“I Believe We’re on the Cusp of a Labor Upsurge”

Barbara Madeloni

Barbara Madeloni's presidency of the Massachusetts Teachers Association is ending. But as she explains in an interview with Jacobin, the national rank-and-file teacher insurgency isn't going anywhere.

Barbara Madeloni speaks at a rally in Boston, MA, February 26, 2018. Howard Rotman

Interview by
Ella Mahony

In 2012, the corporate education-reform group Stand for Children put a question on the Massachusetts ballot that would have destroyed teachers’ seniority and tied evaluations to students’ test scores. And they lined up $10 million to pass it.

Terrified, leaders in the Massachusetts Teachers Association begged the unelected group to negotiate instead of going forward with the referendum. Rather than draw a line in the sand against the attacks on teachers, the MTA leaders were quick to offer concessions to the billionaire-backed group in exchange for taking the question off the ballot.

For an emerging rank-and-file caucus in the MTA, the Educators for a Democratic Union, the leaders’ instinct to negotiate the terms of their defeat rather than fight the deal represented everything that needed to change about the union.

Two years later, EDU fielded a candidate named Barbara Madeloni for union president to try to transform the MTA in a more militant, democratic direction. As Dan Clawson writes, “she was a pure rank-and-file candidate,” running for a seat that had been uncontested for decades.

She won. And her tenure saw a sea change in the MTA.

When Question 2, which would have lifted the state’s cap on charter schools, hit the ballot, Madeloni decided to take it — and its $23.6 million war chest — head on. The result was a shocking landslide victory for public education, with a 24-point margin of voters saying “No on 2.” The union also adopted more uncompromising stances on testing and teacher evaluations, fought punitive licensing requirements, and deepened democratic, rank-and-file engagement from the bottom up.

Now, Madeloni is terming out, and after a competitive election, two EDU activists, Merrie Najimy and Max Page, are set to take her place. Their future is uncertain. Some of the central fights the union was planning to take on — a Fair Share Amendment enabling the state to tax top earners, and a fight for $15 — have been changed by outside forces. The Fair Share Amendment was absurdly ruled unconstitutional by Massachusetts’ Supreme Court, dealing a devastating blow to efforts to tax the state’s wealthy. On the other hand, the Massachusetts legislature, seeking to avoid a raft of ballot measures this November, passed legislation granting a $15 minimum wage and paid family and medical leave. Despite disappointing carve-outs for tipped and retail workers, it’s a victory for the central demands of the MTA and the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition. The union is now on new terrain in this respect.

Jacobin assistant editor Ella Mahony talked to Madeloni about her experiences as union president, the relationship between union democracy and worker power, and what’s in store for education workers in Massachusetts and across the country.

Ella Mahony

Let’s start at the beginning of your term. When you decided to run for office in the MTA, what was happening in the union? What problems were teachers confronting and what do you feel was missing in the response from union leaders at the time?

Barbara Madeloni

What was happening in the union is that the leadership at the time had consistently taken positions that said, “We know things are bad, but if we don’t come to a compromise, things will be worse.” There was this message of helplessness in the face of corporate reform. At its best a sense of helplessness, and at its worse a sense of complicity with corporate reform.

For instance, the delegates to the annual meeting in 2010 had voted to say that we were not to join Race to the Top and not connect student test scores to teacher evaluations. The board of directors at the next meeting voted to overturn the decision of the delegates.

That gives you an example of how they didn’t think they could fight. At some level the message that they were sending was: this is okay, we should go along with this, this is what professionalism looks like. They bought into the language of “accountability.”

Later, in 2012, [the pro-corporate reform organization] Stand for Children threatened a ballot measure with thirty-nine parts to it that would have instituted all sorts of corporate reform measures. Rather than fight that ballot measure, the leadership cut a deal with Stand for Children that significantly weakened seniority rights. And they cut that deal in spite of membership opposition. They weakened health insurance and the message over and over was, “Look, if we don’t accept this bad thing, we’re going to get a worse thing.”

For members who were paying attention to what was happening in the union, there was a cynicism, if not outrage, about the kinds of deals that were being cut.

