Saturday, September 10, 2011

A Right to Work Nightmare

On a flight last summer I sat next to a person who told a tale far more harrowing than anything emerging from Wisconsin or Ohio.  In those places, there is a tradition of organizing, of working people joining together to level the playing field with management.  This is a tale of the consequences of radical, systemic disempowerment of education workers.  In Wisconsin and Ohio, workers lost some legal rights, but they did not lose their culture of resistance.  This story is a portrait of the consequences if that culture were to disappear, or was never allowed to develop in the first place.
"Barbara" is a grade school teacher from a suburban community.  She has a special needs son named "Tom."  Her son has an excellent IEP, a plan that realistically addresses his educational needs, and speaks to the skills he will need to be functional as an adult.  That plan is in conflict with the state's high stakes testing law. 
Tom's main deficit is in math.  He can't add 4+4 and is entering 4th grade.  If you can't do simple addition, you can't do area problems, yet the third grade standardized tests require students to solve area problems.  Barbara sees the disconnect between Tom’s homework and what her son can actually do.  Rather than follow the IEP, and address Tom's real life needs, he has been subjected to a continuous diet of test prep.  Somehow, a child who can't add managed to make the cut score on a test that requires area problems. 
I wonder if there were an unusual number of erasures on Tom's answer sheet....
But it gets worse.
Evidently principals in this town routinely refer to the "retards".  Administrators’ jobs depend on test scores there.  The high stakes nature of that state’s testing leads professional educators to revile the very children they are supposed to be serving.
But it gets worse.
In Barbara's school there is a principal with two daughters.  He manipulates class lists so that his daughters get the "good" teachers, and keeps the special ed kids and kids with behavioral issues out of those classes.  This principal uses a position of authority for personal benefit.  He can get away with it because of the power he wields over workers.  It is corruption plain and simple.
I wonder what benefit he will have derived when his daughters grow up to be morally debased, self absorbed monsters.  The apple don't fall far from the tree as they say. 
How can this be?
Barbara works in a "right to work" state.  In truth, she works in a "right to get fired" state.  She is afraid for her job.  Her need to make a living is in conflict with her obligation as a parent to advocate for her child.  She fears that if she demanded what is right for Tom, she would be fired.  She even moved to a different school to be in a better position to advocate, but the school is still in the same district.  Without tenure, without robust due process, she is exposed to the winds of a systemic corruption.
She is afraid to ask questions.  Her son's teacher is afraid to follow Tom's IEP because she will get fired if she doesn't follow the test prep regimen.  Barbara was told that state testing laws supersede federal special education laws.  I gently suggested to her that this might not be the truth, but it was so outside of her cultural experience to question authority that she could barely process this suggestion.
I mentioned that there is an NEA affiliate in her state, that there are parent advocacy resources like PIRC,  and that by organizing with other people she could possibly achieve that which she cannot achieve as an individual.  Again this was so outside her experience....
Fish school in part to confuse predators.  As an individual, Barbara would paint a big fat bulls eye on herself were she to become the parent her son so desperately needs.  In a sea of thousands or millions of similar parents and teachers she would be far safer.  The organization itself would become the target.
I described my advocacy work for educators.  Speaking out to authority seemed so alien to Barbara.  I gave her my card and encouraged her to contact me so I could connect her with some organizations.
I never heard from her.
Right to work: an authoritarian culture run amok, where educators learn to hate children, parents knuckle under to the abuse of their own children, and authorities manipulate for personal advantage.  No checks, no balances.
A nightmare.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Labor Day Reflections

I am third generation union:
·         Grandfather: United Brushworkers, AFL
·         Grandmother: Amalgamated Clothing Workers
·         Mother: CWA
·         Father: NTEU
·         Brother: AFT
·         Me: NEA
I am the first in the family to assume a leadership position.  I value the relationships I have with the local leaders in other unions.  It is not enough that Dennis Van Roekel talks with Weingarten or Hoffa.  Local leaders need to know each other and understand each other’s organizing cultures in order to build the solidarity that will rebuild the middle class.  I call this collateral circulation.
I started out in the Vermont Worker’s Center, then realized I needed to be an activist in my own local to have street cred.  Since my activism originated outside NEA I have always been curious about other unions and value what they have to teach me.  Among things I have learned:
·         AFL-CIO has ways of reconciling the interests of employees and employers in the same union.
·         So-called collective bargaining “rights” are actually a means of controlling our behavior.
·         Labor solidarity is a multiplier for our efforts.
·         You are a worker if you cannot survive more than a few weeks without a paycheck.
Happy Labor Day!  Solidarity!

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.