Thursday, September 1, 2011

Organizing Around Quality

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. 


  1. Great post with some great ideas about organizing in my local union! Thanks for the brief intro to the member servicing vs. organizing model.

  2. Steve, I'm wondering when our teacher organizations will take more seriously the professional development, training, and policing of their members. Other professional organizations provide PD and tie licensing or renewal to this training. I would LOVE for NEA/AFT to begin to seriously support and improve its members' practice and police its members in a rigorous and respectable way so that the very FEW bad ones aren't teaching.

  3. Edit, your point is very well taken. Were it not, there would have been no need for me to write a post arguing for a professional unionism. I can't speak for AFT, but my observation of NEA is that we talk, but that it doesn't have any striking effect at the retail level. Unions are massive bureaucratic and political structures. Change is difficult.

    That said, I'm not clear from your remarks where the funding would come from for your proposal. We are funded by member dues. For us to perform PD in the fashion you speak of would just see us redistributing people's dues money to one another. I would love to see my union fulfill just such a role, but I resist shifting more costs onto the backs of working people.

    The average gastroenterologist in this country makes $435,000 a year. At that rate I could afford to throw ten or twenty grand at my Association for PD without a crimp in my style. But we're in the land of $35,000 starting salaries (I've seen as low as $28,000 here in VT) for teachers.

    Our NEA state affiliate has become a fiscal agents for the federal funding stream to encourage National Board Certification. Perhaps that's a model to emulate. But we can't simultaneously be destroying unions AND expecting them to promote reform.

    Help me out here!

  4. Steve- Always an excellent, thought provoking historical/philosophical perspective. You make a convincing argument for the "organizing model" vs. the "member servicing model".

    Here's some broad thoughts/questions-

    Given your TURN experience- how long has TURN been in existence (where ideas like this are being explored)? At what rate is membership (or members with your ideas) growing each year? At their current rate of growth, when will "you all" be the majority of the union so that your ideas will be the predominant thought leading to policy?

    Here's the kicker- if there's growth, then you have, as you described, a "contending for the soul" of the union.

    If there is no real growth, then is there really a "battle" for the soul of the union? Or, are these thoughts just a small active, but stable (no growth) percentage of the organization that will always be there, but will never be the majority..

    And, if there is no real growth, then what does that say about what the majority of the members of the unions really want (no matter how convincing of an argument you make?

    Just some thoughts- perhaps some fodder for future posts... Hopefully, I'm wrong and you'll tell me that members with ideas like yours are increasing exponentially, and you hope to have a majority of the union by a certain date... :-)

    Continue to fight the good fight!

  5. Patrick,
    TURN was founded in 1995. For the history look at this link:

    A few thoughts. First, an important change has occurred within TURN. The locus of activity has been shifting from national TURN, which originally was relatively small group of large urban and suburban AFT and NEA locals, to the regional TURNS. This enables people like myself, president of a small rural NEA local, to engage in these professional conversations. Given that NEA has an enormous number of small locals, it means the thinking is being ported out to people who did not have easy access in the past.

    Second, many of the progressive ideas and practices of TURN locals have become mainstream. PAR is no longer a radical notion (admittedly it predates TURN). John Wilson gave a speech at RA extolling the potential of expanded scope bargaining to achieve equity - for STUDENTS. I found that remarkable.

    The number of people participating in TURN is less important than the success of the constellation of ideas and practices that is progressive unionism. I see that happening in many small ways.

    There are many folks in union leadership who who seem to me to have a vague sense that we could be doing better. By actually talking about some of the mechanisms of doing better, I believe that we can do better.

    Necessity is intervening as well. Our state affiliate is discussing the organizing model in the wake of Wisconsin, Ohio, etc. I'm trying to animate the model by directing towards the motivations of professional educators.

    Finally, a moral actor cannot stop doing what he or she believes is right based on growth, popularity, whatever. I believe these principles should inform the discussion; therefore I have an obligation to get them out into discourse.