Randi and Lily, For the Good of Our Unions, Please Step Down. You Are a Distraction

28f329e0b3df889bf4067c6e4c6beee2

Dear Randi Weingarten and Lily Eskelsen Garcia:

Unions are facing hard times.

We are under attack by the new fascist wing of the Republican party.

So-called “right to work” laws are being drafted at the national level to strip us of our rights and transform us into the factory slaves of The Gilded Age. New court challenges at the state and federal level could make it next to impossible to collect dues without allowing countless free riders. And in the mass media criticism of teacher tenure is mounting despite widespread ignorance of what it even means.

More than ever we need to be united in our efforts to fight the forces of regression and tyranny. We need each other to protect our public schools and our students from those who would do them harm. But the biggest obstacle to doing that isn’t Donald Trump. Nor is it Mike Pence, Steve Bannon or even Betsy DeVos.

It is you. Both of you.

Frankly, as Presidents of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA), you have become a distraction.

When DeVos was blocked by protesters from entering a Washington, D.C., school this week, Randi actually took her side. She tweeted:

screen-shot-2017-02-11-at-2-23-12-pm

“Just heard a protester blocked & almost knocked Secy @BetsyDeVos down at Jefferson.We don’t condone such acts.We want her to go to pub schls.”

How dare you dictate to protesters what “we” want!?

This action may not have been something you, personally, condone. But DeVos just got away with purchasing her position as U.S. Secretary of Education. She and her billionaire family paid off mostly Republican lawmakers to the tune of $200 million allowing her to become the titular head of our nation’s public schools. This despite having never attended a public school, refusing to protect special education students, refusing to hold charter and voucher schools to the same standards, even refusing to keep guns out of our children’s classrooms! Well, Betsy, your money may buy you the title, but it buys you zero respect!

Randi, your statement just goes to show how tone deaf you and Lily are to the spirit of the rank and file.

We are not somewhat distressed at what is happening to our schools and our profession. We are enraged! We are taking to the streets! We are occupying our lawmakers offices and marching through community thoroughfares! And we aren’t throwing shade on other protesters behind the safety of Twitter.

For many of us, you both represent everything wrong with unionism. We are a people powered movement. We get our strength from the grassroots up, but you both try to rule from the top down.

Nowhere was this more apparent than in the early endorsements by both unions of Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

Neither one of you made an honest effort to gauge member opinions on these endorsements before going ahead. You thought you knew better. You pushed through these endorsements despite a strong vein of support for Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders.

Sanders was much more in-line with our needs and values. And he had much more support among progressives and independents. He had a much better chance of winning! Meanwhile, Clinton was just another neoliberal in a long line of neoliberals like President Barack Obama who would offer us only the back of their hands.

You wanted a seat at the table, and you didn’t mind how much it would cost the rest of us.

Lily, when you took the reins of the NEA in 2014, you famously said “We are what Democracy looks like.” I was never more proud of my union than at that moment. But that pride has turned to ashes in my mouth.

Many of us will never forgive either of you for the results of this election. We blame you for Trump.

Had you not dictated to us that we must support Clinton, had you supported a candidate with a real chance of wining, there is little doubt that we could have defeated the clown currently in the Oval Office. Moreover, under a President Sanders we would have had a real chance at a progressive future that benefits everyone – $15 minimum wage, universal healthcare, sanctuary cities, justice reforms, fair trade, free college tuition.

Trump did not win alone. Unwittingly, you were his biggest supporters. It was your hubris – along with that of corporate Democrats deaf to the voices of their base – that gave us these next four years. And none of you have learned your lesson.

Lily, your three-year term is up this year. Randi, your two-year term is up in summer 2018.

We can wait you out if we must. But do what’s best for the people you claim to represent. Step down now.

Otherwise, you can look for opposition in our Representative Assemblies.

Let me be clear. I don’t think either of you have broken any by-laws. I don’t think there is evidence for impeachment (if our by-laws even allow it). But members could easily make a motion from the floor for a vote of no confidence.

Support may already be mounting for such positions at the Region level. It could go to the State House of Delegates as a New Business Item and get a majority vote from the floor. Or perhaps at our next Representative Assembly, someone will just make a motion.

I don’t know if it would pass. But I know that this division among us is holding us back from being the force we can be. I know that it has stopped many of us from talking about how we fight external forces, because we are instead focused on enemies from within.

