Today, Leo Casey of the Albert Shanker Institute joins Deborah Meier on the Bridging Differences blog. Catch up on the conversation here.
So we begin our conversation with the idea of democracy. It is the pivotal idea in the political heritage we share, as a strong conception of democracy has been at the root of the work both of us have done in schools, in unions, and in civic life. We both came to that work with a conviction that we were part of a democratic left, as our vision of a better world had democracy as its non-negotiable center. On the subject of democracy, we will have to do some work to find any significant differences that need bridging.
American democracy is, as you say, in trouble. Economic inequality has reached heights unseen since the late 1800s. Unaccountable money in our politics, turned into a deluge by Citizens United, is making a mockery of the bedrock democratic principle of one person, one vote. The right of all Americans to political voice and self-government, hard won by epic struggles and great sacrifices, is being whittled away by voter suppression laws. Courts create new rights for corporations out of whole cloth, while they make it harder and harder for working people to exercise their rights.
Why does America find itself in the middle of a new Gilded Age, with its democracy embattled? In large measure, I would argue, because a beleaguered American labor movement has been in retreat for three decades, losing battle after battle. It wasn’t always this way. For most of the 20th century, the political power of American unions was decisive in campaigns for social and economic reform, such as the New Deal and the Great Society, and in the struggles for freedom and human rights, such as the civil rights movement. But, by the end of the century, the once great industrial unions that had led and won those battles were shadows of their former selves. There remained only a handful of American public-sector unions that possessed the organizational capacity and the political strength to challenge growing corporate power in elections, in legislatures, and in the streets. Central to this group were teachers’ unions, the one part of the American labor movement in which the majority of its sector was still organized.
As the strength of the American labor movement waned, emboldened corporate power increasingly set its sights on the remaining centers of union strength, teachers’ unions and other public-sector unions. Anti-union political interests, including corporations such as Wal-Mart and Koch Industries, and Wall Street hedge funders, money-market managers, and Silicon Valley tycoons, discovered newfound interests in education and began to finance attacks on teachers’ unions and public education. By undermining these unions, they reasoned, the entire labor movement would be so weakened as to be unable to mount any meaningful resistance. But leave teachers’ unions and other public-sector unions intact, and they would likely support progressive candidates in elections and progressive laws in legislatures. Perhaps most critically, they would provide an example to other working people that the rights we possess as citizens in a democracy don’t have to disappear when one walks through the workplace door.
If I have a disagreement with your line of argument, it is that you give short shrift to the rights that unions bring to the workplace and that corporate power wants to eliminate. Those rights, I would insist, are the essential foundation of all workplace democracy, including the strong democracy you and I want in our schools. Take due process. It is the simple idea that a teacher should not be dismissed or disciplined without a good reason that pertains to the work they do as a teacher. In non-union workplaces without due process, workers are “at will” employees: they can be fired at any time for any reason or for no reason at all. Management has absolute, autocratic power over the livelihood of the worker.
Due process is the foundation of all other rights, because, without it, individuals can be penalized for exercising such rights as freedom of expression, assembly, press, and association. The authors of the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment understood this well when they wrote that one can not be “deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” In the context of the school, due process is essential if we are to secure a teacher’s ability to speak up for her students, to advocate for a different educational approach or a different school policy, to report administrative wrongdoing, to criticize the actions of the district or school leadership, and to be involved with her union. It provides protection against administrators and school boards who would target a teacher for discrimination—and not just for her race, ethnicity, gender, religion, or sexual orientation, but also for her political views, her friends, or the fact that she is an experienced teacher, earning a higher salary, in times of austerity and budget cuts.
I share your passion, Deb, for schools that are strong democracies, where educators are empowered and make all of the important educational decisions. We both know from our experience that such schools are the product of hard, difficult work: Strong democracies are not for the faint hearted. But we need to be clear that those school democracies rest upon a foundation of democratic rights that teachers’ unions fought to establish in American education, and that would not last long without unions to defend them. I want to stress this point, because there is a destructive tradition on the Left of placing in opposition ‘genuine’ and ‘counterfeit’ forms of democracy: direct democracy vs. representative democracy, participatory democracy vs. parliamentary democracy, the common good vs. individual rights. It opposes as contradictory what needs to be complementary. Travel down this road, I will argue, and one quickly loses his democratic way altogether.
This perspective informs my thinking about union democracy, but that discussion will have to wait until another day.
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.
The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.