I’m opening up this blogging effort with summaries, reactions, and comments on a number of union related issues that came up at the conclusion of the Academic Year 2010-2011. Although chronologically a bit out of order, I’ll begin with the Massachusetts Teachers Association meeting, held 13 and 14 May 2011 in Boston, Ma.
Day 1 of the Massachusetts Teachers Association annual meeting
You can check out information here at the MTA twitter feed.
Also here for the MTA website.
Democracy in action can be an odd thing to witness. People like to believe that the group is involved in making decisions, and at times, that can lead to a number of interesting moments. People meet in large groups, such as the MTA, and attempt to reach a consensus on a number of issues ranging from how to spend a budget for the large union itself to how might we better organize ourselves and work in coalition with other union bodies or parents or the public in general.
That said, for the last three years, attempts have been made to allow charter school teachers to become “active members.” Our current members are people employed “in work of a professional nature in the field of education.” Hmmm…don’t charter school teachers work in the field of education? Would we not benefit from expanding our membership to include people who don’t always have control over their rights in bargaining? I believe strongly that the union can only benefit from adding these teachers to our ranks. Is there some level of conflict because we, as MTA members, don’t like how charter schools are funded? Perhaps – but who is punished by keeping these workers out of our union? The workers and arguably, the students who appear in their classrooms. As the amendment to allow charter school teachers to join the MTA came down to failure once more, I have to admit I’m saddened by the short-sightedness of some of my fellow members. I certainly understand the pain that people feel when a charter school siphons resources and students, only to spit the students back to these now underfunded districts when they don’t ‘measure up’ to expectations. However, I ask again, who is harmed the most here – it’s the workers, whose lack of ability to join together with a larger force not only impacts their pocketbooks and rights, but also limits our ability as the MTA to intervene in how charter schools run. Unionize those workers and you can get in management’s face to change conditions in the charter schools. Let’s talk about this issue again next year!
Dennis Van Roekel, president of the National Education Association spoke at 3:00 pm on a number of issues including attacks on public education as well as the way in which the electoral system operates (eg, problems with lobbying, capitalist visions of tax policy, etc.) He’s a bit on the pessimistic side suggesting that negative campaigning will rule the airwaves for the next 18 months. He does make a nice reference to the notion that we should focus on positive stories regarding what’s helping people more so than feeding into the vacuum of increased negativity. I do disagree with several of his contentions that we need to ‘excuse’ the current presidential administration in the United States because they’re ‘better than the alternative.’ I always return to Eugene Debs’ thoughts – “I’d rather vote for something and not get it than vote for something I don’t want, and get it.”
Van Roekel points out that while he agrees with the progressives and their beliefs, he has concerns about their ability to make changes so we might have to depend on established politicians. Often times, this kind of soft-sell is problematic to me, as is the general ignorance of history and ebbs and flows in union strength as well as how third party or progressive ideas get adopted into the general political conversation. Like many non-historians, union members often think ‘this current moment’ is the worst in the history of labor issues, etc – or ‘this current moment’ is the worst moment in how our politicians interact with one another. For educators, our awareness of the past and how issues were discussed, resolved, strategized over, etc. is sorely lacking. Interesting that Van Roekel points out he doesn’t want us to be viewed as ‘timid and shy’ 20 years from now and hopes that we organize and strengthen ourselves over the next three years rather than ‘give in, give out, or give up.’ Now he ends with a rousing round of applause and people stand, but I’ll tell you what – I think people give out standing ovations way too easily these days. Van Roekel made some good points, but spoke, in my opinion, 20 minutes too long, and mostly, ironically, too timidly for my taste.
Then Barry Bluestone, on lessons from Detroit, wants to speak to us about going on the offense in relation to union leadership and mobilization. He points out that Van Roekel was a very strong speech, comparing him to a voice her heard in the 60s at a UAW meeting. Hmmm…
At any rate, Bluestone points out that the UAW was key in leading the battle to raise national minimum wage, push for debates on civil rights and healthcare, etc. The reason behind that is the fact that the UAW believes in solidarity among all workers, wherever they are. If we can help some workers, we can help all workers. He contends that the union movement created the middle class – well…hmmm…create it? How about altered it? Shaped it in new ways? Took it to new heights? Middle class folk of the Victorian era might argue with Bluestone’s contention.
Bluestone points out that the unions AND management combined to create a problem in the auto industry. Management didn’t push high quality, innovative vehicles – workers didn’t pay attention to the fact that certain fights were ill advised. Concessions, bankruptcy, etc. has all led to an attempt to get UAW back to work and get Americans interested in making purchases of American-made products. He asks us whether what is happening to UAW could be seen happening in public sector unions? You see that fiscal deficits are creating problems – kids are not getting educations – progressives and democratic lawmakers are leaders in charter school movement “to free schools from the unions that may be barriers” – see my points above ummm…make charter school employees part of the union and then our “frenemies” the progressives and Democrats can’t ignore union concerns in those schools either.
