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

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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:

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“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.

Teachers Told They’re Endorsing Hillary Clinton by NEA Leadership. Membership Opinions Unnecessary

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The decision has been made, teachers.

YOU WILL ENDORSE HILLARY CLINTON IN THE 2016 PRESIDENTIAL PRIMARIES.

Your union has spoken.

Now please donate to the Political Action Committee (PAC).

The National Education Association (NEA) represents 3 million educators. It is the largest labor union in the country. However only about 180 people made the decision to back Clinton.

The NEA Board of Directors voted today 118 to 39 in favor of the endorsement with 8 abstentions and 5 absences.

Thursday the 74 member PAC Council voted to endorse Clinton with 82% in favor, 18% against and some of the largest delegations – California and New Jersey – abstaining.

Check my math here. So 61 PAC votes plus 118 Directors plus one President Lily Eskelsen Garcia equals 180 in favor.

That’s about .00006% of the membership.

And we call that an endorsement.

But wait. It can’t really be that simple. All of these people are voted in by members. Surely they polled their constituencies to gauge how individuals wanted them to vote.

Nope.

To be fair, some NEA directors may have polled state union leaders.

Ronnie Ray James, NEA Director from South Carolina, wrote in to this blog saying he took a straw poll of the South Carolina Education Association (SCEA) board about an early endorsement. He said the vote was close but came out in favor of making the endorsement.

However, that’s a far cry from asking actual card carrying members of the rank and file! Moreover, it is unclear how widespread these straw polls were, if they polled board members about outright support for Clinton and if the leaders of state boards have the pulse of their constituents.

According to NEA by-laws, the organization need go no further to obtain input from individual members for a primary endorsement. Even these straw polls are a formality.

The 8,000 strong Representative Assembly (RA) did not get a say. This larger body representing state and local affiliates will get to vote on an endorsement in the general election when the field is narrowed down to only two major candidates.

But anything like a poll of individual members is apparently not desired by leadership – now or later.

Perhaps that’s because for weeks the rank and file have been vehemently criticizing leaderships’ mounting push to endorse Clinton.

Some opposed to the decision are certainly Bernie Sanders supporters. However, many others complain that it is too early to endorse before candidates have clearly outlined their positions on education or even had a chance to debate.

In an effort to solidify the vote among wavering leadership, Garcia called in the big gun – Hillary Clinton, herself.

The Democratic candidate met with Directors today before the vote. No other candidate was present.

It’s one thing to vote. It’s another thing to do it in the presence of one of the candidates!

This whole process has been a mockery of what labor is supposed to stand for.

Unions are supposed to be about solidarity. The word, itself, means joining together. But this move by NEA leadership has been nothing like that. It has been a top down decision imposed on membership.

It is ludicrous that leaders claim they are representing card carrying rank and file when they haven’t asked us what we think. Nor do they even seem to have the slightest interest in doing so.

Full disclosure: I am not a Clinton supporter. I lean towards Sanders. However, I could accept this decision if it had been conducted democratically – if it really was a reflection of the thoughts of my union brothers and sisters.

Instead, we’ve been treated like sheep. We’ve been herded, fenced in, hushed and placated.

The way I see it, there are only two ways to go from here: we can give up or we can fight back.

It is tempting to become despondent and stop participating in the union. Why bother with people who don’t care what I think? In fact, maybe all those fat cats fighting to destroy us are right. If the NEA won’t include me in something this important, why should I continue defending it? Why keep paying dues?

But I can’t go that route. I won’t. Together we bargain, alone we beg.

The problem is not unions. The problem is our leadership. We must fight to take it back.

We must replace those who would silence the rank and file. We must vote in new leaders who actually represent us and have an interest in our input.

We need leaders who will fight for us, not those who are satisfied with a mere seat at the table and an opportunity to enrich themselves at our expense.

This is hard. It’s much easier to just wave a white flag, go home and watch the football game.

A union is not made of leaders. It is made of members.

Lily is not the NEA. I am.

And I will fight to take it back.


NOTE: This article also was published in the LA Progressive and on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

 

A Handful of NEA Leaders Have Taken Another Step Toward Endorsing Hillary Clinton Despite Member Outcry

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“We are what Democracy looks like.”

With those words, Lily Eskelsen Garcia took the reigns of the National Education Association (NEA) as President in 2014.

A little more than a year later, the NEA is set to prove those words false by endorsing a candidate for the 2016 Presidential Primaries without input from the rank and file.

Despite vocal opposition from thousands of members of the largest union in the country, the NEA Political Action Committee (PAC) Council voted to endorse Hillary Clinton.

The council of 74 educators from the organization’s political arm voted Thursday. The NEA Board of Directors is expected to make a final decision on Saturday.

Despite Garcia’s fierce rhetoric, the decision is being made by a handful of union leaders with next to no input from the more than 3 million members.

Many details of the vote, itself, are shrouded in secrecy and bad math.

Numerous sources in the NEA say the PAC council voted 82% in favor and 18% against. However, these figures are suspect. Two of the largest state delegations – California and New Jersey – abstained. The percentages being touted by PAC Council representatives do not seem to take that into account. The actual total should be somewhat closer.

When the Board of Directors votes later this week, at least 58% will be needed to give Clinton the organization’s endorsement.

However, the main body of representatives – the Representative Assembly (RA) – will be excluded from voting. The larger RA’s say is unnecessary according to NEA by-laws to give an endorsement in the primary election. However, the RA will get to vote on an endorsement in the general election when the field is narrowed to only two major candidates.

