Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Learning From Lois (Weiner): Social Justice Unions, Restorative Justice, and Caucus Building

Lois talked about how Restorative Justice can only work in a democratically run, collaborative school environment with a non-abusive, instead of a top-down principal.  ... AMEN
I was at Lois Weiner's very interesting presentation last night, Urban Education & Teacher Unionism Policy Project. MORE co-sponsored it.

This is an exciting venture that, in addition to the goals listed below, will also focus on the various movements within unions rather than the current leaderships. As Lois pointed out, many of these movements like MORE and WE in Philly were inspired by CORE Caucus in Chicago.

Lois pointed out that forming a strong democratic caucus with a large school base is the key. She contrasted cases like Milwaukee. Bob Peterson of Rethinking Schools won election pretty much on his own without a caucus and now leads a union where people are not especially active. That is problematical - trying to build a caucus without a firm school base AFTER winning.

As Lois talked I felt she was affirming the rough strategy MORE has been following - building enough of a base of schools which in NYC with 1800 schools and a Unity machine that battles for every single one, is the biggest challenge. When people say MORE doesn't want to win they are distorting reality. MORE can't win UNTIL it establishes enough of a base to win. Why can MORE challenge in the high schools and why did New Action win the high schools for over a decade? There is enough of a base in the high schools to win.

Lois emphasized the school as the organizing tool. And she is a board member of Teachers Unite, which also emphasizes the school unit. Where I  differ somewhat is that she doesn't focus attention on building geographical clusters of schools on the district level. NYC is a special situation due to size and the massive Unity control of the schools. District level clusters of K-8 schools must be built to begin to challenge Unity in the middle and elementary schools before any caucus has a chance to win.

Lois emphasizes that the social justice component is a key to building an alliance that goes beyond narrow teacher interests, which is proving to be a dead end no matter how much people scream and yell about teacher rights. Without building a community component that supports the teachers, a hostile press will kill them. The teachers walking out in Detroit, even if unorganized, can do so because parents are not killing them for doing it. Imagine if there were gangs of people outside schools screaming at them on days when they do come to school. That hasn't happened.

For me one of the most illuminating parts of her presentation was about restorative justice, which Teachers Unite has made a key part of its operation.

MORE supports restorative justice and has come under criticism for doing so. MORE supports RJ WHERE IT CAN WORK. MORE has to make that clear.

We know that some principals use RJ as a cover - and as a way to suck up to Carmen Farina - "see, we have an RJ program" - while they screw the teachers.

I have not always been comfortable with simply saying we support RJ without qualifying the RJ language used. She talked about how RJ can only work in a democratically run, collaborative school environment with a non-abusive, top-down principal. I pointed out that there are complaints about MORE's support for RJ from people who have such principals and RJ is just used as public relations crap to put the blame on teachers. Lois pointed out that the very idea of RJ is children and teachers taking control and if a principal has total control it just doesn't work.

She made it clear. If you have an autocratic or abusive principal, fuhgetaboutit. Well we know that leaves out the majority of schools in the system and MORE should clean up its RJ platform language to make that clear. Jia Lee was present and I hope that she makes this clear when she talks about RJ which she knows would never work with her old abusive principal but works in her current school - as long as the principal is supportive. But things can turn on a dime once an ego-driven principal takes over a school that was progressive.

Lois also addressed the issue of institutional racism, a term which seems to rub some (white) people the wrong way. I will deal with this in a separate post.

One thing I would have liked to address was the special situation of Unity Caucus being able to dominate the city, state and national unions and set policy for all of them through their autocratic rule.

Here is description of the Teacher Unionism Policy Project:
The aim of the New Jersey City University's Urban Education and Teacher Unionism Policy Project is to apply research, explained in accessible language, to address those very hard issues that divide teacher unions from communities of color and support strong alliances.

Dr. Lois Weiner, Project Director of the Urban Education and Teacher Unionism Policy Project, is an internationally-known scholar in urban teacher education and teacher unionism.

This event is sponsored by the GC Urban Education Program, GC Critical Psychology Program, Public Science Project, Joseph S. Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies, Professional Staff Congress (PSC) Graduate Center Chapter, Teachers Unite, and the Movement of Rank and File Educators (MORE).


  1. Deniers of institutional racism should read The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

    Not Fired Yet in Jersey

  2. Thanks for the kind words and positive publicity, as well as participating. A few clarifications, if I may? I think teachers, parents, kids need to Push to make RJ happen by democratizing the schools, not wait for the schools to become democratic and then bring in RJ. The unions have a key role in that democratization process. Also,I discussed systemic racism, which means it is in our social system, not just institutions. No longer on the TU Board but a devoted fan and donor.

  3. Really interesting Norm, thanks for the re-cap since I personally couldn't be there! I generally am bored with semantics arguments, but wanted to push a bit on the idea of supporting "RJ where it can work." We are running into issues, shall we say, with people thinking of "RJ" as a school-program. We try to refer to Restorative Justice and Transformative Justice as a philosophy that counters how our society views the idea of conflict, punishment, reconciliation, and justice. Of course we talk about RJ in schools--and that's where we can get into the nitty gritty about principals etc. But a group "supporting RJ" should be expressing, I believe, something deeper than supporting the practice of a teacher knowing how to lead a discussion in a circle. But rather that the group fundamentally and publicly REJECTS ideas that have become fundamental to our society and school systems i.e. that caging people keeps us safe, that punitive discipline and punishment = justice, and that Black and Brown students be submissive in order to have value as full human beings.


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