A Teacher Spring: Can the Union Organizing Model Revive the Teacher Union Movement?

Presidents and governors and mayors “own” the bully pulpit, the print and electronic media cover every press conference, every speech utterance and plaster the pronouncements across the media stage.  The Republicans have been hugely successful in seizing the stage through relentless attacks against Obama and Democrats. From the “birthers” to “Obamacare” a loose coalition of philosophical Tea Partiers to blue collar workers fearing losing their jobs, to seniors worried about Social Security and Medicare the Republicans seized the House, state legislatures and governorships around the nation.

The battle for “eyes on the screen” which translates into votes in the polling place and approval ratings in polls continues 24/7.

Labor unions, without millions to buy TV time and without access to the bully pulpit are on the defensive. Traditionally their “power” was the ability to get members to the polls. Union membership is declining, except in the public sector, there is a widening age gap within unions. Younger union members have different priorities than long time union members. Susan Moore Johnson at Harvard University tells us that younger teachers view the profession differently,

 As a cohort, they are more likely than their predecessors to treat teaching as a short-term career and to be less satisfied with its professional isolation, standardized pay, undifferentiated roles, and lack of opportunities for influence and advancement.

In formative years unions fought for organizing and bargaining rights in the trenches and on picket lines. After initial successes unions evolved into bureaucracies oftentimes mirroring the management side of the industry. The structure of unions was a service model, the union provided services to its members: negotiating contracts, representing members at grievances, responding to inquiries, endorsing candidates and getting out the vote.

Randi Weingarten changed the face of the New York City teacher union and now the national union, and, her successor, Michael Mulgrew is fine tuning this dramatic change, a change from a service model to an organizing model .

The union eschewed the one huge rally approach and conducted hundreds of “actions” across the city. In front of schools, at borough halls, at Community Education Council (CEC) meetings, at Panel for Education Priority (PEP) meetings, on the steps of City Hall, sit-ins, drive-ins, with signs and chanting, in every borough and every neighborhood. Thousands upon thousands of teachers and parents week after week for months “organizing” from the bottom up. For both younger teachers who find themselves for the first time in their lives as part of a movement to senior teachers who remember the civil rights and anti-war actions in the 60s, as a “crowd” they have influenced public opinion.

Mayor Bloomberg is the master of the use of the mayoral bully pulpit. As a mayor above politics, without a party, without the stain of partisan politics he deftly steered the city and aggrandized his own reputation. In spite of protestations he ran for a third term, clearly to position himself for his next run, be it for president, increasingly unlikely, or for governor in 2014 or whatever.
Bloomberg has no moral center, he is neither Republican nor Democrat, radical nor conservative, he is whatever is necessary to allow him to govern, an amoral, apolitical Machiavellian manipulator of the masses.

A surprisingly close election and a disastrous response to a snow storm injured Bloomberg and hundreds upon hundreds of local actions have mobilized the citizenry. Approval ratings have spiraled to his lowest levels and the dumping of Black for Walcott hasn’t changed public opinion.

Forty years ago John Lindsay decided to encourage a teacher strike in an attempt to destroy the embryonic union and capture the minority community. Instead it doomed his attempt to run for the presidency in 1972.

The layoff of teachers would frame Bloomberg’s mayoralty. The mayor heralds declining crime, economic renewal in spite of the recession, the “greening” of the city with bike lanes, anti-smoking rules, anti transfat, all to enhance his image, all will wilt with teacher layoffs. From a mayor who revived the city after 9/11 to the mayor who destroyed the school system.

How does the mayor avert layoffs and retain relevance, after all, on the national scene politics is highly fluid. Governor Christi in New Jersey and Daniels in Indiana have pummeled teachers and their unions and put themselves in the glare of the headlights. Each is mentioned as a potential presidential hopeful.

Will the battle cry, “We are All Wisconsin,” and the hundreds upon hundreds turn into thousand to tens of thousands of local actions evolve into a national organizing model?

Will the Arab Spring presage a Teacher Spring?

Has the top down bully pulpit, media driven messaging morph into a Facebook, Twitter, social media-driven messaging?

With six weeks until the final date for approving the city budget the teacher union plans action after action and the mayor seeks pressure points to pin down the union.

We may be witnessing a sea change, from the TV “talking heads” to a youth driven, social media driven revolution, a “streets” driven political movement, both from the Tea Party right and the union left.


3 responses to “A Teacher Spring: Can the Union Organizing Model Revive the Teacher Union Movement?

  1. Olivia Koppell

    It’s about time! I’ve been looking for the outrage regarding the power brokers who got us into this economic crisis, the people in Congress who act as the enablers, the recent Supreme Court decisions in favor of narrow corporate interests, and those manipulating the electorate to vote against their own interests. People don’t realize just how upset they should be. It’s about time!


  2. Paula Washington

    As a teacher and a staunch unionist it disturbs me that so few of the younger teachers show up at the many events in which our union participates. The irony is that their reason is not that they disagree with what the union’s positions, but that they are swamped with the day to day work of serving their students.


  3. I agree with Paula. It’s really important note more than ever than these public sector unions show some solidarity because while the job market is improving slightly for private sector the outlook isn’t great for public sector employees.


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