Are Teachers Unions Fighting for Social Justice? (1/2)

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In the first of a two-part discussion, education professor and author Lois Weiner and the AFT-MD’s Ray Baker discuss the role teachers unions and their members do and can play in supporting #Blacklivesmatter and other social justice movements

Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

Today we’ll look at a really interesting question: what role can and should unions overall, and specifically teachers’ unions, play in today’s society? We’re now joined by two guests who are uniquely positioned to answer those questions. We’re joined by Ray Baker. He’s the director of communications at the AFT Maryland, and Lois Weiner. Lois is a longtime teacher union advocate, director of urban education in the Teacher Unionism Policy Project at New Jersey City University, author of a number of books, most recently The Future Of Our Schools, and she’s held three different elected posts at unions across the country. Thanks both of you for joining us.

So Lois, let’s start by talking about your recent piece. In it you say that teachers’ unions can’t sit on the sidelines when it comes to the issues of social justice, and you talk specifically about the movement for black lives, which has been a massive wave around the country. And it’s raised critical issues, important to every American, but issues that have been neglected for far too long.

LOIS WEINER: Well, let me start off by clarifying that I’m a professor of education, and I teach education. And being director of the policy project is part of my responsibilities now as a professor of education. But I was also a career teacher for 15 years. And during those 15 years I was active as a member and then elected officer in three different union locals.

So it’s really based on research and my experience that I argue in my writing that teachers’ unions have to be transformed. That it’s not just a matter of their adopting a social justice issue, passing paper resolutions or writing letters in support of the social justice issue. That the unions have to, and union members, have to understand that the union’s job is to fight for social justice. And that the responsibilities that the union has towards members are embedded in the unions’ understanding that social justice is its business. That its business is not just winning improvement in wages and working conditions, which are very important to us, to make sure that teaching is a profession. And I think that teaching has to be a profession and a career that we advocate, but that an issue like racial justice is just as much a union issue as a pension is.

And that’s really the argument I make in this, in what I’m writing. And in the piece you refer to that was in the Jacobin on Labor Day. So I’m very critical of the unions as they now exist, and I think that it’s not enough for us to blame leaders, and to say individual leaders are at fault for the state of the unions. That the real problem is that members understand the union as being a business. And we shouldn’t understand it as being a business. We should understand the union as being a social movement. And as soon as we change what the union stands for and what members expect of it then we understand that it is unions who–it is members who own the union. It is not leaders who tell union members what to do. It is members who own the union who tell the leadership what to do.

So in my opinion, I’m a member of the AFT, American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, who is the president, works for me. But my will as a union member has to be expressed collectively, through the democratic processes of the union.

NOOR: And Ray, your thoughts? Obviously unionism in general and especially teachers’ unions are under a lot of pressure these days. There’s charter schools. Maryland does have a very progressive charter school law, it’s unique in many ways. Charters remain unionized. But there is a lot of pressure today for teachers’ unions, from all sides, really. Your thoughts.

RAY BAKER: Absolutely. And I think the point–to go back about–the point about social justice is of the utmost importance. And I think that the will of the members will always be exemplified whenever we see union action. Ideally that’s what happened. And I’m really proud of AFT Maryland and the Baltimore teachers’ union, which we represent. Because more often than not we see the will of the members represented. Particularly in the work we do in the wake of some of the unrest we’ve had here in Baltimore and the Black Lives Matter movement across the nation as a whole.

To your point about charter schools and unions being under attack. On every front we see the least of these, in Biblical terms, being under attack by capital, by wealth, by larger institutions that look to swallow them up for privatization, for profit, for a number of reasons. I think it’s up to many citizens who believe in the ideas of fairness, of justice, and equality to make sure that they fight back against that. That’s in all walks of life, but particularly our unions. And I think that’s something that we see here in Maryland.

NOOR: And Lois, so I wanted to get your response to Ray. And what, what would you–what remedies or what would you, what actions would you like unions to be taking?

WEINER: Well, look, I don’t think it’s the case that the will of the membership is represented in most unions in this country, and I think that the teachers’ unions are no exception. So the criticisms that I have of the teachers’ unions are the same criticisms I have of labor in this country in general. And when somebody, when the union leadership, makes the case that the will of the members is represented I always want to ask, how did that happen? What does the union constitution say? Where did the votes occur? If it’s a contract vote I always want to know how long did members see the contract before they were asked to vote on it? Did members actually see the language that was going to be in the contract, or did they see a summary of the language that six people in a room presented to them? And when you ask those hard questions and you really examine closely the processes of union democracy, I think what we see in most cases is that the unions are very weak where it counts the most. And where does it count the most? It counts the most on the school level.