We want to transform our unions. We no longer want to focus solely on collective bargaining. We want to focus on social justice and the needs of our students and communities. To be sure, our labor rights are essential to this fight, but they cannot be everything nor can we be willing to give up on the needs of our students if the powers that be will only leave our salaries and benefits intact.

We want a union that is more at home in the streets than in the boardroom. We want leaders who mobilize us to fight not tell us what to think. We need leaders that listen to us – not the other way around.

As a classroom teacher and education activist, I make this request in no official capacity for any of the various groups to which I belong. I ask as merely another member of the NEA. I have no affiliation with the AFT.

Moreover, I have nothing personal against either of you. We met briefly at the Network for Public Education conference in Chicago two years ago. You were both congenial and inspiring. It may not seem like it now, but I hold tremendous respect for both of you. I think in your own ways you have accomplished much that benefits our members.

But the time has come to step down. You believe in accountability. Hold yourselves accountable.

Put the strength of our unions first. Let it no longer be about you. Let it be about us.

Here’s hoping you’ll do the right thing.

Yours,

Steven Singer

NEA and PSEA member

P.S. – If any NEA or AFT member reads this open letter and agrees with the sentiments expressed here, please add your name and union affiliation in a comment on my blog.

Fighting for Public Schools Means Fighting Against Systemic Racism – United Opt Out Education and Civil Rights Summit

14725673_10107838928072169_5986293484745396608_n

What do you do when you hold a civil rights summit and none of the big names show up?

That’s what happened last weekend when United Opt Out (UOO) held its Education and Civil Rights Summit in Houston, Texas.

We invited everybody.

We invited the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). We invited the National Council of La Raza “The People,” the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), the Urban League and several others.

None came.

But instead we were host to many of these organizations individual members.
Just how many people came to the Lone Star State for the summit? Thousands? Hundreds?

More like dozens.

Not only did the major civil rights groups neglect to send their leadership, but the bulk of our nation’s education activists also stayed away.

United Opt Out had just gone through a major reorganization on philosophical grounds. Only three of its long-time board members remain – Denisha Jones, Ruth Rodriguez and Ceresta Smith. They have since been joined by five new directors – Gus Morales, Zakary Rodriguez, Erika Strauss Chavarria, Deborah Anderson and Steven Singer (me).

The directors that left the group did so for various reasons, but some of them split along ideological lines. Some thought United Opt Out shouldn’t work with labor leaders or civil rights groups that weren’t perfectly aligned with all of UOO’s goals. So they left. Those who stayed are committed to working with almost anyone to push forward the cause, piece-by-piece if necessary.

As a result, this organization that had been growing by leaps and bounds, finds itself starting afresh. While last year’s conference in Philadelphia drew progressive luminaries like Chris Hedges, Jill Stein and Bill Ayers, this year’s gathering was more low key.

But it was far from somber. In fact, the board’s vision was vindicated in the most amazing way during the summit.

As Jesse “The Walking Man” Turner discussed the importance of reframing school policy to include students basic humanity, Gus looked up from his phone and announced, “The NAACP just ratified its moratorium on charter schools!”

We all stopped what we were doing and went to our phones and computers for verification. Denisha found it first and read the resolution in full.

We cheered, laughed and hugged each other.

This was exactly the kind of change we’ve been talking about! In fact, Julian Vasquez Heilig, education chair of the California and Hawaiian NAACP chapter, had originally been scheduled at the summit as a keynote speaker. When the resolution that he had been instrumental in crafting came up for a vote at the national NAACP meeting, he understandably had to cancel with us. Clearly he was needed elsewhere.

And now one of the largest civil rights organizations in the country has taken a strong stance on charter schools. Not only does the NAACP oppose charters as a solution to inequities experienced by children of color, they’ve now gone beyond mere ideology. They’re calling for action – no new charter schools.

It is a tremendous victory for parents, children and teachers everywhere. And a much needed win for civil rights and education activists. The civil rights community (including the Black Lives Matter movement) is starting to acknowledge that Brown vs. Board is right – we cannot have “separate but equal” school systems because when they’re separate, they’re rarely equal.

Let me be clear – UOO did not achieve this triumph alone. It took many people, some of whom probably have never heard of us. However, activists supporting our movement such as Julian were strongly involved.

And if we had listened to the naysayers who proposed only working with perfectly like-minded groups, this might never have happened.

