A fork in the road for teachers’ unions?

May 14, 2014

As teachers in Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago and Massachusetts organize challenges against corporate education reform, leaders of New York's United Federation of Teachers are headed in the opposite direction. Lee Sustar looks at the strategic divide in teachers' unions.

A STRING of events in little more than a week have highlighted the diverging strategies in teachers' unions over how to defend educators and the right to public education.

In Seattle, in union elections that concluded May 8, the insurgent RESPECT slate came within a whisker of capturing the top position in the Seattle Education Association (SEA).

Jesse Hagopian, a member of Social Equality Educators (SEE) and a leader of last year's boycott of the MAP test at Garfield High School, which then spread to other city schools, fell just 45 votes short of unseating incumbent President Jonathan Knapp. The RESPECT candidate for SEA treasurer, Dan Troccoli, advanced to a runoff election after placing second in a three-way race for union treasurer. RESPECT--which was initiated by the SEE caucus--captured six of the 20 executive board seats contested in the election.

The results show widespread support for SEE's strategy of both defending the teaching profession and fighting for fully funded--and equitable--public schools. It was SEE activists like Hagopian, in partnership with parents and community allies, who helped initiate and lead the successful MAP boycott that gave a boost to the anti-testing movement around the U.S.

Members of a New York City teachers' union rank-and-file caucus rally against testing
Members of a New York City teachers' union rank-and-file caucus rally against testing (Movement of Rank and File Educators)

SEE plans continue that fight. "We said this from the beginning that this campaign wasn't about just one person--it certainly wasn't about me," Hagopian said at a post-election party. "It was about building an organization." He added: "We have articulated a vision of what our students deserve, what our educators deserve, and what our families deserve in this city, and I think that's a vision that isn't going to end with this campaign."

The day after the SEA results were announced, Barbara Madeloni, the candidate of Educators for a Democratic Union, was elected president of the 110,000-member Massachusetts Teachers Association. A former University of Massachusetts-Amherst English teacher fired for refusing to participate in a corporate-run standardized test for teacher certification, Madeloni spoke up for the concerns of K-12 teachers angry over their union's concessions on pensions and its collaboration with corporate education reformers.

"We need to tell the stories of the destructive impact of corporate reform and hyper-accountability on students, education workers and school character," Madeloni said in her campaign statement. "We need to stop this assault at every level, however it manifests."

Madeloni's victory is a significant development for the National Education Association (NEA), which, with nearly 3 million members, is the largest of the two national teachers' union.

Her election came 10 days after veteran teacher and social justice activist Alex Caputo-Pearl won a runoff election to capture the presidency of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), as part of a sweeping victory for the Union Power slate. What happens in the LA teachers' union has a national impact--UTLA is the second-biggest local teachers' union in the U.S. and is affiliated with both the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

Like Madeloni, Caputo-Pearl is vowing to take on corporate education reformers. "It is open season on our members, yet very few members of the public beyond our ranks know what is happening to us," Caputo-Pearl told Education Week. "What we need is a public relations campaign that highlights the attacks on UTLA members in the context of highlighting the broader attacks on our students and their families, including massive destabilizations of schools when educators are pulled out without due process, and students lose critical programs."

UTLA's UNION Power slate, like its counterparts in Seattle, Massachusetts and other cities, looked to the example of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), where the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) took office in 2010.

Back then, the combative new leaders of the CTU were isolated. AFT President Randi Weingarten had spent that year urging local teachers unions to surrender decades of gains in collective bargaining. Her "model or template," as she put it, was an agreement in New Haven, Conn., that stripped the contract to a handful of pages, gutted tenure and imposed merit pay that fostered competition rather than collaboration among teachers.

Similar deals ensued in Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Florida as the AFT sought to prove itself as a "partner" with school officials and politicians who take their marching orders from corporate education reformers. Dennis Van Roekel, president of the far larger NEA, stumbled along behind Weingarten as budget cuts slashed union membership rolls and Barack Obama's Race to the Top legislation, which gave states incentives to pass laws that hit NEA affiliates with harsh new teacher evaluation systems, attacks on tenure and the proliferation of charter schools.

In that atmosphere, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel--the former White House chief of staff who made teacher bashing central to his campaign to lead the country's third largest city--thought he could crush the CTU.