Some suggestions for solutions:
- reform inefficient gov’t bureaucracies
- public sector union reforms – pension reform?
- raise more tax revenue
- regionalize public services – how can we do this more efficiently?
- public sector unions need to find ways to improve productivity and reduce the cost of public services
- we must make a better case to consumers – those who pay the taxes
- unions must see taxpayers as allies and work to gain their trust
- “grand new bargain” – unions play a larger role in improving service, quality, etc. – we should be leaders in boosting productivity, quality, and innovation and we need tell the tax payers that we’re taking these steps
- we need to play an important role in developing serious social policies
- reform outmoded work rules and job classifications – I don’t disagree with this point from him on some levels BUT management has to be willing to sit down honestly with unions and unions shouldn’t ALWAYS be asked to make concessions
- suggests changing from a ‘workplace contract’ to an ‘enterprise contract’
- borrows some ideas from Illinois Education – ‘to effect excellence and equity in public education’ – ‘appropriate accountability is important’ – money is important when spent properly – mentoring of teachers should be supported – teacher success should be rewarded – etc. The basic notion is to put this information in the hands of the parents so the parents understand we’re all in the same boat seeking the same things for our children – improvements in public education.
- We must make it apparent that the union is part of the solution NOT part of the problem.
Now, I had some issues with a private school employee speaking to us about public policy, but I can see some of the points that he made were valid. I am convinced however, that the MTA might have considered inviting some of our members to speak on the issue! UMASS-Boston has a program in Public Policy – surely someone from that department could have been asked?
Day 2 of the Massachusetts Teachers Association annual meeting
Day 2 of the MTA opens, for me, with the Massachusetts Higher Education breakfast meeting. The breakfast meeting is an interesting opportunity for the members of the MTA who are in higher education to discuss issues that may come up on the floor during day two as well as other concerns unique to higher education.
Congressman John Tierney was the recipient of the MTA Friend of Education Award. He spoke passionately about the importance of labor in terms of their contributions to Massachusetts and the nation as a whole. Tierney was a public school attendee and Salem State graduate. You can check out his website for more information and I’ve pilfered this line that is of particular importance: “As the only Massachusetts Member serving on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, Congressman Tierney is focused on improving our children’s education at all levels and strengthening the rights and protections of our nation’s workforce.” Tierney is an interesting person to follow as his political career continues – his beliefs clearly align with interests of those in preK-12 and higher education as well as labor. I was impressed with his presence as well as what I have found on his site. MSCA Westfield State Chapter president Ken Haar counts Tierney as a good friend of several efforts circulating in the Massachusetts legislature.
Dr. Floris Wilma Ortiz-Marrero was awarded as the MTA Massachusetts Teacher of the Year. Dr. Ortiz-Marrero could not attend as her daughter was graduating from UMASS. You can check out some thoughts from Dr. Ortiz-Marrero at the National Writing Project. As an aside, I’ll be contacting Dr. Ortiz-Marrero to help me out with integrating some ELL material into my Methods of Teaching History courses.
Robert Haynes, MTA friend of labor award recipient is the President of Massachusetts, AFL-CIO and he spoke briefly on issues that are facing American labor today. I’ll quote one line of Mr. Haynes regarding the issue of collective bargaining – “Here in the cradle of liberty, the first state with child labor laws, and such a rich tradition of supporting working families, 111 representatives voted to take away collective bargaining rights because the Speaker of the House made them. We deserve better in Massachusetts.” Haynes made a few similar points in his brief speech and I’ll highlight a few of these observations:
- 1 out 7 people live in poverty in the United States
- 1 out of 4 children in preschool and kindergarten in the United States live in poverty – this is a proxy for hunger and homelessness, yet we, as union people, are attacked for trying to be strong for the middle class. We need to have democracy in the state house and the Congress. It doesn’t happen unless you express yourself and explain your beliefs and thoughts. We need to educate people in terms of making them understand that it is the middle class who helped to make life better for the majority of Americans whereas the wealthy have created better lives for, who else? Themselves.
- Good statistic offered about the idea that raising the tax rates from 36% to 39% for those highest earners would have closed most budgetary problems for states and federal issues
- It’s not we, the middle class, who created trillions of dollars of debt in this country – it’s lobbyists, the wealthy, and for profit corporations, and yet we receive the blame.
Harris Gruman, the Executive Director of the Massachusetts State Council as well as Massachusetts Political Director, SEIU, received the MTA President’s Award. Harris gave a very quick statement using the theme of ‘you’re welcome’ when discussing issues with your local, state, and federal representatives. ‘You’re welcome,’ to these individuals for all of our work in unions helping build our communities.
