They came first for the Communists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.
Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.
Then they came for me
and by that time no one was left to speak up.
Pastor Martin Niemöller (1892–1984)
Among the first organizations that tyrants suppress are labor unions, whether the Stalinists of the 1920s, the Nazis of the 1930s, the Chinese of today, or the anti union crowd that views teacher unions in the same light. Not only do labor unions argue for better salaries and working conditions for their members they avail themselves of the primary mechanism of a democracy: the vote.
In Washington DC teachers and their union donated dollars, knocked on doors, made phone calls, engaged themselves in the process that elects and defeats candidates. A mayor and a school chancellor popular with the elites and unpopular with the electorate was defeated.
Teachers and their union are pilloried, for exercising basic democratic rights.
Unions not only engage in politics to the extent that laws allow, they are internally democratic organizations. Union officers are elected by memberships, and proposed collective bargaining agreements must be ratified by memberships.
In Baltimore the union membership (BTU) defeated a proposed contract (58% opposed), in spite the accolades of the US Department of Education and the ed (de)reform community.
The proposed Agreement ( read here ) is complex with many key components to be negotiated over the future months by labor management committees.
In 1995 the UFT negotiated a five year Agreement, the first two years had no increases, hence the contract is referred to as the “double zero” contract. While Mayor Guiliani claimed the city was in dire financial straits the national economy seemed to be in good shape. The Union leadership mobilized the troops, sent union staff into each and every school, in spite of their efforts the contract was soundly defeated. Five months later a similar contract, with some cosmetic fillips was approved.
Democracy is a bitch, it can defeat mayors, and union contracts.
The UFT learned lessons,
The 300 Member Negotiating Committee: Union contracts are usually negotiated behind closed doors by select groups: union officers, professional staff, lawyers and financial experts. Members can speculate, until both sides come to an agreement the membership is out of the loop. In New York City a 300-member negotiating committee representing all divisions as well representation from different political factions within the union acts as a “sounding board” for the negotiators, and increasing the chances that the final product will reflect memberships views.
User-Friendly Contract Language: Contracts are written by lawyers, frequently the language is not clear to members. Teachers vote on a memorandum of agreement that is converted into a contract after membership approval. It is important that members fully understand the meaning and impact of each clause/change. The Baltimore contract ratification allowed for teachers to attend a meeting and ask questions, perhaps not enough time to explain a controversial agreement.
A Period of Reflection: The Baltimore union decided to hold a vote only a few days after the announcement of the Agreement and answered at a meeting. A Q & A sent to each member, a website, meetings in every school; teachers have to feel comfortable, have to feel that every query has been addressed.
Maximizing the Ratification Vote: In NYC contract ratification takes place in each school by secret ballot, More than 90% of members participated in the last ratification vote. Union officer elections must comply with US Department of Labor rules, a mail ballot, a 50% return is considered excellent; a contract ratification vote with a limited participation is unhealthy for the union.
Comments by Proxies Can Be Harmful: After the Agreement and before the vote the US Department of Education, newspaper editorialists, bloggers, the ed (de)(re)form crowd “waxed poetic” about the proposed contract, and clearly raised suspicion among already suspicious union members. Superintendent Alonzo’s comment after the rejection, “that teachers were shortsighted,” was not helpful.
Neither Arne Duncan nor Randi Weingarten has a vote, the three thousand plus Baltimore union members have the fate of the contract in their hands. The question of using student achievement data to evaluate teachers is a difficult one for teachers. Teachers feel that “scores” directly correlate with the ability of kids and have doubts about the efficacy of using this datum for teacher ratings, salary and tenure determinations, and, a just released peer reviewed Report by Linda Darling-Hammond and others seems to support the teacher doubts. The proposed contract does make teachers partners in a range of decisions impacting teaching and learning.
In the weeks and months ahead the BTU leadership and membership will engage in a democratic process, weigh the pros and cons, and eventually thrash out a contract.
Of course the Michelle Rhees and the Joel Kleins would rather live in the world Mel Brook’s Louis XIV, (“It’s good to be king,” see U-Tube here)