USA Today claims that the nation’s largest teacher’s union, the National Education Association, has lost nearly 100,000 members since 2010. That is a decrease of 16%.
The blogosphere is awash with postmortems of the NEA. The explosion of online learning, the rise of non-unionized charter schools, the passage of right-to-work laws in many NEA states, the general disregard for the rights of collective bargaining and the transience of many newcomers to the teaching profession have all been proffered as reasons for the decline of the NEA.
And if the NEA is undergoing such bloodletting, one can only infer that something similar is happening to the other major union: Randi Weingarten’s American Federation of Teachers.
Fewer members means less dues collected, which means less money for PACS, which means a decline in their political power. This year, instead of President Obama showing up to the annual NEA convention in order to court their votes, Joe Biden went in his place. Many people interpret this a result of their waning influence.
The destruction of teacher unions has been a major goal of education reform. It now seems that goal is coming true.
The most perplexing question I have about this situation was prompted by the statement Randi Weingarten made recently about instituting a sort of bar exam for teachers. At every turn, Randi has shown herself to be utterly beholden to the education reformers, the people whose goal is the destruction of the union she represents. The same thing goes for UFT president Michael Mulgrew, who sits on the board of New Visions, an organization that seeks to destroy public schools and build charters upon their carcasses.
Why are our union leaders collaborating with the people who are out to destroy our union?
It is an old question for sure. The strategy of our union leaders has been to collaborate on many points of education reform in order to prevent the image of a stodgy, mossback outfit with no interest in educational innovation from sticking. Yet, despite these efforts (their efforts at collaboration, that is), the image still sticks.
In 2005, when Randi was still the president of the UFT, she agreed to a contract with Pharaoh Bloomberg that gave most of our rights away. Her defenders said that this was the best deal that could have been worked out at the time. The winds were blowing in the direction of ed reform and Randi was shrewd to co-opt some of that wind in order to get something for the teachers she represented. After all, it was better to sway with the wind than to stand against it and get blown over.
And yes, even I subscribed to this notion when that contract was first negotiated.
Seven years later and the statistics have made it apparent: teachers unions are literally dying.
Why did the unions do all of this collaborating if, in the end, they were going to die anyway? The whole point of swaying with the wind was to prevent getting blown over by those winds. Yet, we swayed and got blown over anyway.
It does not make any sense to me. Many say that Randi collaborated because she has her eye on public office. The UFT and AFT positions were merely stepping stones to a cabinet post or some sort of national position. Her decisions were self-serving in that she was totally willing to throw her members under the bus for the advancement of her own career. This might be true, but the historian in me says that Randi has a snowball’s chance in hell of getting any sort of national office. Despite her efforts, she is still perceived as a shrill union hack. The fact that the union she represents is dying (and I am assuming that the statistics about the NEA’s dwindling membership is analogous to what is happening to the AFT) certainly does not recommend her in any way as a competent public administrator. All of this collaboration just so her union and her career can die in the end anyway.
It is maddening. And the question in my mind still stands as to why.
In my mind, it seems we live in a very non-confrontational age. Unions were forged in the crucible of confrontation, oftentimes violent confrontation, which helped win its members some rights. In order to preserve those rights, the threat of confrontation must always exist. For unions, confrontation usually takes the form of protest or a work stoppage. While a good union need not resort to these things the vast majority of the time, the only thing that gives a union real traction is the threat of confrontation.
However, with legislation like New York’s Taylor Law, with Albert Shanker’s refusal to support a teacher strike in the 1970s, with Ronald Reagan’s breaking of the PATCO workers in the 1980s and the general rise of corporatocracy throughout the 1990s and the new millennium, the threat of union confrontation has become non-existent. The street march, the picket line and the work stoppage have become unthinkable for most workers in the United States, whether they are union or not. (Kudos to the MORE Caucus for picketing with the Con Edison workers yesterday.)
Our union leaders were perfectly happy to acquiesce in this state of affairs. We were assured that our collective union dues garnered enough financial muscle to make politicians consider our demands. It was not through confrontation that we would secure our rights, but through lobbying.
And yet, when the millennium changed, the politicians and the reformers attacked us anyway, despite our mighty union dues. So now it is 2012 and the big bad teacher unions that people vilify as corrupt political behemoths are dying.
The brass of both the NEA and AFT will one day have to answer as to why they believed being Quislings was going to help anyone in the end, themselves included. They may not answer to us, the rank-and-file who they have sold out, but they will have to answer to history, and they will not be able to hem and haw like they do with us. The long eye of history will give them no quarter.
