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Est. April 5, 2002
February 23, 2017 - Issue 687

Unions and Public Education Stakeholders
in the
DeVos Era
Where Do They Go from Here?

"It is unclear whether today’s education union
leaders and members are prepared to engage
in the direct action that allowed unions to come
into being and force the private and public
sectors to sign collective bargaining agreements
that enabled them to acquire the benefits
and work conditions they enjoy today."

Now the war against public education funding and privatization begins in earnest. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a school choice five star general, will have a free hand at the U.S. Department of Education where she will bring in diverse senior staff from her own American Federation for Children, the Gates Foundation, and other major school choice organizations. She will then utilize her extensive education reform Cartel network to diffuse her voucher and corporate charter school agenda throughout the fifty states. DeVos has a $20 billion war chest that has already been promised by President Trump to implement her vision. Furthermore, she has the ability to redirect additional billions of the Department’s budget to support and facilitate the privatization of public education. Let the games begin!

It is unclear whether today’s education union leaders and members are prepared to engage in the direct action that allowed unions to come into being and force the private and public sectors to sign collective bargaining agreements (CBAs) that enabled them to acquire the benefits and work conditions they enjoy today. Few of today’s union participants have any experience with going to jail or enduring harsh individual or governmental sanctions that placed themselves at risk. I have learned much from study of and interactions with past and present teacher union leaders and have been struck by their passion and the personal and professional commitments they exhibited.

A few who stand out are the late Dr. J. Rupert Picott, former president of the American Teachers Association (ATA), the primary national organization of black educators during the era of rigid public school segregation, who challenged segregated education practices in the south during the 1940s. As Executive Secretary of the Virginia Teachers Association (VTA), an ATA state affiliate, for 22 years, Picott fought for pay equalization between black and white teachers, and the improvement of K-12 education. He was also a leader in the fight for public school desegregation in a state that was “… was determined to resist the Supreme Court’s mandate to desegregate.” Later as one of the first black executives at the National Education Association (NEA), Dr. Picott was a key negotiator in the merger of the ATA with the NEA, making NEA one of the most diverse unions in terms of executive staff, officers, and members, and the most powerful teachers’ union in the nation.

Al Shanker (deceased), former president of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), led the association into the national spotlight; in the 1980s, he was an early advocate for non-corporate charter schools that were marketed to be laboratories for improving public schools. But by the early 1990s, he was one of the first to see the impending corporate sector takeover of charters to turn them into profit centers for corporate investors, causing him to publicly come out against them. His foresight proved true as most of today’s charters are being established by corporate entities.

Sarah Davis and Jack Bertolino, former presidents of New Jersey Education Association (NJEA) locals, went to jail during their advocacy for their respective members’ contract negotiations and collective bargaining rights. They also marshalled the broader public to stand with them in their hours of struggle. Long retired, they set standards for their locals and the state that empowered teacher unions for decades. Anca Stefan, a current North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) member, caused a statewide stir in 2016 when she went to jail to protest against North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, whom she and other teachers were instrumental in defeating in his November 2016 reelection bid, because she said he “…disrespected our profession by refusing to meet with leading educators in a civil dialogue about the well-being of our state’s children ….”

Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), an AFT affiliate, has led stern opposition to Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s aggressive privatization of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS). In September of 2012, she led a strike that forced President Obama to call Mayor Emanuel and tell him to concede to some of Lewis’s demands so as not to depress teacher support and turnout for his November reelection. She and her CTU members have risked being jailed in their continuing struggle for public education as Illinois’s Republican Governor Bruce Rauner has developed state budgets which starve CPS in an effort to force the union’s hand in submitting to school privatization.

The Republicans now have 33 governors and control 68 state legislative chambers. Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker, who substantially reduced the membership of teachers unions via his union busting ACT 10 legislation, is exporting his legislative strategy to the Trump Administration and the state of Iowa that has a Republican governor and a Republican-controlled legislature. Six states have passed right-to-work (RTW) legislation since 2011, after a 47-year lull, bringing the total number of RTW states to 28. Moreover, RTW is making inroads into the Northeast and Midwest, previous bastions of unionism. The mandatory union fees case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, spearheaded by teachers and conservative groups deadlocked in a 2016 U.S. Supreme Court decision, 4-4, which the unions would have likely lost except for the untimely death of Justice Antonin Scalia.

If Judge Neil Gorsuch is confirmed to replace him, unions will likely lose as similar cases challenging such assessments are winding through the courts. Recognizing this reality, Lee Saunders, president of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) has been in the vanguard of union leaders in overhauling how AFSCME interacts with its membership in developing approaches that address their personal and professional needs in addition to calls for union activism. Given the multifaceted assault on teacher unions by Education Secretary DeVos, the Trump Administration, and the corporate Cartel of education reformers, it is imperative that teacher unions organize internally and externally to save public education.

links to all 20 parts of the opening series Columnist, Dr. Walter C. Farrell, Jr., PhD, MSPH, is a Fellow of the National Education Policy Center (NEPC) at the University of Colorado-Boulder and has written widely on vouchers, charter schools, and public school privatization. He has served as Professor of Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and as Professor of Educational Policy and Community Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Contact Dr. Farrell. 




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Executive Editor:
David A. Love, JD
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Nancy Littlefield, MBA
Peter Gamble

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