Teaching Opinion

Whither Democracy and Unionism

By Deborah Meier — September 23, 2014 4 min read
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Bridging Differences returns from its summer break today. Deborah Meier launches the new blog year with Leo Casey, the executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a policy and research think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers.

Dear Leo,

We’ve known each other for a long time, and had our agreements and disagreements—partially related to the positions we held and thus our relationship to the AFT/UFT. There are, as a result, dozens of issues it might be fun to explore. Picking one to start with, however ...

When people ask me to speak, and ask me for a topic, I always just say, Whither Democracy?

It’s in trouble—to say the least. We have our moments of hope that too often get crushed. But while I was working on the inside with kids and families and colleagues my hope vs. despair ratio was very positive because I could re-energize myself daily within the school itself. It’s harder these days.

Equally vital is the related issue of “whither unionism.” Not only it is vital for raising wages and cutting back on exploitation, but unions are both an opportunity to practice democracy, to get it in our bones and blood, as well as to create the balance of power democracy rests on. To get into the habit of demanding a voice and a place at the table requires organization as well as chutzpah.

It’s not enough for our leaders to crave a place at the table. Similarly, it’s not enough to know that our leaders were consulted, had a voice at the table when decisions affecting teachers were made. We needed—long, long ago—to tackle how schools could become places where democracy operates daily—where kids and families and community members could witness it, participate with us in creating a lived form of democracy. One kids could see, too.

Schools, as you know, are hardly democratic institutions in almost any sense of the word. Some principals make space for other voices, but in the end they view themselves as the final authority—bowing only to those above them (and that’s a pretty common phenomenon). Ditto for teachers and students. While classrooms with teachers who provide space for student voices are important, a “democratic classroom” does not make it a democratic institution. Teachers are, after all, a highly educated workforce, with expertise in education at least equal, if not often superior, to their “leaders” and bosses in ways students are not. If they are not fit “rulers” of our schools, then how in the world can we claim to believe ordinary citizens can be “rulers” of their nation, which is after all what we mean by self-governance. Yes? No?

Of course, there are other expert stakeholders, too (including children’s families), and working out who decides what, when, and how isn’t easy and will never be “finally” settled. Are there situations in which we limit “voting” to experts, those closest to the action, etc.? But the past half-century of teacher unionism has hardly dented the fundamental undemocratic structure of schools. And, in some ways, of the unions themselves.

Teachers in the United States work longer official hours than any other nation’s teachers do. And those official hours are a small part of the whole. So how can we expect them to be active unionists as well? The structure of our profession doesn’t assume that we need substantial out-of-classroom time—for sharing and designing curriculum, to discussing individual students or for holding family/school conversations—not to mention professional association meetings. Directing our union and involving our members in its policies and practices is rarely even part of the list.

And if it was on our list, time to talk about the union’s role outside each individual school is hard to imagine. Here in New York City, we are separated into 1,500 different locations City so that crossover conversation rarely, if ever, takes place.

There was one good reason why so-called democrats of former centuries did not believe that everyone could or even should participate, even indirectly and surely not directly.

The proponents of elitist “democracies” assumed that the non-elite were genetically different. They also would argue that, in the absence of leisure time, knowledge, or financial independence, most people were not in a position to come to rational conclusions. Well, we haven’t gotten over these “prejudices” because, while we can refute the genetically based prejudices, we cannot deny that even our colleague next door is in a position to properly influence union decisions and is unlikely to do so in ways that might injure her job situation or take more time from her family. It’s not even that, within our own union, the rules and norms support making people feel powerful—e.g. the caucus system with its principle of democratic centralism (once a vote is taken, no one should publicly disagree) is hardly conducive to democratic practice. (Updated at 4 p.m. on Sept. 23: Deborah sends this clarification: What I meant here is that the genetically based biases are easy to refute, but it’s still difficult for many teachers to influence union and school decisions for fear that doing so would endanger their jobs.)

What would it take for us to seriously consider what would have to happen differently for teachers to be members of a school’s ruling class, not to mention adding families and communities into the mix? And, as appropriate, the soon-to-be-citizens, our students?

What mindset would have to change in our colleagues’ picture of their roles, and how could unions be an instrument for this deeper kind of democracy—a willingness to speak aloud to power, to take responsibility for decisionmaking not only in their classrooms (which they are fast losing, and some quite willingly), but in their school as a whole. For starters.


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