The Growing Teacher Union Militancy Movement

June 1, 2015

The Growing Teacher Union Militancy Movement. Experience and skepticism are useful tools because there are a lot of people out there trying to sell us something. But occasionally these attributes can become a crutch, and I fear I have reached that point when it comes to trends in elections for union officers.

I have routinely maintained that militant rhetoric is required for challengers for union office. It is almost impossible to oust incumbents by promising more collaboration with management. Come election time, union voters want candidates who fight. That’s why I chose the term “militants” to describe them, though it is not as exact a description as I wish.

I define union “militancy” as primarily opposing existing trends, regaining lost ground, and organizing public demonstrations of discontent. While all sorts of unions use rallies and pickets to make a point, militant demonstrations tend to be less scripted and more visceral.

Where I have let experience guide me is in analysis of what happens after a militant is elected. Once in office, the fire-breather is doused with paperwork, competing interests and inevitable compromises, leaving him vulnerable to the next fire-breather. I once called this “the elusive militant incumbent.”

But I have held on to that notion for too long. Something different is happening within the teachers’ unions these days. There are the beginnings of a national militant movement.

It began with the election of Karen Lewis in Chicago, but that did not make the rest inevitable. The Chicago Teachers Union was rare in that it had a long history of leadership changing hands among competing caucuses. Lewis was elected because she united all challengers to win a runoff against the incumbent.

What was unique this time was the perception elsewhere in the country that Lewis’s victory could be replicated by adopting her fighting stance. This still led to defeat in most places but over time the victories started to mount up, and now they can no longer be viewed in isolation.

United Teachers Los Angeles, Detroit Federation of Teachers, United Educators of San Francisco, Newark Teachers Union, Massachusetts Teachers Association, and perhaps soon the Hawaii State Teachers Association have all chosen militancy over incumbency in recent elections. While these wins were not coordinated by a single coalition, they enforced the belief that the traditional line of union succession could be broken.

Now that they have had some success, these same victors will find themselves thwarted by more establishment unionists further advanced in the hierarchy. Their challenge will be to mimic not only Karen Lewis’s rhetoric, but her ability to unite dissident factions against that establishment.

That’s the tricky part, however. There are substantial differences among the militants, not the least of which is that some are AFT and others are NEA. They also have to resist the pull of the establishment. The perks of union leadership can quickly turn bomb-throwers into pencil-pushers.

Internally it can go one of two ways for NEA and AFT. Either a militant slate arises and supports viable challengers for the national executive offices – who then win – or the militants continue to add sporadic electoral victories, existing as a thorn in the side of the union establishment, but never holding more than regional power.

For the rest of us, more militant teacher union leaders will mean significant changes in approach on the largest education policy issues – ESEA, Common Core, teacher evaluations, charter schools, et al. Lip service will end. There will be no joint accountability task forces. Monthly chats with the Secretary of Education will be replaced by sit-ins at his office.

Whether this will rally politicians and the public to the cause or alienate them into open hostility is the great unknown.

The days when NEA and AFT headquarters can declare a single position on an education issue are over. The orthodoxy is being questioned. It could lead to reformation or inquisition, but the faith will never be the same.

Recent Intercepts. EIA’s daily blog, Intercepts, covered these topics May 27-June 1:

EIA Exclusive: Alabama Education Association Placed Under NEA Trusteeship. Strange silence from AEA and state media.

Inside a Union Organizing Drive. Gawking.

Hawaii Challengers File Suit Against New Election. To no avail.

*  The More You Know. Graphic.

Quote of the Week. “With a collective bargaining agreement, a business owner and the employees negotiate an agreement that works for them both. The agreement allows each party to prioritize what is important to them. This provision gives the parties the option, the freedom, to negotiate that agreement. And that is a good thing.” – Rusty Hicks, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which is lobbying for a unionized workplace exception to the county’s new $15 minimum wage law. (May 27 Los Angeles Times)