As a national organization, the NAACP still supports standardized testing as necessary to hold schools accountable for teaching all students. But this was not always the case.

In October of 2014, there were 11 civil rights groups including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) who wrote a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to reduce standardized testing.

Then in January of 2015, a full 19 Civil Rights organizations including the NAACP wrote to Congress asking lawmakers to preserve annual testing.

What changed in those three months?

All of these organizations accept huge donations from the corporate education reform industry including some of the richest people in the world like Bill Gates. While none of us were present at these decision making sessions, it seems clear that fear of losing their funding may have forced them to make hard compromises.

Should we then as education activists wipe our hands of them? Should we refuse to work with them on some issues because we disagree on others?

United Opt Out says no. We’ll work with almost anyone where we can, when we can. And the results were on display with the NAACP resolution calling for a charter school moratorium.

Perhaps now that we’ve found that common ground on school privatization, we can do the same with standardized testing. Perhaps we can help educate them about the history of this practice, how it was a product of the eugenics movement and has always been used to support white supremacy and keep people of color and the poor in their place.

If we can make that argument, think of the potential. Perhaps leadership at these big civil rights groups would be less willing to compromise if they understood that standardized testing was used to justify mass sterilizations of American citizens and it was greatly admired by the Nazis. Perhaps if they understood that our modern standardized assessments are little better and create a racial proficiency gap by their very design – maybe then threats from rich white philanthropists won’t seem as important. Perhaps if they understood that schools can best be held accountable by reference to the adequacy of the funding they receive and a detailed accounting of what they do with it, these organizations might be less inclined to rely on multiple choice testing.

In fact, this is why we were there together in Houston in the first place. We wanted to make our case to these same civil rights organizations.

They may not have sent their leaders, but their members were already here. And we spent the time working together to find ways to make our case.

It was really quite amazing.

Audrey Amerin-Breadsley, professor and author of the blog Vamboolzed, gave us an incredibly accessible and informative keynote on value-added measures (VAM), the practice of using students test scores as a way to evaluate their teachers. For instance, did you know this common practice was originally based on a model for the cattle industry? It’s junk science and has little relation to education, teachers and students. All it does is pit students and teachers against each other creating a culture of fear where educators can be unfairly fired at any time – not the best environment for learning. Yet ignorant, lazy and/or corrupt bureaucrats still champion it across the country as a solution to improving schools.

Sam Abrams, Director of the National Center for the Study of Privatization in Education (NCSPE) and an instructor at Columbia University, explained in minute detail how corporate education reform relies on bad statistics and is bad business. He explained how academics blinded by economics and unencumbered by any real-life experience of public schools came up with this scheme, which has been disproven by the facts again-and-again. Not only do the highest achieving countries such as Finland go a different route, but those that follow this market driven model find student achievement suffering. In short, our current education policies are really faith-based initiatives, a faith in the invisible hand of the market, and an ignorance of reality.

But perhaps most heartening was the series of talks given by the locals. Houston Federation of Teachers is one of the few labor unions to pass a resolution supporting parents rights to opt their children out of standardized testing. In fact, teachers and parents even run a free Opt Out Academy for children not taking the tests so that their education continues while their peers suffer through these useless assessments. We got to meet parent zero, the first parent to refuse testing in the district. We heard the community’s painstaking process of spreading the movement one family at a time. This was in effect an opt out cookbook, a how-to for anyone wishing to bring this social justice action to their own neighborhoods.

It was a weekend to give anyone hope.

We were small but we were powerful. Given a few years to rebuild, UOO could well be much stronger than we once were. Meanwhile parents across the country continue to refuse these tests for their children at an exponential rate.

There are many struggles ahead. But we have made real progress toward our goal of providing an excellent education for all children.

No longer can our governments be allowed to keep discriminating against them based on the color of their skin, their parents bank accounts and other factors. We’re standing for all students, because we don’t see them as consumers or data points. We see them as children, as human beings. And we stand together to protect and preserve that shared humanity.

What better way to spend a weekend?

The Charter School Swindle – Selling Segregation to Blacks and Latinos

Screen Shot 2016-05-31 at 4.22.46 PM

 

Segregation now!

 

Higher suspension rates for black students!

 

Lower quality schools for Latinos!

 

These may sound like the campaign cries of George Wallace or Ross Barnett. But this isn’t the 1960s and it isn’t Alabama or Mississippi.

