Teachers unions tackle social justice to improve schools, communities

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At a June 9 rally to promote the CTU's contract demands, community groups and other unions joined in, including the Amalgamated Transit Workers (pictured here).

Photo by Max Herman

At a June 9 rally to promote the CTU's contract demands, community groups and other unions joined in, including the Amalgamated Transit Workers (pictured here).

On a spring afternoon, a scene unfolded outside a Wells Fargo bank in Minnesota that bore a striking resemblance to events here in Chicago.

Joining a group of community activists, the head of the Saint Paul teachers union spoke up at a press conference outside the bank. While others talked about predatory lending practices that fueled the nation’s housing crisis, Denise Rodriguez had a different message: She urged banks to think about families with school children – particularly families of color — and stop foreclosing on their homes during the school year.

The Chicago Teachers Union has gained a reputation for organizing alongside community groups over broader social justice issues of race and class. Now, from Saint Paul to Los Angeles, more teachers unions are following their lead and embracing a similar progressive model. That model includes building developing relationships with community groups and other unions and taking broader issues that impact their students’ lives to the bargaining table.

In some measure, the shift has made its way higher, to the national level of both major teacher unions.

“We’ve always worked in isolation historically. We wouldn’t talk to anybody else,” says Rodriguez, president of the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers. “Now there’s this notion across the country that you can work better together with other community groups and go on the offense for the common good.”

The strategies, part of what labor scholars call social movement unionism, got renewed cache during the Chicago Teachers Union strike of 2012. Then, thousands of teachers marched in the streets with an unexpectedly high level of public support.

“You can’t underestimate the impact of the Chicago strike,” says Stephen Ashby, who teaches labor studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and worked closely with the CTU during the previous negotiations. “The teachers [in Chicago] have really been teachers to other unions.”

Jackson Potter, the CTU’s staff coordinator, says the trend “connects to the natural tendencies of teachers to want to have an impact on the lives of their students and communities.”

In Potter’s view, the very future of teachers unions depends whether they can work alongside parents and community members to fight for a larger goal of changing “the dynamics of wealth inequality and budget cuts and the increasing opportunity gap that exists, the school-to-prison pipeline, and the massive inequalities [teachers] see every day when they teach.”

Pedro Noguera, professor of education at New York University, says the union’s social justice strategy and bridge-building with communities is “an interesting and important development.”

“Their only way of countering the attacks that have been coming at teachers is by deepening the degree of support, which means… that what’s good for teachers has to also be good for kids,” Noguera says. “And they have to be able to make clear that their agenda is about improving schools, improving the education children receive, as well as improving conditions for teachers.”

Chicago Teachers Union bargaining team members listen to parents express their primary concerns at a forum sponsored by Parents 4 Teachers at Luther Memorial Lutheran Church on May 19, 2015.

Photo by Grace Donnelly

Chicago Teachers Union bargaining team members listen to parents express their primary concerns at a forum sponsored by Parents 4 Teachers at Luther Memorial Lutheran Church.

A national movement

Since the CTU’s progressive Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) took over the union’s leadership in 2010, CORE members have helped organize a loose network of about 20 similar teacher caucuses across the country. The caucuses share ideas and support each other on issues from encouraging parents to opt their children out of standardized tests to forming partnerships with community groups.

Only a few of these caucus members have actually won the presidency of their union locals. But their influence is being felt both locally and nationally, which is a victory in itself, says Michelle Gunderson, a teacher at Nettelhorst Elementary and active CORE member.

“It would be really foolhardy of us to think that we can take over the [national] teachers unions, but what we can hope for is to push them in terms of raising consciousness, making arguments and framing analyses,” says Gunderson, who helped lead a panel discussion on social justice unionism at an education conference earlier this year.

The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association both note that they are shifting toward a broader approach, while still paying attention to traditional “bread and butter” issues that directly impact members, like salaries and benefits.

“The NEA is participating in work that’s really redefining bargaining to be for the common good,” says NEA organizing director Secky Fascione. “We see this as a time when it’s no longer enough to be a fabulous classroom teacher. You also have to be an advocate for great public schools. And you do that as a member and partner of communities and parents.”

Fascione says young members in the NEA’s ranks are increasingly interested in social justice issues, particularly around the anti-testing movement. Meanwhile, AFT President Randi Weingarten pointed to her union’s work on community and economic development in McDowell, Va, where it has partnered with business, foundations, government and nonprofit agencies to find ways to improve educational and economic outcomes in the community. The AFT has started a similar effort in Chicago’s North Kenwood-Oakland neighborhood.

“What’s happened with the CTU was a revolution. For us it’s been more of an evolution,” Weingarten says. “There’s always been a social justice component. Sometimes it’s more vibrant, sometimes it’s less vibrant. What I love about what the CTU has done is it has actually shown that you can be about justice and economic change and professionalism at the same time.”

Union critics, however, say that unions aren’t working in the best interests of children and social justice.

In last year’s landmark Vergara vs. California court decision, a judge ruled that some of teachers’ traditional job protections such as tenure violated the constitutional rights of the state’s neediest children. The ruling won’t go into effect until appeals are settled.

The case was filed on behalf of a number of low-income students of color, who argued that they did not receive a quality education because they were stuck with bad teachers. Job protections that made these teachers difficult to fire had a disparate effect on these children, a state court found.

“This idea that social justice is something that’s owned by the teachers unions and that part of the left got blown out of the water by Vergara,” says Cynara Lilly, of the non-profit group behind the lawsuit, Students Matter.

