Educators care about student learning. This is why we get out of bed in the morning. This is why we persist in jobs that offer slowly eroding economic and working conditions. The real reasons we teach have enormous implications for union organizing.
Let me set some context. Two approaches to union organizing are contending for the soul of our union.
The member servicing model treats the union like a giant insurance company. You pay your dues, you get services, like a professional contract, administration of that contract, or help if you get in trouble. You don’t have to do anything except pony up the cash – others do it for you.
The organizing model seeks to involve union members in a continuous process to improve their own lives. In this model, the union embraces the democratic engagement of members as a source of power and energy in political struggle and collective bargaining.
There is one thing that doesn’t make any sense to me: adopting an organizing model to perform….better member servicing. The irony is stunning. It’s a formula for the status quo.
What is the proper objective of an organizing model for the 21st century?
To be successful, an organizing model has to be built around the things really motivate educators. We call ourselves the National EDUCATION Association, not the National Salary Benefits and Pensions Association. You can build a member servicing model quite nicely around salaries and benefits. Unfortunately, it is the member servicing model which is being effectively snuffed in places like Wisconsin and Ohio.
To build a successful organizing model, you need to construct it on the real aspirations of educators. We need to organize around what good teachers really want: education quality.
The truth about teachers is that our lives are spent in rooms full of children, and that on one level the quality of our lives is directly proportional to the quality of educational experience of our students. There is nothing more harrowing than being an ineffective teacher. There is nothing more tragic than being trapped counting the weeks and years to retirement.
Our motivation in entering this profession is to do our very best to help students learn and grow. Anybody entering this profession for the money has rocks in their head. As long as the money and the working conditions aren’t too bad, good teachers will continue to teach, and will struggle to overcome whatever impediments are thrown in the way by stupid policies, underfunding, or social injustice.
Being motivated by the work itself, and by a sense of service to society, is precisely what makes education workers vulnerable to exploitation, and why over three million educators join unions that many regard as flawed, but essential.
As a local president, I find the task of effectively organizing teachers in any sustainable way extremely challenging. Matters of negotiation and grievance are at best an acquired taste for a true educator. Teachers by nature tend to the collaborative rather than the adversarial.
In my local, I am striving to mobilize a larger cohort of activists who undertake smaller, more differentiated jobs, including work outside the scope of traditional adversarial union tasks. After hours of phone calls and emails this summer, I was not able to present a full slate of officers, and I completely lack a designated contact of any sort in an entire building – no rep, no negotiator, nobody. This is the response to the one organization dedicated to the economic interests and working conditions of teachers.
I’m also president of a chapter of a national organization devoted to professional learning in my discipline. The educators active in this chapter devote four Saturdays each year to working with nationally acclaimed clinicians. We strive to improve our teaching practice.
An economist might be astonished at the irrationality of this behavior. Not only are these people spending weekends away from home and family, not only are they performing this significant professional activity unpaid, but they willingly pay dues to the organization for the privilege!
Not only that, but with far less effort than I needed to assemble my Swiss cheese leadership team for the union local, I was able to quickly assemble a talented and energetic board. This little organization overflows with leadership capacity.
I find this dichotomy instructive. It is far easier for me to organize a volunteer chapter devoted to education quality than to organize a union local built around economic interests and working conditions. Organizing around educational quality works.