By Julie Carson and Matthew Kogan, Teachers, United Teachers Los Angeles (group affiliation added for identification purposes only; this is not an official communication of UTLA)
The standing room only crowd at the AFT convention’s Social Movement Unionism vs. Corporation “Reform” panel discussion held earlier this month demonstrated that many union members are hungry to fight for an alternate narrative to the “corporate reform” agenda and teacher bashing going on in public education today. Teachers squeezed into every corner of the room – every chair was taken, walls were lined with people standing, every inch of floor space was occupied – as the crowd listened attentively to the officers from various unions across the country describe a different kind of unionism that focuses on the inexorable link between the workplace rights of educators and the broader fight for social justice in our communities.
The panel, hosted by United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) and Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), featured the presidents of these two unions, Alex Caputo-Pearl and Karen Lewis respectively, along with Zeph Capo, Vice President of the Houston Federation of Teachers, Jerry Jordan, President, Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, Michael Mulgrew, President, United Federation of Teachers [New York], and Mary Cathryn Ricker, President, St. Paul Federation of Teachers. Each one of these leaders related their union’s success stories about allying with the public to address some community need.
This type of unionism is an opportunity to change the narrative that corporate “reformers” have been selling: that schools are failing, students are failing, teachers are failing, and need resuscitation by invoking a business model that focuses on children as products and schools as profit centers. Instead, it’s about making the connection that community and teachers’ priorities are one and the same. Social justice unionism is a way to find our points of unity around issues of economic justice, racial justice, democracy, and equitable public education, then build upon them to become, as UTLA President Caputo-Pearl stated, a “more effective political force” for our communities and ourselves.
How do we do that?
Teacher unions and those defending public education must assess what tools we have to fight back against the wealthy corporate reform movement. This is an old fight of the few at the top trying to use their wealth to leverage power. The answer to this, as always, is the organizing of the many to defend their own rights and interests. The challenge is organizing. This is where teacher unions occupy a special place and have a unique advantage.
Only teachers’ unions work or live in every community in this country. Teachers might not know all the parents of all their students, but in total they know many – in fact teachers have a relationship with millions of parents and community members. While the corporate reformers perpetually try to alienate teachers from the community, the truth is the priorities of teachers and the communities that they serve are very, very close.
This panel of union leaders made it clear that the fate of teachers’ unions, public education and the interests of the community are one, and our strength is in “bargaining for the public good.” Contrary to popular belief, unions don’t have drawers full of cash or a toolbox full of fancy tools. However, what we do have is our connection with students, parents, and the public (voters). That connection is huge. It felt like for the first time in a long time, we in the union have a clear direction to build on that connection and reinforce our common priorities. Teachers left the room feeling inspired about the fight against those who would use our schools for personal gain and profit over the well being of our communities.