Rock Creek, Montana There’s a difference between being off-the-grid physically and off-the-job mentally. Not surprisingly I found myself talking shop with an old friend and comrade while drinking coffee in the early dawn and sitting on a tent pad, and what I was hearing was both good and interesting news.
She works near the top of the heap of the nearly 3-million member teachers’ union, the National Education Association, the nation’s largest labor organization that is not known typically as an organizing union. Nonetheless after several years of membership losses in the state-by-state battles with increasingly conservative governors and state legislatures who have been in thrall of school privatization and anti-public school anti-teachers’ union, charter school, she shared that the NEA had won back the several hundred thousand members that they had lost and ended up net 35,000 in growth this year. They had been organizing against the potential disaster that the Fredrichs challenge to union agency fee dues programs had represented for all public sector unions until the happenstance of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death and the deadlocked 4-4 vote of the Supreme Court left in place a union-affirming Appeals Court decision. Preparing for one disaster by upgrading their emphasis on their locals, they had achieved sustained growth as a reward, so that now the challenge will be keeping it up.
All that was good, but what I really enjoyed hearing her describe was an exciting new tactic that the union had initiated this year: a walk-in. We all know what a walkout means when workers, teachers in this case, leave the workplace, schools in this situation, and hit the sidewalks and streets to protest or strike for better wages, hours, or working conditions. Every new school year presents the almost predictable drama of teachers walking out, though the names and places may be different, it is going to happen somewhere as predictably as the fall weather.
NEA though tried something different during this last school year to make sure administrators of schools got their messages by calling a walk-in. They didn’t care if it were a dozen teachers or hundreds, and the issues were deliberately left to the local chapters to sort out what was on their minds – which was ingenious as well and strengthened the local’s individual incentives for action – but in a perfect showcase of what I have always called “coordinated autonomy,” the key was that it would happen at the same day and roughly the same time all around the country. Much of NEA’s strength is in smaller districts and cities around the country, but they also got traction in some bigger cities where NEA and AFT have merged. The result was that 80 to 100 districts did walk-ins all over the place, exciting the organization internally and helping set the tone for more potential innovation and actions in the future.
This is not something that any of us had heard about perhaps, but knowing that this kind of thinking and action is happening is encouraging and leads us all to hope that a thousand more flowers will bloom in this and other unions trying to revitalize around the country and the world.