In some ways, Lily says, the Vergara case “sort of divided the Democratic Party. For a lot of people, social justice is what drew them to the party. But the traditional left and unions don’t actually stand on the side of social justice.”

Drumming up support

In Chicago, the teachers union has gotten pushback from the district for some of its demands that are not negotiable in the contract, such as a moratorium on new charter schools and fewer standardized tests. CTU has held three community forums to explain to parents and residents what’s involved with current negotiations. The goal is to set the public framework around the issues and drum up support.

In Saint Paul, negotiations took a similar broad turn two years ago. The union went beyond seeking raises and smaller class sizes to push for more counselors, social workers and other support professionals to help students. Some of those issues were not negotiable in the contract.

Still, Denise Rodriguez says, the union successfully pressured the Board of Education to pass a resolution on staffing commitments. “It became a public document, and now we get regular updates on staffing numbers, which we didn’t get before,” she says. “We still managed to discuss things we weren’t supposed to discuss.” (Negotiations on a new contract will get under way this fall.)

In Los Angeles, a progressive caucus that won the union elections last year borrowed the CTU’s rallying cry from the 2012 strike for its own contract proposals, billing them as “The Schools L.A. Children Deserve.” The name comes from “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve,” a report issued by the CTU that year about inequities in school resources. Other teachers unions have also adopted the idea.

This year in L.A., when the possibility of a strike was seriously raised, the Unified Teachers of Los Angeles organized a bus tour of the district so reporters and community members could see overcrowded schools and other adverse conditions. The union had been loudly pushing not only for double-digit pay raises, but also for the hiring of thousands of additional teachers and support personnel in order to reduce class sizes.

In the end, the union ratified a three-year contract that includes 10-percent raises but no promises on hiring more teachers.

In Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association and other public sector unions lost nearly all of their bargaining powers in 2011 with the passage of Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10.

The law forced unions to drastically rethink how they operate and to stop seeing the enforcement of a contract as their only job, says MTEA President Bob Peterson. His union has lost membership, as educators now get to choose whether to join and pay dues. Now, Peterson says, union leaders and staff have to be “much more conscientious about whether we’re providing a value to our membership, because we have to sell membership.”

Even so, the union has recently scored wins–some with the help of public pressure on the district–that improved conditions for both children and teachers. Kindergartners now have staggered start dates, to give teachers time to establish relationships with small groups of children at the beginning of the school year.  Kindergarten students also now have 45 minutes of play time each day. Teachers have flexibility on how they can use planning time.

“It’s because of our mass actions and the threat of mass actions that we’ve been able to improve some of the teaching and working conditions,” Peterson says.

Facing a new challenge

Though Chicago’s 2012 strike sowed the seeds for stronger union influence locally and across the country, it’s not at all certain that a strike this year would garner the same support.

Many union delegates say that teachers just seem more tired now.

“I don’t know if it’s all the testing, or what,” explained one delegate who showed up to a June 9 union rally alone, unable to convince any of her coworkers to join her.

Somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 educators and supporters attended the rally; some insiders considered that a good turnout considering the slow pace of the negotiations. A May 2012 rally that had been timed to drum up energy for a strike vote had drawn between 5,000 and 10,000 attendees.

Other delegates say they wish the union leadership was less combative with the district and more focused on the traditional “bread and butter” issues.

Marcia Brown-Wiliams, a former delegate and teacher who retired last year, says she worries the CTU is more concerned “not so much about protecting membership in the way they need to be protected, but in making this grand political statement.”

There are other challenges, such as reaching and educating new members who weren’t around in 2012. A Catalyst Chicago analysis of CTU rosters indicates that about one in five current teachers and paraprofessionals were not employed by the district at the time of the 2012 strike.

Gunderson, the Nettelhorst teacher and CORE leader, says internal organizing of and messaging to rank-and-file members is a constant challenge, but an important one. It’s tough to say how many union members share CTU leaders’ vision, she adds.

“Eight hundred delegates get exposed at meetings. That’s how the message gets out,” Gunderson says. “We have to depend on the democracy we put in place. That can be messy.”

Buttons for sale at a CTU community contract forum on the North Side sponsored by Parents 4 Teachers at Luther Memorial Lutheran Church on May 19, 2015.

Photo by Grace Donnelly

Buttons promoting parent support of the CTU for sale at a May community forum held by the union and sponsored by Parents 4 Teachers.

  • ABL

    This is the winning solution. Building coalitions with other community groups bring our public schools to a new high level. It isn’t about me, it is about we!

    • BillyRay999

      it’s about acting like you are doing something when in reality you aren”t doing anything but running your mouth

  • Front Row

    Noble is requesting 50 million to build three new CPS schools. Rhambo got on Chicago Tonight to claim “there is no money for pensions.” Plenty of money for the profiteers for charter schools and no money for humans.

    • BillyRay999

      public schools and teachers get PLENTY of money. do’blame charter schools, for your own failures.

  • BillyRay999

    here’s an idea, why don’t teachers tackle TEACHING! oh right, that would mean doing the job most are unqualified for in the first place

  • Northside

    Billy bully are you saying that you know all the teachers and their job performamce…can you provide some.documentation …also are teachers supposed to teach for free

  • xian

    Sorry that some posters can’t type and chew gum at the same time.

    Doing social justice organizing has helped make many of us life-changingly good teachers. How do I know? The constant stream of messages from former students. 😀

    (And before people say this lack humility, tell the trolls to stop attacking teachers and we won’t have to blow them up with reality.)