Sunday, June 15, 2014

Stephanie Simon in Politico: The fall of teachers unions

Oy vey! Funny Simon mentions Bad Ass, a social media group. Count the number of bad ass people who show up at rallies and struggles around the NYC area and you won't even have to take your shoes off.

Simon does not mention the on the ground grassroots organizing caucuses like CORE and MORE - and not to mention real reformers taking control of unions by overturning the old guard like Chicago, LA, Milwaukee-- bringing the unions to the communities to join with them and engage in real struggle.

On the surface the UFT does some of that --- but it is always based on their pre-decided agenda -- not what is coming from the community - the very thing that has turned people against unions -- no community roots. There are some real struggle going on in communities and the UFT is so often hands off unless they think it is a slam dunk they can benefit from PR wise.

The fall of teachers unions
By: Stephanie Simon
June 13, 2014 05:05 AM EDT

As the two big national teachers unions prepare for their conventions this summer, they are struggling to navigate one of the most tumultuous moments in their history.

Long among the most powerful forces in American politics, the unions are contending with falling revenue and declining membership, damaging court cases, the defection of once-loyal Democratic allies — and a multimillion-dollar public relations campaign portraying them as greedy and selfish.

They took a big hit Tuesday when a California judge struck down five laws they had championed to protect teachers’ jobs. The Supreme Court could deliver more bad news as early as next week, in a case that could knock a huge hole in union budgets. On top of all that, several well-funded advocacy groups out to curb union influence are launching new efforts to mobilize parents to the cause.

Responding to all these challenges has proved difficult, analysts say, because both the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers are divided internally. There’s a faction urging conciliation and compromise. Another faction pushes confrontation. There’s even a militant splinter group, the Badass Teachers Association.

Leaders of both the NEA and AFT have sought to rally the public to their side by talking up their vision for improving public education: More arts classes and fewer standardized tests, more equitable funding and fewer school closures. Those are popular stances. But union leaders can’t spend all their time promoting them: They must also represent their members. And that’s meant publicly defending laws that strike even many liberals as wrong-headed, such as requiring districts to lay off their most junior teachers first, regardless of how effective they are in the classroom.

The result: an unprecedented erosion of both political and public support for unions. And no clear path for labor leaders to win it back.

“People increasingly view teachers unions as a problem, or the problem,” said David Menefee-Libey, a politics professor at Pomona College who studies education politics. That’s a striking shift, he said, because “for decades the unions were viewed as the most likely to contribute to the improvement of public education.”

Winter Hall, the mother of a 7-year-old in a Los Angeles public school, echoed that sentiment.

“Whenever there are teachers unions, it always comes off like the unions serve themselves — like it’s not about the education of the children,” she said.

Eager to push back, Hall helped organize a “parent union” at her daughter’s school, with help from the nonprofit Parent Revolution, which has received millions in funding from some of the nation’s richest philanthropies to organize moms and dads into a counterweight to teachers unions. She said it wasn’t a hard sell.

“I know tons of parents that are frustrated,” Hall said.


Teachers unions still have too much money and too many members to be counted out. Collectively, they represent 3.8 million workers and retirees. They bring in more than $2 billion a year.

Yet the share of Americans who see teachers unions as a negative influence on public schools shot up to 43 percent last year, up from 31 percent in 2009, according to national polling conducted by Harvard’s Program on Education Policy and Governance and the journal Education Next. By contrast, 32 percent see unions as a positive force, up from 28 percent in 2009, the poll found.

Labor’s fading clout was evident earlier this month in the California primary, when unions representing teachers and other public-sector workers spent nearly $5 million to boost state Superintendent Tom Torlakson to a second term — but failed to bring in enough votes for him to win outright.

Instead, Torlakson will have to fight for his seat in a runoff against a fellow Democrat, former charter school executive Marshall Tuck, who has bucked the teachers unions on many issues — and who has been endorsed by every major newspaper in California. In backing Tuck, most of the editorial boards specifically cited the urgent need to curb union influence.

Another sign of the shifting sands: the ruling this week in Vergara v. California striking down laws governing the hiring and firing of teachers. In a withering opinion, Judge Rolf M. Treu essentially blamed the unions for depriving minority children, in particular, of a quality education by shielding incompetent teachers from dismissal.

The unions argue that the laws in question simply guarantee teachers due process. They plan to appeal. But the judge’s rhetoric clearly hit a nerve. Education Secretary Arne Duncan hailed the ruling. So did Rep. George Miller, a leading Democratic voice on education policy in Congress. He called the union policies “indefensible.” A New York Times editorial went further, referring to the laws the unions had defended as “shameful,” “anachronistic” and straight-up “stupidity.”

Even Rep. Mark Takano (D-Calif.), a veteran classroom teacher who has strongly backed unions in the past, said he was “open to reviewing and adjusting tenure laws,” though he called the ruling “disappointing.”

Ben Austin, a veteran Democratic operative who served in the Clinton White House, said the ruling was bound to make liberals uneasy about sticking by unions.

“It will be very difficult for Democrats to make the case that they are on the side of civil rights and social justice if they are defending unconstitutional laws that objectively harm poor kids and children of color,” said Austin, who serves on the board of Students Matter, the organization that brought the lawsuit.

Union leaders may be even more anxious about the upcoming Supreme Court case, Harris v. Quinn. Several of the conservative justices hinted during opening arguments that they might use the case to overturn a four-decades-old precedent that requires workers to pay dues if they benefit from a union’s collective-bargaining work, even if they don’t officially join the union. That could slice away a big chunk of union revenue.

