Tag Archives: Work

WHAT IS BINDING ARBITRATION? SOMEONE ENLIGHTEN ME.

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The last post highlighted the exchange between me and UFT Vice President, Leo Casey. Leo Casey explained that Cuomo’s proposed evaluation system would be a form of binding arbitration. To buttress his point, he cited a recent decision where the UFT won payment for hours some of our members worked from binding arbitration.

He also explained, or at least intimated, that MORE and myself either do not know what collective bargaining is or are purposefully misrepresenting the facts. There is a lively discussion on the MORE blog where many Mulgrew supporters are saying the same thing as Leo Casey.

Maybe he is right that I don’t know what collective bargaining is. The case Leo Casey sites was an example of an independent arbitrator’s decision. I have read in detail about other examples of binding and non-binding arbitration before. All of those examples were from independent arbitrators.

Cuomo and the State Education Department and the state legislature are not independent. In fact, they are our bosses. They are bosses under a great deal of political pressure from groups like Students First to hollow out all of our rights as teachers and the education of our children.

My question is: how common is it to have management play the role of “independent arbitrator”? Is the UFT under Unity leadership really upholding our collective bargaining rights by allowing management to act as independent arbitrators?

Someone with a fair view of the matter please enlighten me. This is not a loaded question, I really would like to know.

UFT members: do you feel comfortable with trusting Cuomo with the fate of your school system? Unity’s stance is “trust Cuomo”. Is that appropriate?

A DEFENSE OF SOCIAL JUSTICE UNIONISM

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Social justice unionism, from what I understand, is a philosophy which holds that bread-and-butter union issues are inseparable from wider issues of equality for all people. The union and the society are symbiotic. A setback in the union’s working conditions is a setback for equality everywhere. Increasing inequality somewhere else is a setback for the union’s working conditions.

My understanding of what social justice unionism means could be off but this is how I have understood it up until now. Something like this, I believe, is what MORE means when they claim to be the social justice caucus of the UFT. Again, feel free to correct me if I am mistaken.

Recently, some fellow bloggers I respect have raised questions about MORE’s strategy of social justice unionism. One of them has been Chaz of Chaz’s School Daze. I respect Chaz. We are blogroll partners and always will be. In fact, I encourage everyone to visit and follow his blog.

At one point, Chaz made the following prediction for the 2013 UFT elections:

Union Election: Look for Michael Mulgrew and Unity to easily win the election.  Their only competition will be the newly formed caucus MORE.  However, MORE seems to be drifting more and more to the left, no pun intended.  More’s emphasis seems to be “social justice”and not teacher based issues which will cause many teachers who have been disenfranchised by “Unity” to think twice about voting for MORE. Personalty, I would never vote for TJC because of their emphasis on the “social justice” issues.  However, as ICE and TJC have now merged, the “social justice” issues of TJC appears to have won out over the more teacher-centered ICE as the main platform for MORE. I predict that many teachers will probably sit out the election and result in another landslide victory for “Unity” and that is too bad. It will be interesting to see if those “fifth columnists” E4E actually runs in the elections.  It will be even more interesting to see how many real supporters they have?

To start from the end, I totally agree that the misleadingly named “Educators4Excellence” caucus is a “5th column”. They are the resident astroturf group funded by Democrats for Education Reform who, if they had their way, would immediately hand over the school system to the privatizers. Considering their agenda involves inundating our children with high-stakes tests and a revolving door of inexperienced teachers, there is nothing excellent about the way they wish to “educate”. Most E4E people are rookies themselves. One of them should put their money where their mouth is and show the world how “excellent” they are at teaching.  Why not have a teach-off competition with yours truly? I would put my veteran, professional, “sage on the stage” teaching style up against any E4E rookie.

Chaz is also right to assume that E4E will barely register a blip on the radar in the upcoming elections. Unfortunately for E4E, dollar bills cannot cast ballots. Despite their material advantages their message consistently fails to resonate with the rank-and-file. This makes E4E little more than a rump group of social climbers scattered sporadically throughout our sprawling education system. Their inevitable flaccid showing in the upcoming election will be their death knell. If they don’t make headway this year, then when will they ever do so?

