Gunning for the Teachers and Their Unions

Ideas and Issues
map of union strength according to Thomas Fordham Institute

New Orleans   Even as all of us hit the dawn patrol to vote and get out the vote on the US-Election Day, it is sobering to see that the rightwing forces are amassing at the border, regardless of the outcome today, in order to carry the fight into state legislatures around critical issues, like education, primarily by targeting unions.  I downloaded the 400-page report (mostly charts) produced by the Thomas Fordham Institute and funded and assisted by various conservative outfits which sought to measure the variable strength of teachers’ unions in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

The Institute claimed that its purpose was to get to the heart of whether or not unions were really the obstacles to education reform in states and districts around the country.  They claimed the report was data-driven along more than 30 categories of comparison.  Truthfully as frightening as it was to behold, it was also compelling in its comprehensive inspection of education based unions.  The Institute’s conclusions were mundane, though interestingly they were probably surprised to find such a weak correlation between union strength state-to-state and the progress or lack of it on their criteria for educational reform.  They figured out that collective bargaining laws are important as is the right to strike, and that money and resources make huge differences.  They also found that on the state level outsiders thought unions were significant in the educational reform debate in 20 states, but only the key player in two states.  Like I said, there were occasional pearls to be found in this pig pen.

What was most fascinating to me about this entire avalanche of “data” was the way education, which has always been the most local of all political and community institutions, has now almost totally become a battleground at the state level.  Certainly, the way my own state of Louisiana totally usurped the local elected school board is a daily insult here, but this is also the legacy of the Bush II program of leaving children behind and empowering the states to determine how to lower the boom on school systems.  Looking at unions, it seems where unions have understood their fights to be at the legislatures rather than local school board; they have been at significant advantages in dealing with this devolution of resources and power.

Hawaii is an excellent example where this is a statewide union (NEA) with a statewide collective bargaining agreement, rather than a local one, is the strongest because clearly they are always “bargaining” with the state legislature.   Florida’s weakness was a surprise but spoke to the same phenomena.  Florida is rare in the South because there is a collective bargaining law with mandatory provisions, including checkoff, and there is an enormous union there because of the effective merger of AFT and NEA in that state.

It reveals starkly that part of the issue that underlies the Fordham numbers is the residue of fundamentally different organizing strategies by the NEA and the AFT, which have ironically left them – and us – in this perilous situation.   AFT for decades successfully ran an organizing program based on only working in cities with school districts which were large enough that they employed at least 200 to 250 teachers, which they thought sufficient to support a “stand alone” local union in that district.   NEA on the other had organized teachers in districts regardless of their size and had often emerged into collective bargaining after decades as a statewide, lobbying-based, professional association of teachers and sometimes, as in the Southern states, a batch of principals, administrators, and random educational personnel.

The Fordham Institute was clearly perplexed why you would have strong union involve at the state level in places like Alabama in the South, Montana and North Dakota in the West, Washington on the Pacific Coast where NEA also dominates, and obviously Hawaii.  They want to see one clear pattern based on the kind of urban wars where the battle cries have been the loudest in places like New York City, Washington DC, and Chicago.  Unfortunately for them and maybe for the rest of us, none of this is simple, because the union strength may be most noticeable in the urban areas where AFT has been strongest, but the fights have shifted to the states where NEA is in the best position to protect its members even though they might in other ways seem relatively weaker.

Both were great organizing strategies and build unions for teachers with millions of members in one of the greatest organizing successes of our generations, but politically, unless there is a way to play catch-up and reconcile the interests and objectives of both the cities and the unions, it leaves us poorly positioned to defend against the frontal assault coming at the state level and in the legislatures in place after place.