Already, the National Education Association has lost 230,000 members, or 7 percent of its membership, in the past few years and is projecting a further decline this year. The American Federation of Teachers, meanwhile, has seen revenue slip.

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel acknowledges that these are difficult times.

But he says he’s also confident that unions will not only survive, but thrive, because they give voice to teachers — and through teachers, to students.

Union foes, he said, “just want to silence that voice.”


In many capital cities, the headquarters for the teachers union occupies prime real estate within a block or two of the statehouse.

That’s just one indication of the unions’ historic clout.

In states such as California and New Jersey, teachers unions have often been the biggest campaign spenders. Democrats counted themselves lucky to have their support, not only because of the financial resources but because the unions commanded armies of foot soldiers available for door-to-door canvassing, phone banks and other campaign grunt work all summer long.

The unions, in turn, could count on Democrats to have their backs.

No more.

In 2007, a handful of wealthy donors teamed up under the umbrella Democrats for Education Reform. Their explicit goal: to finance the campaigns of Democrats willing to break with the teachers unions by supporting policies such as expanding charter schools, weakening tenure and holding teachers accountable for raising student test scores.

It worked. Big names like former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker have sided with DFER. So have scores of state legislators and local school board members.

The self-styled reformers quickly developed a narrative that let them claim the moral high ground in public debates. Teachers unions, they said, were out to protect their own members first and foremost. They didn’t have kids’ best interests at heart.

Unions have responded, with outrage, that teachers pour their hearts and souls into helping students and know better than any millionaire campaign donor what schools need. “There’s not a tension between student interest and teacher interest,” said Jim Finberg, an attorney for the California Teachers Association. “In fact, they are aligned.”

But reform groups have put so much money into their efforts — and won the backing of so many high-profile Democrats, up to and including President Barack Obama — that their rhetoric has largely prevailed, said Menefee-Libey, the Pomona College professor. “They have the brand identity as the people most interested in improving public education,” he said.

Unions continue to fight back, and have notched some notable victories in local elections — such as the recent mayoral race in Newark, N.J. — by portraying reformers as corporate tools intent on dismantling or privatizing public education. AFT President Randi Weingarten has drawn support from other unions, too, with an old-fashioned activist campaign to “Reclaim the Promise” of public education by staging rallies across the nation.

In the meantime, though, the reformers are moving on to new strategies.

David Welch, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, spent millions to press the Vergara lawsuit in California. He and his allies are now preparing to bring similar cases in other states; they’re scouting a half-dozen potential locations, from New York to Oregon. A New Jersey state senator this week invited the legal team to get to work in his state as soon as possible.

DFER, meanwhile, is planning to launch its first major public outreach campaign next week. It’s aimed at persuading ordinary voters — not just the hedge-fund and dot-com millionaires it has so successfully courted — to support local and national candidates who will take on the unions.

Meanwhile, a conservative organization, the Center for Union Facts ran a full-page ad this week in USA Today asking, “How can you stop teachers unions from treating kids like garbage?” Its answer, over a photo of a child stuffed head-first into a trash can: “Sue.”

Add it all up and the unions “have got to feel like they’re on their heels a little bit,” said James Ryan, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “For sure.”


Union leaders have responded to the mounting political pressure with flexibility. They’ve supported some reform proposals they once recoiled from, including rating teachers in part by how far they raise students’ standardized test scores.

And they have swallowed their frustration and put their political muscle behind powerful Democrats who come down firmly in the reform camp, starting with Obama.

But that impulse to accommodate has sparked a furious backlash from some rank-and-file members who long for their unions to stick to their principles and fight the good fight, whatever the political consequences.

The leaders “completely ignore us — and it’s supposed to be our union,” said Bill Morrison, a high school history teacher in Connecticut.

The roiling anger has led some affiliates to elect firebrand leaders determined to bring a more militant spirit to teachers unions. It’s launched insurgent groups like the Badass Teachers Association, which has a strong presence on social media.

And it’s illuminated the many fault lines within the teachers unions. There are schisms over the importance of tenure and the wisdom of fighting to preserve traditional pensions. There’s a deep divide, too, over the Common Core academic standards.

Yet another source of strife: The American Federation of Teachers has pursued growth in recent years by absorbing workers who have nothing to do with education.

The AFT now represents a huge contingent of nurses, along with public defenders, dental hygienists, police officers and even lifeguards — sparking resentment among some teachers who fear their voice is diluted and their priorities ignored.

Those fault lines, analysts say, weaken the voice of teachers unions.

“There are tensions … [that] make it difficult and hazardous for national union leaders to say ‘This is what we stand for’ in one breath,” said Charles Taylor Kerchner, a research professor at Claremont Graduate University who has written extensively about teacher unions.

Van Roekel, the NEA president, said dissent is inevitable. “When there are 3 million members, we’re rarely going to have 100 percent unanimity,” he said. But he said he believes “the vast majority” of union members back the strategies the leadership has laid out.

What’s more, Van Roekel said he senses an “organic groundswell” of support for the union’s vision of the future of public education and believes parents will rally behind their teachers, no matter how the legal cases go or how much money rolls in to support opposition candidates.

“I’ve actually been saying to people, and they kind of look at me strange … that I’m more optimistic than ever,” Van Roekel said. “We’re not going away. I can guarantee it.”

Polls do show that parents have strong trust in teachers. But support for labor unions in general has fallen.

And some analysts, even those sympathetic to organized labor, say the teachers unions risk alienating the public with their constant complaints about the conspiracy of wealthy forces arrayed against them and their defense of job protections like those found unconstitutional this week in California.

“It’s entirely possible,” Kerchner said, “that unions can turn public education into a bad brand.”


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