Teachers’ Unions and Democracy

No labor leader, no matter how dedicated, can substitute for a mobilized membership that exercises collective control of its union.

Teacher activists have been buzzing in the blogosphere about American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten’s recent change of heart. She has now called for a moratorium on linking teacher evaluation to students’ scores on standardized tests and on the new national curriculum, Common Core. Previously, Weingarten had backed both.

The reactions range from “too little, too late” to gratitude for the change. But the more important issue is that the president of a teachers union does not have the right to make a decision on a major national policy without being directed by union members. Both issues are significant enough in their impact on teachers’ careers and professional lives, as well as kids’ futures, for debate to be held in every local, votes taken, and union officials directed — not asked — to do what members voted.

No union leader, no matter how wise or dedicated, can substitute for the intelligence, wisdom, and courage of a membership that is mobilized and exercises collective control of its union. That control occurs through members at every level of the union supporting and directing those who have more organizational authority.

The Chicago Teachers Union and its president Karen Lewis model this ideal. She understands and acts on the premise that union power resides with the members. Members get it, too, and hold her feet to the fire when necessary. In contrast, in the national AFT and NEA, union officials have no direct tether to the membership.

Weingarten’s stance on the moratorium is, I predict, a temporary shift — a result of indirect pressure the union leadership has experienced from its members in the wake of the first wave of unsatisfactory evaluations. AFT members are being told by union leadership that the union has to “play nice” — that is, give up even more. This strategy is evident in the amazing collection of articles in the winter 2013 issue of its magazine American Educator touting labor-management collaboration.

Nothing in the magazine explains that the neoliberal project is based on destroying unions, especially teachers unions. That reality won’t go away if teachers show that we want to work with politicians who do the bidding of powerful elites who are explicit about their aim to marketize education and turn teaching into contract labor. When you collaborate with people who want to destroy everything you stand for, you’re assisting your own destruction.

One might think the union would focus on collaborating with parents, students, and community. But no — what we need today, according to these articles, is collaboration with management. But who precisely is “management” now? Management is principals trained by the Broad Academy to demand the power to fire teachers at will, with no legal or contractual protections. Management is mayors like Rahm Emanuel who control city school systems and try to break teachers unions. Management is the Camden, New Jersey, school superintendent who was never a school principal and barely taught.

I have a hunch that if AFT and NEA officers organized informed debate and votes in their locals, they would learn that many members do not think there is much to be gained by trying to collaborate with management these days. Then again, maybe I’d be proven wrong. So let’s ask members and find out.

Let’s ask music and gym teachers who have received unsatisfactory evaluations because students’ math or language arts scores on standardized tests haven’t risen enough to satisfy benchmarks, or Chicago teachers who battled to stop Emanuel from closing schools for budget reasons only to see charter schools spring up to replace them. Let’s ask teachers what they want their unions to do about testing, and about tying students’ and teachers’ careers to exams which teachers, students, parents, and the community have no say in crafting. I’ll live with whatever members decide — after we’ve had the vigorous debate we need.

How about a real debate in publications that teachers’ dues make possible? Let’s have an exchange in the American Educator about labor-management collaboration. That would be a start to the kind of collaboration we need: members talking and debating with each other, making decisions together about what our unions should say about the future of our profession and public education.