So that means the biggest players in this election will be the establishment juggernaut Unity caucus and the plucky upstart MORE caucus. Chaz believes, with some justification, that Unity will dominate. Why wouldn’t he? Unity always dominates. These elections have traditionally acted as rubber stamps for Unity’s stranglehold on power.

Yet, I believe Chaz underestimates the social justice unionism for which MORE stands. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Chaz is correct about MORE’s social justice platform outweighing their concern for the bread-and-butter  issues of teacher rights and working conditions. Even if this was the case (which I don’t think it is), MORE still has a stiffer pro-teacher platform than Unity can ever hope to have. For example, MORE has consistently opposed the Race to the Top evaluation framework to which Unity agreed in negotiations at this time last year. This framework, as I think Chaz would agree, was designed to effectively short-circuit tenure with its “two years in a row of ineffective ratings and you’re out” policy. On top of this, MORE was fundamentally opposed to the un-democratic manner in which Unity handled this whole teacher evaluation fiasco. Not only did they not seek out the input of the rank-and-file, they explicitly stated that the rank-and-file’s input was not welcome.

I think MORE beats Unity hands-down when it comes to standing up for our working conditions and professionalism.

However, I disagree with Chaz’s contention that the social justice unionism aspect of MORE is eclipsing their bread-and-butter stances. Like I said at the start of this piece, social justice unionism is also bread-and-butter unionism. From my perspective, the two work symbiotically and not against each other.

For example, MORE is adamantly against charter school co-locations. In fact, MORE is against the opening of any new charter schools whatsoever. Not only do charter schools drain resources from the public schools with whom they share buildings (taking up classrooms, gym space, auditoriums, offices, etc.), charter school teachers are at-will employees with absolutely zero union protection. A stance against charters entails both a stance against taking resources away from the neediest children and a stance against turning the teaching force into low-skill, low-wage employees. Contrast this to Unity’s support for charter schools, their refusal to fight against co-locations and their inability to unionize even a fraction of the charter school teaching force.

The same types of things can be said for most of the rest of MORE’s platform. As urban teachers, Chaz and myself both see how poverty hamstrings many of our children’s efforts to learn. Both Chaz and myself understand that ameliorating poverty would greatly improve the ability of our children to learn. Therefore, MORE’s stance against the specter of childhood poverty in general would also improve our working conditions as teachers. We would not have to compensate as much for the basic materials, skills and knowledge our children lack due to poverty.

Again, not to continually put words in Chaz’s mouth, but I think he would agree with most of what I said here. It seems as if Chaz’s criticism is that MORE has gone so far “left” that they have lost sight of the importance of protecting our rights as teachers. On the other hand, I say that the best way to improve our rights and conditions as teachers is to go in that so-called leftward direction, although I do not subscribe to the notion that MORE is a leftist group.

Finally, there are two other reasons why it might be wise for us as teachers to hitch our wagons to the star of social justice unionism.

First, as a practical matter, MORE’s social justice stance allows them to say that they are truly putting students first. Michelle Rhee and other so-called reformers in control of school systems around the country have been able to gain traction with the public by clothing their reforms in the rhetoric of putting “students first”. Yet, any real insight into the matter reveals that “students first” is just that: rhetoric. The explosion of a billion-dollar edu industry over the past 10 years, manifested in the form of firms like Pearson and Wireless Generation, demonstrates exactly who has benefited from the age of Rhee-esque school reform. Children mired in poverty still struggle in school as badly as they ever did while edu-biz has ballooned exponentially.

So, if “students first” has worked for Michelle Rhee, why can it not work for MORE? MORE has the added advantage of actually meaning it when they say “students first”.

Second, I think teaching is a social justice act by nature. Teachers play a vital role in a complex socioeconomic system. Their influence can either help children accept the world as it is (including the inequalities by which those same children are victimized) or it can give children the foundation necessary to question the world as it is and the audacity to envision something better. In short, teachers who refuse to see their role as part of a larger, unjust system merely end up perpetuating that system by transferring its assumptions to the next generations. As teachers, we all have a duty to defend social justice.

