The Legacy of Barbara Madeloni

Barbara Madeloni's presidency of the Massachusetts Teachers Association has come to an end. Her tenure offers lessons for reformers who want their unions to fight for the entire working class.

Barbara Madeloni at the 2018 Labor Notes conference in Chicago. Jon Flanders

In 2014, when Barbara Madeloni was elected president of the 116,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA), she was both an improbable winner and an unapologetic leftist. A year earlier, the odds would have been a thousand to one against her election.

In MTA practice, the sitting vice-president ascended uncontested to the presidency; elections for vice-president were contested, but those for president almost never were. Madeloni had never served on the board of the statewide union, or on any of its committees, nor had she held office in her local union. She was a pure rank-and-file candidate.

As Madeloni is termed out of her tenure as MTA president, it’s worth reflecting on why and how she won, what she and the rest of the union accomplished, and the tasks for the MTA going forward. Her tenure offers lessons for union reformers, especially teachers, everywhere.


State-Level Victories

Over her past four years in office, Madeloni, EDU, the MTA, and the state’s educators have won important victories. Some of the “minor” victories would have seemed major had they been won by the previous leadership: killing a charter-expansion bill on Madeloni’s first day in office; forcing the state to back off of a plan for heavy assessment — and videotaping — of kindergarten students; and total victory when the state employee health insurance agency tried to restrict members’ access to the most desirable health plans. But three campaigns stand out above the others.

One of these came just four months after Madeloni took office. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) unveiled a draconian proposal tying teacher performance, narrowly defined (with a focus on student test scores), to teacher licensing. Under the proposal, teachers rated by their supervisors as “needs improvement” would lose not just their jobs but also their state-issued license. As a result, they would be prohibited from ever again teaching anywhere in the state.

The old leadership would have headed for the backrooms and tried to negotiate a kinder, gentler, license renewal policy. Madeloni simply said “hell no,” informed members of what was proposed, and offered them ways to fight back: from emails that flooded education-commissioner mailboxes to renting buses to attend DESE hearings. At the hearings, state officials offered teachers three (bad) options and asked them to choose which they preferred. The union’s campaign was titled “None of the Above.” Total victory came in three weeks.

A second victory, the union’s most impressive in many years, came in beating back a 2016 ballot referendum to expand charter schools. The corporate “reformers” had every reason to believe they would win this battle: a multibillionaire-funded $26 million war chest (the most ever spent in the state); backing from the state’s two leading newspapers; a twenty-point lead in the polls in March of election year; studies purporting to show that Massachusetts charters are especially high quality; and the strong support of a popular Republican governor.

The legislature, the power brokers, and a substantial fraction of the union’s board wanted to negotiate a compromise. Madeloni said no — educators would fight the issue and win it. The board majority ordered Madeloni to enter into negotiations, and do so jointly with the sitting vice-president, who at the time was gunning for Madeloni’s job as president. Madeloni entered negotiations, but told legislators and pro-charter forces: we are glad to talk, but we will not accept any deal that involves any new charter schools. Now, what do you want to talk about? The pro-charter forces did their part, too: confident of victory, they refused any attempt by legislators to craft a compromise.

Despite the anti-charter side being outspent, despite the governor and the media, the “No” side won the election by a 24-point margin (62–38). An important element of that victory was building a multi-organization, multiracial, coalition that was not simply dominated by the education unions. Madeloni was crucial to that process. The anti-charter campaign involved lots of TV ads, but far fewer than the pro-charter forces. Instead, the MTA emphasized member involvement, by getting school-committee endorsements for the “No” campaign, and above all by getting members to knock on doors, phone bank, and talk to friends, neighbors, store clerks, and random strangers.

Sometimes the best way to assess a campaign is to see what your opponents had to say about it. According to a hitherto secret, recently leaked report commissioned by the Walton Education Coalition, a postelection survey commissioned by Walton “showed that just over a third of Massachusetts parents (34%) and just under a third (32%) of No voters spoke with teachers about Question 2.” Unfortunately, the study reports, “voters sided with those they knew, and trusted, best” — that is, with teachers. The report complains “that the MTA took such a hard turn. … Teachers were fiercely activated … [they] appeared all over the state to voice their opposition.” In the past, the report lamented, “MTA was amenable in some cases to doing positive things.” Things were different now: “Barbara Madeloni was positioned as a rabble rousing, outsider, activist, leftist. That’s how she ran and how she governed … She’s a very ideological and uncompromising person. She’s Occupy Wall Street and into claiming that education reform is all about corporatization.” In addition to heightened member involvement, the Walton report complained: “Much to the surprise of the Yes on 2 campaign, the teachers’ union spent an unprecedented amount of money. In previous campaigns the unions spent around $5 million, but in 2016 the No side spent close to $15 million.”

A third campaign was sabotaged at the last minute by the current graveyard of progressive causes, a court decision. In a June 2018 ruling worthy of the Trump Supreme Court, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court — on a strictly party-line vote — ruled off the ballot an initiative that had been the focus of years of effort. The MTA under Barbara Madeloni’s leadership has been a key player in a union-community coalition – Raise Up Massachusetts –putting a “Fair Share” millionaires tax on the 2018 ballot. Extremely popular with Massachusetts citizens, the measure mandated that after the first million dollars a year of income, additional income be taxed another 4 percent. Although the measure would have affected only 19,000 taxpayers, it would have brought in up to $2 billion a year, money to be dedicated to education and transportation. The MTA had voted to be by far the largest funder in an $11 million campaign.

