Why Unionism is Dead
Hi Sue, 

Thanks for a thoughtful note. I agree that within the context of both NEA and AFT locals, teachers are able to do some interesting, if not especially powerful things. 

I don't think that sharp disagreements within this community are necessarily divisive. On the whole, from what I can see, we all know we are sacrificing in order to try to promote rational schooling, and, in some cases, a more just social order. We must disagree now, and get those disagreements in the open, and to simultaneously demonstrate a culture of mutual respect. That way we deepen our understanding and each of us can learn from the others. I think that is one of the bases of the anti-testing movement, though some may disagree......

I did not, though, take the quote from the AFT, insisting on phonics first, out of context. AFT leaders going back more than a decade have been in the leadership of the phonics- first movement. It is why Checker Finn of the ultra conservative Fordham Foundation likes them so much. 

Here is what Finn says about the AFT (in a context of attacking "self-interest unions") in his Gadfly recent newsletter: "Self-interest isnt a bad thing. It's the essence of capitalism. It's the core of most countries' foreign policies. (It's also what makes packs of wolves bring down caribou and thieves snatch purses from old ladies.) What's hypocritical is self-interest that pretends to be something else. And patterns of self-interest that lead organizations to profess one thing and do another.>The teacher unions don't always work against quality education for children. The A.F.T., in particular, has a distinguished record of >studies, reports and journals (especially its outstanding quarterly, American Educator, whose departing editor, Liz McPike, will be much missed) that press for high standards, sound pedagogy and worthy content. Indeed, a new report is expected from the A.F.T. in early September that, we understand, will rigorously appraise the quality of >state academic standards and tests. Well and good. Let us be grateful for the legacy of the late Albert Shanker. "

To pay dues to the AFT, and not know this about them, would be troubling to me. I cited the aft.org www site where the material is located for your own review. It is not cited out of context, but you could check by following the path within the original post. I also cited a longer article by one of the most respected historians in the US, Paul Buhle, offering some insight into how the AFT works. Here it is again:


Sure, there are some good Aft and NEA locals, and thousands of honest teacher unionists. . But NEA has internal surveys that show their leaders that nearly ½ of the members would quit if they had the opportunity. I worked for NEA for about a decade, as an organizer, bargaining specialist, and uniserv director. I think that statistic is probably correct. Still, I know many honorable and sincere people work hard to try to serve their colleagues through the unions. 

However, just as learning to read involves the particular within the general, tools within context, so do teachers work within a union context that is far more a trap than a tool for good schools, or social justice. This is not just true of teacher unions, but all US unions. The one slight anomaly is the NEA, not a member of the AFL-CIO, and somewhat more democratic than the others, and HUGE, twice the size of the next largest union in the US, but what I am going to say next is true of the NEA too. 

There are lots of ways to demonstrate the backward nature of the school unions. Just look at the last decade, the most prosperous era in the history of the world for a single nation:. How did teachers do? By the data compiled by the unions themselves, the school workers lost ground in every area of work life: wages, working conditions, benefits, and control of work life in general. Why did teachers lose when jobs were plentiful, when they were perfectly positioned to make dramatic gains? 

How could that happen? Teachers were the main contingent at the last four Democratic conventions, choosing which millionaire would oppress them. Teachers unions were among the tops in campaign contributions, in lobbying, in voting. Why did teachers still fair so badly? 

It happened for at least these reasons:

1. The union leadership is utterly corrupt. The top leaders (like Bob Chase, Sandra Feldman, Randi Weingarden, Dennis Van Runkle, etc., ) and the staff (uniserv directors in most states make close to 100,000) form a class of people whose dramatically privileged lives stand apart from the rank and file at a terrific distance. (Top NEA and AFT officers make 400,000 a year plus expenses now, and many can live on their expense accounts.) Perhaps the fact that candidates for national NEA elections spend more than $300,000 campaigning for the posts explains how lucrative the jobs can be. See also these links about the US labor leadership:  http://www.pipeline.com/~rgibson/unions.html

More troubling, though, the culture of NEA and AFT sets up a series of hierarchies of privilege that extend down to the local level, to the point where many union leaders are in office simply to gain a few scraps ranging from free trips, time off the job, free luggage, etc (tho many take the job for other reasons, including that no one else will). It is these hierarchies which distance the local leaders from the rank and file, and are probably one of the reasons you did not know that the AFT is one of the major forces in the phonics-first fight, which cannot be separated from high-stakes tests, by the way. The corruption of the union leaders in part explains why the AFT did nearly nothing to defend Chicago's George Schmidt, a 28 year member, when he was fired for fighting the tests. 