For a lot of other members, they didn’t even know that there was a union. When I ran for [union] office, we would hold house parties and I would be talking to educators hearing all their stories. They had tears in their eyes describing how, thanks to high-stakes testing and standardization in the classroom, they felt complicit in what they considered to be abusive behaviors. I would say, “I’m running for president of the MTA so we can change that.” And they would say, “There’s a president of the MTA?” I think that really speaks to how the leadership was out of touch with the membership. At that time, like 99 percent of our board seats were uncontested elections. So there was an inner circle of people who considered themselves the MTA and then there was everybody else out there trying to figure out how to get through their day in the midst of these incredible assaults on their professional dignity, on their hopes and dreams for their students.

I was able to tap into something that was out there. There was a moment where people were ready to hear that it was possible to fight back.

Ella Mahony

So, between 2012 and 2016, the MTA went from negotiating with — and making concessions to! — an unelected group like Stand for Children, to fighting Question 2 head on. How were you and your allies in the union able make that shift? How did you move people from this sense of defeat to saying, “No, actually we’re going take this on. We’re going do it head on and in a really aggressive way.”

Barbara Madeloni

That’s a great question. Because sometimes in the middle of it, I wasn’t sure how we were doing it. Generally, we think that to organize to build power, we have to first access people at the local level and have them take up local fights. Once they experience their collective power at that level, we can build from that to knit together a broader collective to fight for larger issues.

What the caucus — of Educators for a Democratic Union — was able to do instead, I almost think of as backwards organizing.

In my election and through the bully pulpit that I got as president, as I talked to people about the possibilities of fighting back, and as caucus members throughout the state talked about the same thing, we excited people’s imagination that fighting and winning was possible.

After I was elected, one of the things that we did was we held thirty-seven forums across the state and invited members to come and answer three questions. “What is your vision for public education? What keeps you from achieving that vision? And what would you like to do about that?” The board members who were aligned with the former leadership — who had accepted the idea that membership was disengaged and identified me as just an aberration that was going to disappear when we voted again in 2016 — they had to hear in those forums that something was going on with membership that they hadn’t been paying any attention to.

That gave them pause from fighting me head on to resist the [No on 2] campaign. And the idea of standing up and saying, “We are not going to fight,” when the president is saying, “No we’re going to fight, and we have a coalition that’s willing to fight,” that would have been very risky for them. It would have exposed their actual position.

Ella Mahony

It sounds similar to what happened in West Virginia. There, it seems that the union leadership just very consistently said, “Well we can’t do anything because our membership is not engaged. And since our members aren’t active it’s not actually possible for us to take stance on things and to fight things.” Then when the membership was actually activated, there was a push and pull relationship where the leaders weren’t comfortable with what they were being pushed to do, but couldn’t openly refuse to do it, right? And that was part of the reason for the success of the strike and it came from that broader member mobilization that no one could have predicted if they had seen the level of member engagement in the years leading up to this strike.

Barbara Madeloni

Very similar. My board opponents faced the same problem. In the face of membership wanting to fight, how could they say “No we’re not going to fight.” They dragged their heels, held the discussion in executive session, but could not openly say “let’s not fight.”

It’s interesting that I’m talking to you about this right now because of what happened in the most recent election where I’m terming out. The delegates elected Merrie Najimy and Max Page, who were the EDU candidates, as president and vice president. And the campaign was about explicit differences in ideology. The opposition group said, “We are about service, we are about our relationships with the legislators, we are about professional development. We’re not about social justice.” They mocked the idea of social justice unionism, and delegates were given an opportunity to make a clear decision. When they did that, they went overwhelmingly for Merrie and Max and a progressive, social justice, rank-and-file union.

Ella Mahony

It’s clear that for you, union democracy played a role in your vision of progressive unionism. What I’m curious about is, what does it look like to have a commitment to union democracy and a rank-and-file vision from the top, when you’re in leadership?

