The Attack on Teachers and Their Unions

In February 2010, the school board in Central Falls, Rhode Island, the poorest and most densely populated city in the state, voted to fire all 93 teachers and staff at the city’s only high school because it was allegedly “failing.”

On March 1, 2010, speaking before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, President Obama cited this mass firing as a model of how to hold schools and teachers “accountable.” The local school board was actually following one of four “turnaround” models the administration has put forward for districts to get a share of the School Improvement Grant – separate and apart from Race to the Top.

Seven months later in Washington, D.C., Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, hero to education reformers everywhere, fired 241 teachers, almost all of them because of poor evaluations based on test scores. She warned another 737 deemed to be “minimally effective” that they had a year to improve before they were fired as well. Altogether, almost a fourth of the entire unionized D.C. teaching workforce was fired or put on notice.

Who is to Blame?

The idea of wholesale firings of teachers is the logical product of the “education reform” agenda that is now going into overdrive under the Obama administration. The advocates of “reform” focus on “bad schools” and “bad teachers” as the root causes of why children from poor communities don’t achieve their potential. Their solution is to close the bad schools and fire the bad teachers. And in their eyes, a large proportion of teachers, especially the veterans, are indeed bad and need to go. As an angry teacher blogger, Mrs. Mimi, wrote after the mass firing in Rhode Island was announced, “The line of argument here is that someone must be fired and since we can’t fire poverty, parents, or children, teachers are the only suckers standing.”

The attack on teachers is a classic attempt to misdirect the understandable anger of millions of working-class parents and students at the state of their local public schools. Of course all kids deserve a great education in a safe environment with motivated teachers. But the state of education is symptomatic of the underlying problems in society, not the cause of it. What is the reason for the massive increase in inequality in American society over the past 30 years or the millions of jobs lost and millions of homes foreclosed during the current economic crisis?

To reiterate the point made at the beginning of this pamphlet, unemployment is hitting young people particularly hard at the same time that rapidly rising tuition in state college systems is putting college beyond the reach of many working-class youth. Then there is the rapidly rising number of homeless children and children living in shelters. These are the factors that are really destroying the future opportunities of young people. What ails American society and its schools is the diseased system of capitalism, not teachers who, in truth, are overwhelmingly hard-working and dedicated to helping children succeed.

Furthermore, it is obscene for America’s ruling class, which is responsible for an economic disaster which is inevitably hitting women, racial minorities and the poor hardest, to launch an attack on a profession which has historically provided a means of advancement for working-class women in particular.

The Future Education Workforce?

It is already the case in many cities that up to half of teachers do not make it past their fifth year. The reformers want to reduce the proportion of veterans even further while keeping a layer of highly paid “lead teachers” who will “mentor” the drastically overworked, high-turnover remainder. This is despite the already mentioned research that shows that it takes at least five years to mold an effective teacher. The new model for the education workforce is already in operation in charter schools, which are overwhelmingly non-union and where teachers are routinely expected to work ten or more hours a day and to come in on Saturdays. In this scenario, benefits like pensions become meaningless for most teachers because they will never work long enough to receive one. Raising a family of your own while working as a teacher will also be impossible.

Reporter Juan Gonzalez, of the New York Daily News and Democracy Now!, who has exposed many of the false claims about charters recently declared, “One of the things that has struck me as I look at their various audited financial statements is that, generally speaking, the pay levels of the teachers in the charter schools are far lower than

they are for normal public school teachers, but the pay of the executives of the charter schools is far higher.” This shows how the charter schools fit right into the corporate agenda of reducing overall expenditure on education despite the large sums being invested in some charters today.

Programs like Teach for America (TfA), so beloved by education reformers, are also part of the union-busting cost-cutting agenda. Teach for America, which recruits particularly at elite colleges, and the New Teacher Project, generally known as Teaching Fellows, have recruited tens of thousands of young people and sent them into schools in poor communities. According to Teach for America, in 2007 they received more than 18,000 applications, resulting in 2,900 new corps members. These applicants included “11 percent of the senior classes at Amherst and Spelman; 10 percent of those at University of Chicago and Duke; and more than eight percent of the graduating seniors at Notre Dame, Princeton and Wellesley.”

While there is no doubting the enthusiasm and idealism of large numbers of the Teach for America recruits, for the bulk of the young people involved their connection with teaching ends after those two years. Of course some of the TfA and Teaching Fellow recruits stay in teaching and those who do tend to become pro-union over time, based on their experience. But for a section of upper-middle-class youth, teaching has become a form of national service, like a domestic equivalent of the Peace Corps. Ironically, the TfA recruits receive grants from the federal AmeriCorps program.