This does not mean that I believe Chaz is unaware of any of this. Quite the opposite, it is obvious Chaz is keenly sensitive to his role as a teacher and cares deeply about the well-being of his students. Honestly, I think the issue here is one of semantics. It is understandable that some teachers might be put off by the language of “social justice”. It conjures up imagery of angry young idealists breathing fire against “the system” or mohawked anarchists shattering windows in a fit of childish “rage against the machine”. Who wants their union run by people like this? Not me and not Chaz.

However, social justice unionism is nothing of the sort. Indeed, it is a rational, reasonable, sensitive, pragmatic and just approach to unionism. Just like Chaz, it understands that the lives of teachers and the lives of students are inextricably linked. It understands the realities of poverty being the number one determinant in scholastic achievement.

While I understand that many of my union brothers and sisters might be put off by some of the language of social justice unionism, I think many of them have far more in common with the cause of social justice than they want to admit.

And what is the alternative? The same conciliatory, top-down, corporate unionism that has seen our rights, our working conditions and our schools deteriorate over the past decade? Not only have the corporate unionists who have wielded power for so long seen this happen, they have helped make this happen.

I readily admit that our union has gained for us many rights over the past few decades for which we should be thankful. The bulk of those rights were won during the 1960s and 1970s, when the political consciousness of the nation was more awakened. There would be no way the union could act corporate and get away with it. But now it is 2013, the dystopian future of urban wastelands and dumbed-down electorates that was predicted in many a 1960s novel. The union no longer has to fear the wrath of a shrewd people. They have taken advantage of this situation by enriching themselves and selling us out in this modern age of reform. In order for the union to make a comeback, to gain the kind of traction it had when it won all of those rights for us, it must help awaken the population again, even just a little bit.

If yesterday’s rally at UFT headquarters was any indication, that awakening is happening. This is why I support social justice unionism

 

The Death and Birth of Teacher Unions

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.

Going Down the Rabbit Hole

I will have to slow down on the posting for the next few days. As of now, I am buried under a pile of rough drafts and exams that need to be handed back to the students by Friday. That way, I can head into next week’s vacation with a clearer mind and schedule.

There will still be activity here, but I am not sure I will have the reserve for a full length article for another day or two. Will this show up in my value-added rating? Do I get merit pay for this?

While I am on the complaint wagon, I stupidly broke my flash drive today which had a semester’s-worth of lessons and materials. The back-up files are scattered on different computers and it will take me a while to centralize them all again. This will eat up more of my time and effort.

Maybe I should just put a smile on my face?

On the other hand:

See you on the other side of the rabbit hole.

Separation of Church and State and the Tyranny of the Private Sector

While religious congregations of poor people get evicted from New York City public schools in the name of throwing up the barriers between church and state, President Obama is bending to forces that want to tear those barriers down. On Friday, he backtracked on his original proposal requiring religiously-affiliated businesses to pay for birth control services as part of their employees’ health insurance package. Instead, he proposed that the insurance companies pay for those services themselves.

This is, of course, a political move on the president’s part. The original proposal stirred up religious conservatives who balked at the idea of businesses being forced to cover services they consider morally wrong. He did this despite the fact that his poll numbers among Catholics were little impacted by the controversy. The vast majority of Catholics that oppose Obama have most likely always done so, while the same can be said for the Catholics that support him. Bending to his opponents in this way will not bring them over to his camp. There is probably little he can do on any front to bring them over. If history is any guide, Christian fundamentalists of all stripes: Catholic, Protestant and Mormon, are the most intractably conservative voters around. Obama once again finds himself pandering to the other party’s base.

The pollsters have made entirely too much of how this issue might impact Obama’s support among Catholics. Within that group of Catholics is a wide swath of Hispanics, America’s largest immigrant group. They support Obama not because of religion, but because Hispanic immigrants (not to mention immigrant groups stretching back to the days of Andrew Jackson) have traditionally supported the Democratic Party. Catholics who oppose Obama on purely religious grounds do so because they have always opposed the Democratic Party. This explains why Obama’s poll numbers in the Catholic community have remained relatively static throughout this entire controversy.