It’s back to the drawing board on raising revenue, but Raise Up had also pushed ballot referendums on two other issues. The pressure of those looming referendums led the legislature to preemptively grant most of what we were pushing for on those items. It’s amazing that many of us are feeling disappointed that we “only” won a $15-an-hour minimum wage (which raises wages for a million workers), and paid job protected family and medical leave for all Massachusetts residents.

Transforming Locals and EDU

Winning statewide victories has been important; the victories have empowered teachers and strengthened the union. At least as important is transforming locals and building the strength of EDU as a rank-and-file caucus. The 116,000 members of the statewide union are spread among 400-some locals, the largest with 6,000 members, others with as few as a dozen. For many members, “the union” means the local, not the statewide organization. Some local presidents have served for many years, carry a heavy load, are extremely devoted, put in long hours for the union, and are seen by many members as synonymous with the union. In some ways that’s a strength. But in practice such local presidents often end up undercutting member engagement, and fiercely resist any member involvement not explicitly coordinated through the union president.

If the union was in need of transformation at the statewide level, the same is true at the local level. That process is underway but is very uneven. An association  of large local presidents is one of the strongest internal opponents of many of the actions the statewide MTA initiates. For every vibrant local with high levels of member engagement and an effective system of building reps, two or three locals have very limited participation. Some of these simply haven’t figured out how to engage people; some (whether knowingly or not) in practice actively discourage participation.

Under Madeloni’s leadership, the MTA responded to these problems — and to the Supreme Court’s looming Janus decision — by doubling down on organizing. Where some unions cut back on spending in anticipation of a post-Janus loss of membership, the MTA made a commitment in the summer of 2017 to add ten new organizers and launched an “All In” campaign with the aim of having multiple one-to-one conversations with every member of the union. Every subsequent board meeting has used a substantial amount of time for reports from board members and organizers about what is (and is not) happening in their locals. Almost everyone now talks the language of organizing and member involvement. At the same time, fewer have a real understanding of what that means, and even fewer are doing it.

The same is true of the rank-and-file caucus, Educators for a Democratic Union. It talks the talk about organizing but has not walked the walk. The caucus is undoubtedly much stronger and more vibrant than before Madeloni’s election and it now holds almost half the seats on the MTA’s board. But it has a long way to go to become the organization it needs to be.

Challenges and Limitations

The transformation process is uneven and partial. That’s true in many areas: developing member — and staff — consciousness, increasing the capacity to organize, engaging with parents and the community, addressing issues of race, confronting economic inequality, and understanding the larger political forces at work.

The problems are probably greatest at the level of the work site. Statewide campaigns are important, but members need to develop their capacity to stand up to a bullying principal, to push back against the specifics of testing, to insist on autonomy and respect in the day-to-day. Very much related to that is the issue of leadership development: although there has been a great deal of it, we need much more.

The flip side of this is also important: EDU is now in danger of itself becoming an old guard, closed in on itself, congratulating itself on its victories, content to be a more effective union but in practice letting go of the push for transformation.

EDU, the Left, and the labor movement as a whole need to be asking: What would need to happen to win? To win not just in stopping the latest outrage from employers and billionaires, but in giving every child the kind of supportive, quality education received by students in the most affluent districts; in making school a joyful, liberating experience for both students and educators. In other words, what would be needed to transform society? We’d need a union — and a movement — a whole lot stronger than the one we have now.

Carrying It on

Although Barbara Madeloni has been central to the transformation taking place in the MTA, it has always been about a movement — which at a minimum means EDU, the rank-and-file caucus which chose to run Barbara in the first place.

The rules of the Massachusetts Teachers Association mandate a two-term limit for a president, so in 2018 Barbara was term-limited out. EDU did not have the caucus’s inner circle anoint a successor; to do that would be to replicate the closed-club approach of the MTA old guard. As a democratic organization, EDU created an intra-caucus primary to choose our candidates for president and vice-president. Eight candidates ran, all pledging that if selected they would run, and if not selected they would fully and enthusiastically support the two chosen candidates. A series of forums was held in spring 2017; all MTA members were invited to attend and then vote to determine its candidates.

In May 2018, EDU’s presidential and vice-presidential candidates, Merrie Najimy and Max Page, both won resounding election victories at the MTA Annual Meeting. There was always some plausibility to the argument that previous victories had depended on Barbara Madeloni’s personal charisma. The 2018 victories made it clear that while Barbara’s personal qualities and appeal were important, the victories were those of a movement — a movement that drew on, and helped create, other strong leaders.

The postelection gathering/celebration was the most remarkable event I’ve encountered in more than fifty years of left movement activity. Joyous? Absolutely. Affirming? Without a doubt. But it was more than that. There was a sense that we supported each other, cared for each other, grew with each other. And it was not just the inner circle of 2014; there were sixty or seventy or eighty people in the room, including a great many who were largely unknown to the “old guard” of EDU. After the opening remarks, a series of people took turns to pay tribute to one or another of their fellow members. What began as a single testimonial couldn’t be stopped, as person after person had to have their say, creating a justified sense that five, ten, twenty, forty, a hundred people had made vital contributions to our victory, were central to building our movement, were loved by others, and in turn supported others.

All left feeling joyous, supported, eager to continue, wishing that this or that other person had been there. Any movement that doesn’t create at least the shadow of that — any analysis that doesn’t factor that in — is the poorer for it. Both Barbara and incoming president Merrie Najimy often say it’s not enough to defeat the corporate agenda, we need to bring joy to our students and our classrooms. That afternoon showed we’ve also managed to bring joy to our movement. Any assessment of Barbara Madeloni and the last four years in MTA-EDU has to put that front and center.