How to Botch a COVID-19 Teacher Strike

The Little Rock Education Association’s brain trust met last Thursday and concluded that district schools were not safe to reopen for in-person instruction. They decided that their members would not return to work when school resumed yesterday.

For some reason, the union waited until Sunday night to notify the district, parents, the public — and maybe even teachers — about the decision. “Our schools are NOT safe. Someone is going to get sick and someone is going to die if we continue in the current manner,” read the LREA press release.

“Beginning tomorrow, our educators stand willing and ready to serve our students through virtual instruction only,” it continued. “This is not a strike. This is not a work stoppage.”

The decision got immediate national news coverage from The Hill, the Associated Press and Forbes.

Right or wrong, if schools are open and you tell your members not to show up, that’s a strike. But as it turns out, the union was right. It really wasn’t much of a strike or work stoppage.

Little Rock has about 1,850 teachers and the union claims to have about 1,100 members. Yesterday only 166 called in sick. The district claims about 100 to 110 call in sick on a normal school day.

Apparently this caused some rethinking at LREA headquarters because another union meeting was held last night and bingo! Strike over.

A couple of lessons: 1) Never throw a surprise strike; and 2) make sure your members are overwhelmingly on board.

The purpose of a strike is to get your demands met, but LREA listed its demands only after it announced a strike. The district superintendent claimed he had no idea LREA was contemplating such an action until Sunday night.

“I don’t believe that for a minute,” said Teresa Knapp Gordon, president of the union. “I don’t believe that he did not know anything. Did I communicate with him? No, that goes against my job as president. I am not supposed to tell him what we are doing, but I don’t believe for a minute that he did not know something was coming.”

Relying on the superintendent’s psychic powers was one error, but a bigger one was not preparing the members. “Our members have reached out today and asked for reconsideration, so we are working to put that together,” Gordon said in an online news conference Monday afternoon.

I’m pretty sure the members didn’t ask for reconsideration, but any consideration. If this had been a push from the rank-and-file, certainly LREA would have trumpeted the extent of member support from the very beginning.

As the pandemic drags on we will see more job actions, but they present unique challenges for unions because personal safety is a personal decision, and not a collective one.


Democracy in Reverse at the AFL-CIO

Jacobin describes itself as “a leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture.” As such, it routinely discusses the American labor movement. This month, union organizer Dave Kamper writes about next year’s election for the presidency of the AFL-CIO.

Most of it won’t interest the casual reader, but Kamper’s candid description of the AFL-CIO’s internal processes goes a long way to explain why things are the way they are inside the federation and many of its member unions.

Kamper writes that how the AFL-CIO conducts elections, and how union members can affect the outcomes, are two important questions.

“Unfortunately,” he says, “the answers to those two questions are, in order: ‘mostly behind closed doors’ and ‘a lot less than you’d like’.”

Kamper recounts the 1995 AFL-CIO presidential election, the only time there was a contested election. “Did having a thousand delegates mean there was spirited politicking, arm-twisting, logrolling, and so forth, to persuade and cajole votes to win?” he asks. “Nope. The election was sewn up months before the convention was called to order.”

Kamper describes the selection of a president and of the delegates to the convention to be “an entirely top-down process.” He warns union members that “we should not expect this to be something that union leaders feel they need to ask their rank-and-file members about.”

Kamper concludes: “To sum up: the overwhelming majority of the people in or supporting the American labor movement will have no effective say in how delegates are selected to the AFL-CIO 2021 convention or what choices those delegates make.”

Arrangements like these are designed to perpetuate the status quo. And when you all think the same way for decades, you end up with a chart that looks like this —


A Union President to Head the Department of Education? It Could Happen

Last week Politico reported on a memo by the DC lobbying firm of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck regarding what a Biden presidency might look like and whom he could pick for various Cabinet posts.

The firm admits the memo is “highly speculative,” and it doesn’t provide any analysis of why certain candidates are favored, but merely recites their background and history.

When it comes to the three possible appointees to become U.S. Secretary of Education, the memo is both on target and way off.

The misfire is suggesting former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg for the post. Buttigieg will likely serve in a Biden administration, but not here. Biden promised delegates to the National Education Association Representative Assembly last year he would name a teacher to the job. Buttigieg has never been a teacher, and Biden would not renege on this promise when it is such an easy one to fulfill.

A more likely choice is one of the other two names in the memo: American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and former National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García.

