Teaching Opinion

We Need the Large, Representative Democracies of Unions

By Leo Casey — October 09, 2014 8 min read
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Leo Casey of the Albert Shanker Institute replies to Deborah Meier again today.


To practice genuine democracy in our schools, our unions, and our communities, we need a different understanding of what it means to be political.

When I taught at Bard High School Early College in New York City, one of my favorite questions on my mid-year exam was: What did Aristotle mean when he wrote that “man is a political animal?”

For most Americans, the term “political animal” would invoke the worst of American political culture: the paranoid ranting of talk radio, the political television shows modeled after wrestling entertainment, the election campaigns dominated by negative attack ads, and the gridlock of a Congress where narrow partisan advantage is everything. No wonder so many Americans run in the opposite direction when they hear “political.”

Yet our term “political” is derived from the Greek “polis,” the city-state that was the community for the ancient Greeks. It is only through the polis, through our communal bonds and our social life with other human beings, Aristotle insisted, that we become fully human. Seen in this light, politics is the art of caring for the common good of the community. The good citizen is the person who exercises civic virtue, putting the good of the community before his personal interests.

Isn’t this our vision of democracy in our schools, Deb, that it should be focused on the good of the entire school community, in stark contrast to those who do their best to oppose the interests of teachers and the interests of students? And what is solidarity, that core union value, if not a commitment to the common good of all our union brothers and sisters? Think of how powerful our American democracy could be if we rediscovered this Aristotelian conception of politics, and put the common good at the center of our political life.

This communitarian idea of politics is only a starting point. We bring different conceptions of the common good to our schools, our unions, and our communities. Those differences must be negotiated, and that requires that we talk to each other and deliberate together. It involves compromises and trade-offs, as you have pointed out. But at a time that American politics is drowning in post-Citizens United corporate and financial industry money, and is being dominated by the self-serving and self-interested, a conception of politics that focused on the common good would be transformational.

The challenge is to have Americans envision this different world of politics. Inside the most powerful nation in the world, we have become insular in our thinking. We have great difficulty imagining that other nations and other traditions, even the ancient Greek birthplace of western democracy, might be able to do politics in ways that are more democratic than our practices. How many Americans actually understand that most democratic nations in the world today use a parliamentary system of government, which is different in crucial respects from our own system of co-equal executive, legislative and judicial branches which check and balance each other?

While the vital tradition of individual rights has been most powerful within the American system of government, there are aspects of the parliamentary system that we would do well to learn from. I would argue that we would much better off with strong political parties that develop real political platforms for elections, and are then held accountable for implementing them by the electorate—which happens far more often in parliamentary systems because undivided government clearly has the power of implementation. Who do we hold accountable for the fact that ESEA is not reauthorized, year after year? That is why I think union democracies should have a party or caucus system that is closer to parliamentary political parties.

Your examples of democracies in education, Deb, focus on direct democracies such as small schools. There certainly is an important place for direct democracies in American society. But there is also a vital need for large, representative democracies. Unions will never match the money that corporations and the wealthy spend on elections: the $20 million that the AFT is spending on the 2014 elections is quite modest when compared with the Koch brothers’ $300 million. But we do have one important resource they lack—an educated, active membership of 1.6 million. Insofar as working people are going to have any voice in an embattled American democracy and there is any hope for reviving a politics of the common good, we need the large, representative democracies of unions that bring together millions of working people in a solidaristic political effort.

It is important, I would argue, to recognize that a robust democratic society has both direct democracies and representative democracies, and that they work together in a complementary fashion. My vision of educational democracy is not one of self-governing, autonomous school communes. As a democratic people, Americans fund and support public education because of our belief that education is a public good, fulfilling certain common purposes such as socialization, enculturation, and education into democratic citizenship. Public schools need to be accountable to democratically elected officials and legislatures for achieving those ends.

As a general principle, then, the power over important educational decisions should be largely delegated to democratic school communities, but within broad parameters set by state and local educational authorities that are ultimately accountable to the electorate. A school should be able to determine democratically its educational philosophy and program, and in particular, its pedagogy and the details of its curriculum. It should have the authority to decide how to teach American history and government, but not whether to teach American history and government. It should have the power to organize its school day and schedule in ways that best fit its educational program.

A school should have the power to hire new faculty and staff; this authority is essential for the school to ensure that all teachers and other staff are committed to its mission and educational program, and willing to integrate into its culture. But a school should not be able to use that power to discriminate on the basis of race, sex, sexual orientation, age, religion, or experience. Evaluation of staff should be part of a robust school-based system of peer evaluation and assistance. A school should have broad control over its budget, with the authority to decide spending priorities.

From the point of view of the union, it is essential that the delegation of these powers to a school be conditioned on real democratic decisionmaking within the school. When New York City’s United Federation of Teachers first won collective bargaining rights in the early 1960s, it modeled itself after the most progressive and democratic union of the day, the United Auto Workers. Since public schools were organized around the tenets of factory production, it made perfect sense to fashion a teachers’ union contract after the UAW contract, with the use of work rules and regulations to check the power of management to act autocratically and arbitrarily. But if we want to create and nurture schools that prepare young people for democratic citizenship, the autocratic world of the factory is precisely the wrong model. We need contracts that support the establishment of democratic schools.

There is a grand historical bargain, therefore, that the union should be prepared to make. We should be prepared to trade in extensive work rules and regulations for real democratic decisionmaking that empowers teachers. A number of years ago, the UFT worked with the first International High School to put into its contract a school-based, teacher-majority personnel committee that made all of the hiring and transfer decisions. In order to be hired or to transfer into a school that used this option, a teacher had to be interviewed and accepted by this personnel committee. This power was important for the first generation of small schools in New York City because it ensured the educational integrity of their school staffs in the days when there was a grassroots small-school movement.

The union’s thinking was that if teachers were collectively empowered to make the decisions, then potential abuses of the process would be minimized. The system of checks and balances on the hiring and staffing power of the principal would no longer be needed. But the union needed to ensure that the school-level democracy was real. If the principal would say to the committee, “here are the individuals I want to interview” without sharing all of the applications with the committee and coming to a collective decision on interviews, or if the principal would alone observe a model lesson by a prospective teacher and then demand that the committee make a decision based on his judgment of the lesson, the union needs to have the power to say that this is not the democratic process envisioned in the contract, and the old rules and regulations need to be reapplied. Precisely because this school-based system of hiring and staffing was much closer to the parliamentary system of democratic decisionmaking than our system of checks and balances, it was essential the unitary power had to be exercised democratically and collectively.

Sadly, in the 2005 contract, this democratic process for making hiring and staffing decision was lost. Then-Chancellor Joel Klein insisted that all power over hiring and staffing be given to the principal alone, and ill-informed fact finders agreed. Democracy is never a permanent achievement: the battles that establish it have to be refought in every generation.


Leo Casey is the executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a policy and research think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. For 27 years, he worked in the New York City public high schools, where he taught high school social studies. For six years, he served as the vice president for academic high schools for New York City’s teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers.

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