 

These are the cries of modern day charter school advocates – or they could be.

 

School choice boosters rarely if ever couch their support in these terms, but when touting charter schools over traditional public schools, this is exactly what they’re advocating.

 

According to the Civil Right Project at UCLA, “The charter school movement has been a major political success, but it has been a civil rights failure.”

 

It’s choice over equity.

 

Advocates have become so blinded by the idea of choice that they can’t see the poor quality of what’s being offered.

 

Because charter schools DO increase segregation. They DO suspend children of color at higher rates than traditional public schools. And they DO achieve academic outcomes for their students that are generally either comparable to traditional public schools or – in many cases – much worse.

 

In Brown vs. Board of Education, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it is Unconstitutional to have “separate but equal” schools because when they’re separate, they’re rarely equal. Having two parallel systems of education makes it too easy to provide more resources to some kids and less to others.

 

Who would have ever thought that some minority parents would actually choose this outcome, themselves, for their own children!?

 

After Bloody Sunday, Freedom Rides, bus boycotts and countless other battles, a portion of minority people today somehow want more segregation!?

 

It’s hard to determine the extent of this odd phenomena. Charter advocates flood money into traditional civil rights organizations that until yesterday opposed school privatization. Meanwhile they hold up any examples of minority support as if it were the whole story. However, it is undeniable that large minority populations still oppose their school systems being charterized.

 

It’s especially troubling for civil rights advocates because black and brown charter supporters have been sold on an idea that could accurately be labeled Jim Crow. And they don’t even seem to know it.

 

The reason is two-fold: (1) the success of privatization propaganda and (2) the erosion of our public school system.

 

Charter schools are big business. Many of them are managed by huge corporations for a profit. They are run at taxpayer expense with little to no oversight. As you might expect, this often results in multi-million dollar financial scandals and worse outcomes for students. But these facts have not fazed some of the public. Propagandists know how to sell people on things that are bad for them: Fast food, miracle cures and charter schools.

 

They’ve marketed corporate McSchools as if these were mostly charitable institutions founded for the sole purpose of making children’s lives better. Meanwhile, funds that might actually help kids learn are funneled to hedge fund mangers and investors: Schools don’t open yet tax money disappears. Student services are reduced below that offered at comparable neighborhood public schools. Charter students are expelled for low test scores or special needs. Yet the public still buys the glossy full-color advertisement without bothering about the small print.

 

One thing corporate education reformers have over advocates of traditional public schools is their willingness to talk about race. They clothe their arguments in the terms of the Civil Rights movement. They talk about having high expectations for children of color. They talk about closing the achievement gap. They talk about understanding the needs of minority children.

 

It’s all bullshit.

 

Their “high expectations” are really just an excuse for treating brown and black kids as if they weren’t human. They put these children under intense pressure, berating them for wrong answers and kicking them out if they don’t perform.

 

Yet the academic results produced at charter schools are often less than stellar. Sometimes they’re downright abysmal. Instead of addressing the fundamental inequalities inherent in the achievement gap – economically and culturally biased high stakes testing, shoddy and developmentally inappropriate academic standards, etc. – they reinforce that status quo. It’s like instead of fighting a prohibition against sitting in the back of the bus, they berate black folks for not enjoying the ride.

 

I’m sorry. But when it comes to understanding the needs of black and Latino kids, I refuse to believe children of color need a second-class education system. (Just as I refuse to believe Teach for America’s claim that all black kids really need are less experienced, less educated and less committed teacher trainees.)

 

Perhaps if traditional public schools actually addressed these issues head on, privatizers wouldn’t appear to be saviors. There are real problems faced by children of color in our school systems. They have real needs that most of our schools – charter, traditional, private or parochial – just are not meeting. But while charter schools pay lip service to the problems without fixing them and in fact often making them worse, public schools pretend these problems don’t exist in the first place.

 

No wonder some minority parents choose charter schools. At least there they get the illusion that someone cares about their needs.

 

In fact, privatizers couldn’t sell their substandard products if it weren’t for what we’ve allowed to happen to our traditional public schools. Segregation is made worse in charter schools, but it is also prevalent at our traditional public schools – though often to a lesser degree.

 

We have allowed traditional public schools to be largely segregated based on parental income. We have schools for poor kids and schools for rich kids. Thus, we have schools for black kids and schools for white kids. And guess which ones are well-funded and which go lacking?

