Written by Workers’ Voice East Bay
For this article, La Voz interviewed four teachers who directly participated in huge multi-day strikes in 2018 and 2019: Nicole McCormick, Mercer County Education Association President, West Virginia United; Craig Gordon, OEA member, strike organizing leader, organizer, a substitute teacher, site rep, Oakland cluster lead, member of Classroom Struggle; Maya Suzuki Daniels, an LAUSD teacher in San Pedro, California (candidirreverence.com); and Rebecca Garelli, Lead Organizer for Arizona Educators United, 6th Grade Science Teacher in Phoenix. This is part two in a three-part series. The first part addresses: worsening (learning/working/living) conditions for students and teachers, the attack on public education and unions, and the importance of rank and file organizing along with the community around personal issues. Part two discusses how bureaucratic leadership needs to be pushed by rank and file energy. Part three delves into the need for going beyond strikes to meet substantial, long lasting demands, and the larger political & societal context. Find the article in its entirety at http://www.lavozlit.com.
BUREAUCRATIC LEADERSHIP NEEDS TO BE PUSHED BY RANK AND FILE ENERGY
There are several lessons we can draw from the experiences of teachers in the strikes across the nation in 2018 and 2019. To win significant demands in the interest of educators, students, and communities, unions and other statewide organizations are most effective when they envision a strategy that is centered around rank and file organizing. This requires leaders who are determined and committed to the task. As Gordon observed, “you can actually do a lot in a very short time if there’s a determination to do it and you have leadership that is committed to doing it.” In OEA’s strike earlier this year, “there was high participation because of the intentional organizing at every site to ensure that people were prepared to do that, to actually participate in the active work of the striking and picketing.” Due to the ongoing and especially recent attacks on organized labor there is a necessity to organize for unions to survive. “It’s been recognized that there needs to be more organizing in all unions. They need to do that in conjunction with preparing for a strike and that’s going to motivate people to become organized and join the union.” Suzuki Daniels explains how “being able to coordinate multiple mass actions that were visible and timely proved that we absolutely have the capacity for organization, collective action, and solidarity. We simply need the motivation and the leadership.”
In order for strikes to be at their most powerful, rank and file leadership is essential. The West Virginia Educators United Facebook page encouraged active participation of members through incorporating a hands-off approach to page moderating. According to McCormick, “during the first strike we didn’t really intervene at all, just tried to keep order. We didn’t stifle discussion unless it got really belligerent. We didn’t push for anything. And if people did polls, we discussed it as moderators.” McCormick and other West Virginia strike leaders held official union leadership roles and yet they consistently encourage rank and file member active involvement.
“We came up with our name and we came up with our emblem, and our principles and we are slowly working on building membership and building a more formal structure. And it’s slowly going in the right direction. We’re trying to build a caucus for an entire state, not just the county, not just a couple of counties. We’re talking about all 55 (counties), the entire state of West Virginia. We want to have active people in every single county. And we’re getting there and we’re gaining members more and more because we are filling a void that the union is not doing.”
For rank and file leadership to truly flourish, this often requires overcoming insulated leadership and establishing, as much as possible, independence from the state union bureaucracy that is typically influenced by its relationship to the Democratic Party. In OEA’s strike, Gordon noticed:
“Along with greater participation from CTA (California Teachers Association), you had what unfortunately became a very insulated leadership, a leadership that did not really include large numbers of the organizers in OEA or even the executive board for that matter, let alone the rep council and picket captains in making the decisions. You had a tendency to forge ahead with the kind of vision that we’re going to bring in Democratic politicians to help us. So we brought in Tony Thurmond (State Superintendent of Public Instruction). And he wasn’t helpful, in fact if anything he seemed to buy the district’s claims, he didn’t push back against the district’s claim that they couldn’t afford our demands and that they had to close schools.”
To foster this independent leadership structure, West Virginia first formed a Facebook group and then a statewide caucus, Arizona developed a Facebook and real-life organizing group, Arizona Educators United, UTLA has the Union Power caucus, and some members of OEA’s Classroom Struggle caucus are weighing reviving it or splintering off into a new caucus. Garelli says she “truly believes the next step for us in Arizona is to form a caucus. We now understand that this fight is far from over, and we need to strengthen our base and push the union to do the work we want them to do.” Here is McCormick’s account of the benefits to working outside and alongside the state union to push the formal leadership to act in accordance with the members’ interests:
“Because the state unions were all competing for members, nobody was talking to anybody else. And with the use of the secret Facebook group and people realizing that we were all in it together, the regular rank and file started talking and it pushed the leadership to start talking and start working with each other. And when we finally took a strike vote as a state, all three associations worked together to make that happen. And when we went out this year for two days and successfully killed a bill that would have introduced educational privatization to West Virginia, we also did the same thing. All three associations came together and took a historic strike vote all on the same ballot, no matter your job title, to approve the walkout.
