Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Which Way Forward for Teacher Unions?

I gave this speech April 4, 2011 in Burlington, VT as a participant on a panel "Which Way Forward for Unions?"
I love my union.  I believe that unions are a fundamental social good.  They are institutions that elevate not only the workers who are their members, but all workers in general by raising the bar of good employment practices and fair compensation.
I’m second third generation union.  My mother worked 34 years for the county jail and her union guaranteed that after a lifetime of toil and difficulties she retired in dignity and could fulfill her greatest wish – that in old age she could be independent and not a burden on her children. 
VT-NEA has helped guarantee a middle class existence and a dignified retirement for thousands of Vermont’s teachers.  For me personally, engagement with my union has given me tremendous opportunities to develop professional and leadership skills.  For this I am very grateful.
Part of caring deeply is to be critical and encourage improvement and greater efficacy in the union.  VT-NEA and all teachers unions are in a time of great flux.  The ability to change is key to our survival.  But we must do this in a way that honors and is built on the strengths that we have inherited from the hard work and sacrifice of those who have come before us.
Where do we stand right now?  Here in Vermont, the system of teacher negotiations is broken.  We have an expensive, ritualistic political theatre of teacher negotiations, a divisive process which has become detached from the fundamental purpose of the educational enterprise: great student learning, and produces incremental language changes and pay raises below the rate of inflation
However, in one district I work in, I assisted in an interest based process that quickly arrived at a three year settlement including a lift up and set down of the salary schedule, which yielded new money in excess of 11% over three years.  The contrast was stark.
When I went to Washington last summer for my Fellowship, I was puzzling about this contrast.  I had a chance to sit down with one of the Department’s top experts on unions and after a half hour of analysis he looked at me and said “you guys have a mess.”
My take away from this conversation was that we needed bargaining reform in Vermont.  But as I continued to work with the department on labor management questions, it became apparent to me that bargaining reform could only exist in the context of comprehensive union reform.  What does this look like?
The model that speaks to me most strongly as a union leader is the Three Frames of Progressive Unionism, developed by the Mooney Institute for Teacher Union Leadership.  The Three Frames are Industrial Unionism, Professional Unionism, and Social Justice Unionism.
Industrial Unionism uses collective power to meet bread and butter needs of members and ensure fairness from management.  It is the bulk of what we think of when we consider teacher union work:  negotiations, grievances, and yes strikes, or near strikes.  It assumes an adversarial relationship with management. The Industrial Frame has elevated the profession, but presents some problems. 
First, industrial style labor relations were adopted from industry.  As schools evolve away from a factory model, the foundation of the industrial frame is shifting beneath us. 
Second, the political conditions sustaining this model are changing – think Wisconsin.  Not only are we facing a coordinated, well financed attack on our collective bargaining rights from the radical right, but the Democratic Party, to which teacher unions hitched their fortunes, is no longer a reliable ally or protector.
Third, the public, as well as rank and file, may be becoming impatient with the inefficiency of teacher negotiations, detached from the fundamental purpose of education: great student learning.
Professional Unionism seeks control of the profession to ensure quality.  In this frame, focus is on professional development and quality of teaching/learning.  The methods include collaboration with management.  I believe many teachers identify with this frame, because confrontation is not in our character.  The problem here is that it is naïve to think that teachers’ good intentions will make stupid or duplicitous behavior by bureaucrats, politicians and administrators go away.
Social Justice Unionism seeks equity for our students through active engagement in the community.  It wraps the unions’ arms around bigger social problems, problems that if they were solved would help make the curriculum accessible to even our most vulnerable students.  Social Justice Unionism represents the pinnacle of our work.  How do we get there, especially in the overt hostility of the current environment?
First, it is important to note that these three frames are symbiotic.  You don’t get to choose.  Living exclusively in one is perilous.  The three frames are individually necessary and jointly sufficient conditions for the success of teachers’ unions.
Second, I used to believe that the three frames existed in equality.  Events in Wisconsin and other states this year have taught me that they actually exist in a hierarchy.  For all of the historical and political problems of an exclusive industrial unionism, a robust capacity to attend to the bread and butter issues of both members and unions themselves is the foundation for the existence of meaningful progress in the Professional and Social Justice Frames.  There will always remain the need for working people to confront power.  Anything else is wishful thinking.
The possibilities of Professional and Social Justice Unionism flow from the power of Industrial Unionism.  Professional Unionism unlocks the potential of collaborative labor management relations to improve educational outcomes, but is defended from foolishness by the shield of Industrial Unionism.  Social Justice Unionism extends the benefits of our work to stakeholders outside our membership, especially children, and creates a stable political base that cannot be provided by an exclusively industrial/adversarial approach.  Professional Unionism enjoys the enhanced capabilities of students and families whose basic needs are being met. 
Where does Wisconsin fit in this vision?  The political vandals like Scott Walker who are seeking to end teachers’ collective bargaining rights are essentially destroying the possibility of teachers unions becoming strong, responsible partners in creating great student learning.  Unions need excess capacity to operate in the Professional and Social Justice frames.  Attacking our sustainability by eliminating dues deductions, as in Alabama, or forcing us to hold certification elections each year, as in Wisconsin, compromises our ability to put our shoulder to the common challenge of a creating a great educational system.
I want to close with one last thought concerning Social Justice Unionism.  Before I became active with VT-NEA, I was active with the Vermont Worker’s Center.  I came away from that experience with an insight: how dangerous it is for my union to go it alone.  Solidarity with other workers is a keystone moving forward in the current hostile labor environment.  I foresaw that to the extent we failed to help others, it meant that we were failing to push problems away from ourselves proactively.  I predicted the present crisis; I am shocked at the scale and virulence of the assault.
Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on this day in 1968 after coming to the support of striking Memphis sanitation workers.  He didn’t need to do this, but he did, because he fully grasped the necessity of workers’ struggle for justice.  I hope that tonight we are in some small way honoring the spirit of solidarity in which Dr. King gave his life.  Thank you.


  1. Good stuff to think about here! I especially liked your line, "Unions need excess capacity to operate in the Professional and Social Justice frames." Yes, the professional and social justice frames are the goal, but it is hard to get there right now! I also liked your thoughts on working with other unions.

  2. Maren, thanks for your comments. I really appreciate hearing from folks. It keeps me going. Needless to say I agree with you! My great difficulty in supporting other unions is time: I get so busy with VT-NEA board, negotiations, etc. that it is difficult, but I do what I can. The Vermont Workers Center is one stop shopping for labor solidarity for me - thank heavens they're there, and thank heavens they're tolerant of busy folks like me! I hope there are similar organizations elsewhere.