The thing is that our union leaders have always coasted by on the excuse that they had to travel in the direction in which the winds of change were blowing. It is a course of action that most groups, most leaders and, I would even say, most Americans have lived by in our day and age. As a civilization, the last 35 years has been defined by an ethos of being ahead of the curve, of getting in at the ground floor of things. We value the skill of setting our course after testing the breeze. After all, it was always the 80s or the 90s or the new millennium or the digital age or the era of globalization. There was a constant demand on us to not only keep up, but to adapt, to constantly discard and take on new values and ways of doing things because that is what society demanded of us. It was always fly with the wind or get blown over.
Therefore, what the teacher unions have been doing is reflecting the value of the times.
This constant imperative to keep up, to be in tune with the future before it happens, has something of authoritarianism within it. Whether it has been changing our fashion sense, or getting on board with the latest technology, or adapting to a new type of job market or, in our case, bringing education into the 21st century, we are constantly being exhorted to use things and ideas not of our own creation. Our choices have already been made for us, usually by a wealthy organization with the media savvy to market its wares as the latest in sleek efficiency. Something is the future because someone else says it is. Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to follow and obey.
The public life of Randi Weingarten reflects this state of constant reorientation. She has no values aside from how far she can ride the current tide. The result for her will be nothing but an underwhelming and sad legacy in American labor history. The result for the rest of us can be seen in the moribund state of our national teacher unions.
For those who wish to save public education, there is no easy fix. Education is about transmitting values between generations. Educators have a duty to transmit these values in a critical way, meaning one that demonstrates to the pupil the underpinnings of those values, their elegance and contradictions. The end goal is not to transmit, but to challenge the next generation to improve upon those values. It is the work of cultural evolution. A teacher union that passively accepts the self-interested values of those in power in hopes of some sort of gain is a teacher union that sells out its mission as teachers, not to mention as union leaders.
Instead of trying to be ahead of the curve, of getting in at the ground floor, of constantly testing the winds, of allowing the rich and powerful to set the terms of education discourse, teacher unions need to be both teachers and unions. We need to teach in that we formulate our own values based upon what we know to be beneficial for the students we teach and the civilization that charges us with doing that teaching. Those values need to be communicated, refined, discussed and debated publicly as a means to educate. It is a not a matter of testing the winds. It is a matter of helping determine where those winds blow from the start.
And we will only be successful in this if we act as a union. Unions were forged in the crucible of activism and confrontation. They must be forged again in the same manner. Only now our society is too authoritarian and atomized to sustain a union strictly of workers. For teachers, our activism must involve not only the teaching work force, but the entire teaching community, which entails parents and students. It means not a union, but a movement. Only a movement can shape the course of the winds, much like labor started as a movement in the late 1800s.
Education reform in its current incarnation is a movement brought about by money, wealth and propaganda. We strive for a movement brought about by community, dialogue and social justice.
This is exactly what the Caucus of Rank and File Educators have started to do in Chicago. It is exactly what the Movement of Rank and File Educators are starting to do here in New York City. These are the eyes of the storm of the next education movement. Around them have been coalescing all of the seething opposition to corporate education reform, and to corporatism in general. It means not only a reclamation of the teaching profession, but a redemption of the entire education system.
Michael Mulgrew sits on the board of New Visions because the winds now say there is profit to be had in education. Yet, the next movement will totally reject the notion of private profit in education.
Randi Weingarten wants bar exams for teachers because the winds now say that teachers need to be held to higher standards. Yet, the next movement will question those who think they are qualified to determine those standards.
Standardized testing is in vogue because it is a boon to testing companies and chimerically measures “learning”. The next movement cares not for testing companies and asserts that learning is a dynamic state of the human mind, not a pile of data.
Online schooling is popular because it is cheap. The next movement cares not for educating on the cheap, because you usually get what you pay for.
Teach for America is powerful because their alumni come from prestigious universities. The next movement believes that the college or suburb from which you came has nothing to do with being a good teacher. Instead, it is where your passion for teaching comes from and how likely it is to sustain you for a lifetime.
Education reformers claim that poverty, community and family life are not factors in the learning process. The next movement will assert far and wide that this is the stuff of the learning process. We will not allow the suffering of millions of children and female-headed households to remain invisible any longer.
It is not about educating for the 21st century. It is about making the 21st century better for all humankind. The future does not happen to us, we happen to the future. The winds of change only blow to where we determine as a people, not to where the rich and powerful tell us it blows.
The next teacher union will be equal parts teacher and union. In that, it will be the next great movement.