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Est. April 5, 2002
December 13, 2018 - Issue 768

Are Teacher Unions
Imploding from the Inside?

"Teacher unions must aggressively recruit more allies, as their
adversaries are doing to their free market ideology, based on
the strength of their message of equity and commitment to our
democracy.  That was the basis of the Democrats’ midterm
victories.  That approach needs to be upgraded and expanded
among unions, their members, and their staffs."

Classroom teachers and local unions took the lead in challenging the systematic dismantling of public education in 2018. What was unusual was that these walkouts and strikes occurred in Republican states--Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma and West Virginia. These job actions also jump started the Democratic battles to flip Republican seats at the state legislative level (gaining more than 350 total seats), enabled Democrats to pick up several state legislating chambers, and to eliminate Republican state legislative super-majorities which allowed them to unilaterally override gubernatorial vetoes. Democrats also picked up six new governorship's.

Teacher and education support personnel push back against the under-funding and privatization of public education were at the core of Democrats flipping 40 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and placing them on a firm path to retake the U.S. Presidency in 2020. Meanwhile, teacher union staff members appear to be imploding from the inside. Hawaii, Kentucky, and several other states are experiencing internal staff turmoil over the same issues that unions are confronting with school boards and state legislatures—substantial increases their contributions to their benefits and pension packages, reduction in funding for daily operations, and flattening pay increases.

These issues have been exacerbated by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 Janus decision which abolished the requirement that public-sector employees pay dues to unions that represent their workplace even when they are not members of that union. In Wisconsin, former Republican Gov. Scott Walker forced through Act 10—primarily aimed at teachers-- during his first year in office which significantly undermined collective bargaining for public-sector workers with the exception of firefighters and law enforcement officers.

Walker was turned out of office on November 6th, but his attacks on teachers have been replicated by his backers, the Cartel of private education reform billionaires, who have diffused these initiatives through the governors, state and federal legislators, mayors, school boards (they have elected), and the school superintendents they have, in effect, appointed. The Cartel has essentially selected the school superintendents in more than 300 major school districts across the nation, the most recent one being Dr. Lewis Ferebee in Washington, D.C., who is in the process of being confirmed by the D.C. City Council. (Ferebee comes from Indianapolis, Indiana where the Cartel also installed him as superintendent. He is the fourth D.C. Cartel superintendent in succession.)

This multiple-level assault on teachers has caused frustration within their ranks and has induced conflicts between union management and their staffs. Thus, the Cartel is executing its grand strategy to rip to shreds public education as we know it and to take down its union leadership. In order to “Make America Great Again,” it believes that the public sector must be redesigned to meet the profit needs of the free market. We already see examples of the massive privatization of prisons; the rapid increase in voucher, virtual, and charter schools; the growth of educational savings accounts; contracting out government services at the local, state, and federal levels; and numerous other efforts to move public dollars into private hands.

The pressure of the aforementioned schemes have resulted in rising tensions within teacher union as they are trying to hold ground and expand membership while their staffs are striving to maintain the individual quality of their lives. Thus, the Cartel has been successful in inciting in-house dissension among its major rivals. The question is whether teacher unions can develop comprehensive interconnected strategies to respond to this challenge.

They face extremely well-financed adversaries who have been on a four-decade crusade to downsize the public sector. The Cartel has been patient in fulfilling its grand privatization plans, and it is now adding new members at a consistent rate as other billionaires and multi-millionaires see opportunities to add to their wealth by investing in new businesses that can profit from government entities that will be facilitated by the elected officials whose campaigns they have already funded.

Teacher unions must aggressively recruit more allies, as their adversaries are doing to their free market ideology, based on the strength of their message of equity and commitment to our democracy. That was the basis of the Democrats’ midterm victories. That approach needs to be upgraded and expanded among unions, their members, and their staffs. And all of these plans must be contextualized within the current political and demographic realities. The demographics are on the teachers’ side as the emerging members of these ethnic and racial groups tend to hold views that complement those of teachers and their unions.

The key is for unions and their staff members to get on the same page in plotting a collective strategy while getting along with each other. The current educational crisis demands that this occurs. Teacher unions have faced sterner tests in the past and have prevailed. They can do so again if they advance a vision that not only critically assesses the problems in contemporary public education but also their multiple links to the corporate sector. Public education is far too important for its unions, staff, teachers, and their allies to turn against each other. We cannot give the Cartel that victory.

At the same time, teachers and unions must hold the Democratic Party accountable for advancing pro-public education policy.

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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