Can the AFT meet the challenge?

Lee Sustar looks at the attacks facing the American Federation of Teachers as union delegates gather in Detroit for the organization's biannual convention.

Rallying for teachers and public schools in Washington, D.C.

AS DELEGATES from the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) gather in Detroit for their convention July 27-30, it's hard to keep up with the escalating attacks on teachers and public education.

America's most politically wired mayor, Rahm Emanuel, is taking aim at the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) in a contract showdown over Emanuel's effort to make teachers work much longer for less. Los Angeles teachers are bracing for their third straight year of pay cuts to try and avert some layoffs. In Philadelphia, officials are trying tobreak up the city's school district into "networks" run by private groups, which will effectively destroy centralized collective bargaining for the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, an AFT affiliate. In Cleveland, the AFT local union accepted a contract that allows for layoffs based on evaluations rather than seniority.

Then there's the host city for the AFT gathering, where the Detroit Federation of Teachers (DFT) is being hit with the continuation of a 10 percent pay cut, cutbacks in maternity and sick leave and other takeaways in a contract imposed by an emergency financial manager empowered by state law to tear up union collective bargaining agreements. These attacks come after the union agreed to previous rounds of concessions that forced Detroit teachers to defer part of their pay until they retire or leave the district.

What we're seeing in Detroit, Philadelphia and Cleveland is nothing less than the controlled demolition of public education. And the response of the union most affected by these attacks, the AFT, is...what, exactly?

Certainly the union has sounded the alarm when faced with some of the more egregious attacks, and AFT President Randi Weingarten talked tough at a May 23 Chicago Teachers Union rally.

Yet the AFT leader kept quiet when the Philadelphia school carve-up was announced. And when members of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) voted to accept an agreement that gave them unpaid furlough days in exchange for averting some layoffs, Weingarten was quick to issue a statement of support.

"UTLA members agreed to forego up to 10 days of pay to ensure that as many of their colleagues as possible stayed in the classroom and off the unemployment line," she said. Weingarten, however, failed to mention that LA teachers--whose union is jointly affiliated with the AFT and the National Education Association--also took pay cuts in the previous two years, but still haven't seen all the promised jobs return.

Then came the Cleveland deal, in which the local union agreed to allow layoffs based on performance evaluations--which are based on student test scores--rather than seniority. Weingarten trumpeted the deal as a model of collaboration. In fact, Weingarten began pushing the Cleveland teachers to accept evaluations based on test scores more than two years ago. It was the union, not management, that proposed axing traditional job protections, Weingarten said, "breaking a significant logjam over the tenure issue."

In fact, the AFT surrendered far more in the Cleveland deal. The union had already agreed in April to the so-called Cleveland Transformation Plan, which gives "the district greater flexibility to close underperforming schools and to partner with charter schools," Crain's reported. "It also would give school principals greater responsibility over budgeting and hiring." In other words, principals will be empowered to target teachers they view as troublemakers.

After rejecting an initial tentative agreement because of its harsh economic impact, Cleveland teachers voted to accept a contract with somewhat better terms on pay and benefits, but that accepts the "transformation" plan. Once contract terms were settled, the local union joined the school district and Republican Gov. John Kasich--who last year tried to gut collective bargaining for public-sector workers--to back legislation that will enforce Cleveland's school "reform."

In an article headlined "A School Fix Without a Fight," the Wall Street Journal highlighted the significance of the union's concessions:

The overhaul, signed into law by Gov. John Kasich this month, will allow the district to link teachers' pay, in part, to student test scores, and to lay off teachers based on performance instead of seniority. It will also let the district fire teachers after two years of poor performance, based in part on test scores.

The district will become the only one in Ohio to share local tax dollars with charter schools--public schools run by outside entities that are now funded by state and federal money--and will have more say in who gets to operate those schools.

In other words, the Cleveland Metropolitan School District will see tax dollars--and student enrollment--shift toward nonunion charter schools run by unaccountable private organizations. The Cleveland Teachers Union and the AFT, confronted with a head-on assault on public education, surrendered without a battle.

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THE AFT's concessions in Cleveland are only the latest example of a policy of collaboration in which the union sheds long-established principles--like the defense of tenure and opposition to merit pay--in the hope of staving off even more aggressive "reforms."

The Obama administration accelerated those attacks since 2009 through the Race to the Top program, which offered $4.3 billion in grants to states on the condition that they passed legislation lifting caps on charter schools, weakening teacher job protections, tying teacher evaluations to student test scores and imposing merit pay. But that didn't stop the AFT from making an early endorsement of President Barack Obama in his campaign for re-election.

Weingarten's strategy: Look to the Democrats for political cover while pre-empting the corporate reformers by taking the initiative in making contract concessions in order to keep the union's proverbial seat at the table.

That was the idea behind the 2009 teachers' union contract in New Haven, Conn., which Weingarten called "a model or a template." Under that agreement, as the Wall Street Journal put it, school officials have greater ability to close schools while imposing "tough performance evaluations and fewer job protections for bad teachers." Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who made his reputation by implementing a corporate-driven reform agenda as head of Chicago schools, cheered the deal: "This shows a willingness to go into areas that used to be seen as untouchable."

Weingarten also promoted similar "reform" contracts with AFT locals in Pittsburgh and Hillsborough County, Fla., that allows teachers to opt out of tenure--job security--if they agree to merit pay. Microsoft founder Bill Gates' foundation helped bankroll both efforts. Private money was even used to fund salary increases in a similar merit pay scheme for teachers in Washington, D.C., in an agreement that Weingarten helped negotiate.