2. The union leadership is guided by a dishonest and largely fascist ideology. That has been true of the AFT since Al Shanker came to power, in the late 1960's, following the racist New York city teachers strike in Ocean Hill Brownsville. Since then, the AFT has been a racist organization, the right wing of the AFL-CIO. This is well-documented in my www site. The NEA later adopted a stance similar to the AFT's. That stance can be summed up by what Bob Chase calls New Unionism; the unity of business, government, and labor (all labor) in the national interest. But it is not new. It is the ideology of the AFL-CIO and always has been. (As an aside, the AFL leaders sought to sabotage every major labor struggle in the history of the US., here is a link to a very brief labor history : http://www.pipeline.com/~rgibson/LABHIST.htm ) That is the ideology of Mussolini's corporate state, an important pillar of fascism. (Here is a link to what I think that is: http://www.pipeline.com/~rgibson/fascism.html )

Now, there is nothing consistent about the language of this outlook. NEA's Chase and AFT's Feldman will say one thing in one town and one thing in another. The consistency is its devotion to the processes of US capital, corporate profits, and a bogus national interest (in the most inequitable country in the industrialized world) and while we will see disputes within this camp (people seeking office, some for just a little testing, others for a lot); this is the main tendency of the unions, the direction, and it is not going to change--unless some organized efforts outside the unions force them to change. In the AFT, the structure makes democratic change nearly impossible, and in the NEA internal corruption makes it nearly impossible, so key to this is having an organization that is outside, and inside, the unions, that can act with or without them. 

At issue on any job is: Who will control the work place? Who will control the process of production, the product itself, and the value that is created by labor at the job. That struggle is constant. It involves questions of time on the job, of the quality and quantity of work life, of pay and benefits. In the US, union contracts were set up to guarantee management control of the work place. For the duration of the contract, labor peace is promised. But US labor identified its interests with the employers' interests, so they gave up a lot more than just labor peace. Instead, they became instruments of management in controlling the workers. This, too, is true of all the unions.

One problem of the alienation of the members and the leaders is the reciprocal spiral that grows: members are set up to see the union as a vending machine, "I paid my money, now do something for me," while many union leaders bemoan the fact that most members won't participate, yet those same leaders would be appalled by mass militant participation of the members. This is somewhat like a reward-and-punish classroom establishes. The kids may behave, from moment to moment, but what is being learned is subordination.

Consider the contract you mention. Look at the geography of power in your grievance procedure and consider the question of estrangement, separation. As you move up the steps of the grievance procedure (and as grievances move up the steps they are seen as more significant as incidental grievances are either solved or lost quickly), you as a teacher/worker move farther and farther away from your source of power, your collective of colleagues at your work place. Today, the union movement wins less than one-third of the arbitration cases it files, after carefully screening and rejecting the vast majority of cases the members bring up. 

With a different outlook, many grievances could be won right at the work place, right away, through direct action. But the contract, the false protection which is much a trap as a shield, makes that illegal. Given their ideology, and the long practice of deflecting serious struggle, the union leaders will lead members into any blind canyon that can be offered, from voting to phone surveys, grievances, and all in between, but they will not suggest that members should consider why unions were formed in the first place: That workers and bosses have only opposition in common. And they will not forge long term communities with parents and students. And they will not take the chance of direct action unless the members simply go do it, as they did in Detroit two years ago. The time has long passed to wait for them to wise up.

3. However, even if the unions changed dramatically, were more democratic and egalitarian, they are still structurally set up to fail: they cannot meet today's social problems. While the communist-led CIO in the 30's civilized the US in many ways, winning child labor laws, the social security act, rights to organize and bargain, expanded free speech rights, etc., the people who led the CIO, industrial workers, are no longer a significant force in the US. That is not to say they do not have power, they do; nor to say there is no industrial work in the world; but it is to say that the central organizing point of life in the US is no longer the industrial plants, but schools. That is why the fight in schools is so intense. That fight is not just about money (though it is about money) but also about ideas, how people come to know the world and act on it. At issue in school is, in part: Will the next generation go fight in the next Vietnam? 

The unions today cannot confront the social context they face. The unions DIVIDE people (parents from teachers, teachers from students, black workers from white, Mexican workers from US workers (and in other jobs they divide people by craft, skill, industry, etc)). Most importantly, the teacher unions are racist, overwhelmingly white at the top and, in the teacher unions, they reflect the job, overwhelmingly white. So, because the unions have not fought racism in any serious way, they wind up being objectively racist, although at least in the case of the teachers unions, many if not most of their members are opposed to racism. 

However, the racial divide (which is also a class divide in school) is redoubled by the actions of NEA and AFT leaders. Taking a craft union approach disguised as professionalism (a craft union organizes workers with particular skills, usually trying to keep those skills a secret, in the family, hoping to drive up wages) the NEA and Aft bosses insist on processes that keep poor and black people out of the job, ranging from expensive racist entry testing procedures to racist promotional exams (ask the NBPTS how many black people have passed their exam). Having participated in creating an apartheid school system, NEA and AFT thus stand behind the truly great crisis in schools: a teaching population of about 90% white and middle class people facing a student population that is mostly kids of color; and the teachers are expected to enforce apartheid codes like high-stakes standardized tests (which the union leaders insisted upon, helped to write, and promote still today).. 