 

This is what people are really talking about when they mention “failing schools.” They pretend as if the teachers are failing, the principals are failing, the democratic process, itself, is failing. In reality, it is our state and federal lawmakers who are failing. They have failed to provide equitable resources that our nation’s children need.

 

Schools cost money. If you don’t provide the funding necessary to properly educate children, you will get an inferior result. Meanwhile, pundits play with numbers and make false comparisons to hide this basic fact – we aren’t providing all kids with the resources they need to succeed. Rich kids have enough. Poor kids don’t. But we look at national averages, add in unfunded legal mandates and pretend that tells the whole story.

 

How does this happen? Segregation. In fact, we’re allowing segregation of place to determine segregation of school. Instead of counteracting an unfair status quo, we’re letting the way things are today determine how things will be tomorrow.

 

Fact: people of different ethnicities tend to cluster together, like with like. Part of this is because people tend to self-segregate with people around whom they feel most comfortable. However, this is also a function of social planning. Banks tend to shy away from giving loans to families of color who want to move into white neighborhoods. Moreover, white homeowners are often reluctant to sell to families of color. The result is an America made up of black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods.

 

In organizing our public schools we could try to overcome these differences, but instead we amplify them. In many states we insist that schools be funded based on local property taxes. So poor brown and black people who happen to live clustered together get poorly funded schools for their kids. And rich white folks who live together in their gated communities get well-funded schools for their progeny.

 

Is it any wonder then that some people of color buy into the charter school lie? They’re offered the choice between an obviously under-resourced public school or a glossy new charter school that actually offers them less. But they don’t see that far. They’re tired of the indifference behind traditional public school funding and opt to try something different. Unfortunately, it’s just another lie and a more pernicious one for several reasons.

 

First, charter schools take an already segregated population and make it worse. Second, they weaken the already stumbling traditional public schools by siphoning off their dwindling funding. And finally, they obscure the fact that it’s often the same policymakers who champion charters that are responsible for eroding public schools in the first place.

 

People of color would be much better served by sticking with their traditional public schools and fighting to make them better. For all their faults, traditional public schools often provide a better quality education. They have more resources and less flexibility to take away those resources. They have more well-trained and experienced staff. And since they serve a more diverse population, they offer the chance for people of similar economic backgrounds but diverse cultures to join together in common cause.

 

Dividing people makes them weaker politically. When people band together, they have power. They can fight more effectively for what they deserve. Perhaps this is the greatest problem with charter schools – they destroy communities and rob neighborhoods of the collective power that is their due.

 

In many areas of the country, communities of color know this. Ask them in New Orleans what they think of their all-charter school district. Ask them in Chicago what they think of the city’s plan to close public schools and turn them into charters. Ask them in Philadelphia or any urban district taken over by the state.

 

They’ll tell you straight out how privatized education is cultural sabotage. They’ll tell you how it’s the new colonialism, another element of the new Jim Crow. They’ll tell you how important it is to fight for our system of public schools.

 

And when privatizers and propagandists try to paint all communities of color as if they support charter schools, these folks will loudly cry foul.

 

They aren’t buying the snake oil. The rest of us need to step up and help those who have been swindled to see the truth. Likewise we need to recognize their truth – that the struggle for civil rights is ongoing.

 

Because we can’t win the fight against privatization without them. And they can’t win the fight for equality without us.

 

We need each other.

 

Public school advocates need to recognize it’s not all about testing, Common Core and privatization. We can’t be so afraid to talk about race. We need to recognize that racism is not an unnecessary distraction, it’s at the center of our struggle.

 

We need communities of color.

 

We need our black and brown brothers and sisters.

 

Because only together shall we all overcome this madness.

‘Pay Our Special Education Teachers Before Vulture Capitalists’ Demand Puerto Rican Protesters

GetFileAttachment-4

Every student with special needs in the United States is guaranteed a Free and Appropriate Public Education under national law.

 

So why has the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico stopped paying its special education teachers?

 

More than 100 parents, therapists, psychologist, occupational therapists, students and teachers marched on Monday to the capital in San Juan to find out.

 

The rally began in front of the legislature at 9 before protesters marched to the governor’s mansion at 10:30 am. Demonstrators then met with representatives of Governor Alejandro García-Padilla.

