Which Side Are You On?

Toward a Real Compact of Educators, Kids, and Parents


What the Merger of the NEA and the AFT-AFL-CIO Means to Us


Rich Gibson. Ph.D.

Coordinator of International Social Studies Education
Wayne State University, 267 Education Building
Detroit 48202
Email: rgibson@pipeline.com

Education Week's Commentary section and paid advertisements are crackling with advice for educator-unionists. Researchers like Wellford Wilms (2 October 1996) and Kerchner, Koppich and Weeres (9 April 1997), and union executives like the American Federation of Teacher's Sandra Feldman and the National Education Association's Bob Chase (15 October 1997, 27 May 1998) urge "new unionism" on parents, children, and the rank and file in the classroom. All suggest this project is fresh, rising out of novel circumstances in the nation and the world. The "new unionism" is the content of a proposed merger between the two teacher unions, the NEA and the AFT, which would create the largest union in the AFL-CIO, with more than three million members, triple the size of the Teamsters. The NEA representative assembly will vote on the merger in early July, 1998.

Just what is afoot that requires a dramatic turn in teacher unionism? The simplest social statistics describe the U.S. as increasingly unequal and authoritarian. The U.S. may be the richest and most technologically powerful country in the history of the world. It is also a nation of growing classes of the ever-more poor, managed by a shrinking cadre of elites using every technique to stay on top. The poorest of the poor remain color coded. Boundaries between the rich and the poor, between people of color and whites, steadily widen. Internationally, U.S. troops continue to patrol the globe, defending an oil interest here, a nationalist ally there, and the interests of inequality everywhere. Promises of the end of history, decades of peace after the collapse of the U.S.S.R., disintegrated as wars hit every continent except North America--which sent belligerents to most of them.

School children are now even more intensely segregated by class and race through geography, curricula choices, funding, teaching methods, tracking, and standardized exams. In the most exploited areas in the U.S., schools are Third World. While the best teachers swim against the stream, these schools serve as holding pens. The message to kids from many schools is clear: tamp down your expectations, stifle your analytical abilities, and get in line. Even for what was once known as the middle class, the signal from school is that you will not do as well as your parents--get used to it.

Teachers occupy a pivotal position in a society with a collapsed industrial base. Schools are now the center of communities, the sole organizing force in the lives of many citizens. Educators are the most unionized people in the U.S. The ideas and practices educators foster will have a vital impact on the construction of 21st century society.

The NEA and AFT response to their growing potential was mixed. The AFT, representing most of the urban schools in the U.S., was vocal about the problems their members experienced. AFT president Albert Shanker ran regular columns in the New York Times. In practice, the union did little, from the mid 1970's to today, but oversee the collapse of urban education--as well as their members' wages and working conditions, once the best in the U.S. The AFT helped organize the decay and make it possible. Shanker cultivated friends among the rich and famous, serving for example on the Council for Foreign Relations and dining with close friends like Felix Rohatyn from top banking firms. He also devoted much of his time to deepening the ties of the AFL-CIO with U.S. intelligence agencies through friendships with people like the CIA's William Colby (an expert on undermining unions and linking their leaders to national elites) and groups like the National Endowment for Democracy and the American Institute for Free Labor Development. Under Shanker's guide, the AFL-CIO spent more than one-half of its dues income outside the U.S., most of that on dubious cloak-and-dagger operations aimed at destroying indigenous worker-peasant movements. The theory which drove this practice was the idea that U.S. workers and their employers have common interests.

NEA was able to rest easier on a more affluent base. It's membership is predominantly suburban, overwhelmingly white--as is most of the profession. While the AFT's urban schools decayed, along with many of the cities that surround them, suburban schools enjoyed an easier ride. The NEA's structure, which allows for more independent action of locals and more internal democracy, made it possible for more radical voices and practices to come forward. In the 1980's, the formerly conservative NEA (once entirely dominated by administrators and textbook officials)led more strikes than any other union. NEA members salaries surged ahead of the AFT's, their working conditions and benefits improved. NEA staff salaries boomed too, reaching the $80,000 range, with the best benefits available. NEA secretaries, who like school secretaries often run the operation, are paid as much or more than most teachers. The Executive Director of the NEA, Don Cameron, drives a Jaguar and lives in one of D.C.'s richest suburbs. In any case, NEA was more active, partially because the terrain it operated on was more friendly, more flush.

But both the NEA and the AFT abandoned the vision of some early founders that would link the activities of school workers with parents and kids. The most obvious example of the estrangement of kids and educators interests is the fact that neither union, anywhere, attained attractive and enforceable rules about class size, an issue that was regularly sacrificed for a few more dollars of pay. Other than to support state lotteries, neither union fought hard against the shift of the tax burden onto poor and working people. Neither NEA nor AFT defended academic freedom from the onslaught of standardized test regulations, indeed they commonly supported a mandated curriculum. The unions took a craft union approach to intensifying inequality in their communities: they looked after teachers--going so far as to press for increased certification requirements to limit entry to the job, and thus drive up wages. That this did nothing to offset the implications of the deepening color moat in education--in a few years more than 95% of the teaching force will be white, facing students who will be more than one-half kids of color--clearly was beyond the NEA or AFT leadership.