And so my question is always, how often do unions have meetings in the school level? How many members attend? Right? Is there a newsletter? Are union officers in touch with parents? Are union officers and are union members working with students about the issues that really affect the school community. So I’m looking for the union to not only represent the voices of teachers on economic issues. I’m looking for indications, for evidence, that the union has brought democracy to the school site, because that to me is the role of the union. The union plants the seeds of democracy, because union officials are elected and because it should be a democratic organization. But we have to go beyond understanding teachers having a voice and understand the role of the union in making sure that that voice is heard on the school site, at the school site, at the school level.

And in addition I want to say that the other criticism that I have of the teachers’ unions, and again this is not just the teachers’ unions but it’s labor in general, is that, you know, we need to say honestly to people that public education is not going to solve the problems in any city, or this country. You know, community schools and charter schools are not going to solve the problem of poverty in Baltimore. We need jobs. We need good jobs for everybody, and it’s the job of the teachers’ unions to fight in the labor movement, to demand that the government create good jobs. Good, sustainable jobs.

That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be doing more to improve what happens in schools. Obviously we should. I wouldn’t be a professor of education if I didn’t believe that teacher quality counted. But teacher quality is not going to solve the problem of poverty. Education is not the one true path out of poverty which Arne Duncan and Obama have said it is.

NOOR: Which is what corporate reformers–that’s what they say. The charter school proponents–.

WEINER: That’s exactly what they say.

NOOR: They say that privatization and charter schools can get people out of poverty.

WEINER: And obviously we should be doing–we should be doing things better. We have to address the historic inequalities in public education. I think the unions, including teachers’ unions, need to acknowledge their historic complicity in that history of racial inequality. And they have to put that on the table to communities of color–.

NOOR: Well, Lois, that’s a lot–you’ve gone through several points there. I want to give chance, give Ray a chance to respond.

BAKER: I don’t think that anything that she’s said thus far has been wrong. I think there’s value in everything she says. But I also would like to parallel it much to what Rev. Joseph Lowery says when he talks about America versus black America. He says, if America has a cold, black America has pneumonia. If America stubs its toe, black America has broken its foot.

And so some of the points that Lois is making about the democratization of unions, about what’s being heard, what are members doing to call on their leadership, how is leadership being responsive to the union, that’s, that’s a microcosm just in our labor sector about what we’re seeing across the United States. There’s a legitimate and meaningful argument to be had across the United States about greater participation in our democracy. Greater participation and accountability from our elected officials. And so I think that the points that she’s making, valid on all fronts, are consistent throughout what we’re seeing in the United States. And I’m sure the professor does not–but we can’t take these things in a vacuum, outside of the world that we live in, the nation that we live in. And so there are legitimate criticisms about those places.

Now, with regard to specific labor unions as a whole, and teachers’ unions, I think that there may be exceptions to every rule, right? And that’s not to ignore the rule, the pattern, the trajectory of the things that are. But there are some spaces where particularly some members are speaking up and hearing their voices heard, or able to air their disagreements with leadership in such a way that they feel confident that their point has been heard. But ultimately every labor union–and I’m saying this confidently, and I would like to think that our brothers and sisters in labor throughout the nation feel this way–they want the democracy and unions to be as full and robust as possible.

And I think, one of the points I wanted to bring up that she mentioned was the role of education not being necessarily this vehicle to ending all, be-all, end-all of poverty, right. And I, I–unfortunately in the United States so often we face these either false binaries or false dualities, right. There’s either good guy, bad guy, left-right, up-down, where when we try to find solutions–and some of the corporate reformers you mentioned kind of particularly seem to go towards this, there’s either do you want this, this, the neighborhood school where you may have some criticism? Or do you want me, the corporate reformer, to come in and change things? Where Maryland, as you alluded to earlier with this progressive charter law, is a space where we can allow and embrace the nuance. Because more often than not we find our answers lying within that nuance. And again, this is true for every sector of United States life, but particularly in our spaces of education.

NOOR: Okay. Well, this wraps up our first segment, but we’re going to talk more about what’s happening in Baltimore, the movement for black lives, student groups that are taking the forefront and demanding social and racial justice here. I want to thank you both for joining us for part one.

WEINER: Thank you.

BAKER: Thank you.

NOOR: Thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.

End

DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.