Sunday, December 21, 2014

Badass Book Review: The Future of our Schools, Teachers Unions and Social Justice by Lois Weiner

Badass Book Review: The Future of our Schools, Teachers Unions and Social Justice by Lois Weiner

Since the massive public sector upsurge in the 60's and 70's, teachers unions in the US have been in a long steady decline in power. Only very recently, with the 2012 Chicago teachers strike, have we seen any resurgence in teacher union power. Why is this?

Weiner presents an overview of the pitfalls of teacher unionism and what teachers can do to revive their organizations. For any teacher anywhere, frustrated by the untenable working and teaching conditions we now face, this book is essential reading. She describes the project well in a way any teacher can relate to: "The best way to explain what the union should be is to describe what it should not be, which is like most schools: hierarchical and paternalistic." Sound familiar?

Weiner herself has a long tenure in the teaching profession and with teacher unions. She therefore brings real expertise to an analysis of the history of teacher unionism in the US and the prescription for more effective unions. Key to her understanding is a focus on rank and file activism and social unionism. While she is using US examples and history, the global nature of the education reform movement means that her arguments are really relevant for any teacher, anywhere.

Social unionism is a type of organizing philosophy that contrasts with another historic trend - business unionism. In Weiner's approach, social unionism has two key elements. The first is  to adopt a set of issues and bargaining objectives that reach beyond traditional "bread and butter" demands like wages and pensions. This has traditionally meant objectives such as smaller classes and more recently the fight against standardized testing. She argues, rightly, that in a public sector context, these bridges with the community are essential to creating the social power necessary to win. Weiner writes, "One essential change from what occurred in the 1960s and 1970s is that we must now reach out to allies to ask how they think the union might use its legal and political power, including the right to negotiate legal agreements, to improve schools....It's critical that teachers understand that we are in a greatly weakened position, and parents, students, and community activists are being courted quite seductively by our opponents."

If you are a teacher in the BCTF, you might think we already do this - we are a social justice union. But I believe Weiner is arguing for a more organic and connected form of working together. While we have, in BC, approached bargaining with a view to improved learning conditions, we have not seriously engaged with some objectives that are clearly a high priority for parents, such as playground equipment and seismic upgrades. We have instead sought out parents as allies to our objectives.

The second critical component to social movement unionism (which I think distinguishes it from social justice unionism), is the requirement to have grass-roots, rank and file activism and democratic control of union decision making.

"Often union members assume someone else - anyone else - will run the union, and it will, somehow, continue to exist. Their perception and passivity are supported by the leadership's conception of the union. Perhaps without realizing it, members and leaders accept the "service model" of unionism that predominates in US labour. In this model, sometimes referred to as "business unionism," the union is run like a business and exists to provide services including lower rates for auto insurance; benefits from a welfare fund; pension advice; contract negotiations; and perhaps filing a grievance. Officers or staff make decisions on the members' behalf. The union as an organization functions based on the assumption (generally unarticulated, unless it's challenged) that paid officials know best about everything. They're supposedly the experts. Often they conduct negotiations in secret, reporting  back only when a tentative agreement has been reached. Then members have the legal right to vote on whether the contract should be approved. But other than voting on a contract and electing officers every few years, members are passive."

I'm sure this description speaks to many trade unionists, not just in teacher unions but throughout the labour movement. And while there may be aspects that are more or less true in any given union, we need to be always reminding ourselves and encouraging as much member democracy as possible in every situation. This is not just about fetishizing democracy, it is actually needed to create powerful unions that can win.

Finally Weiner touches on a number of issues that can divide us, such as race and gender, and focuses on some that are very particular to teaching. One is the "nurturing" aspect of teaching, and to what degree teacher unions should "defend schooling's social purposes and teaching's nurturing aspects". The social union perspective guides her conclusions: "The struggle to create schools that are caring makes teachers allies of parents in creating places in which we want to teach and children want to learn. Putting forward an ideal of a caring school reframes the debate about our working conditions, explaining our needs as workers and professionals in human terms."

Given the struggle we are in to defend public education and to push back on corporate and privatizing reforms, this book is a timely guide on how to revitalize our unions so that we can not just stop the tsunami of neoliberalism, but actually make gains and improve our schools.

No comments:

Post a Comment