Equity & Diversity Opinion

On Unions and Gyms: A Teacher Works to Make Her Union Stronger

By John T. McCrann — March 22, 2016 5 min read
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Readers of this blog know that I am a committed union leader and activist (see my perspective here, here, and here). Unionized teachers with a strong voice in shaping education policy represent our best chance to incorporate teachers’ classroom-based knowledge into the decisions that directly impact classrooms and young people. But this won’t just happen on its own. Kathleen Melville — a master educator, organizer, and leader who I met at a teacher leadership institute in the summer of 2012 — reminds us that we must commit attention and energy to our union if we want to keep it “fit.” The Caucus of Working Educators provides a beautiful example of this kind of attention and enery. Their work should inform the perspective of anyone in the fight to support students and public schools. - JRTM

During my first year teaching in Philadelphia, I was desperate for connection. I taught in a windowless classroom on the fifth floor of a public high school, and I remember going days without seeing the sun or another adult at my school.

The paradox of teaching is that it feels both exhaustingly social and strangely isolating. Most of us spend hours with young people but are afforded precious little time with other adults in our profession. I craved connection with other teachers, but the moment-to-moment and day-to-day demands of first-year teaching almost never left me with spare time for collegial conversations.

I think that’s why I was so excited for my first union rally.

I was excited to connect with other educators, to share a common cause, and to hear from veteran teachers about why our work was worth doing, and worth fighting for. I was proud to wear my red union t-shirt because it meant I was part of something larger than my windowless classroom. I was part of a long history and an ongoing fight to protect and advance public education in Philadelphia. I was part of a large and diverse community of educators, bound together by the same working conditions, the same frustrations, and the same hopes that I encountered every day at my school.

But leaving that first rally, I was disappointed.

I had done some chanting and held a sign, but I hadn’t connected with any other teachers. Looking back, I think that my union, the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT), missed an important opportunity to engage me in work that all teachers can and should be doing: organizing for stronger schools.

During the eight years that followed, I kept showing up for rallies. I believed and still believe that solidarity amongst workers is the best way to amplify our voice on behalf of our students. But I also developed a cynical set of low expectations when it came to my union leadership. I wanted support and instead faced bureaucracy. I wanted solidarity and instead felt unincluded in important decisions.

In the meantime, Philly’s schools took blow after blow: budget cuts, school closures, high-stakes tests, and a constant churn of leadership. As public schools were turned over to private management, public school teachers lost their jobs, and our union shrank. Our union was under attack, and rank and file educators like me were not activated or engaged in the fight.

That began to change two years ago, with the formation of the Caucus of Working Educators (WE). A small group of passionate educators, the Caucus started asking what our union might accomplish if we

could count on the active participation of all ten thousand members. Could we hold politicians accountable to their campaign promises? Could we engage parents and communities in the fight to save public schools? Could we build a stronger union, with stronger teachers and stronger communities?

The answer was: Yes, if we organize.

And so WE started organizing. We reached out to colleagues and asked about their hopes and priorities for our union and for public schools in Philadelphia. Many teachers had never been asked this before, and the conversations were invigorating and inspiring. Because of these conversations, I finally felt connected to my union. I finally had a chance to tap into the collective power and promise of the PFT membership.

In September, WE announced plans to run a slate of candidates for union leadership. Through flyers, videos, phone calls, and events, we shared our vision for a stronger PFT: a union that is more inclusive, more transparent, and more actively engaged in the fight for social justice.

A local paper called our campaign “the most robust and coordinated effort since the 1980s to unseat the dominant Collective Bargaining Team that has run the PFT for more than 30 years.” Prior to our campaign, no one had formally challenged the union leadership in over ten years. For me and many other teachers, it was our first chance to vote for our union leadership.

After months of hard work, our campaign ended with the election last month. WE lost the election, but I am confident that we won in many other ways:

  1. WE won better communication from our leadership. Since the election campaign started in September, I have received more information from PFT leadership than ever before.

  1. WE won a more engaged membership. Hundreds of teachers took part in organizing, within their buildings and across the city, and are now ready to use their new networks and organizing skills to fight for Philly’s public schools.

  1. WE won a more connected union. I have never felt more connected to my union. Getting involved in the campaign helped me to forge relationships with members I might never have otherwise met. This network of teachers across the city can help me make sense of the most complex issues — whether pedagogical or political — and will stand by me in the fight for a more equitable education for Philadelphia’s students.

Eric Fought, union activist in St Paul, wrote about different ways to work within our unions. When we see our union as a vending machine, we put in our money (dues) and wait for the benefits (product) to arrive. We don’t put in much work, and we’re forced to accept whatever the leadership delivers. But when we see our union membership like a gym membership, things look very different: “Gym members pay a monthly membership fee, but results are only possible if they show up and do the work. Walking on the treadmill and lifting weights in the midst of a community of fellow fitness-seekers helps with motivation. Together, everyone celebrates the results they’ve accomplished” (American Educator, Fall 2015).

Even though WE lost the election, the vision for our union has shifted irreversibly — for me and many others. We’re no longer waiting in line at the vending machine. Instead, we’re at the gym, and the work we’re doing together is making us stronger.

Kathleen Melville is a National Board-certified teacher and a founder of

Teachers Lead Philly. She teaches at the Workshop School, a small public high school in West Philadelphia.

Photo 1: Gym room by janeb13 https://pixabay.com/en/gym-room-fitness-sport-equipment-1178293/

Photo 2: Caucus of Working Educators activists by author.

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