Sunday, January 24, 2016

Salon on WE CAUCUS: “11,000 smart, committed teachers can change the world”: A group of working Philadelphia teachers is looking to upset the status quo of the teachers union

Up for a vote: "Social justice unionism," in which every teachers union member participates in educational change

MORE's homies from Philly get noticed.
The solution WE is offering is part of a national movement that seeks to drastically change the modus operandi of the teachers union from one in which union members pay dues and trust that the big decisions are being made by the leaders and lawyers at the bargaining table to one in which every single teachers union member actively participates in grass-roots educational change. This new approach, called social justice unionism, comes with a track record of success in cities like Chicago, St. Paul, Seattle and Portland.
I remember sitting in a bar in Chicago a few years ago chatting with some future WE Caucus people. They were interested in the idea of a caucus and were asking MORE people for some ideas. Then lookie down the road and these guys really may have a shot at winning something in the elections next month.

Some of you may have seen the very idea of social justice unionism, which is a merger of bread and butter issues with issues of concern to parents and students, being trashed as turning people off. Yet the only real challenge to Randi's control of the teacher union movement has come from SJ movements in the cities named above. Philadelphia has its own version of the Unity Caucus loyalty oath machine run by president Jerry Jordan.
Roat and Muhammad are running for president and vice president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) in the union’s upcoming leadership election, which will take place by mail-in ballot Feb. 4-23. PFT elections happen every four years, though they are usually non-events and many teachers report being unaware there are elections at all; the current leadership team, the collective bargaining or “CB team,” which is headed up by Jerry Jordan, has been steering the ship since the 1980s. Roat is part of a slate of nine candidates, all of whom come out of the Caucus of Working Educators (WE), the first group to seriously challenge the leadership of the PFT in three decades.
Three decades without a real election in Philly. The way Randi and Mulgrew like it. I wrote about Randi's visit to Philly to prop up Jordan against the WE challenge: Randi Visits Philly an Attempt to Prop Up Union.
See the Video From Philly: Who Are WE?

WE and MORE echo each other, especially on this point:
WE says the difference between them and the long-standing leadership of the PFT is fundamental, a matter of mind-set about what produces long-lasting changes–they call theirs “deep organizing” rather than the “shallow mobilizing” they feel the CB team has offered in the past.
“Sure, the CB team is opposed to forced transfers, layoffs and school closures too,” Roat says. “What we’re saying is that we would approach these issues in a different way. The CB team does not activate the power of its members.





"11,000 smart, committed teachers can change the world”: A group of working Philadelphia teachers is looking to upset the status quo of the teachers union 
Amy Roat (Credit: AP/Matt Rourke)
 
“I am sick of austerity,” Yaasiyn Muhammad, a teacher of African-American history at Central High School told a crowd of around 150 teachers gathered on a November Saturday in the Old First Reformed church. “I am sick and tired of cuts that disproportionately affect black and brown children. Status quo unionism has put the PFT to sleep.”  



“Stand up if you’ve been affected by forced transfers, layoffs and school closures!” said Amy Roat, an English language learner teacher at Feltonville School of Arts and Sciences. About half the room stood.

Roat and Muhammad are running for president and vice president of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT) in the union’s upcoming leadership election, which will take place by mail-in ballot Feb. 4-23. PFT elections happen every four years, though they are usually non-events and many teachers report being unaware there are elections at all; the current leadership team, the collective bargaining or “CB team,” which is headed up by Jerry Jordan, has been steering the ship since the 1980s. Roat is part of a slate of nine candidates, all of whom come out of the Caucus of Working Educators (WE), the first group to seriously challenge the leadership of the PFT in three decades.

“I teach at a school that doesn’t have enough staff to take care of our kids,” Roat continued. “Stand up if you do too.” At Roat’s words, nearly the entire room stood and looked at one another. “We sure have a lot to be angry about. And the only thing that’s gonna change it are the people in this room.”

But how, one might ask? Hasn’t the PFT already been fighting tooth and nail to address these problems and fight for a new teachers contract?

The solution WE is offering is part of a national movement that seeks to drastically change the modus operandi of the teachers union from one in which union members pay dues and trust that the big decisions are being made by the leaders and lawyers at the bargaining table to one in which every single teachers union member actively participates in grass-roots educational change. This new approach, called social justice unionism, comes with a track record of success in cities like Chicago, St. Paul, Seattle and Portland.

“Strategies of backroom deals and political negotiations–the failed model of ‘business unionism,’ which still dominates the labor movement today–have left rank-and-file members demobilized and union leaders without much leverage,” writes New York City educator and writer Megan Behrent. “From this standpoint, building a strong union movement requires broadening the fight beyond the specific demands of one union to class-wide or ‘social justice’ demands– which include traditional ‘bread and butter’ issues, but are not limited to them.”

“Our future depends on redefining unionism from a narrow trade union model, focused almost exclusively on protecting union members, to a broader vision that sees the future of unionized workers tied directly to the interests of the entire working class and the communities, particularly communities of color, in which we live and work,” agrees Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association. “[This] requires confronting racist attitudes and past practices that have marginalized people of color both inside and outside unions. It also means overcoming old habits and stagnant organizational structures that weigh down efforts to expand internal democracy and member engagement.”