Rarely is it asked what message it sends to young people to have this type of teacher workforce. Having very enthusiastic young people teach your children sounds like and is a good idea but having half your teachers disappear every year because they have been worked into the ground or deemed to be “poorly performing” based on test scores is not good for students. A staff that is diverse both racially and in terms of life and teaching experience and that has real links with the community they work in is clearly preferable.

To come back to the case of Central Falls High School, there is no doubt that it was performing poorly in various ways. However, it is worth noting that none other than the Rhode Island Education Commissioner had actually cited the school for improvement in reading and writing in a 2009 report. Even from the point of view of the twisted logic of “accountability,” does anyone believe that all 93 staff members were “failing”? Not the community, which rallied around the teachers.

The chilling message of this mass firing, however, is that if a teacher chooses to teach in a poor community where the challenges and the possibilities of failure are greater, he or she is putting their career on the line. This is especially so in a system that measures success almost entirely in terms of test scores. On the other hand, the jobs of those teaching in better schools in better-off communities are more secure.

In the end the Central Falls teachers got their jobs back, but they did this only by accepting a whole package of concessions they had originally refused and, of course, only after many months of being derided in the national media. They are expected to be “grateful” for this outcome, and in the current economic climate many are undoubtedly relieved. The Washington, D.C. teachers, however, are unlikely to get their jobs back anytime soon.

The Crisis Within the Teachers’ Unions

It is utterly clear that a core aim of the education reformers is to destroy or significantly reduce the power of the teachers’ unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). The NEA is far larger, but the importance of the AFT is that it represents teachers in many of the biggest cities in the country, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles. In recent times the NEA has been generally somewhat more militant. For example, they had a more forceful position against NCLB under Bush. However, both unions worked very hard for Obama’s election, both initially supported Race to the Top, and both were clearly surprised by the ferocity of the attack from Arne Duncan.

Before the Central Falls mass firing, the leadership of the teacher unions – especially Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT – were busy ignoring all the warning signs. Weingarten talked continually about working together with the Obama administration in the vain hope they could be won over to a nicer, gentler approach. In January 2010 she went so far as to unveil her own plan for how to make removing “bad teachers” easier.

Another example of how far the AFT leadership in particular has been willing to go in compromising with the education reformers is the series of sellout contracts they have endorsed in the past period. An early example was the New Haven, Connecticut, teachers’ contract, ratified in late 2009, which provided for school-wide bonuses – a major step toward merit pay – as well as the use of test data in teacher evaluations. In addition, “failing” schools could be quickly closed and re-opened as charters with no guarantee that teachers at these schools could keep their positions. Both Weingarten and Duncan hailed this rotten deal. Weingarten told The Wall Street Journal, “I rarely say that something is a model or template for something else, but [the New Haven agreement] is both,” (10/17/2009).

But events moved at such a pace that even a few months later this sellout looked tame. In June 2010 the Washington, D.C., Teachers Union ratified a contract that Weingarten played a direct role in negotiating which helped lay the basis, a few weeks later, for the wholesale firings described earlier. In exchange for significant salary increases and a merit pay program that can add $20,000 to $30,000 to teachers’ base pay, the contract gutted tenure and seniority rights, already significantly eroded in D.C. According to The Washington Post, the contract “allows principals to use performance, instead of seniority, as the chief determinant when reducing staff due to declining enrollment or program changes,” (6/30/2010). For the first three years, the pay raises and merit pay bonuses are being financed – to the tune of $65 million! – by the anti union Walton and Eli Broad foundations.

Contrary to the relentless propaganda of the corporate media, strong teachers’ unions are essential not just for the defense of teachers’ rights but also for the defense of students’ rights. Teachers are an important voice in working-class communities. They can be and often are the best advocates for quality education for children. But to play that role, they need to be able to speak out about conditions in schools. Historically, the ability of teachers to be outspoken and stand up to pressure from administrators and principals has been tied to their right to have a union and a strong union contract.

Without using seniority as the means for determining who will be laid off, a union’s power is drastically reduced. Without seniority, management will find ways to get rid of workers they don’t like, including union activists. And, to reiterate, getting rid of union activists in the schools will mean not just that teachers won’t be able to defend themselves against abusive management, but that they will be afraid to speak out or blow the whistle on lack of supplies, overcrowding, incessant test prep, lack of appropriate services for students with special needs: i.e., all the issues that affect students.