This divisive structure makes the unions dinosaurs in today's social context. It is a key reason why the union leaders have not won a single major battle in 25 years (today this generation of union leaders has never been in a fight and does not even know how to carry one off). It a key reason why they only represent about 12% of the US work force, down from 35 % not long ago. It is a reason the unions will not leap to the defense of Susan Ohanian, who does not pay them dues, but the Rouge Forum will. 

Millions of good people are inside unions trying to do good things. But, at the end of the day, a real fight for social justice cannot be conducted by US unions. To the contrary, the unions will fight for injustice, separation, privilege, authoritarianism. So, those serious about democracy and equality must fight inside and outside the unions, one foot in and one out, seeing the possibilities and the cul-de-sacs. But without an organized force, centered in schools, uniting parents, students and school workers in long-term groups with a vision of community, democracy and equality, absent that, all who have anything to do with school will witness a steady decay of freedom. At the end of the day, this struggle is not going to be settled in voting booths, through lobbying, filing grievances, or relying on anyone but our collective action in and out of schools. It will be settled by civil strife, or its absence. As you may have noted in your own strike, the only illegal strike is a strike that fails. 

At 12:45 PM 7/13/01 EDT, you wrote:

>In a message dated 7/13/01 2:07:14 AM Pacific Daylight Time, 

>rgibson@pipeline.com writes:


>> To think that NEA or AFT bosses will do otherwise, other than making

>> disingenuous statements about over-testing, is a serious mistake, as is

>> believing that either union is a vehicle for serious struggle for justice. 





>I'm sure we wouldn't want to get into a divisive discussion about teaching 

>reading (of which I've seen many online), but I think most who've worked in 

>the area would agree that it's not helpful to oversimplify one way or 

>another..ie the whole language vs phonics debate. I'm distrustful of a quote 

>taken out of context, since I feel that's the mistake that the "testers" are 

>making. The best teachers pick and chose from the methods that will work best 

>for their students. Haven't been following what the AFT leadership has been 

>writing lately, however, I don't think part of an article taken out of 

>context gives us a full picture. (actually upon rereading the quote you 

>included, I'm not sure if it's correct or not, as I don't teach elementary 

>school. But I don't think that it would follow from the statements made that 

>a "scripted" program would be mandated, which I thought was your 

>implication). Three years ago when I was privileged to be part of a group 

>developing from scratch an academic literacy program for 9th graders, when we 

>were searching for a "program," we found several articles in AFT's "American 

>Teacher" which at the time we thought were very helpful. Later we found there 

>was no quick fix and no program, and we had to put together our own. I'm 

>still working on learning to teach reading in high school, and that's been a 

>very exciting area. 


>As to our unions, they may be flawed, but at least we have some protection 

>against workplace inequities and some forum to discuss the problems within 

>our schools. If you've ever worked at a job where you had no union protection 

>whatsoever, you would forever feel the difference. I used to work at a bank, 

>and saw people laid off seemingly randomly (older people who'd been loyal for 

>30+ years), told to clean out their desks and leave that morning. I always 

>knew that could be me. So I am grateful to be in a job where I have a union. 

>Several times they've gone to bat for me (and others) with the 



>My AFT local (1481) had the longest teacher's strike in California history. 

>Many lives were changed by the strike, and there are still animosities that 

>exist today over 20 years later. Teachers went to jail during this strike. 

>Many of us weren't around back then, but believe me we do hear about it. Yes, 

>maybe we feel that the veterans do go on about that strike, but we have to 

>respect what they won us. Now we have what I think is a good contract 

>(though of course it's constantly being negotiated), very strict on some 

>issues (class size, benefits), and the administration, knowing the history, 

>seems to respect the union. The unions also expedite political actions. I 

>remember a few years ago making phone calls against vouchers in the CTA 

>office in Burlingame. Guess the 2 unions were collaborating at the time, in a 



>In thinking about it, there are not too many forums where teachers can bring 

>up issues such as testing. I have listservs, maybe conversations with 

>individual teachers (if we even have time), but the one place I can still 

>count on is union meetings in my building, which take place on a regular 

>basis. When we have a lunchtime meeting, there are even people standing in 

>the faculty room. I've brought up the testing in terms of being a quality of 

>work issue. I believe there are many unpaid duties being piled on teachers in 

>the name of testing. I don't think people's thinking has quite caught up with 

>it yet, as it changes each year with the addition of more tests. Nonetheless, 

>being asked to pick up and bring back your heavy box of tests to the library, 

>proctor tests during your prep so that some days you have no break, proctor 

>tests at all (as opposed to what you signed on to do, which is teach)....all 

>of these are basic changes to our work schedule. Then of course, there's the 

>total unfairness of the tests to our students.


>So my point is that, at least in my case, I feel there is lots of grassroots 

>power in the individual local. I don't think you should write that off. And 

>if the national leadership is slow to take the right direction, maybe it's up 

>to the locals to lead. 



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