Not a Walkout, but a Walk-in

walk-in1Rock 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.

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How Can Shaming Be A Solution?

1381082573New Orleans               The teaching and testing travesty in Atlanta has been a bitter indictment of almost everything that is off the rails in the US educational system.  When mandatory testing becomes the only measurement of teaching and educational standards, and the testing itself is seen as biased, unfair, and unjust, the temptation for administrators to see an unwritten exemption from normal rules and moral hazards is ever present. In Atlanta, in a vast conspiracy, it seems to have been irresistible.

Here’s what interests me though.  35 teachers and administrators were charged initially with two-thirds of them making various deals with prosecutors to cop pleas and put this behind them over the last six years.  Others went to trial.  Two, including the Superintendent of Atlanta schools, died during this period.   Ten or so were convicted.  The judge seemed to relent during the sentencing phase and was moved to mercy by the character witnesses and pleas for leniency and ordered both sides to try to make a deal on sentencing.  Two people took the deals, which mainly involved suspended sentences, some weekends in jail, and five years’ probation.  They also had to apologize to the community and the children for cheating.  The rest hunkered down.  The judge gave sentences that were harsher than requested by prosecutors involving around seven years for the most part with much of that time suspended.  The three highest administrators all rejected the deal and all say they will appeal, so who knows how this will end.  The question that intrigued me was, “Why would they not take the deal?”

Based on purely individual self-interest, the deal on surface would seem satisfactory, essentially allowing them all to walk.  Why was that not compelling?

Perhaps, I found some clues reading other items in the morning papers.  An op-ed in the Times by a couple of professors argued that the way the government could collect more taxes – at least from the little guys owing less than $2500 – was to shame them in the community with their neighbors and friends.  Oh, yeah, privacy is a problem, but they argued that privacy is disappearing anyway, so sew a scarlet letter on their chests and cha-ching the money comes rolling in.  Shaming seems to not work as well for big scofflaws, but whatever.  A columnist was outraged that a woman – a 32 year old blonde teacher that his paper has regularly pictured on the front and every other page of the paper – charged with having sex with a 16-year old student at her school was allowed to plead out to an obscenity charge, get no time, and not be listed as a sex offender.  What really ticked him off was that she put a picture of herself on Instagram with a smile saying that was her mood today.   She was happy to walk, and who would be surprised that she would feel that way, but the columnist was livid that she didn’t show shame and humiliation and cower into oblivion.

Justice has become irrelevant, and there is no confidence in the judges and courts to deliver it.  Comparisons with other sentences for other crimes and criminals has no meaning.  Some undefined “community” has to have its public revenge and that trumps all, it would seem.

The teachers that made the deal in Atlanta were willing and able to imagine starting their lives over and making peace with the community in Atlanta or somewhere else.  I suspect the ones that couldn’t take the deal felt that they had no future in the shaming community and needed to hold on desperately to their personal communities of other teachers, administrators, friends, and churches where they might find some succor, some understanding, and maybe even the chance of jobs and a future, even if it might mean jail in the future.

The loss of a consensus about the existence of justice destroys all the values of the larger society and leaves people finding and building separate selves and spaces that preserve smaller communities as people abandon larger commitments and communities.  Meanwhile support for a “shaming” community rises without any understanding of the tension between retribution and redemption, much less rehabilitation.

How can shaming be a solution in any healthy society?

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Buffalo Springfield For What it’s Worth

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