So we went through the strike, we got about midway through and our state leadership told us that we need to go back, that we had an agreement with the governor. And we knew that the legislature was not friendly, they were not going to do anything that they said they were going to unless it was actually in writing, the ink was dry. And so we, as a body of rank and file members, said no. And we had a wildcat strike, which is one of the most proud, powerful moments of my entire life. I honestly didn’t know what would happen because the people had been so used to this top down structure where we’d show up a couple of times a year and do what union leadership tells us to do. And so the fact that people said absolutely not and they stayed out and they were pissed about it, is incredibly powerful. So we stayed out a few more days and we were able to win a five percent pay increase for all West Virginia public employees and the formation of a task force.”
Another important reason for independence from the affiliated state union is the ability to act on differences in political goals. Gordon argues:
“The state teachers’ organizations have not been effective and unambiguous against privatization. They haven’t come out clearly against charters, only for “regulating” charters. I think that’s as far as they’re willing to go, they’re not really willing to take on privatization completely. And they certainly aren’t willing to support a strategy and the tactics that in fact threaten the interests of corporations in a fundamental way.”
It took a push from the California Alliance of Community Schools (CACS), an independent body of local presidents, to push CTA to endorse the Schools and Communities First initiative, to partake in coordinated statewide actions like #RedForEd days and walk-ins, and to expand the annual President’s lobby day on May 22 to include a rally and call it a statewide Day of Action, though it was only scheduled for after-school hours in the late afternoon. It took OEA and California Educators Rising (CER), along with some CFT locals (BFT and PFT), to organize more radical actions during school hours. CTA’s focus for this rally is primarily on charter school reform without an emphasis on the need for more funding from the state, which points to their allegiance to the Democratic governor and the Democratic Party in general.
Another area of difference and need for independence from the state union is the question of strategy and tactics, between electoral politics and direct action, the service union model vs the organizing model. McCormick attests:
“Our state leadership was focused on these elections. They were like, “remember in November”. But it doesn’t matter who you have in those positions. You are always going to have to push them further than they are willing to go. And the way that you do that is with collective action. And so I would rather spend time organizing our people and inoculating them against fear and organizing them to actually be prepared to battle and make sure that they can clearly communicate on a moment’s notice than worry about going around and handing out flyers for candidate who just really wants to use me as a prop.
Our state unions are going to have to move away from this service model to truly organizing. They like to think that they’re organizing and they barely are. It’s important for us to have our people constantly activated, constantly aware, constantly willing to fight. And even though that’s exhausting and that’s difficult, there’s gotta be a cultural shift within the union. We’ve been on strike successfully twice in two years as an entire state and yet we’re going to have a special session where the people that introduced this legislation are already, before the data has been publicly announced, they’re already saying, we’re going to push through charters, we’re going to push their vouchers. And so if they’re not going to listen to a strike, what is it going to take? What is it going to take for them to listen? And of course, the union’s response so far has been, “you’ve got to remember in 2020” and I’m like, “ well how did that work out for you last time?””
Union democracy is not just a slogan, it’s essential to create and enforce horizontal decision-making processes to give members voice and ultimately to build power. Garelli mentioned that “we truly tried to make the decision making process democratic. We designed a way for feedback in multiple ways during each of the actions we asked people to engage in.” Suzuki Daniels notes:
“I don’t think many unions or large organizations have strong systems in place for participation and input. We tend to rely on traditional strategies that prioritize efficiency, like voting or surveys. That can translate to a loss of nuance and complexity for leaders, and a pervasive feeling of rank and file educators being unheard. I would love to put our minds to creating and experimenting with ways to participate, discuss, and make decisions. Our voices are essential, even (especially!) when they are unwanted. As classroom teachers, we have a right and a responsibility to be in the room when decisions are made.”
Strike committees are one such form of direct democracy, as Gordon recommends:
“You should have an elected strike committee, not just the very small and leadership that makes decisions behind closed doors. It is very possible during the strike to hold meetings of representatives. Every school, every day. People are free to do that at that time. You’re not working all day and having to go home and plan lessons at the end of the day. That has to be developed as an ongoing practice that really builds much more participation by leaders in every site and other rank and file members who can be invited to participate in these meetings and have it not just be this top-down dissemination of information or instructions, but one where there’s a two way dialogue about what’s going on and developing strategy. This helps develop consciousness among the members that makes them less likely to accept confidentiality in the decision making about strategy.