What some NEA and AFT leaders offer to meet the growing tensions of race and class in schools and society is the corporate state, the over-arching unity of corporations and the public under the banner of increased production, collective power: national interest. The theory is that we are all in this together, though the evidence suggests that the answer to Rodney King's question, "Can't we all get along?", is: "Not when there is money in it." We are not all in this together. We live in a society of competing economic and social interests; those who will gain from democracy and equality facing those who benefit from low wages and authoritarianism.

Crude nationalism is the main pillar of the NEA-AFT merger. Nationalist ideas move many people to act as instruments of their own oppression. For example, the sacrifices of working class troops defending Kuwaiti Kings and U.S. oil interests in the Gulf War only empowered those who later denied them decent medical care.

The political class in the U.S. operates as a sword and shield for wealth. Because of this ever-sharpening economic and social divide, teachers now face labor's old question: Which side are you on? Will you line up with CEO's and politicians, or the kids looking at you? What will happen because of your choice?

Any social change must first be conceptualized, envisioned, by the people who will lead it. Stripping youth of the ability to perceive fundamental economic and racial imbalances, and the reasons for them, underpins the corporatist approach to education, the standardization of the curricula. Inequitable societies do not want injustice investigated. One traditional method of disguising inequality is nationalism, the crux of new unionism and most of the standardized curricula. Far more important than pay and benefits, educators are now in a battle over what is true and how we can know it. Questions like, "Is inequality also injustice?", belong on that terrain.

The teacher unions offer strategies which will lead educators to miss the key questions entirely. The union leaders counsel merger, mimicking their corporate counterparts, rather than to create real value by organizing democratic activism in their ranks. The leaders resurrect old company union stances: they're for a common curriculum driven by nationally standardized exams, peer discipline programs, grade retention, high barriers around the profession to make sure only the most credentialed (white)creep in. Chase and Feldman want teachers to embrace, not the vast majority of kids, but the interests of business and administrators. Chase, who won an election for the NEA presidency by a narrow margin, ran on no platform at all, then sprung the "new unionism" stance on a somewhat surprised rank and file. His own state, Connecticut, recently voted to reject his stand on merger. Undeterred, he used NEA money to purchase national ads to propagandize for affiliation with the AFL-CIO (Education Week, 28 May 1998). Feldman, the lifelong protégée of the recently deceased Albert Shanker, boss of the AFT for nearly thirty years, has virtually no educator background; she has been a union employee nearly all her life. She has done nothing to detach herself from Shanker's long leash. In fact, she is being promoted within the AFL as a potential conservative candidate for the presidency of the federation. Chase has been offered the presidency of the new education union.

The merger is posed by Chase and Feldman as something that rose up from the rank and file. This is fiction. Staff members of both unions were well aware that the leaders of the organizations were secretly planning to merge as early as 1987. Staff members of the NEA were disciplined for voicing opposition. Perhaps the most obvious indication that the merger is hardly the spontaneous expression of rank and file desire is the fact that the International affiliates of the NEA and AFT merged nearly five years ago, with long time NEA president Mary Futrell taking the lead. With the death of Shanker, whose notorious ego delayed merger negotiations, it became possible to press forward a merger vote in the NEA to the July 1998 Assembly. In the utterly undemocratic AFT, a merger vote passed at the Executive Board level, the only one that counts, in April.

Why would the leaders want to merge? Multiply nearly 3 million potential members by $500 yearly dues. That's the new union's budget. The labor aristocrats at the top levels of both unions enjoy salaries and lifestyles, and ambitions, which tie them to elites, not classroom educators nor kids. They seek to widen their privileges. Consider that the leaders will likely never have to teach in a classroom again. Consider the massive debt that the collapsing AFL-CIO, whose leaders are about to go to jail for corrupt campaign practices, which could be off-set with school-worker dues. Consider whose money will be used to subsidize the next corrupt Teamster election. Given the money and people involved, and the integrity of the people who have most to gain, it is hard to believe that the merger is wholly on the up and up.

The NEA--AFT-AFL-CIO merger promises power through solidarity. The solidarity offered is not with the source of real educator power, unity with poor and working class parents and kids who have everything to gain from school, but with the affluent--and layers of union bureaucrats. Unity with business means unity with profits, the singular focus of any surviving company. But there can be no unity in that dog-eat-dog milieu. In exchange for this false unity, school workers will sacrifice internal democracy, the ability to choose another union, and what little anti-racist rank and file activism that remains within the NEA and AFT. Rather than enhanced teacher power, elites will use the merged union to more effectively discipline the nation's educators.