GetFileAttachment-3

The answer may be a crippling $72 billion debt. Puerto Rico is besieged by vulture capitalists encouraging damaging rewrites to the tax code while buying and selling the territory’s debt.

 

The Commonwealth government has been prioritizing payments to American private equity moguls instead of services for communities such as public schools.

 

“Our Children Before Vulture Capitalists,” proclaims one protestor’s sign.

GetFileAttachment-6

Jinnette Morales agrees with the sentiment. Morales organized the protest.

 

“No credit line would back up this lack of payment,” says the mother of a child with Down Syndrome.

 

 

“These therapists have been working for months without pay and if Secretary of Education Rafael Román says that he has paid them, I want to hear him say that when we take him to court.”

 

GetFileAttachment-5

Though the Commonwealth Department of Education hasn’t paid these professionals in up to six months, students still have been receiving services. Special education employees have been working without pay. However, that can’t continue indefinitely.

 

The therapists, psychologists and teachers have had enough. They simply can’t continue without an income.

 

So starting this week, roughly 1,200 students are without services they are guaranteed by law.

IMG_4819

“We are talking about children’s humans rights to receive an appropriate and quality education,” says Mercedes Martinez, president of the Federación de Maestros de Puerto Rico (FMPR) – the teachers union.

 

 

“Children need these therapies to progress in their development. Therefore, we stand with the workers, parents, and students and demand action from the governor of our country.”

 

Protesters are demanding special education employees be paid immediately so child services can continue with as little interruption as possible.

 

After arriving at the governor’s mansion, activists met with the governor’s attorneys.

 

They were told the government will eventually pay the special education teachers, says Martinez. In the meantime, officials suggested improving billing for services. Instead of having all invoices be digitized and go through corporate channels, special education teachers can provide manual bills. This will shorten the amount of time between billing and payment.

 

Protesters are scheduled to meet again with government officials on Thursday to pin down an exact date when payments will begin.

 

Until then, many demonstrators are camping out in front of the governor’s mansion vowing not to leave until the government makes good on its fiscal responsibilities to teachers and students.

GetFileAttachment

“The government needs to pay the debt with these professionals before our country’s debt,” says Martinez.

 

“Our children should come first.”

 

 

This monetary crisis is imported from the mainland. Legislation is being manipulated by corporate interests profiting off the chaos. Moreover, hundreds of American bankers and entrepreneurs are using the Commonwealth as a tax haven.

 

As a result, tax revenues are drying up while the super rich rake in profits.

 

Officials warn the government may be out of money to pay its bills sometime this year. Over the next five years, it may have to close nearly 600 more schools – almost half of the remaining facilities!

 

Of the 135 schools closed in just the last two years, Román had originally proposed shuttering 200. The remaining 65 were only kept alive because communities occupied the buildings and refused to let the government step in.

 

Despite Wall Street manipulation, Puerto Rican communities aren’t letting their government sell their children short. The fight goes on.

 


 

MORE ON PUERTO RICO:

Hundreds Gather in Puerto Rico on Martin Luther King Day Demanding Arts Education

 

Puerto Rico Teachers Plan One-Day Strike to Protest Corporate Education Reform

 

In Puerto Rico, Students Go On Strike to Stop Teacher Relocations

 

Parents and Children Occupy Puerto Rican School Refusing to Let Corporate Vultures Raid Its Contents

Unions Can’t Just Be About What We’re Allowed to Do: Social Justice Unionism

7983807401_6b0075f742_b.sm_a

If labor unions were an animal, they’d be an old hound dog napping on the porch.

They’re slow to get up and chase away burglars but they do like to howl at night.

Most of the time you don’t even know they’re around until the dinner bell rings. Then that ancient mutt is first to bolt into the kitchen to find a place at the table.

It’s kind of sad really. That faithful old dog used to be really something in his youth.

He was fierce! He’d bark at trespassers even tearing them apart if they threatened his patch of land.

Old Uncle Sam used to yell at him and even threaten the pooch with a rolled up newspaper, but that dog didn’t care. He had a sense of right and wrong, and he didn’t mind getting into deep trouble fighting for what he thought was fair.

Today, however, the only thing that really riles him is if you threaten to take away his ratty old bone.

Let’s face it. Unions have become kind of tame. They’re housebroken and not much of a threat to those people waiting in the shadows to rob us blind.

Some people say we’d be better off without them. But I don’t agree. Even a decrepit canine can act as a deterrent, and thieves sure are frightened of dogs.

