidates and ballot measures.

*EDIT - previously omitted disclosures: I am the virtual community organizer for CalTURN and have received funding for a writing project from IFT.
Photo: CTA Vice-President Eric Heins discussing teacher-driven change with the Institute for Teaching, April 2014. By David B. Cohen.

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