Union members and community supporters deserve and need honesty and transparency from official leadership in order to be informed and fully invested in sustaining the movement for public education. In both negotiations and the way strikes are ended, union members are often excluded from information and decision-making. Here, Gordon speaks on OEA’s lack of transparent bargaining and how it affected membership:
“The leadership was not really being transparent despite a very big push for transparency in bargaining prior to the strike. The Rep Council voted to ensure that we didn’t see what happened in LA- confidential bargaining – and they voted for substantive reports on a daily basis, with time to vote after a tentative agreement. But in fact, the bargaining team initiated a call for confidential bargaining from the beginning of the strike. And with that the membership was completely in the dark and unaware of the fact that the district was not moving at all. We were being told every day that there was great progress, (that) we were winning. “We’re winning” was all we heard. We’re winning because we had strong picket lines and great participation by the parents and students. And so therefore we were winning. Yet there was no movement at the bargaining table and the members didn’t know that.
Also, the leadership was not listening to moves by or requests from the membership to escalate. We know that they’re under pressure to take a more conciliatory stance and direction in bargaining. The bargaining team is always under pressure from CTA staff. Even though they’re not officially members, the CTA staff are the advisors and they’re constantly guiding the bargaining team based on very traditional and moderate kinds of bargaining principles and strategies without the pressure from the membership that always pushes leadership to hold its ground more. The traditional line presents a circular argument that we can’t win these things and that the membership doesn’t understand that we can’t win these things, so they need to just stay out of it.
The excuse that’s usually given is that negotiations are delicate. They’re complicated. On the other hand, our same leadership and even some of the same bargaining team members who have defended that said we should propose ‘open bargaining’, where you have the district and the union bargain in public, so not only members can come but the members of the community could come as well. But the district won’t agree to it. So we didn’t do it. It’s only the district, it’s only the boss basically, whether it be a school district or any other employer that benefits from confidentiality because it’s only confidential from our side. It’s not confidential from everybody who matters on their side. When I was on the OEA bargaining team in 2000, members of the district’s bargaining team were calling up school board members and the superintendent in the middle of bargaining sessions to get their input. So they’re talking to their constituency, but it’s only our side that is kept in the dark, the people who matter on our side, our membership, the community, all the people who have an interest. We’re the ones who would benefit from a democratic process.
There was confidentiality in bargaining though it was denied that we had confidential bargaining. I think that really undermined the sense that members owned the strike and were able to drive what was going on. It violated the will of the rep council vote that was held just before the strike that we would not have confidential, secret bargaining. I think that really undermines the credibility of the leadership, though I do believe that our leaders genuinely want to win and are sincere. But I think there’s some contradictions there and we need to understand the importance of maintaining a democratic process even in the midst of a strike under a lot of pressure.
And let’s not call it a historic victory and inflate what we won. I think this is not helpful and it doesn’t build confidence. The membership needs to know that the leadership is being honest. Forty-two percent of the members who voted against it was just (an) extremely high percentage. And people were very angry at the way the strike ended, which was to call off a picket line that was shutting down a school board meeting.”
Suzuki Daniels focuses on critiquing how UTLA ended the strike:
“In terms of things I would have changed, I definitely would have liked to have more time to read the contract. I think a lot of us experienced psychological “whiplash” on January 22. We woke up to strike, celebrated our win, read the contract, argued with each other, voted, and then went to work the next day. That was a lot to process. I wish the steps for ending the strike had been more transparent, and I wish the union had been more intentional about creating support for students and teachers through that transition.”
As a proactive way to address the need for democratic organizing, along with a prescription for bold, independent, rank-and-file leadership, Garelli advises:
“Just do it, don’t be afraid. First step is to get a team together who understands the intense commitment and sacrifice it takes to organize a massive statewide job action. With this, comes the understanding that in order to be successful, you must design an escalation process to ensure you have gained community support. Secondly, reach out- ask for help, resources, and guidance from those who have come before you. Third, remember to have a democratic process for every move you make. Guarantee a way for the rank-and-file to weigh in, have a voice, and be a part of the decision making. Finally, for each and every tactic you choose to use in your escalation process, be sure to have a way to collect data. It can be a check-in link, Google form, or some other way to measure the number of people attending events. This includes setting goals- how many schools do you need before you escalate to the next action? Goals will help motivate people who want to get to the next level of action.”