This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The most frequent question asked of PFT building reps over the years is undoubtedly, “What’s the union going to do about this?”
The way this question is formulated tells you a lot about what’s wrong with unions today.
The questioner sees the union, not as a group of workers to which he or she belongs, but as an outside agency that has the responsibility to fix the problem. The individual member pays dues and, in exchange, expects to receive services. This is the essence of modern, bureaucratic unionism.
Democracy, in the sense used here, is much more than rules and procedures.
Most unions, including the PFT, have bylaws that are formally democratic and generally followed. In the PFT, for example, the membership elects officials, ratifies contracts, and selects delegates to policy-making bodies. While some of the procedures could be more democratic, the fundamental problem is not in this area, but rather in the culture of the union. A democratic union culture means active involvement of the rank and file membership at all levels. In a union with a democratic culture, the question becomes, “What are we as the union going to do about this?”
The PFT in its early years won dramatic gains for teachers and school employees by actively mobilizing its members. The strikes that established the union as a force generated a culture in which members were clear that union success depended on everyone pulling their weight. Members had to do picket duty, go to rallies, attend meetings, and organize their co-workers for a strike to be effective. Slackers or scabs paid a price.
Today that culture, if not gone, is certainly on the wane. The veterans of the PFT’s formative years are mostly retired. There hasn’t been a real strike or any sustained mass mobilization of the membership for years. Many schools lack functioning union chapters and have difficulty finding people to serve on building committees. Few members bother to attend union meetings, except when contracts are expiring.
The PFT leadership decries this state of affairs, but by its practice helps sustain it. The leadership and union staffers regularly point to all the grievances they have won, the legislation they have successfully lobbied for, and the policies they have initiated. The membership only needs to ratify these successes in elections. Or they can vote for an opposition whose claim to leadership is that they can do these same things better. Rarely is there any serious and sustained effort to involve members in decision-making and to actively challenge them to shoulder more responsibility. The result is an increasingly passive and cynical membership. Union leaders undoubtedly could do more to get the membership involved, but sharing power is messy and, to some at least, threatening.
Much easier to follow the well established ways.
So what can members who want to reverse this state of affairs do? The key is to create active, democratic chapters at the school level. At a certain point, these chapters could provide the critical mass for a union-wide process of renewal.
In the bureaucratic mode of operating, grievances get kicked up to a union staffer. But many, in some cases most, grievances can be solved by a building committee prepared to mobilize the membership to get a problem addressed. Meetings, petitions, chapter newsletters, and phone trees are all forms of activity in the organizing tool box. And campaigns around a grievance help build the members’ sense of their collective power and their ownership of the union.
Action does not need to be limited to issues that are explicitly addressed in the contract. While a principal may not have a legal obligation to bargain over some issues, most will not ignore a membership that has demonstrated its concern. A chapter can also seek allies among parents, students, and community leaders where there is a clear common interest, thus augmenting the power of the union. None of these initiatives depend on the blessing or support of a union staffer, who typically is too busy to offer much help anyway.
We had an active chapter at my school complete with contested elections, a newsletter, chapter meetings, and numerous campaigns over the years. Not everybody was happy and not everybody participated fully, but we had enough going for us so that we were taken seriously and got a lot done, including playing a leading role in a decade-long struggle to build a new school.
Some chapters are taking this kind of initiative now. At Kensington Culinary last spring, the building committee decided to work on revamping discipline procedures to keep students in school and in class. According to Co-Building Rep. Jim Hardy, the committee actively involved teachers, counselors, school police, and parents in developing ideas. This fall a set of proposals was approved after a meeting with the principal and some fine-tuning from the staff. Additionally, a survey of best practices was conducted by the building committee and based on this a self-help system established where teachers can go to other teachers to learn about what has been effective in their classrooms. Hardy adds, “These actions have helped combat cynicism about the union on the part of some teachers.”
So what’s going on at your school? What do you think can be done to build a stronger more effective, more democratic union? Let’s get a conversation going.