September 21, 2015
The Coming Teacher Union Crack-Up. Believe it or not, this was a monumental week in the world of teachers’ unions. There was no single monumental event, but it’s rare to see such a collection of incidents in a seven-day span that serve to indicate a clear future direction. Let’s itemize them, then I will try to explain how I think they all tie together.
* The end of the Seattle teacher strike.
* The rumor that NEA might kickstart the process of endorsing Hillary Clinton.
* The rank-and-file vote by the Detroit Federation of Teachers and Steve Conn’s response.
* The decision of the Caucus of Working Educators to challenge the leaders of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers in the next election.
* The move by opposition factions within New York City’s United Federation of Teachers to join forces against the incumbent UFT officers in the next election.
In Seattle, a reported 83 percent of voting union members ratified a tentative agreement after a week-long strike. The Seattle Education Association touted the removal of student test scores from teacher evaluations, 30 minutes of recess, and equity committees in 30 schools to deal with “disproportionate discipline.” The district received a longer instructional day and agreement to its pay offer.
This was curious, since SEA was demanding much higher pay than it got, and the amount it accepted was barely higher than the district’s offer before the strike.
“The district was not going to move on any more money,” said the head of SEA’s bargaining team. “I think if we held out any longer, they would’ve started taking stuff off the table.”
Also lost in the uproar over the strike was the fact that the SEA officers had bargained the evaluation system into the last contract, even to the point where the Seattle Times reported that it was SEA president Jonathan Knapp’s idea. So what changed?
Last year SEA held an election and Knapp barely edged out challenger Jesse Hagopian and his caucus of Social Equality Educators. Hagopian is a leftist (to say the minimum) but in a liberal city he is sufficiently within the mainstream to become a force within his union. By emphasizing the social justice aspects of the agreement, Knapp and his supporters undercut Hagopian’s criticisms, and the lack of a huge pay increase actually helps the message – “See, it wasn’t just about money.” For his part, Hagopian doesn’t seem all that thrilled with the result.
There is a real schism in philosophy within the teachers’ unions these days. I have previously described it as militants vs. establishmentarians, but I think I have a better description now. It is a battle between movement unionists and services unionists.
The former believe people join unions to be part of the organized labor movement, to lobby, rally, agitate, protest and strike for a working class agenda. That is why most movement unionists tend to be heavily involved in many leftist causes. The latter believe people join unions to improve their pay, benefits and working conditions. Though heavily involved in advocacy, much of it political in nature, the relationship of services unionists to their members is in many ways a commercial one. Fees are paid in exchange for services – contract negotiation, grievance processing, protection against arbitrary employment actions, liability insurance, and so forth.
So when it comes to endorsing a candidate for President of the United States, the movement unionists want, to the greatest extent possible, ideological purity while the services unionists want the best bet to win. This is exemplified in the backing of Bernie Sanders, a self-described socialist, by the movement, and their horror to think that NEA might summarily endorse the mainstream candidate.
As things stand now, movement unionists within NEA might have sufficient strength to force a postponement of a Hillary endorsement, but they are completely incapable of bringing NEA anywhere near the point of endorsing Sanders. This a recipe for simmering resentment on both sides, but it is the movement unionists who are on the rise internally in both national teachers’ unions.
Steve Conn ran for the presidency of the Detroit Federation of Teachers about a dozen times before he finally won… narrowly. Last week he took a clear majority in a referendum on his removal from office. Conn is no one’s idea of a leader of a movement, which is what makes the vote all the more remarkable. If he can actually form his own union, the Detroit Federation of Teachers will begin to disintegrate – not because Conn is so appealing, but because he will take the movement unionists with him, and the services union isn’t delivering the services.
The Caucus of Working Educators will challenge the long-time incumbents of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers with a platform focused on “racial inequality in schools, increased transparency and democracy within the union, professional development and the fight against standardized testing.” You don’t have to read far on their web site to see the distinctions they draw between themselves and the incumbents.
In New York City the United Federation of Teachers has had opposition caucuses for years, but there is finally a concerted effort to unite all opposing factions against the Unity Caucus, which has dominated the union’s governance since the days of Al Shanker. Philadelphia and New York will require multiple elections to crack, but if they do, you may soon find movement unionists in charge of most of the largest teacher union locals in the country.
Strangely enough, the Friedrichs case, which could put an end to agency fees across the United States, might actually accelerate this trend within the unions. Since teachers and other education employees in the collective bargaining states will no longer be obliged to financially support the union-in-charge, so to speak, they can join the union of their choice, be it movement- or services-oriented.
Activists could get the union they have always wanted, with a muscular social justice agenda and without the baggage of non-believers, apathetics, and the immovable within the ranks. Workaday teachers could get the union they have always wanted, with a single-minded commitment to the daily lives of its members, and agnostic when it comes to DC statehood, abortion, gun control and immigration.
The only thing that could keep the two philosophies in one organization is a defeat for the Friedrichs plaintiffs and a massive education hiring boom that would provide new membership revenues to heal all wounds. People don’t make drastic moves when things are going well.
That type of rescue isn’t on the horizon, however. The end is near for the status quo in the teachers’ unions. What follows will be both better and worse for the rest of us.
Conn-plication. Steve Conn, the former president of the Detroit Federation of Teachers, appealed his removal by the union’s executive board and won a majority of the votes cast by the rank-and-file. Unfortunately for all sides, he needed a two-thirds majority to overturn the board’s decision. This leaves DFT with officers unsupported by the majority and an opposition without a path to power.
Conn reportedly will cut this Gordian knot by forming a new union. “We’ll be circulating cards for people to sign to opt out of DFT and join our union because teachers don’t have a union,” Conn said. “We need a union. Teachers will have to opt out of DFT, which is their right.”
The presiding DFT leaders rightly note that it was the union’s opponents who fought long and hard for that right, which in their estimation makes Conn a “union buster.”
Recent Intercepts. EIA’s daily blog, Intercepts, covered these topics September 15-21:
* Rumors Fly! NEA Board to Vote on Endorsing Hillary? Jumping aboard a sinking ship?
* What the Hell Just Happened in Seattle? Street theater.
* Conn-undrum. The Detroit Federation of Teachers dug a hole digging itself out of a hole.
* New Mexico’s $2 Million “Insult.” If the union didn’t get it for you, it’s not real money.
* And Just Like That… Seattle slew.
Quote of the Week #1. “They all know me. Everyone knows me.” – Mark McDade, UniServ director for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, after being removed from a Shamokin Area school board meeting because he stormed in and shouted, “Where’s the democracy?” Shamokin board member (and former police chief) Ed Griffiths escorted McDade outside, claiming he didn’t know who he was. (September 17 The Daily Item)
Quote of the Week #2. “He is so crooked that he has to screw his shoes on in the morning.” – Rich Kashnoski, school board member of the Shamokin Area School District, speaking of McDade and suggesting that he, at least, knows him. (September 16 NewsItem.com)