ELK GROVE, Calif. – We established last week that cognitive linguistic analysis would not be the salvation of teachers’ unions. Recent events dictate we revisit the possibility that teachers’ unions will revitalize themselves by moving to the left.
Yes, yes, I know many of you think there cannot possibly be any room remaining to them on that side, but it isn’t true. The officers and executive staff of NEA and AFT are committed liberals, but they are also very wealthy individuals overseeing a billion-dollar private enterprise. No matter what you hear coming out of their mouths, they won’t be leading the revolution, believe me.
But times are bad, and that is leading to upheaval in the ranks. Union activists further to the left than their superiors have been elected to lead large locals and one state affiliate. They believe they are approaching a critical mass to push the teacher union movement as a whole to the left.
Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, is a long-time class warrior and recently had a manifesto reprinted in the pages of In These Times. It contains all the rhetoric you would expect, and a few targets you would not. Peterson decries teachers’ unions utilizing “a business model that is so dependent on staff providing services that it disempowers members and concentrates power in the hands of a small group of elected leaders and/or paid staff.”
Over at Counterpunch, union activists Ann Robertson and Bill Leumer also feel their unions are too enamored of the corporate model. They believe the only avenue open to them “will require breaking with the Democrats and acting independently by creating a huge mass movement that would demand our education operate above all in the interests of the people, not the corporations. Parents, teachers and students have already taken the first step in this direction. But their strength would be multiplied many times over if the teacher unions would join them, throw their vast resources into the struggle, and encourage all the other unions to do the same.”
This is the kind of stuff that can propel leftists into a union’s power positions, but also sows the seeds of their demise. I don’t see any reason to alter my previous analysis that organizing around social issues may be a winning strategy “as long as those issues are general and amorphous.” Everyone wants education to operate “in the interests of the people.” But how do the people express those interests? The people of Wisconsin keep reelecting Scott Walker as governor, which Peterson explains as Walker convincing “vast swaths of the white working class to vote their prejudice, not their class interests.”
It’s hell when the interests of the people don’t coincide with what you think they ought to be.
Peterson isn’t content with remaking his union. He wants to remake the classroom as well. “A key, but less talked about, aspect of social justice unionism is promoting social justice content in our curriculum,” he writes. “We need to fight for curriculum that is anti-racist, pro-justice and that prepares our students for the civic and ecological challenges ahead.”
The reason it is “less talked about” is because there is no widespread support for the kind of curriculum Peterson wants. It was only 10 years ago that Peterson’s approach to mathematics was blasted by none other than Diane Ravitch.
This more militant strain of unionism is a nostalgic shadow of the Sixties, with its reliance on rallies, street protests and industrial action. Perhaps that was inevitable given that the so-called business model of unionism depends on campaigns, media buys and lobbying. There will be more Petersons, and Madelonis, and Conns, and Lewises in the coming years. But they will run up against the same nagging problem: What do you do about the people who disagree with you?
You can accommodate or you can purge. One compromises your ideological principles and the other shrinks your movement. Most choose the former, which means the firebrand of today eventually becomes the target of the firebrands of tomorrow.