When my son was about 14 he got involved with the Vermont Workers Center, which is a statewide consortium of labor and human rights groups. The director of VWC put him on the statewide steering committee. Ben needed a ride to the steering committee meetings. So I ended up on the steering committee too. There I sat with all these union activists, AFL-CIO/Teamsters/AFT (and yes NEA) leaders. I was just a rank and file NEA member. I just paid my dues and let others do the work. When a contract got negotiated I really didn't understand it. I'd just vote for it because the negotiator told me to.
Sitting with the VWC folks (whose general Bernie-style socialist politics I shared) I came to feel I had no street cred with all these awesome leaders. So I volunteered to become the building rep for my school and started doing the trainings and all the nuts and bolts work of organizing, member servicing and negotiations. Negotiations were particularly formidable task, as the scenario in Vermont is very complex and technical. The UD snookered me into trying to propose a "lift up and set down" of our single salary schedule. In retrospect I was so ignorant that I made a fool of myself in failure, but I learned a ton about salary schedules (and adversarial industrial style pattern bargaining.)
The rest is history. When the local needed a president, I became the president. When the Upper Valley needed an area director, I was appointed then elected to the VT-NEA board.
My point in telling this story is that my path to state level NEA leadership was from OUTSIDE the NEA. I came to union work not because of self interest in salary and benefits, or the legal protections ("insurance") it afforded, but because of a belief that unions themselves, both public and private sector, are a fundamental public good - I'm 3rd generation union. They built the middle class in America. I got involved in the scut work of teacher unionism out of conviction that I have a responsibility to build my union as an expression of my political and social values. I spent many years laboring in the vineyards so to speak.
Now, when I speak to other labor leaders, there is a camaraderie born of shared experience. I have street cred. When I advocate on the board, or with professional staff for professional (which is the CETT frame) or social justice (which is my home) unionism, I do so with authority, because these people know that I am one of them by virtue of the hundreds and hundreds of hours of volunteer work that I have performed in solidarity with my brother and sister co-unionists, both in the NEA and in the wider movement in general.
So when I advocate for the complex of ideas that we call "guilds" at the Center for Teaching Quality, and we call “professional unionism” in the Teacher Union Reform Network, I am not just blowing smoke. I actually have my hands on some of the levers that can move these ideas, and I am yanking on these levers with all my might.
The thing that motivates me is that having done all this work, and having had a lot of opportunities to learn both within NEA and the wider labor movement, I understand both the strengths and the weaknesses of my union. There are corrupting structural forces in NEA and they represent a real and present threat to both my union and all other unions. Union reform means to me not that my union is bad and needs to be "reformed" in the "reform school" sense (i.e. punished), but that by embracing the very best thinking and practice the NEA can reach its potential. Mark Simon, former president of the Montgomery Co. MD NEA affiliate, expressed this beautifully: "Teacher Unions have a responsibility to advocate not just in the narrow self-interest of their dues paying members, but in the public interest, from a teacher’s perspective.”
There's an irony here. In my experience, the path to moving beyond the bread and butter issues of industrial frame unionism to a broader and more powerful unionism that acts consistently in the public interest runs through deep engagement in the tasks of industrial frame unionism. We can't eschew these tasks - we have to embrace them, understand them, and use them to build our power for change. I worry a great deal that in embracing any aspect of industrial unionism I am reinforcing the stodginess and structural corruption of the very thing I value as fundamental public good. But doing so gives me the access I need to promote a change agenda.
So to me it’s not an either/or thing; it's both/and. It's not unions or guilds, its unions AND guilds, or as I prefer to think, industrial, professional AND social justice unionism. It is an infinitely more powerful union capable of "advocating in the public interest from a teacher's perspective."
The NEA Commission on Effective Teachers and Teaching report Transforming Teaching is a tool that can help move this forward. There is a powerful message embedded in the report: accomplished teachers need to step up to union leadership on both the local and national level. We have to be willing to get our hands dirty in the messy business of labor organizing so that we can get those dirty hands on the levers of power to move the union reform agenda forward.
I worry that already this document is being studiously ignored. It is being ignored because it calls on the leadership of the union to change, and because it demands that accomplished teachers stop throwing darts at their unions from the outside, roll up their sleeves and get involved. It makes demands on people. There are plenty of reasons for the forces of comfortable complacency to walk away from these recommendations. It is incumbent on those of us who value our unions, and the greater aspirations of working people that they could represent, to demand that people pay attention.