Not surprisingly, many AFT members are appalled at the union's willingness to give up job protections and the principle of equal pay for equal work. That's why in 2010, members of the Baltimore Teachers Union initially rejected a contract that embraced merit pay and undermined job security. Weingarten had the traditional response of union bureaucrats out to sell a lousy contract to a rebellious rank and file: Vote until you get it right. Staffers from AFT headquarters in Washington traveled the 40 miles to Baltimore and arm-twisted union members into accepting the deal in a second ballot.

Now the disastrous results are in. In the midst of the 2012 school year, some 60 percent of Baltimore teachers received unsatisfactory ratings, which meant that they got no raise, were placed on a "performance improvement plan" (PIP) and are subject to dismissal.

"We have more people on PIPs, and we're proud of it," said Tisha Edwards, chief of staff for Baltimore schools. "We're not saying we're going to fire everybody, but we're using PIPs the way they were supposed to be used, but never were: to communicate where we need to develop, and get better about documenting the development of our people."

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WEINGARTEN ISN'T embarrassed by this abandonment of the bedrock positions of the union. On the contrary, at the 2010 AFT convention, she made Bill Gates the keynote speaker. "We're not going to wait and oppose--we're going to lead and propose," she said of the reform agenda in her opening speech to delegates.

The problem is that by trying to maintain collaboration with politicians and education officials hell-bent on breaking teachers' union power, the AFT is moving further and further to the right to accommodate them, as evidenced by the union support for the "transformation" plan in Cleveland. And the union has so far been silent on the Los Angeles Unified School District's plan to give a company run by charter school pioneer Steve Barr control of schools, which would be operated as "hybrids" of traditional and charter schools--another major shift of taxpayer money and students to unaccountable outside entities.

One of the few places the AFT leadership seems to be trying to hold the line is in New York City.

Even so, the United Federation of Teachers has so far failed to resist a punitive new evaluation system. And rather than fight for a contract that is years overdue, the union is simply trying to wait until Mayor Michael Bloomberg's term expires in 2013. In the meantime, the city's school officials pressed ahead with an aggressive school closure program that got more opposition from an Occupy-inspired education group than the union itself--until an arbitrator barred the actions.

As the attacks on the teachers' unions intensify, AFT members are discovering what their counterparts in the steelworkers, autoworkers, Teamsters, machinists and other unions could have told them: Concessions only lead to more concessions. Indeed, the corporate school reformers are following the same plan as their private-sector counterparts.

In the freight industry, for example, the Teamsters membership has been gutted by the practice of "double breasting"--starving the unionized operations of investment while building up nonunion subsidiaries. That's why Consolidated Freightways, a one-time Teamster bastion, disappeared in bankruptcy court, while trucks from its nonunion counterpart, Con-Way, continue to roll down the highway.

As traditional school systems in New Orleans, Detroit and Pennsylvania are gutted," It doesn't take much imagination to see how nonunion charter schools are playing the same role in education as a subsidiary like Con-Way did in trucking. And just as the nonunion U.S. operations of Toyota grabbed market share from General Motors, unaccountable big charter operators like KIPP are siphoning off tax dollars students and students from traditional public schools. In Michigan, egged on by Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, two districts, Muskegon Heights and Highland Park, are handing their entire school district over to charter school operators.

As Diane Ravitch, the former assistant secretary of education turned school reform critic, wrote, "Governor Snyder wants to reshape the state's school finance system so that public money 'follows the child,' instead of just automatically going to public schools. This is part of the right-wing agenda to defund public education, cloaked in alluring terminology."

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WHICH BRINGS us back to Chicago, scene of the approaching confrontation between the Chicago Teachers Union and Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Because it isn't just right-wingers like Snyder who want to funnel tax dollars into charter schools, it's corporate Democrats like Emanuel and his operatives. That's why Chicago Schools CEO Jean-Claude Brizard is using a formulation remarkably similar to Snyder's "follow the child" policy. "It doesn't make sense [that] our parents pay taxes and then pay tuition [for their children] to go to [private] school as well," Brizard said in a speech at the Economic Club of Chicago.

That's no coincidence. As Chicago journalist Ben Joravsky pointed out, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's education plan "in many respects...reads like it could have been written by our very own union-busting, charter-school-loving Mayor Rahm Emanuel."

Will the AFT help Chicago teachers take on Emanuel, who has national clout after his stint as White House chief of staff? Randi Weingarten promised CTU members that she'd come to Chicago to support their struggle whenever necessary.

But the very day in June that nearly 90 percent of the CTU membership was voting yes to authorizing a strike, Weingarten was in town for a different reason--to participate in an event hosted by the Clinton Global Initiative, the foundation headed by former President Bill Clinton. She appeared alongside Emanuel on a panel that highlighted that organizers billed as the "dynamic duo" as they discussed how union pension money could be tapped to fund Emanuel's new Infrastructure Trust, a deal crafted by banks to fund various development projects that will put taxpayers in debt for decades at unknown rates of interest.

That's why CTU members should look carefully at the AFT's potential role in contract negotiations and a possible strike. Chicago teachers should welcome Weingarten's pledge of solidarity--and use it to help them appeal to AFT and NEA members everywhere as they square off with Emanuel.

But where the AFT and Weingarten will counsel collaboration and compromise, Chicago teachers should stick to their guns and fight for decent pay and job security as part of their wider program to defend public education from privatization and budget cuts.

A union is only as strong as its members. While the steady retreat of the AFT in recent years has shown its weakness, the CTU's mobilization shows the potential to build a fighting teachers' union. As the contract deadline looms in Chicago, this year's AFT convention provides the opportunity to debate how the union can take a stand against the corporate education reformers--and win.