Thursday, August 20, 2009

On Teacher Power - and we don't mean the power of union leaders

Teacher unions are being assailed for having too much power. But since I started teaching in 1967, at no point did I think I had any power. Classroom teachers who spend all day teaching are at the lowest rung of power and if I had to name the major focus of my activism it has been towards more power for classroom teachers, sadly to little success. So how come this disparity between an influential and powerful leadership and a disempowered membership? I can't really answer that question fully, but this exchange might offer some clues:

Question posed by FK on ICE-mail after Angel Gonzalez posted an excerpt from a book on teacher power:

How do we get power within a union which won't grant us any? And the UFT has positioned itself as a kind of "reasonable person facing new realities" -- and the public hates teachers anyway. The UFT makes it seem as though we compromise or nothing. The public thinks we are not compromising enough and that we don't do our jobs. Even with national tests contradicting our local ones, people don't challenge Bloomberg. We need leverage from somewhere. The parents aren't enough because they are not an active enough body of constituents. Plus they are scattered around the city and they don't all vote together. We need help, I think, from other unions, at the very least. DC 37 no longer has the power it once did. Who does? Why would they help us -- except that they can see the destruction of a major section of the civil service is almost a foregone conclusion. If we lose security, who's next? Still I don't feel support from neighbors who work for the MTA or Postal service. On an individual basis, they see teachers as the enemy. I feel like the entire city does.

Angel's response
You raise important concerns/questions that face our entire labor movement and many rank&file groups are grappling with. So we aren't alone in the frustration with our sell-out union bosses... It is a cooptation of labor that has gone on for decades and the USA excels in keeping labor in deep check.

Transformation and victories will be a long haul process. In Puerto Rico, for example, it took progressives, thru bottom up organizing, over 30years to take over sell-out AFT local and then in '05, this new FMPR seceded successfully from the AFT . Last year the FMPR had a successful 10 day strike that stopped charter school from rootingin PR....but I'm sure this charter battle will resurrect given the colonial govt's cancellation of all public sector labor contracts....
Anyway, this concept of unionism isn't new....It is called democratic social justice unionism and is juxtaposed to what we have in the uft/aft, bureaucratic business unionism. It can't be changed through the top-down efforts but rather by organizing from the bottom-up .... in our our communities ....with our rank and file ....

Some tenets of social justice unionism:
  • struggles to be democratic on all levels (in its caucus and at the schools-the base structures)
  • is a bottom up democracy built from with the rank&file membership
  • defines issues of our members & fights with and for them
  • union officers get paid no more than what s/he would get at the workplace
  • transparency
  • accountability of officers to the rank & file through a regular reporting system
  • labor & community solidarity - where our issues are defined and explained so that others can understand the importance of our teacher-worker issues as quality of education issues as well. (e.g. good schools need small class sizes and well compensated teachers).
  • respect for the constituencies we service (i.e. students, parents, community)
  • lots of educational work targeting our membership and communities (we need to counter that Corporate-Govt media misinformation)
  • lots of organizing and mobilizing (our rank&file caucuses must grow quantitatively and qualitatively to challenge to business union beast as well as the well financed corporate govt/media.
  • and more that I don't recall and am researching....Labor notes and other left literature I am sure has lots. And I am sure Latin America union movement (in Spanish) will have more for us. Unfortunately, today I think only FMPR and Union of Electrical Workers may be the best living models to study.
In Gem, I and others are pushing a social justice union conception, but like everything new, it will take a long process of struggle, discussion, debater and time....GEM has begun to talk about a study group to discuss Steve Zeluck's document called '"Toward Teacher Power" (c. 1980) [copies are being made] which addresses our uft business unionism.

I did 2 youtubes with Rafael Feliciano, Pres. of the FMPR in English which I think are important contributions:

Bob Peterson of Rethinking Schools wrote an article on Social Justice Unionism which I've been circulating also.
I think that we, as organizers for union change, we need to study and analyze this monster, the uft/aft "service union". We need to know what we are fighting and accordingly propose the organizational alternative. We can't just do those analyses only about the schools, curricula, governance, etc and promote alternative visions and not do the same regarding our "union" [if you can call it that].

We have a long struggle ahead and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

I am taking the liberty of sharing our exchange with ICE-members because I think our dialogue will be important contributions.

Collectively, we can come up with solutions to take us out of this morass that we have inherited.
en lucha,


  1. I've always thought "the powerful teacher union" has been used as an epithet. Once, when Newsday used that phrase, I called the editorial board and actually found the guy who'd written it. I asked him, if we were so powerful, why teachers in Nassau with my level of experience were making 20K a year more than I was.

    He said the UFT had the power to block state legislation if it wished to. I've never seen that happen, but that's what he said. The word "powerful," though, certainly has stronger connotations.


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