Why Do Teacher Organizations and Caucuses Fight Each Other More Than The Enemies of Public Education?

Teachers and their organizations have a long history of fighting among themselves in lieu of fighting together against the latest assault by the “bad guys.” be they hedge fund entrepreneurs or charter school empires or the rich and powerful or the Milton Freedman devotees.

In the depth of the Great Depression the New York City Teachers Union, Local 5 (TU), was expelled by the American Federation of Teachers (AFL) for communist affiliation. (See Clarence Taylor’s favorable history of the Teachers Union here). The Teachers Union and the Teacher Guild vied for members until the McCarthy pogrom of the early fifties resulted in the passage of the Feinberg Law which required that all teachers take a loyalty oath – swearing they were not and had never been a member of the communist party. The TU faded away.

In 1960 the two major teacher organizations – the Teacher Guild and the High School Teachers Association merged to form the United Federation of Teachers (UFT).

The UFT from its earliest days has been divided into political caucuses, in the first years the remnants of the TU opposed Unity, the majority caucus. As years passed Unity remained in control of the union as opposition caucuses ebbed and flowed. A recent blogger calls for the prohibition of retirees from voting in union elections in the name of “democracy,” effectively weakening the union in order to advantage one caucus over another.

On the national scene the two major teacher organizations – the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) once fought for members among the unrepresented teachers, the AFT has merged with the NEA in a number of States (New York, Florida, Minnesota and Montana with North Dakota and Wisconsin on the path). For the last fifteen years the leadership of both organizations have worked together at the national level. In 1998 the national NEA turned down a leadership motion to explore merger. Last week, in spite of the nationwide attack on teachers and their unions, the national NEA convention again turned down a motion to explore a merger.

The culture of the NEA is quite different than the AFT. The AFT is driven by local unions; AFT President Weingarten frequently points out that the local union “owns the collective bargaining agreement.” The national AFT can advocate at the national level and offer technical assistance at the local level. The NEA is driven by state affiliates who fear a diminution of power in a merged organization. Petty differences, power politics trumps fighting the enemies of teachers and unions.

Unfortunately much of the opposition to the deformers is negative – we’re against … high stakes testing and charter schools and Teacher for America and Arne Duncan and Bill Gates and Eli Broad and on and on.

To their credit the AFT has espoused “solution based unionism,” with a specific agenda.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called it solution-based unionism, and she said it’s the way the AFT must respond to years of cuts to public education and attacks on collective bargaining rights.

It’s a kind of unionism, she said, that “focuses on solving problems, not on winning arguments.”

“It unites those we represent and those we serve, and in so doing, it ensures that we don’t merely survive, but we succeed.”

The AFT is working with a broad coalition in McDowell County, West Virginia, one of the poorest counties in America. In Cincinnati the AFT local, working with the school board, has created a Community-Based school system – schools that provide a wide range of health and social services to children.

In New York City the UFT is totally engaged in local elections – trying to make the election a referendum on turning round a dozen years of so-called school reform.

If teachers expend their energies only opposing they will not win over the public. Opposing must be coupled with solutions – solutions that are specific and achievable.

A decade or two down the road teaching will look very different than it does today. The tsunami of technology will roll over classrooms – teachers will either have to get on board or be swept away – one question is whether the tidal changes will be led by or overwhelm unions.

Fighting to hold on to the past is never a winning strategy.

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2 responses to “Why Do Teacher Organizations and Caucuses Fight Each Other More Than The Enemies of Public Education?

  1. Ernest Clemens responds:

    “Fighting on to hold on to the past is not a winning strategy – hum, or ho, or oh, perhaps not, but perhaps. The problem with Randi’s solution based strategy is that it is responsive to the bad guys, ie. Multiple measures for teacher evaluation, etc. It actually brings legitimacy to the reformers or as you put it, the deformers. The union needs to redefine the problems and then generate the solutions.

    Too much testing that renders absurd data. Standards vs. curriculum. Lack of effective professional development (not test prep), College programs that should be closed down, kids will and should be kids – allowing for differentiated maturation and growth without stigmatization or punishment, behavioral standards that protect the masses, school as an enjoyable place to learn and explore, teachers who are trained to engage children in interesting work with purpose and intended outcomes…………We need to take the agenda back. And if some of the agenda is reminiscent of the past …………so be it”

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  2. Michael Fiorillo

    Mayoral control and parent disenfranchisement in urban school districts, passivity in the face of school closings and charter school invasions of public school facilities, loss of seniority, effective loss of tenure by signing on to junk science-based VAM and Danielson checklists: these sound like the “solutions” of those who would destroy the teacher unions and public education, not of a real union.

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