Instead, CORE led the CTU into a successful strike two years later with overwhelming popular support. In the contract that ended the nine-day strike, the CTU gave ground on some issues, but decisively broke from the AFT's approach to teacher contracts by holding on to tenure rights, blocking merit pay and even expanding union power at the workplace. It was a maddening defeat for Emanuel and the entire education reform camp, while CTU President Karen Lewis achieved rock-star status.

Since then, the CTU has absorbed some blows--Emanuel carried out the closure of 50 elementary schools last year, and followed that up with layoffs of some 3,000 teachers and staff. But the union is continuing to forge alliances with parents and the community to defend public education.

On May 7, CTU delegates once again showed their boldness by voting to reject the new Common Core curriculum that is fueling parent outrage across the U.S. The vote was the product of months of intense debate in the CTU. It was another example of the union democracy on display in the 2012 strike, when union delegates voted to stay off the job two days after an agreement was reached so that rank-and-file members would have the opportunity to debate it--and vote on it--at the picket line.

THE PICTURE is very different for New York City teachers.

On the very same day that CTU delegates voted to oppose Common Core, United Federation of Teachers (UFT) President Michael Mulgrew blustered his way through a hard sell of a proposed concessionary contract to a meeting of union delegates--one for which teachers have been waiting for five long years, while former Mayor Michael Bloomberg stonewalled the UFT.

At a Delegate Assembly meeting, Mulgrew demanded--and got--an immediate vote on sending the tentative agreement to members for ratification, even though the delegates had just received a lengthy summary of the contract.

Even loyalists in Mulgrew's own Unity caucus privately raised questions about a pay raise of 18 percent over nine years, including retroactive pay to cover the years of pay freezes under Bloomberg. Spread out over that many years, the raises won't keep up with inflation--and the retroactive hikes won't be fully paid out until 2020. The contract also locks in a punitive and unworkable teacher evaluation scheme that was imposed by an arbitrator.

The rest of the proposed UFT deal features many of the provision that AFT President Weingarten has pushed on union locals around the U.S.--an optional "thin," New Haven-style contract for as many as 200 schools, a merit pay scheme styled after the ones now in place in Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Baltimore.

The proposed contract's inclusion of merit pay was a major issue for Julie Cavanaugh, the presidential candidate of the opposition Movement of Rank-and-File Educators (MORE) caucus in last year's UFT elections. "The proposed contract will divide educators into several tiers," Cavanaugh wrote. "Once we destroy union solidarity, we destroy our union. Career ladders are nothing more than a merit pay scheme with a different name."

She also criticized a fast-track firing process for union members stuck in the Absent Teacher Reserve pool, made up largely of teachers who lost their job to school closures or budget cuts and were unable to find a new job. ATRs could be forced from their jobs if two principals rate them as "unprofessional." As Cavanaugh wrote, "Due process, job security and fair evaluations for all educators are the foundations of any teachers' union contract. There cannot be two sets of rules for educators."

As a union delegate, Cavanaugh took to the floor of the meeting to try and voice those criticisms. But according to members who were there, Mulgrew, having called on far more supporters of the deal than opponents, called an end to the meeting before she could speak.

MORE is organizing a "no" vote campaign on the contract, but the caucus faces an uphill battle against the UFT leadership in the Unity caucus, which has run the union for half a century. Still, having scored major gains in last year's union elections, MORE has been able to broaden its network to reach more of the 90,000 teachers in the UFT. Whatever the outcome of the contract vote, the campaign has the potential to connect with teachers who are angry and upset over the deal--and the continuing failure of the UFT to draw a line.

THE TREND toward more militant teacher unionism remains modest, but it is significant.

Reformers made inroads in the local in Newark, N.J., and progressive union leaderships in St. Paul, Minn., and Portland, Ore., won solid contracts in recent months because they followed the CTU example, preparing for a strike with both internal mobilization and building parent-community alliances.

Teachers in many other union locals don't hold union office, and won't in the foreseeable future, but they are having an impact on their unions by building militant, activist caucuses. Those groups have established a network that met in Chicago last summer and again at the Labor Notes conference last month. Plus, the emerging alliance of the CTU and UTLA will create a powerful voice for a more assertive brand of teacher unionism. It's noteworthy that Karen Lewis is slated to appear at the LA union's leadership conference in September.

After two decades of corporate school reform, privatization, degradation of educators and obsessive testing of students, there's an emerging alternative to the AFT and NEA leadership's strategy of collaboration at any cost. The challenges ahead for militant teacher unionists are many. But the fightback has begun.

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