Social Justice Unionism: On a Revitalized Teacher Union Movement
This morning, I was skimming through my Feedly feeds, and I saw an article titled something like, “How Teacher Unions Must Change.” I was a bit skeptical, cause that sounded like the kind of non-sense an anti-union education reformer might write.
But, I was pleasantly surprised. The link (h/t Larry Ferlazzo) led to a reposting of an article published in the last issue of rethinking schools. The article, “A Revitalized Teacher Union Movement: Reflections from the Field,” was written by Bob Peterson, the President of the Milwaukee Education Association.
It’s long, and you should go read the entire article. Make a cup of coffee first, you’ll be there a while. But it’s worth the time.
However, here are a few key take-aways:
The revitalization builds on the strengths of traditional “bread and butter” unionism. But it recognizes that 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.
At it’s core, unionism isn’t just about job protections, contracts, and pay. It’s about giving workers control of their business – and the economy. Mass strikes for things like shorter work weeks, better working conditions, and livable wages were radical moments in labor history. But the truly revolutionary moments were when workers organized to create cooperatives and literally controlled the business for themselves.
Ironically, that’s how charter schools were supposed to be. In New Jersey, the charter school law passed in the 1990’s aimed to give teachers control of schools so that they could innovate and do great things. Funny how times change.
Within four months, other leaders and I initiated a campaign to “reimagine” our union to make it more democratic and participatory, based on a vision of social justice unionism. Key elements of our local’s “reimagine” campaign and our subsequent work include:
Building strong ties and coalitions with parent, community, and civic organizations, not only on educational issues, but also on broader issues of community concern.
Replacing collective bargaining with collective action. With collective bargaining limited to only base wages, we put more emphasis on organizing members to appear en masse at school board meetings, to lobby individual school board members, and to enlist parents and community members to do the same. One of our earliest victories was securing an extra $5/hour (after the first hour) for educational assistants when they “cover” a teacher’s classroom.
Building our union’s capacity to reclaim our profession by becoming the leading education organization in the city and consistently promoting culturally responsive, social justice teaching.
Transforming the internal dynamics within our organization to increase member and leader participation, change the role of professional staff, overhaul our communications with and among members, and encourage members to lead our work.
That says it all right there. Build relationships and coalitions. Take action. Build organizational capacity through development and increased participation. And most importantly, use this capacity to take ownership of how our schools function.
Anyhow, I shall not ramble on all morning. I have other work to do. But, you should definitely go read the whole article by Bob Peterson on rethinking schools. Something for you to think about.