Either one would satisfy the union lobby, regardless of whatever education policies ultimately emerged from a Biden presidency. It would also answer one of the biggest objections to naming a “teacher” in the first place: the Department of Education is not a fifth-grade classroom; it is a huge bureaucracy with more than 4,400 employees. Both of these women have experience running large organizations.

Which of the two would get the nod is an interesting question. Observers have previously speculated about Weingarten’s future ambitions — a U.S. Senate seat or AFL-CIO president. But she has what is essentially a lifetime gig as AFT president. Would she give that up?

Eskelsen García was term-limited out as NEA president this year and is presumably available. Her teaching experience is more extensive than Weingarten’s, though both were a long time ago. NEA is also much larger than AFT.

Naturally, there would be a lot of resistance to either choice, with charter schools most worried about the future. But I wouldn’t expect any groundbreaking K-12 education policies from a Biden presidency — just a lot more spending.


The Riderless High Horse

In basketball, football and hockey the teams change ends after each intermission, so that the goal you attacked at the start is the one you defend later.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died last week, and immediately the argument began over whether her replacement on the U.S. Supreme Court should get a Senate hearing and vote before or after the results of the November presidential election are known.

Naturally, everyone hearkened back to the nomination of Merrick Garland by President Obama in 2016, when Senate Republicans refused to take action. That seat ultimately went to Neil Gorsuch after the election of President Trump.

Many are pointing out the hypocrisy of Senate Republicans who want to fill the Ginsburg seat two months before the election, while they failed to consider Garland eight months before the election.

It is hypocritical. Garland’s nomination should have been heard in the Senate and voted upon. I said so at the time.

But there are two things to remember: 1) Under the circumstances in 2016, it was highly unlikely that Garland would have been confirmed anyway; and 2) the hypocrisy goes both ways.

There is no shortage of people who felt one way in 2016 and now feel the exact opposite on the issue, but I cover teachers’ unions, so I’ll simply direct you to this now-difficult-to find quote from National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen García from 2016:

“Americans are counting on the Senate to do its job by considering the president’s nominee, hold a hearing and a vote. This is a duty that both political parties always have fulfilled. Never in our nation’s history has a Senate majority said they refuse to consider or vote on anyone nominated by the current president.

“By refusing to consider the president’s nominee, Senate Republicans are playing political games, delaying action on the Supreme Court nomination, caving to the extreme voices of its party, and putting politics ahead of its constitutional duty.

“I urge the Senate to move quickly to hold a hearing and a vote to confirm Judge Garland so that the court can continue to serve the American people at full strength.”

Here’s a quote from NEA President Becky Pringle from last Friday:

“Justice Ginsburg gave this nation so much and asked little in return. But she made one request to the nation on her deathbed: ‘My most fervent wish is that I will not be replaced until a new president is installed.’ Donald Trump and the Senate, indeed the nation, should honor her wish. We should celebrate her life, vote in a fair and free election, and then the next President can consider who should attempt to fill her unfillable shoes. She made this wish, not for her sake, but for ours. Our nation is being pulled apart at the seams. She understood that the people must be heard in the election and any consideration of replacing her should wait. We should heed her wish — and her sage advice.”

I don’t recall any reporting on what Justice Scalia said on his deathbed, but fortunately Supreme Court seats are not bequeathed.

Politics ain’t beanbag, and it ain’t basketball, football or hockey, either. Everyone who switches sides, no matter which side they started on, should be called out.


NEA and AFT Affiliates in Colorado Explore Merger

Chalkbeat Colorado broke this story about the Colorado Education Association and AFT Colorado forming an “exploratory Unity Committee” to merge the two statewide teacher unions.

“The Unity Committee will explore creating a new merged organization that will be stronger, unified, and deliver more programs and services to members. As a unified organization, we can accomplish so much more than we can as independent organizations,” reads their joint statement.

If consummated, an agreement would make Colorado the sixth merged NEA-AFT state affiliate, joining Florida, Minnesota, Montana, New York and North Dakota. But hold your horses. Over the years, merger talks began in Texas, Wisconsin and Michigan, only to peter out or derail.

A merger in Colorado wouldn’t be much of a “merge.” The Colorado Education Association has about 34,000 active members, while AFT Colorado has only about 3,000 — and only about one-third of those are full-time. The disparity is reflected in their respective incomes. CEA took in more than $12.5 million in revenue, while AFT Colorado collected only $843,000.

A model might be New York, where New York State United Teachers merged with one-tenth-the-size NEA New York. The main benefit for both sides will be the claim of 37,000 new members: 3,000 for NEA and 34,000 for AFT. All done without recruiting a single new member or adding another dollar in dues revenue.