What Is The Future Of Teacher Unionism?

Rich Gibson and E. Wayne Ross

       Last week at the National Education Association convention in New Orleans teachers faced a new version of labor's old question: Which side are you on? The choice was between a "new unionism," which offered collaboration in the interests of the political elite (e.g., union executives, politicians, policy-makers, and corporations) and the standardization of education or the preservation of a union characterized by internal democracy-that allows independent action of locals-and the opportunity to build principled alliances around issues of common interest to educators, parents and students in local communities. 

NEA President Bob Chase promotes new unionism as a compact that will benefit children and increase the quality of public education. The center piece of new unionism is the proposed merger the 2.4 million member NEA and the nearly 1 million member American Federation of Teachers. A merger would create the largest union in the AFL-CIO, triple the size of the Teamsters, with a least 3,000 members in every congressional district in the country. NEA delegates, however, voted to reject the merger and with it Chase's new unionism. Chase and the AFT leadership promise to continue the push for a merger. The rejection of new unionism by rank and file teachers in the NEA, however, is good news for those of us who believe that schools should operate in the interests of children rather than business or administrators-who would centralize educational decision-making and see increased economic production as the most appropriate measure of teaching and learning. 

Union leaders counseled merger, mimicking their corporate counterparts, rather than creating real value by organizing around the common interests of teachers, students, and parents. The leaders resurrect old company union stances as a "new unionism." They are for common curriculum driven by nationally standardized exams, peer discipline programs, grade retention, and high barriers around the profession to make sure only the most credentialed enter. What new unionism obscures is that there is a conflict of interest between those who gain from democracy and equality and those who benefit from low wages and authoritarianism. 

Inequitable societies do not want injustice investigated and one traditional method of disguising inequality is nationalism, which is the crux of new unionism and the standardized curriculum movement. A standardized national curriculum, which is promoted by the unions and corporations, is the regulation of knowledge: certain content and methods of learning assigned to groups of children arranged by social class. Classroom teachers know standardized curricula explode the foundation of learning, that is, 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. Standardized curriculum and the mandated high-stakes tests that assure it is followed are instruments of coercion that segregate kids, enforce the standpoint of political elites, and rob teachers and students of one of their most precious commodities: time spent in fervent study. More regulated exams locate the thinking mind and source of truth in a test. The teacher becomes an imperial clerk. 

New unionism promises power through solidarity. The solidarity offered, however, is not with the source of real educator power-unity with poor and working class parents and students who have everything to gain from school. Some early teacher unionists, such as Margaret Haley (who worked in both the NEA and AFT in the early 1900s), led campaigns that drew on the powerful unity of interests among students, teachers, and parents around issues such as class size, freedom to control the local curriculum, and a more just tax system. She often won. 

Unfortunately both the NEA and the AFT have abandoned the vision that would link the activities of school workers with students and parents. The most obvious example of this estrangement of interests is the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownsville teacher strike, which pitted the New York City teachers union, lead by the late, long-time AFT President Albert Shanker, against the African American community. The conflict centered on community control of public schools. The union won and community control was lost, establishing a labor-management model that mirrors private industry, one in which educational policy is determined in bilateral negotiations between a highly centralized school administration and highly centralized union. 

This legacy continues. Neither the NEA nor AFT, anywhere, has attained attractive and enforceable rules about class size. Neither union has fought hard against the shift of the tax burden onto poor and working people. Neither the NEA nor AFT has defended academic freedom from the onslaught of standardized test regulations, indeed they commonly support a mandated curriculum. And the craft union strategy of increased certification requirements to limit entry to the job, has served to deepen the color moat in education-in a few years more than 95% of teachers for will be white, while the school population will be more than one-half students of color. 

Creating a larger teacher union tied to the interests of corporations, the elite, or a false sense of national interest will not serve the interests of teachers, and most students and their parents, something the vast majority of NEA delegates in New Orleans realized. What is needed are organized, principled caucuses of parents, students 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 solidarity, established around the idea that circumstances require a really new form of teacher unionism, one that embraces schools for a democratic society. 


Rich Gibson, a former NEA organizer, teaches at Wayne State University in Detroit. 

E. Wayne Ross lives in Albany and teaches at the State University of New York at Binghamton and serves on the Executive Board of the Binghamton Chapter of United University Professions/NYSUT/AFT. 

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