A presentation from the Board connected to their handout “Reinventing Educator Evaluation”. This was a contentious issue for a number of reasons. Educator evaluation is too complicated to discuss in great detail here, but a lot of the debate was also informed by the Federal government’s “Race to the Top” program, something which Massachusetts educators have gone back and forth on since the race to the top was created. The idea is that the Federal government would provide states who win this program (Delaware and Tennessee last year) with money provided that the states in questions agree to submit to a number of complicated evaluation systems that tie student achievement to educator evaluation. At the MTA annual meeting in 2010, New Business Item #9 indicated that the membership would not support the idea of Massachusetts pursuing this program if student learning and educator evaluation were part of the deal. Well…then, two weeks after the annual meeting, the board decided to IGNORE the vote of the membership on the issue and pursue the program anyway. The executive board of the MTA used Article VI, Section B, Line 1 to, in my estimation, ignore the will of the delegation. That line reads “It shall be the duty of the Board to: have entire control of the affairs of the Association, except when the delegates are in session.” In the Board’s estimation then, despite the will of the delegation, the MTA Board could move forward with the issue because the delegation was no longer in session. Ugh. That conversation became unpleasant. Next year I’m proposing that the MTA membership consider amending the bylaws to BIND the MTA Board to decisions reached by the membership at the annual meeting.
Tim Collins, Springfield – The price we pay for living in a civilized society – taxation. Tim, as always, puts forth some interesting business items that tend to be progressive in nature and, unfortunately, a bit contentious as well. The plans Tim put forward that were interesting this time around dealt with pushing questions onto ballots around issues like single payer health care and a referendum on more progressive taxation structure. It’s interesting to note that in many of the conversations surrounding these issues, proponents and opponents talk about the ‘timing’ of a proposal. As in – ‘it’s not the right time or is it the right time or when is the right time? As I sat in the hall this morning as well as yesterday ruminating on these questions I wondered about time in general – in the spring 50 years ago – was it time to push for desegregation of bus stations and buses? In the spring 60 years ago – was it time to recognize that the People’s Republic of China had a powerful army? In the spring 70 years ago – was it time to take action against Adolf Hitler? In the spring 75 years ago – was it time to do something about the remilitarization of the Rhine? In the spring 150 years ago – was it time to do something about slavery in the United States? In the summer 163 years ago – was it the time to do something about women’s political rights in the United States? In the spring 223 years ago – was it time to do something about slavery in the United States? We often answered these questions in the past with statements like – it’s not the ‘right’ time. It would be nice to see that ‘now’ could be the ‘right’ time for once.
Finally, we moved on to one of the most fascinating aspects of the annual meeting and that is the budget. The delegation moves through the line items of the budget literally, line by line. It’s painstaking to a degree – but interesting nonetheless. Members are afforded the opportunity to present the treasurer and other officers with questions ranging from “why are we spending so much on postage in two different categories?” to “why do we spend $108,000 annually on computer software licensing!?!?” For anyone who grew up in Massachusetts with town meetings as I did, this part of the annual meeting most closely resembles memories of those weeks in April when my towns would hold their discussions.
The meeting closed out with a few additional new business items, including the important No. 10, sponsored by members of the Educational Association of Worcester –
Moved: Whereas the 2010 Annual Meeting rejected the use of standardized test as a mandatory measure of teacher performance, MTA opposed the current BESE proposal, 603 CMR 35.00 from April 29, 2011. MTA leadership will oppose the usage of standardized tests in the dismissal of educators. MTA leadership will oppose the current BESE proposal, 603, CMR 34.00 from April 29, 2011.
The rationale for this item was as follows (and relates to the concerns about race to the top issue and controversy described in the day 1 summary). Value-added scores are subject to high error rates and a Department of Education study showed that these measures tend to be wrong 35% of the time evaluating a teacher after one year, and 25% of the time after three years. With such a system, teachers could be mislabeled and stigmatized, and even unfairly terminated. Use of student’s scores to evaluate teachers could narrow the curriculum even further and negatively impact the quality of education. Finally – New Business Item No. 9 from 2010 indicated CLEARLY that the will of the delegates was that the results of standardized tests not be a mandatory measure of teacher performance.
I have included the final amended version of this new business item above – prior to the amendment, there were a number of negative statements about the item (and a fair number of positive) but the amended second sentence made all the different – it squared with what the MTA board was already doing, and still got the point across that a large portion of the delegates were still irritated about the board’s ‘end around’ New Business Item No. 9 from 2010. As a procedural matter, we went to a teller count on this issue and the hall had to be locked down until the count was completed.
I keep saying finally or ‘closed out’ but then I recall one other issue that seems important to bring up. I’ll explain it in this manner – if you’re a member, whether early childhood development, k-12, or higher education, you should try to go to the meeting at least twice in your career. Once to get a sense of how things operate and the second time to perhaps participate more actively. When I taught secondary, I was an advisor for Model United Nations and Youth Legislature and this experience mirrors those conferences in certain ways. Most important though, is getting to see how the leadership of your union operates – it’s not always pretty (see how the experienced members maneuvered to get New Business Item No. 9 for 2011 ruled out of order, despite the creator’s good faith effort to amend the language of the proposal) and it’s not always efficient, but in the end, if you don’t know what your leaders are doing, you tend to get what you deserve!