Think about all unions have given us: the weekend, child labor laws, vacation time, pensions, lunch breaks, healthcare, the 8-hour day, maternity leave, safety measures, due process, sick leave and free speech protections on the job!

They didn’t get us all that by sitting politely at the table with their hands crossed. They didn’t do all that by contributing modest sums to political campaigns. They didn’t do it by obsessively protecting collective bargaining at the expense of all else.

Unions used to take to the streets. They took over the job site. They marched with signs and placards. They exercised people power.

And the government was scared of them. The President called out the army to get them back to work. Lawmakers hired mercenaries to break strikes with clubs and guns. But eventually Congress passed laws to placate them.

Unfortunately, That was a long time ago.

For decades the pendulum has been swinging against us. Federal and state laws have become increasingly restrictive. They want to tell us when we can strike and how long. They want to tell us when and if we can collect dues. And – frankly – they want to tell us to just disperse and do whatever the bosses want – because the business class has already bought and paid for our politicians.

For decades we’ve heard to their propaganda on TV, the radio and the print media. Well-paid shills have poured their poison in our ears about the evils of the labor movement. They’ve spoken these lies so often lots of people believe them.

Workers used to fight to make sure everyone got a fair deal. Now the working man has been brainwashed to focus instead on making sure no one else gets more than him. And the bosses are laughing all the way to the bank.

Union membership is at the lowest it’s been in a century. So are wages adjusted for inflation. A family of four used to be able to get by comfortably on one salary. Now it can barely make ends meet with two.

Yes. There’s no doubt about it. We need unions today more than ever.

But for unions to survive, they must change. They have to become a reflection of the membership and not just of the leaders.

During this presidential election cycle, we’ve seen our largest national unions – the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) endorsing a candidate without bothering to actively poll their members. We’ve seen them speak for us on policy decisions without asking our opinions. We’ve seen them act just like the corrupt politicians who we should be fighting against.

Yes, it is time for a change. No longer can our unions be run from the top down. They must be run from the bottom up. They shouldn’t tell us what to do. We, the membership, should be giving orders to them.

Moreover, we need to stop obsessing about collective bargaining. I’m not saying that’s unimportant. But it can’t be the only thing we do.

Our unions used to be in the midst of larger social movements. We were part of the Civil Rights movement. We were part of the push for desegragation. We were part of the fight to protect children and provide them a decent education.

We need to continue that today. And in some places we are already doing that! Look to Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia. Teachers unions in those urban areas are fighting not just for better pay and benefits but for the communities they serve. Detroit teachers en mass are calling off sick to protest horrible conditions in the schools. Chicago teachers are marching in the streets with the community to demand indictments for police murdering their black and brown students. Philadelphia teachers are supporting students who walk out of class to protest state disinvestment and toxic testing.

THIS is what unions should be doing. We should be fighting for social justice. We should be a central part of the struggle to turn the tide against corporatization, privatization and standardization of our country’s public goods. We should be marching hand-in-hand with BlackLivesMatter activists. We should be in the front lines of the fight to save our environment and replace fossil fuels with renewable energy.

We must be part of the community and not apart from it. We must share in the struggles and goals of those we serve. We must be an example of the old truism that a rising tide raises all ships. After all, the word “union” literally means together. By definition we must all be in this together or else we’re not even really a union.

And to do this we have to stop being so concerned with what they tell us we can do.

We live in a democratic society. The government gets its power from us, from our consent. That means that if there are enough of us, we trump their corrupt laws. They only get to make those laws because we say so. And court decisions – even Supreme Court decisions – mean nothing next to the court of public opinion.

The bosses buy the politicians and tell them to legislate us into a box. It’s time to break out of that box. We can’t be afraid to take our power back. We shouldn’t be afraid of our government. Our government should be afraid of us.

How do we do it? Organize.

If you belong to a union, roll up your sleeves and get active. Run for office. Convince like-minded folks to join you. Take over your local. Spread to your national.

If you don’t belong to a union, start one at your job. Talk to your co-workers. Talk about the benefits for each of you and your neighborhoods. Fight for your rights.

I know. It’s a whole lot easier to complain. Real change, though, takes real work.

We used to know these things. Somewhere along the line we forgot.

So wake up, you yeller cur dog, and get off the porch. Take to the streets.

Because the surest way to take back our country is to take back our unions.