In the past, teachers unions have struggled with what issues should matter to the union: workplace issues only, like class sizes and teachers’ compensation? What place do activism and more macro questions of race and class have in negotiations? Social justice unionism believes that these two kinds are inextricably intertwined–in order to gain victories in the workplace for teachers when resources are so scarce, teachers unions must build alliances and solidarity with the students, parents and other members of the community that the school district serves.

What does this look like in practice? In 2010 in Chicago, the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) ousted the previous leadership, who had been in charge for 38 years. The new leadership focused on empowering new members, listening to their concerns, and building relationships with community members and students. When the Chicago Board of Education closed 17 schools in 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union mobilized a strike, which employed a combination of direct action–teachers picketed schools, marched through the financial district, and held rallies in the communities (mainly of color) most affected by the school closings–and traditional bargaining techniques. “Besides resolving issues around fair pay and health care, the conclusion of the CTU strike brought major victories to the local community,” writes Sean Kitchen for Raging Chicken Press. “The teachers were able to get more funding for music and art education programs, school supplies, textbooks, shorter school hours and mayoral accountability.” In St. Paul, a similar dual approach was able to avoid a strike and still lead to “a landmark contract” that included “smaller class sizes, access to preschool, educating the whole child, family engagement, placing teaching before testing, wage and benefit increases, culturally relevant education, and high-quality professional development for teachers.”

Back in Philadelphia, the WE caucus is fighting for leadership of the PFT with the hope of drawing on these successful tactics. The current leadership of the PFT does not mobilize teachers to attend or protest at the monthly meetings of the School Reform Commission, but WE does–members have made fliers and social media events to make sure educators know about the meetings and show up; about 50 teachers have come to each SRC meeting since. Furthermore, WE lends its support to other direction actions happening around the city.

In November, parents and community members of the Samuel Huey school in West Philadelphia organized a protest at a busy intersection to show they stand against Huey’s proposed conversion from a district school to a charter school. WE members came out to support them. Students, parents and WE members chanted, “Our voice, our choice,” at passing cars.

This is the kind of solution WE is offering: community engagement from the bottom up. “You can’t just close a school without parents backing that decision,” says Carlos Frederick, a history teacher at Woodrow Wilson, who stressed  that a big part of WE’s vision is to build communication with the community from which its students are drawn, which means parents. “If parents really mobilize on behalf of their school, it is much harder.”

“Some people think that WE is a young upstart,” says Kelley Collings, who has been a district teacher for over 15 years, and WE’s candidate for special vice president of middle schools. “No.”

Collings and many others at the conference had been a part of a group called the Teacher Action Group, which as early as 2009 was organizing local campaigns to try to get the PFT to listen to the opinions of teachers and parents. They would call their union reps and never get called back. They held meetings to try to push the PFT leadership on some of the issues they cared about—wraparound services, better professional development, issuing statements or holding teach-ins about social justice issues, and union representative responsiveness—but at each meeting, the PFT leadership would say, “We can’t do that.” Collings characterizes it as bureaucratic pushback. “Every time we walked out of a meeting we felt deflated,” she says. “Every meeting for five years. Do you know what Einstein’s definition of insanity is? Doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.”

In a Teacher Action Group meeting on March 12, 2014, 27 teachers had had enough. They decided if the structure in place was not responsive to their concerns and not open to their solutions, they had no choice but to build their own structure. “The caucus was born two weeks later, and we’ve been organizing ever since.”

Then at the April 2015 membership meeting, WE members were asking, how do we want to participate in the PFT elections? They realized they wanted to challenge the current leadership but didn’t know how. There were problems, everyone could see that. But what were the solutions? To find out, WE members embarked on a listening campaign for two months starting on Sept. 9, in which they visited more than 100 Philadelphia District schools and asked teachers there, What do you care about? What do you need to do your job? What can the union be doing to help you do your job? The feedback from this listening tour directly shaped WE’s platform.

The platform emphasizes fighting for a strong contract that would mandate lower class sizes and wraparound services for students, becoming a more democratic and community-based organization that would heavily involve district parents, becoming a union that is more transparent and responsive to its members, fighting for equal funding for the students of Philadelphia who are disproportionately poor and of color, and “reclaiming their status as professionals”—decreasing the emphasis placed on standardized testing, reforming site selection practices so teachers are not simply force transferred to where there is an opening, and making professional development days meaningful time in which teachers teach other teachers or collaborate on lessons as opposed to passively viewing a PowerPoint.

WE says the difference between them and the long-standing leadership of the PFT is fundamental, a matter of mind-set about what produces long-lasting changes–they call theirs “deep organizing” rather than the “shallow mobilizing” they feel the CB team has offered in the past.
“Sure, the CB team is opposed to forced transfers, layoffs and school closures too,” Roat says. “What we’re saying is that we would approach these issues in a different way. The CB team does not activate the power of its members.

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