In Washington, D.C., it can be confidently predicted that many principals will now give the teachers they dislike – or union activists – the most difficult classes in order to lower their “performance” so that they can be either fired or weeded out in periodical staff reductions.

If this seems like an extreme conclusion, look at Providence, Rhode Island. The Providence Teachers Union, an AFT affiliate was, according to Labor Notes, “one of the foremost advocates of the ‘collaborative’ approach to teacher-management relations,” (2/26/2011). In February the city’s mayor announced that all of the city’s 1,926 public school teachers would be fired at the end of the school year. Providence teachers have become used to receiving hundreds of layoff notices each year in the knowledge that they would almost all be back at work in the fall. But the difference between the dismissal and layoff procedure is that in the latter case priority is given to seniority. With dismissals, the fired teachers have to reapply for their jobs, seniority can be ignored, and principals have far greater discretion. This is the thanks Providence teachers get for their union’s “collaborative approach.”

Attacks Intensify

What Michelle Rhee got at the bargaining table in Washington, D.C., others began seeking to push through state legislatures in 2010, with the very active support of many prominent Democrats. Race to the Top, as detailed in the last chapter, represented an enormous intensification of the education reform offensive. It is therefore a major threat to the teachers’ unions. Besides using the hysteria created by the RTTT “competition” to pass measures raising charter school caps and tying teacher evaluations to test scores, education reformers in many states pushed for tying tenure to test scores and getting rid of seniority in district-wide layoffs or staff reductions at individual schools.

However, the attacks intensified after the November 2010 elections, which resulted in the election of a number of right-wing, Tea Party-backed governors, especially in the Midwest. In 18 states, most notoriously Wisconsin, bills were introduced directly attacking public sector unions through restricting or eliminating collective bargaining rights, setting constitutional limits on the size of the government workforce or eliminating defined benefit pensions. In 12 states, right-to-work laws were introduced, (Labor Notes, 3/8/2011). Such laws prohibit unions from negotiating “closed shops” where everyone in the bargaining unit is required to join the union or at least to pay “agency” fees if they are not union members but still benefiting from union-negotiated contracts.

Public sector workers and their supporters organized militant protests against these attacks in states from Idaho to Ohio to New Jersey to Maine. In Wisconsin the protests turned into a full-scale eruption from below. Teachers, inspired by student protests, played a key role by taking unofficial “sick-out” strike action, which escalated for several days across the state in February. At the height, over 30 school districts were closed down. This strike action was decisive in escalating the protests, solidifying the occupation of the capitol building, and persuading 14 Democratic state senators to leave the state so that there wouldn’t be a quorum and Walker’s bill couldn’t be passed.

While the national media focused on the attack on collective bargaining rights which, indeed, amounted to outright union-busting, it is important to understand that Governor Walker’s so-called “Budget Repair Bill” also included massive cuts to public education and social services as well as forcing public sector workers to pay far more toward their pensions and health benefits. It is estimated that this amounted to a 7 percent pay cut for public sector workers. Incredibly, both the Democrats and the national trade union leaders – including Randy Weingarten – were fine with this massive pay cut and all the other cuts. It appears that the top union leadership doesn’t care as long as the dues base is left intact and the Democrats don’t care as long as the public sector unions are still able to pour money into their coffers and turn out volunteers to get out the vote.

Of course, on a national level the Democrats were falling over each other to attack Scott Walker and to talk about how “union rights are human rights.” But, at the same time, Democratic governors and state legislators in a number of states have pushed through or helped push through attacks on public sector workers and teachers almost as bad as those carried out by the Tea Party governors. In Massachusetts, the Democrat-controlled State House voted to strip public sector workers of the ability to bargain over health care. In New Jersey, key Democratic legislators went along with a similar proposal from right-wing Republican Governor Chris Christie that included forcing workers to pay far more toward their pensions and health care, just like in Wisconsin.

In Illinois, a bill was introduced by Democrats, passed by the Democrat-controlled legislature with only one vote against, and signed by a Democratic governor that undermines teachers’ collective bargaining rights as well as the right to strike and seniority protection. One can only conclude that the Democrats used Scott Walker and the Tea Party as cover for their own anti-union, anti-worker attacks.

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, Walker and the Republican legislators used unconstitutional maneuvers to push the bill through on March 9. After being held up by legal challenges, it became law on June 14. What could have been done to stop this? At the beginning of March, as Socialist Alternative reported, there was massive support among union members in Wisconsin for the idea of a public sector general strike.