Barbara Madeloni

If you’re committed to democratic unionism, you really have to be committed to that come hell or high water. When you take office and you have the opportunity to set agendas and chair meetings, the invitation is there to give yourself an excuse for things not being particularly democratic. Like, “I’m in charge, I got the best ideas.” It’s absolutely essential to, when making difficult decisions, especially when you’re under attack, to have as a grounding and a deep foundation that “this is about democracy.” I mean, we had a board that said “We’re a democratically elected board” — but until the transformation started by my election probably 80 percent of them ran uncontested. You still have to commit to “All right, that’s the board and that’s where we are.” Then let’s go out and deepen the democracy by having people run for seats. We’ve been able to do that really well, and we have all these contested elections now.

We have EDU candidates running against EDU candidates for board seats. That’s how much we’ve nurtured that. And, no matter what was happening at the board, the annual meeting of delegates was a much more vibrant, democratic space — where EDU motions regularly won the debate.

There’s many times in the course of the last four years where what helped me was going back to saying, “This is about union democracy. That’s the ultimate guiding principle, and whatever I’m about to do right now even though it might mean we’re going to lose on this issue, it has to be about union democracy.”

Which absolutely terrifies the people who have been safe and comfortable within the bureaucratic union structure.

Ella Mahony

It’s like what you were talking about with the No on 2 campaign. In that case, despite all the tensions, the higher level of democracy and engagement had a pretty direct relationship to whether you were able to take on charters in the ballot initiative.

Barbara Madeloni

Very explicitly, the annual meeting in May 2016 when the delegates voted to support the No on 2 campaign and fully fund it was marked by attempts by people who didn’t want us to engage the campaign to consistently use parliamentary procedures to shut down debate. We weren’t even able to get to debate because of the way that they were using parliamentary procedure.

Until finally somebody stood up and said, “We want to get to debate. Ask the parliamentarian what we can do to get to debate.” And when we finally figured that out and got to debate, the delegates overwhelmingly supported the campaign.

To the degree that we’re engaging in a democratic process and bringing issues forward, challenging everybody to participate in the debate, people get to see positions. And they get to say, “Oh actually that’s what I think. I’m gonna go [join them.]” You have to trust: if we’re committed to democratic unionism, if we’re committed to building this better world, we’ve got to believe that people are able to do that.

Ella Mahony

So, tell me about the No on 2 campaign itself. What was involved in getting it off the ground, and what lessons for the future would you take from it?

Barbara Madeloni

The campaign grew initially out of the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance, which started one afternoon with the Boston Teachers Union, American Federation of Teachers Massachusetts, MTA, and Jobs With Justice saying, “We need to build a coalition that brings people together to fight against high-stakes testing, against charter schools and for our vision of public education.” That coalition grew to include Citizens for Public Schools, to include the Boston Education Justice Alliance, to include NAACP Northeast regional office, to include various student groups. We were just an informal group meeting and talking. Then the ballot question came at us and that gave us a focus.

The thing about the campaign is that there is a small percentage of MTA members who did high intensity work canvassing, phone banking. But the way that the campaign was successful is that members didn’t have to do the high-level work, they just did the work because they were out in their communities talking to parents on grocery lines, in doctors’ offices, over family dinners. Talking as educators about why this was important.

A true analysis of the campaign, the way I see it, is that there were a couple of different campaigns. One was very structured and focused: the phone banking, the canvassing, making sure that we knew which voters we had ID’d and who we had to contact. And then there was this crazy, chaotic other side of the campaign where lots of rank and file members who had been educated about charter schools — either by personal experience or through the MTA — wore their buttons and were out there talking to everyday people just as people, as educators saying, “This is a bad deal.” That was a big part of why we won. It’s something we can’t measure, but it’s something that’s had a profound impact. Lots of people experienced themselves as part of that win, even if they weren’t recorded officially on a spreadsheet as part of the campaign.

Ella Mahony

In other words, teachers’ consciousness and education around the issue had its own logic, which had its own force within how successful the vote was.

Barbara Madeloni

I don’t know if I would say their “consciousness.” I would say, they experienced that people actually wanted to listen to what they had to say about the issue. What educators experience all the time under the assault that we’re under is that their voices don’t matter. Their voices don’t matter in terms of how they design their curriculum, in terms of how they determine the success of their students.

