Last summer in Denver at the annual meeting of the NEA I had the good fortune of having dinner with Barbara Madeloni who had just recently been elected president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association.
Barbara is the kind of union leader we need right now.
This morning I had barely finished my coffee and wrote my blog post when the phone rang and it was my pal Glen Brown.
“You read my post yet, Klonsky?”
“Uh. No Glen. Still writing mine,” I laughed.
“Well, read it. This is what we need in the IEA,” said Glen.
Glen has it reposted on his blog.
Or you can go to In These Times.
In 2012, when the Massachusetts Teachers Association was under different leadership, the education reform group Stand for Children threatened a ballot referendum to take away teachers’ seniority rights. The union did not inform the membership, much less mobilize it. It never tried attempted to build the rank-and-file’s collective capacity to resist.
Instead the president and vice-president engaged in secret backroom negotiations with Stand for Children. When the board of directors first learned about this — thanks to persistent questioning by a handful of board members — the president insisted that the entire discussion take place in executive session; board members were forbidden to tell the rank-and-file what was going on.
Eventually a deal was negotiated, removing some of the worst features of the ballot measure, but with the union agreeing to dramatically weaken the impact of seniority in layoffs and transfers, which were now to be governed by “the best interests of the child” – a phrase that could mean practically anything. The union’s mantra, heard often under the old leadership, was “it could have been worse.”
The custom in the Massachusetts Teachers Association is for the sitting vice-president to ascend to the presidency. But something strange happened in May: Madeloni, a rank-and-file progressive activist, was elected president in the most stunning election upset in the union’s history.
When the teacher re-licensure proposal was unveiled last month, Madeloni did not initiate backroom negotiations and seek an orderly retreat; she immediately and decisively opposed the new licensure proposal, and gave an eager membership ways to act.
More than five thousand members sent emails, and two rallies were scheduled, with buses rented and members signed up to attend the last two of DESE’s “Town Hall” meetings for their proposal. Instead of choosing which bad option to support, the campaign was titled “None of the Above.”
Three weeks after the MTA campaign began, the DESE completely caved. A letter from Chester announced, “In short, we are rescinding the draft options that link licensure to educator evaluation.”An impressive victory for teachers and the union, although we worry that, vampire-like, some form of this will be brought forward again as soon as DESE and corporate reformers think we are napping.
And while the proposal has been defeated in Massachusetts, similar proposals may be coming to other states. In 2012, the Council of Chief State School Officers released a report on teacher licensure that implicitly promised another focused on re-licensure.
The report stated it was being issued “to all chief state school officers to sound a clarion that current policies and practices for entry into the education profession are not sufficient,”adding that “While the focus of this report is on new teachers and principals, future reports will address the need for additional preparation of veteran teachers and principals.” Clearly the states coordinate, and announced their intention to address teacher re-licensure; the Massachusetts’ proposal appears to be an opening shot in this effort.
So what can others learn from the victory in Massachusetts? Why was the union’s victory so complete and so swift?
First and most importantly, the union leadership made it clear that it was prepared to fight, and that it was not looking for a minor backroom concession. Second, the union jumped on the issue immediately. The proposal was released on a Monday, and by Friday the union had developed background information, had material on its website, and had sent an email to all members with steps to take to oppose the new licensure proposal. Third, the membership was weary of backroom deals and was ready for a fight. The rank-and-file responded by the thousands, and local unions were gearing up to get every member to weigh in on the issue.
Fourth, this was an issue that unified the membership. Every teacher knew that her license, her teaching career, was in jeopardy. Fifth, the powers-that-be had never confronted a teachers union leadership and membership prepared to fight (in fact, spoiling for a fight). For the past many years, whenever teachers were threatened the union entered negotiations to plan an orderly retreat. The DESE probably expected the same “let’s make a deal” response this time, and were caught by surprise by the strength of the response.
Finally, Madeloni made it clear that the union was not going to compromise; we were going to fight until we won, and the campaign that started strong was building momentum throughout the three weeks it took to win.
In fighting similar corporate reform measures around the country, teachers can’t assume a mobilized base and progressive leadership will always secure a comparable victory. There are structural constraints that sheer militancy can’t overcome. But it’s certainly a precondition for success.
Read the entire In These Times article here.