Teachers unions at the crossroads

Lee Sustar reports from the American Federation of Teachers convention in Seattle.

Delegates at the AFT convention in Seattle listen to a presentation (AFT)Delegates at the AFT convention in Seattle listen to a presentation (AFT)

WILL THE teachers unions dig in and fight--or keep retreating in the face of the greatest attack on teacher unionism in half a century?

That question was in the air as American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten gave the keynote address July 8 on the opening day of the union's biannual convention, held this year in Seattle.

But despite some sharp rhetoric, Weingarten's speech showed that teachers union leaders are still seeking collaboration--while their opponents are hell-bent on confrontation.

Certainly Weingarten's speech contained plenty of sharp criticisms for what she called the "blame-the-teacher crowd":

Brothers and sisters, never before have I seen such attacks on public employees, teachers and the unions that represent them. Never before have I seen so few attack so many, so harshly, for doing so much--often with so little.

I don't know if I should call the people attacking us "reformers," as they like to be known--or performers, which might be more accurate. Because many of them seem more interested in engaging in political theater than constructive conversation.

Weingarten's slap at the school "reform" movement came less than a week after delegates at the 3.2 million-member National Education Association (NEA) convention narrowly passed a no-confidence vote in the federal Race to the Top (RTTT) program. Devised by Education Secretary Arne Duncan and backed fully by President Barack Obama, RTTT ties funding to merit pay, charter school development and other anti-union measures.

In his own keynote speech July 3 to the NEA Representative Assembly, NEA President Dennis van Roekel criticized RTTT:

Today, our members face the most anti-educator, anti-union, anti-student environment that I have ever experienced. The unfounded attacks on our salaries, pensions, rights, credentials, schools, and students are out of control, and, yes, our members are angry, and I'm angry, too!

We hoped for a federal government that would create programs to help students in need. And what did we get? We got Race to the Top! What a challenge that has been.

Van Roekel, however, stopped short of condemning RTTT--and Weingarten only mentioned it in passing. "These days, when we sit down at the negotiating table, we're often being met by district representatives who believe that collaboration is a waste of time, and that Race to the Top and other administration initiatives give them the right to undercut collective bargaining," she said.

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IN FACT, Race to the Top is intended not only to "undercut" teachers' collective bargaining, but to fundamentally reshape it. The federal program dangles $4.3 billion in front of state governments--in order to qualify, they have to pass legislation that, among other things, lifts caps on charter school and implements merit pay schemes.

Some states--such as Colorado--have used RTTT-inspired legislation to tie tenure to three years of positive evaluations and "student growth," and strip tenure protections after two years without measure of teacher "improvements."

Yet the AFT, which represents just 2,500 members in Colorado, broke with the state's NEA affiliates to back that law.

And for all of Weingarten's criticisms of the education reformers and the devastating budget cuts that have hammered teachers with layoffs and pay cuts across the U.S., the AFT president used her speech to argue that teachers must break with their traditional stands on teacher evaluation. "Fighting smart also means constantly searching for solutions we believe will work, even if those solutions force us to think outside the box or initially make us feel uncomfortable," Weingarten said.

Among the examples she cited of this approach was the contract ratified by the AFT affiliate in New Haven, Conn. Weingarten personally helped negotiate a contract there that, according to the Wall Street Journal, allows New Haven school administrators greater latitude to close schools, and includes "tough performance evaluations and fewer job protections for bad teachers."

At the time, Weingarten said the New Haven agreement was "a model or a template" for future teachers' contracts. But many in the union--and not just critics on the left --believe such moves by the AFT are legitimizing ever-harsher attacks on teachers' job security across the U.S.

Implicitly responding to such criticism, Weingarten declared in her speech that "we're not going to wait and oppose--we're going to lead and propose." The primary example she gave was an effort by the AFT, in conjunction with educational professionals, to design "a real teacher development and evaluation system--one that embeds support and leads to continuous improvement, rather than one that is subject to vague impressions, politics and favoritism."

The details of the plan weren't offered, and presumably will get greater focus later in the convention. But one indication of the AFT's direction is the union's backing for recent RTTT-oriented legislation in New York state, which created a four-level evaluation plan that, critics say, will open the door to firing tenured teachers.

Concerns about the AFT's shift on this question surfaced among convention delegates following Weingarten's speech. At the union's K-12 division meeting, "there was a definite uneasiness about this evaluation plan," said Nate Goldbaum, a delegate from the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) and member of that union's Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), which swept into office in CTU elections.

Goldbaum also pointed out that even members of Weingarten's ruling Progressive Caucus appear to be much more critical of RTTT than the union's top leadership. In a breakout meeting, the AFT's Political Action/Legislation Committee voted to endorse a resolution asserting that RTTT "undermine[s] the collective bargaining process" and calls for a shift from such competitive grants to full and equitable funding of public education.

Weingarten, however, appears set on the hope of trying to head off major concessions by trying to collaborate with employers on what she sees as relatively minor concessions. Essentially, she's following the well-worn path in the U.S. labor movement of sticking with partnership even as demands for concessions from unions escalate.

Thus, Weingarten mobilized the union to successfully overturn the mass firings of teachers at Central Falls High School in Rhode Island, but continues to back contract negotiations that erode job security.

For the United Auto Workers, the willingness to make continuous concessions ended in catastrophe--with, for example, the loss of 90 percent of jobs at General Motors over the past 30 years. The AFT leadership, however, thinks it can take the same approach with a different outcome.

Weingarten, therefore, is committed to engagement with forces that have pursued policies hostile to teachers unions. Thus, the AFT invited President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden to attend, but they declined, Weingarten said.

One teacher-basher who is scheduled to show up at the AFT convention is Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, whose foundation has given about $2 billion to fund nonunion charter schools.

At a meeting with reporters following her speech, Weingarten said she saw no problem in accepting funding from Gates' foundation to support AFT grants to local unions even as Gates was bankrolling charter school operators that recently bid for control of more than 30 Los Angeles schools. Ironically, the AFT itself had to expend considerable resources to back United Teachers Los Angeles' successful effort to keep nearly all of those targeted schools in their districts under reforms designed by teachers.

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WEINGARTEN'S CALLS for compromise were, nevertheless, punctuated by a call to action. The highlight of the convention's opening day was a speech by NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, who called for the union to join other labor and civil rights organizations for a national march for jobs on October 2 in Washington, D.C.

Weingarten said the AFT will be a "full partner" in the march as part of an effort to oppose attempts by politicians and the media to pit taxpayers against teachers and other public-sector workers:

That's why we're calling on all of our 3,300 locals across the country to start this campaign with a day of action, when we'll link arms with our community partners to highlight what we need to do together to fight for public services, to fight for our universities, to fight for our health care systems and to fight for public education. In other words, to build futures together.

The question is whether Weingarten can mobilize the AFT for its biggest fight since the union won collective bargaining rights half a century ago even as she compromises on the traditional sources of union power.

AFT dissidents, such as Chicago's CORE leadership in the CTU, say the time to draw the line is now. The CTU delegation circulated a proposed resolution calling for a moratorium on charter schools, total opposition to RTTT and an end to the school "transformation" mechanisms of the No Child Left Behind law that forces schools with low test scores to close.

Arguments over these and other issues will play out until the convention ends July 11. At the same time, the AFT Peace and Justice Caucus will push for a resolution calling for an end to the U.S. wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

Whatever the formal result, the debates raised at the convention will continue as the AFT and NEA face their greatest challenges in generations.