By Adam Sanchez
This article was written by Rethinking Schools editor and New York City public school teacher Adam Sanchez. Rethinking Schools does not make endorsements in elections — whether for political or union office — but we have long been concerned with transforming teacher unions. Given the broad issues that Sanchez raises, we think that his article deserves to be widely read and discussed. For a recent look at social justice unionism in Milwaukee, see Bob Peterson’s “A Revitalized Teacher Union Movement: Reflections from the Field.”
The dominant model of unionism subscribed to since the 1970s by the leadership of UFT and most of the national labor movement is usually referred to as business unionism or service unionism. This model sees the purpose of unions as winning higher wages and better working conditions for members during contract negotiations, while most of the time providing services and administering benefits for its members. Under this model, the primary function of union staff and chapter representatives are to do things for the members — help us get health insurance, help keep our teaching license up to date, and so on.
The business unionist too often tends to think that the bosses and workers are on the same side. In the context of the expanding corporate assault on education, it is true that principals and elected school boards can and should find common cause with teachers to protect public schools under attack. But as the attacks on public schools intensify, it means good, supportive principals are increasingly encouraged to toe the company line or be ousted, and in many major cities like New York City, an elected school board no longer exists.
In this context, the continued focus on backroom deals and political negotiations as a way to defend members’ interests is a dead end. Unfortunately, Unity, the reigning union caucus in New York City, continues to sell itself not on the basis of a platform for the kind of schools teachers, parents and students deserve or should create, but on the claim that they are the best people to negotiate on behalf of teachers with the city and the state. In their words, “Proven Leadership in Challenging Times.”
Business unionists don’t see their primary political job as mobilizing and empowering members to fight for themselves and the communities they serve, but instead, they rely on lawyers, lobbying and legislation to effect change. Now that liberal Mayor Bill de Blasio has replaced billionaire Michael Bloomberg, the job of the union, as the UFT leadership sees it, is to sell de Blasio and the contract it recently negotiated with him to the membership.
This is why its campaign flyer points out that “when UNITY/UFT finally had an administration in City Hall that was listening, we negotiated a contract that made our members whole” and explains away any problems with the recent contract, by blaming Bloomberg who “purposely emptied the city’s labor reserve fund, leaving his successor scant resources to settle expired contracts with every municipal union.” This claim of city bankruptcy to justify concessions, of course, ignores that New York City is home to so much wealth that making $250,000 a year is considered “not New York rich” by the large share of America’s 1 Percenters who live here.
The last crucial aspect of business unionism is related to the other two — that in order to provide services and negotiate with management, you only need a few dedicated leaders, and so democracy is not really that necessary to the every day functioning of the union. So who cares if, for example, our union endorsed Hillary Clinton without a vote from the membership? Or why should we be concerned that the retirees in the UFT, who do not work under the current UFT contract, have a disproportionate impact on the union election outcome?
As Chalkbeat reported during the last UFT election, “Retirees make up a potent, and unusual, voting bloc in the UFT, one of the only labor unions in the country that allows retired members to continue to vote in union elections. They turn out in droves and almost always cast their ballots for the union’s leadership.” One could argue that the retiree vote — which makes up around a third of all votes cast in the election — are the “superdelegates” of the UFT.
BUT SINCE the 2008 economic crisis, there has been a surge in support for a different model of union leadership. This model is often called social justice or social movement unionism. Most famously, the social justice caucus in Chicago, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), was elected to union office in 2010 and has been leading the Chicago Teachers Union in a series of important confrontations against Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s corporate school agenda.
Chicago teachers’ fight for the schools students deserve has inspired similar struggles in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; St. Paul, Minnesota; Portland, Oregon — where I formerly taught — and elsewhere. And while less publicized, there have been important recent victories for social justice union caucuses in Los Angeles and San Francisco, as well as strong showings of support for social justice caucuses in Philadelphia and Seattle teacher union elections. The MORE caucus in New York City, is part of this growing movement to transform teacher unions and the labor movement more broadly.
Social movement unionism emphasizes that workers must engage in a struggle, based on mass action, with those in power. Wall Street got bailed out while public schools got sold out. Whether it’s Bill de Blasio or Michael Bloomberg, politicians refuse to tax the wealthy to make up for the more than 300,000 teachers jobs that have been lost since the 2008 recession — let alone provide schools with the resources needed to improve and enrich education.
To better our working conditions and our students’ learning conditions, the union’s job is not simply to negotiate the best contract we can while accepting the current dire circumstances, but to mobilize our members to create new possibilities. This is why MORE members have recently organized protests for paid parental leave, a basic human right that is shamefully denied to teachers in the wealthiest city in the wealthiest country on earth.
Furthermore, social justice unionism sees the purpose of unions as fighting for a broader vision of society. In schools, this means in addition to wages and benefits, fighting for lower class sizes, academic freedom and time to create meaningful social justice curriculum and to tailor instruction to our students’ needs. But it also means pushing the fight beyond our members’ interests and building an organization that can fight for the communities in which we serve and the broader working class. And this means that unions should join the fight for Black Lives Matter, against deporting immigrants, for addressing climate change, and so on.
Social justice unionists believe that by linking these movements with organized labor we will make both struggles stronger. Furthermore, this kind of solidarity is the only path to winning the schools and communities that we deserve.
Lastly, those who believe in this model realize that we can’t effectively fight as a union unless it is deeply democratic and encourages participation at every level from teachers, parents and students. As labor activist and education professor Lois Weiner writes in The Future of Our Schools:
Though business unionism is touted as more efficient because officers and staff are experts, it is more impractical. Given the horrific attacks on unions and teachers, business unionism is suicidal. No small group of officers, however intelligent or conscientious, can by themselves, or with the help of dwindling number of politicians supporting public education, substitute for the informed involvement of a mobilized membership.
I’m voting for MORE not just because I want to exchange one group of leaders for a better group of leaders. But I’m voting for MORE for similar reasons to why millions of people around the country have voted for Bernie Sanders and his political revolution. The right-wing turn this country has taken since the struggles of the 1960s and ’70s has been a disaster for working people. A real political revolution in this country would need to include a break with the dead-end politics of business unionism and a new model for workers’ struggle and solidarity.
The attack on workers and our living standards needs to come to an end. Unions — and in particular, teachers as the largest sector of unionized workers — can play a crucial role in that fight.
Originally published at socialistworker.org on May 16, 2016.