But the national union leaders intervened decisively to prevent this happening, instead channeling the movement’s energy into campaigns to recall individual Republican state senators. As we pointed out, “the fact that the courts and elections became a central strategy of the movement meant we were basing ourselves on the distant hopes that newly elected politicians will reverse Walker’s agenda while we stall them in the courts. Instead, recalls should have been part of a strategy focused on opposition to all cuts, running independent working-class candidates and a clear emphasis on mass action, including strikes and direct actions,” (“Wisconsin: Lessons from a Historic Struggle,”

At this point there is massive demoralization in Wisconsin as workers face the reality that their living standards are slashed and they will have no protection on the job if their unions are decertified. Unions will now have to recertify every year with over 50 percent of the entire workforce voting in favor, not just 50 percent of those voting.

The leaders of the two biggest public sector unions in Wisconsin, AFSCME and the AFT, have declared their intention not to recertify. Scandalously, Bryan Kennedy, President of AFT-Wisconsin, said: “We may just continue to be a membership organization that advocates for all sorts of things,” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 5/6/11).

This would mean that AFSCME and the AFT would effectively cease to be unions and become nothing more than lobbying groups for the Democratic Party. Even unions that are attempting recertification, such as the Wisconsin Education Association Council, have no clear strategy to carry it out.

But while Wisconsin trade unionists are now absorbing the effect of a bitter defeat, there are further battles coming and the experience they went through early this year will be invaluable. The key thing that proven in Wisconsin was that, given a chance, American workers are prepared to fight to defend their rights and to reclaim the militant traditions of the labor movement in this country.

As we have consistently said, the attacks on teachers’ unions were simply the sharp end of an offensive against public sector unions, public education and the public sector generally. Likewise it is now utterly clear that the fate of the teachers’ unions is bound up with that of public sector unions and, indeed, the labor movement as a whole.

Fear of Militant Action, Dependence on the Democrats

Central Falls initially appeared to be a wake-up call for the union leadership. The New York Times reported: “Officials at the two unions…were so angry in the hours after Mr. Obama first endorsed the firings that an irreconcilable break with the administration seemed possible, perhaps bruising Democrats’ electoral chances in November. Recognizing how a permanent breach could hurt everyone, however, both sides sought to lower tensions, partly by encouraging a negotiated settlement in Central Falls,” (3/16/10).

But as the article went on to say, neither Obama nor Duncan has since backed off on supporting “tough action, including dismissing teachers en masse, to improve learning conditions at failing schools.” The real problem is the unions’ complete dependence on their relationship with the Democratic Party. For “a few hours” they may have contemplated a partial break but this is so outside their worldview that there was no realistic prospect of them taking that road at this point.

Weingarten’s support for sellout contracts and her apparent willingness to compromise on every aspect of the education reform assault flow from the AFT leadership’s failed strategy of “negotiating concessions” and relying on allegedly friendly politicians, particularly in the Democratic Party, to “do the right thing.” We are told that “negotiating concessions” is better than having them “imposed on us.” In reality, as we have seen, concessions are simply a step to more concessions, and in this environment no concessions short of total surrender would satisfy our enemies. Further, by failing to clearly and publicly take on these attacks on education, the unions are also failing in their role of educating the public and providing an alternative voice to the corporate anti-teacher, anti-public education campaign.

Although the NEA has generally taken a better position on high-stakes testing and RTTT, their leadership has also balked at the radical change in strategy that will be required to put the unions back on their feet and begin to mount a serious resistance to corporate education reform and in defense of public education. Recently they decided to endorse Obama for re-election despite their previous criticisms. It goes to show that despite all the evidence of the bankruptcy of the unions’ “political strategy,” for most of the leaders there simply is no plan B.

And when the membership is clearly ready to go further to resist frontal assaults, as in Wisconsin, the union leaders run away. Tragically, they appear to fear not being able to contain workers’ anger in “safe channels” more than they fear the corporate-inspired attacks.

But while the leadership sells out or dithers, the anger at the base of the teachers’ unions is growing steadily. What is needed is a new national leadership that bases itself on the understanding that working people and the bosses do not have “common interests.” In recent years reform caucuses and leaders have taken charge in a number of locals, including Los Angeles, Chicago and, most recently, Washington, D.C. These new local leaderships have inevitably faced major challenges and setbacks, as will be explained in Chapter 8. However, through this process and through the experience of living struggles, of victories and defeats, union activists will draw wider conclusions, which will lay the basis for bigger breakthroughs in the redevelopment of authentic teacher trade unionism.