The merger pushes teacher unionism back into its darkest days, combining the worst of both unions; harkening back to the AFT's racist beginnings in the 1968 Ocean-Hill Brownsville strike against a black community and the company unionism that dominated the old NEA. More union bossism coupled with the idea that the working class and the employing class have everything in common; that's the sad side of U.S. labor history. While Chase and Feldman promise democratic protections inside the proposed new union, a letter from NEA Executive Director Don Cameron in January 1998 threatened those who are not on the bandwagon with unspoken consequences, a new development in what NEA likes to call its "family". The Illinois NEA staff, still rebellious, then voted overwhelmingly to oppose the merger, as did the state of Michigan governance.

In any case, the AFL-CIO hasn't won a serious fight in 25 years. Consider PATCO, the failed air-traffic controllers'strike, the Detroit Newspaper strike, where solidarity was not enhanced, but wrecked, by the AFL. Consider the Caterpillar strike, the strike at Hormel, and on and on. The AFL-CIO allowed the Detroit newspaper strike to die on the vine, in part because it wanted to minimize labor strife during the Clinton electoral campaign. Then the AFL turned about in the spring of 1998 and spent 11 million dollars in California defending their right to collect political action money, designated for their Democratic Party colleagues. The vaunted AFL-CIO promises of solidarity are simply hollow--unless teachers want solidarity with those who benefit from irrationalism and inequality. The AFL was founded, not to promote solidarity, but to protect the narrow interests of workers in skilled trades, to use racism to limit entry to skilled jobs. The result of the craft approach has always been to divide workers, not unite them. The AFL-CIO, controlled by private sector unions, regularly lobbies against public sector tax increases, even those aimed at improving schools.

What elites will gain from the proposed merger is an increased ability to tame school workers, to gain greater control of what elites rightly understand is the center of contested terrain in the U.S.--schools. This works two ways. First, teachers will no longer have the option of leaving an ineffective local and going to the other union. Second, the undemocratic procedures of the AFL-CIO and the AFT will be imposed on NEA members whose union, at least structurally, is far more democratic. Without the ability to leave or to use democratic procedures to change their union, U.S. teachers will be trapped in an organization that works against their interests--and in opposition to the interests of most kids. One focal point of this attack is the curriculum.

The national curricula standardization the unions and corporations promote is the regulation of knowledge: certain content and methods of learning assigned to groups of children arranged by social class. Michigan teachers know regulated curricula explode the foundation of learning: the meeting of a particular student with unique interests, a special teacher with certain passions and expertise, and the resources of a distinctive community in a loving classroom where risk is nurtured. Standards, simply instruments of coercion which segregate kids and enforce the standpoint of elites, rob teachers and kids of their most precious commodities: time spent in fervent study. More regulated exams locate the thinking mind and source of truth in an alien test. The educator becomes an imperial clerk. The student learns to think like an unquestioning employee, or a private.

So whose side should teachers be on? Educators will, sooner or later, discover that those who believe society should be motivated by fear and greed make unreliable allies. People who work in school should side with those who need school most.

There are some hopeful signs, people pulling back the curtains of OZ; teachers making wise choices. The "Rethinking Schools" project in Milwaukee appears to unite working class parents, kids, and teachers in multi-racial groups to address questions of curriculum and justice. In their work, kids and teachers are the creators of the curriculum--and the testers of the knowledge they have created. The Whole Language movement inherently challenges the alien curricula of state compulsion. To the north, the Ontario teachers strike of 1997, the largest in the history of North America, demonstrates the power teachers have when they organize the communities they serve.

There are answers for educators in history. Margaret Haley, who worked in both the NEA and AFT in the early 1900's, led fights which drew on the powerful unity of interest of students, teachers, and parents around questions of class size, freedom to control the local curriculum, and a more just tax system. She often won.

The corporate state, propelled by a bogus common national interest, will not serve teachers well. There is nothing at all new about new unionism. It is the same path the UAW followed in helping to organize the decay of the auto industry, and their loss of 500,000 members. New unionism led the AFL-CIO to its present moribund condition. Should educators follow Chase and Feldman into alliances with corporate elites, politicians, and local managers, a few of those educators may benefit a bit, rewarded with time away from the classroom, free overnights and meals, heightened respectability. The vast majority will pay a price for their colleagues' petty privileges. They will be divided along the lines of the incomes of the parents they teach. Thus split, injuries to one will precede injuries to all.

Educators are repeatedly faced with a decision: the kids or the bureaucracy? Teachers already sacrifice time and resources and make decent choices. What is needed now is to choose in a more systematic way: organized principled caucuses of parents, kids and educators--inside and outside the unions--directed at common interests, unifying issues: class size, academic freedom, a more equitable way to fund schools. This is real professionalism and solidarity, established around the idea that circumstances require a really new form of teacher unionism, one that embraces schools for a democratic society.

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