Teaching Opinion

Teachers’ Unions, Democracy, & Risk-Taking

By Deborah Meier — September 30, 2014 4 min read
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Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Leo Casey today. Catch up on the conversation here.

Dear Leo (and Readers),

Yes, indeed, democracy is nonnegotiable, except ... democracy is a constant negotiation, a balancing act, which never gets it quite right.

The role of labor unions is a fundamental part of that balancing act. Nothing can replace it—as you rightly take note. It is a fundamental foundation of democracy, as long as there is labor to be done.

But democracy is not a recipe that can be followed whether we are talking about schools, governments, or unions. And at times there are difficult choices—trade-offs—to decide between. For example, how do we create schools that represent democratically the views and votes of all their essential constituents, the parents who send their kids to them, the citizens who fund them and who are affected by their work, the staff of the school—professionals and nonprofessionals—and, of course, students of varying age, expertise, and wisdom. Who should decide who serves as principal? They each have a strong case to make on their important and essential role. Yet ...

How do we respond if the citizens supporting the school want to teach ideas and engage in practices that we think undermine democracy—not to mention just plain good sense? (Re. climate change, evolution, religious dogmas, historical “truth,” etc.) What about when professional teachers decide to use the school to promote their own ideological message—even one you and I might agree with, Leo?

We struggled with each and every one of these points in creating the governing rules of Mission Hill School, the only school I was part of that had the official/legal freedom to carry out some pretty far-out ideas. We did it more informally at Central Park East, and somewhere in between informal and formal at Central Park East Secondary School where, like Mission Hill, we wrote out our agreements as faculty and signed them (or revised them) annually, and distributed them to all parents and other interested parties.

At Mission Hill we also created a semi-powerful board of directors that gave substantial power to each constituency. The latter with both the union’s blessing and management’s. In fact, all these schools (and the many others they spawned in New York and around the nation) had the support of their teachers’ unions and some level of support from the city government—to truly break old molds. Yet each chose somewhat different trade-offs, and all did so in the name of democracy. Is that OK?

The unions I’ve belonged to and supported faced the same dilemma, and the teachers’ unions have hardly been the worst examples when it comes to trade-offs. We know that many unions, like many local and state governments, have fallen prey to a lot of corruption, bribery, and self-interested power (for leadership vs. membership). So be it. (You and I both know of the impressive work of the Association of Union Democracy under Herman Benson.) But they were still the one protection available to rank-and-file workers facing the enormously greater power of their employers.

But few indeed have inspired the majority of their members to take up the idea of democracy as part of their duty and responsibility as citizens of the union. For most members the union’s dues are paid as a form of protection—worth the price for sure. (And better wages, benefits, and working conditions.) But for few of us did it involve experiencing active participation in the life of the union and its purposes, policies, and advocacies. The union was not, for most, a lively intellectual center concerned with the future of the profession, a particular school, the union, as well as the nation.

And many union leaders were ambivalent about democracy when and if their own leadership was threatened. The caucus form of voting in the AFT is an example of a practice that stabilizes the union’s leadership, at a price. It hampers that feisty sense of individual entitlement that good citizenship rests on, but which also comes with a price tag. Few of us managed to consistently introduce the idea of democracy’s daily operating rules and norms without worrying first and foremost on how it might impact on what we were primarily interested in getting done. We are often enough fair-weather democrats.

Democracy requires delegating, or, as political theorist Mike Walzer once pointed out, we’d be going to meetings all day and night and have no time left over to enjoy any of the purposes for which we were meeting! Much less have families and hobbies!

Democracy requires “spare time"—what once was proudly the property of only a small “leisure class.”

Democracy requires knowledge, including access to the secrets too often held close by their leaders—and often for very good reasons. After all, unions (like most organizations) have enemies who might misuse the information, etc.

What, Leo, could we do to make the unions we most respect become places that teach democracy on a daily basis, that embed the habits of democracy deeply into their own members—and hopefully into all the work their members engage in with families, communities and—above all—students? Who dares to take such risks?


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