Like abortion, this really should be a non-issue. This is not about religion. It is about women being able to have control over their own bodies. While certain businesses might have religious affiliations, this does not mean all of their employees share those affiliations. Obama’s detractors really want businesses to be able to use their power as employers to make religiously-motivated decisions about the healthcare coverage of the people they employ. Considering many of these institutions are providing healthcare because of “Obamacare” (a federal law that uses federal funds), this really would constitute a violation of church/state separation.

The irony should not be lost on anyone. Poor people in New York City get their congregations evicted from public school buildings and the Catholic Church is nowhere to defend them. Wealthy employers want the right to use federal money to deny birth control to their employees on religious grounds (on what other grounds can you reject someone’s access to birth control?) and the Catholic Church is in their corner. While it is unlikely the religious conservatives will get their way on this issue, the controversy surrounding it points to a larger problem of just how tyrannical the American workplace has become over the past 35 years.

Thanks to the erosion of labor unions and OSHA laws, employers have been accustomed to wielding the type of power over their employees rivaled only by the sweatshop owners of the late 1800s. They can hire and fire at will, institute mandatory overtime and employ illegal immigrants who they use and abuse with little oversight. (Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickle and Dimed is a particularly great book on this matter). The fact that people like Rand Paul can even comfortably broach the issue of repealing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, under the guise that it violates the rights of business owners, proves how high the tide of employer power has risen.

Supporters of these policies are careful to use the language of free markets, tying the freedom of business owners to do as they please to some vague notion of American liberty. In reality, the increasing power of the American employer has been used as the battering ram to destroy all of the gains workers have won during the Progressive Era and the New Deal, not to mention the gains of individual citizens during the Civil Rights Era. This is what the Reagan Revolution was all about. It is a testament to the absolute victory of this Revolution that both Republicans and Democrats have been on board, and remain on board, in the destruction of the American citizen and worker.

And on no single issue are Democrats and Republicans more in agreement than education reform. Despite Obama’s attempts to distance himself from the No Child Left Behind law of his predecessor, his Race to the Top program is merely NCLB on steroids. States can only opt out of NCLB’s requirements if they institute, among other things, more charter schools. As Norm over at Ed Notes reminds us today, charter schools provide the same sort of tyrannical workplace found throughout the rest of the economy. They are privately run (non-profits are a boom industry, despite their benign designation) and require their staff to work long hours for less money than their counterparts in public schools. Just like the rest of the private sector today, there are no unions to prevent any of this from happening. This tyranny reaches down to the ranks of the children, who are counseled out of charter schools if they prove too difficult to educate. It is the trademark of the Reagan Revolution: hand over more power to private entities that have no obligation to respect the rights of workers or their patrons. In this way, all of the democratic gains of the past 100 years vanish.

That is why public sector unions are so important. They are the last rampart against the destruction of all of these hard-won gains. When unions like our own United Federation of Teachers roll over and play dead, they disappoint the entire American workforce, public and private. This demonstrates the need for public sector unions to be militant. Just as the pro-private sector policies of the Reagan Revolution have thrown the country back 100 years, unions also need to reset themselves 100 years. Those were the days when the International Workers of the World (“The Wobblies”) were not afraid to meet the intractable demands of management with the intractable demands of the working class. It was their activism, as well the activism of countless groups like them, that forced government to institute the worker protections of the Progressive Era and the New Deal. What the unions of today need, every single one of them, is a coup d’état that wrests control away from the comfortable functionaries who have made themselves fat from making concessions to the demands of the Reagan Revolution. In their place, we need a cadre of leaders who militantly defend every last right workers today still have while ruthlessly fighting to regain all of the rights we have lost.

The entire birth control controversy in which the president has been mired is about a whole lot more than the separation of church and state. It touches upon issues of workplace tyranny that this country has yet to face honestly.