Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Teacher Unionism: Standing Up for Children and the Teaching Profession

Teachers and educational workers throughout the country are standing up for children and the teaching profession.

How we do so varies from state to state, locale to locale.

In Chicago, teachers are engaged in a struggle against privatization, gentrification and an attack on basic working conditions. Recently the leadership of the Chicago Teachers Union held a strike authorization vote and nearly 90% of the teachers voted yes.

In Milwaukee educators and many other public and private sector workers and community members got out the vote and registered voters in unprecedented numbers for the recall election of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Even though the grassroots organizing was unprecedented, Walker and his financial backers from around the country, survived the recall attempt.

For us in the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association the recall election means a recommitment to our work to reimagine and reinvent our union around the following principles:

  • Move from collective bargaining to collective action
  • Reclaim our classrooms and reclaim our profession
  • Build collaborative public schools that serve all students
  • Work with parents and community to promote democracy and justice
  • Improve our union’s internal communication, public relations, and capacity to organize and mobilize our members

We are moving forward on these fronts.

The MTEA has taken up the issue of reclaiming our classrooms and our profession. We are opening the MTEA Center for Teaching, Learning, and Public Education. We have launched a new e-newsletter “Re-imagine: the MTEA Teaching and Learning newsletter.” (Click here to see a copy. ) We have started a campaign to ensure that developmentally appropriate practices are used in early childhood classrooms. We are partnering with the MPS administration to improve professional development and teacher evaluation.

In our continuing work to support democracy and social justice, the MTEA Executive Board voted to donate $350 to the strike support fund of the Palermo's Pizza workers who are struggling for union recognition and safe working conditions. Our members have joined their picket lines.

Conditions (and collective bargaining laws) differ in Chicago and Milwaukee. Yet the the activism in both teacher unions flows from a belief that teacher unions need to be more than just service unions focusing on narrow workplace issues. We must move from a “service model” to an organizing model. We have to not only be concerned about issues of wages, hours and benefits, but also issues of teaching and learning, professionalism, our community and justice. Put simply, we must put children first.

A recent article describing the work of  the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) and their leadership within the Chicago Teachers Union sums up some of this new perspective. James Cersonsky writes:

“While the city shutters, charterizes, segregates, gentrifies, intimidates, and fires, the union has created a member organizing department where one didn’t exist before, trained over 200 shop stewards, held countless public meetings and protests against school closings, and organized in hand with parents, students, community groups, and other unions-altogether, a new vision for twenty-first century teacher unionism.”

A similar vision is taking take root in the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association. The MTEA is Reimagining and Reinventing itself, moving from a service to an organizing model.

This year saw an unprecedented level of activism among MTEA members. Hundreds mobilized for the recall campaign, including groups of teachers and educational assistants who canvassed the neighborhoods around their schools in the evenings and on weekends.

This year the MTEA also more systematically trained building leaders and expanded member involvement through school-based advocate positions including Teaching and Learning, Parent/Community, Social Justice, and Democracy Advocates.

In 1998 as a rank-and-file union activist I wrote an article "Survival and Justice: Rethinking Teacher Union Strategy" in the magazine Rethinking Schools, "Never in the history of our nation have public schools been under such relentless attack. Never in the history of teacher unionism has there been a greater urgency to rethink strategy."

Fourteen years later those words are now more true than ever.