What they got to feel was people were like, “Oh you’re a teacher? Tell me what you think about Question 2. Why are you opposed to it?” And they hadn’t had that experience before. Because of the nature of the question, the fact it was issues focused, that was a conversation that they just had everywhere. They didn’t have to have it formally through the campaign.

Ella Mahony

The other big issue that was at your doorstep when you were going into your term was the teacher evaluations and them being linked to student performance on testing. Can you talk about the effect these have had on teachers?

Barbara Madeloni

I would say that that is one area that we have not been as successful as I would have hoped to be. To the degree that we’ve had success with that, it’s in part because the system that was created to link student performance to teacher work was so cumbersome that it started to collapse of its own weight.

But in the places where they don’t ignore the system, it’s still very dangerous. It speaks to an issue that I came to understand. When you have so many locals bargaining over [the evaluation measures], some people are able to get themselves decent, harmless deals. But others are being screwed and usually it’s in the districts which are experiencing other kinds of assault. It’s our poorest districts, it’s our districts with the most kids of color and the fewest resources.

The teacher evaluation system is used in a manner to micromanage and intimidate educators in their classroom. In particular, we see it happening with veteran teachers, so that the demands that are placed on them overwhelm them with stress. It’s an experience of being constantly surveilled and it results in people feeling isolated and alone and terribly anxious about their own performance and their job security. The level of fear that too many educators still experience in the classroom is profound.

Ella Mahony

What do you expect for the next four years? Both with the new MTA leadership and also, what issues will teachers continue to confront?

Barbara Madeloni

I’ll pick up with this idea of how afraid teachers are. The work we’ve started to do is to build at the local level, at the work site, rank-and file-leadership. And build experience and use of their collective power.

The teacher evaluations are a place where it’s happening. In locals where people have been afraid because they get a bad evaluation, to have people start to share their evaluations with each other and name the absurdity and the outrage of what’s happening. Then organize around that to push back against whoever the evaluator is, to say, “We’re not going to allow this to happen, we’re not going to let ourselves be treated this way.” The bullying that happens [via the evaluation system] has become in many locals a way to activate and energize members and develop new leaders in the fight.

What’s happening nationally — West Virginia was a gift to all of us. What it did was make educators across the country go, “Oh man, it works, we can do that. This isn’t just talking.” It helps them walk past their fear and act on their courage.

I know the new leadership at MTA is committed to building local power by building rank-and-file leadership and activism.

Educators for a Democratic Union is going to be a key piece of that work. That is connected to the Janus decision. We in the MTA have a system where we are committed to having conversations with every member by the end of the summer. But it’s not just about talking to members, it’s about creating opportunities for members to talk to each other. So that they can understand what their problems are, develop an analysis of those problems, and they can figure out how they’re going to act collectively to fight back. Our solution to Janus is right there.

What’s ridiculously cool about it is, it’s what we should have been doing all along anyway. It’s what EDU got me elected to do, and now more and more unions understand, “Oh this is what we better be doing.”

We need to really take up the fight. Take up the fight not only for our union, but also for democracy and for public education. That’s the other thing that we’ve been doing in the last four years and is, I believe, going to deepen: commitment to broader coalitions, to fighting with community members, students, parents, labor, community organizations for the greater good.

Unfortunately, the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition chose to take initiative petitions for a $15 minimum wage and paid family medical leave off of the ballot when the Massachusetts legislature passed legislation raising the minimum wage and providing for paid family and medical leave. And a clearly political decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court removed the millionaires tax from the ballot — in spite of overwhelming voter support. So where those fights can go from here is an open question.

What are we up against? The end of the world, right? It’s this crazy time where things are absolutely horrible, and yet there are these possibilities as people not only begin to fight back, but — to go back to the educators’ strikes in the South — fighting back specifically within an analysis that the structures are working against us and we have to change those structures. And the only way we’re going to do that is through collective action. That’s the piece that’s hopeful, not the Democrats ranting and raving about how bad Trump is, that’s not helpful. But I believe we’re at the cusp of a labor upsurge, and that gives me a lot of hope.