Any additional outreach to card carrying educators and other dues paying members is apparently not needed or desired.

Opposition to this much anticipate vote has been mounting. State chapters in New Jersey, Massachusetts and Vermont have come out publicly against the Clinton endorsement. However, when it came to a vote in the PAC Council, New Jersey abstained instead of voting the measure down. Moreover, the California chapter has been riddled with outspoken critics of the endorsement, yet they only pushed the state delegation to another abstention.

Ohio and Massachusetts delegations voted against it, but full tallies of the roll call vote could not immediately be determined.

Those in-favor of the endorsement claim Clinton is the most electable candidate who supports positive education policies. However, even Garcia is reported to have admitted that Bernie Sanders has better education positions.

While some opposing the endorsement clearly favor Sanders, many oppose any endorsement so early in the race before even the first Democratic debate.

Clinton and Sanders are polling neck-and-neck in the first two Democratic primary states. A Clinton endorsement could give her a much needed edge over her political rival.

Meanwhile as labor unions are attacked on all sides, it seems the biggest opponent to union Democracy may come from inside these organizations, themselves.


NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.

 

Clash of the Titans – Unionism at the Network for Public Education

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It was billed as the fight of the century.

Or at very least – the weekend.

Lily Eskelsen Garcia vs. Randi Weingarten.

National Education Association vs. American Federation of Teachers.

Union president vs. union president.

All moderated by education historian Diane Ravich.

“Oh snap!” cried six hundred voices in tandem at the Network for Public Education conference in Chicago.

“It’s goin’ down!”

No soft pitches coming from Diane, either. These were going to be tough questions. No politicking. Only candid truth.

And the interview actually seemed to live up to its hype in one shinning moment.

Will you both commit to no longer taking any money from the Gates, Broad and Walton Foundations?

Ravich’s question hung in the air a second before the crowd erupted into a standing ovation.

We cheered so loudly at the question, we didn’t hear the answers – two quick short yeses.

When it quieted down somewhat, Lily nodded and Randi cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted “YES!”

At the time, I was overjoyed. But in retrospect something keeps bugging me.

That wasn’t as candid and organic as it appeared.

There’s no way the heads of the two largest labor unions in the country could commit to something like that off the cuff. They were expecting that question and they had already agreed in private on the answer.

Does it matter?

Maybe not. If the NEA and AFT actually follow through with this promise, who cares if the presentation was staged?

But there were other cracks in the facade along the way.

It started well enough. Both women said some really supportive things about teachers and our unions.

ROUND 1: LOVEFEST

Randi:

-Teachers are first responders to poverty. Never say I’m just a teacher. (NOTE: activist parent Rosemary Vega says she used almost the exact same words to Randi in a private conversation.)

-All middle class workers have to realize we’re all in it together.

-The other side lives in an evidence free zone. We need to keep pushing the truth.

Lily:

-Privatizers have to get people to distrust teachers. This is hard because most people naturally trust our profession.

-It’s strange that some celebrities want to make the world a better place by making it easier to fire more teachers.

-People who say teachers go into this profession for a cushy job are “idiots.” (Randi then countered that these folks are “morons.”)

-Teachers need tenure so they won’t be fired for helping kids.

-We talk about the progress gap – what about the resource gap?

-They say if kids had better teachers, they wouldn’t need resources!

-There are three pillars of corporate school reform:
1) privatize
2) standardize
3) delegitimize (teachers)

RESULT: Lily takes it. She came off more eloquent and genuine than Randi who seemed a bit strident and defensive. Judging by the mediocre applause and even outright hissing Randi earned from the audience, New York teachers may still blame her for Gov. Cuomo who she supported in the last election.

ROUND 2: STANDARDIZED TESTING

Randi:

-We need to get rid of high stakes tests. We need tests that are diagnostic. I took tests when I was a child, but they were about ME – not my teacher.

-We wanted three things from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) rewrite – no federalization of teacher evaluations, school closings or Common Core.

Lily:

-If we have standardized testing at all – and I’m not sure we should – we should use them for general trends. Not to fire teachers, close schools, etc.

-The NEA is against annual testing in the ESEA rewrite. Instead we want informational grade span testing at the state level. That means testing reading and math once in elementary school, once in the middle school and once in the high school.

-Lawmakers say you need to test kids every year. They think we need the data. However, the NEA told them that we don’t test that much even now! We only test kids in grades 3-8 every year. We test high school students only once. So we already have grade span testing in the high school. If that’s working, why not do the same in the elementary and middle schools?

RESULT: Yuck and yuck. Are these really the same rabble rousers from Round 1? They both agree on grade span testing. Yes, it’s clearly better than annual testing but it leaves so many unanswered questions:

1) If we had grade span testing, would our test-obsessed country really only test once at each academic level? Right now, standardized tests aren’t required in Kindergarten, first or second grade – yet in most schools WE HAVE THEM! To paraphrase Lily – we already have literally annual testing through 8th grade! Prove to me that grade span testing won’t be that!

2) How can you be sure grade span testing will actually remove high stakes? Just because you say something doesn’t have high stakes doesn’t mean it isn’t actually de facto high stakes. I can call a cat a “dog,” but it still won’t use the litter box.

3) Do we really need any of this “demographic”, “purely informational,” nothing-to-see-here-folks data? Do we? Why? To prove kids are learning? We give them grades for that. To prove kids are getting the proper resources? We do audits for that.

So let’s call this one a sloppy and ugly draw with few punches thrown.

ROUND 3: COMMON CORE

Randi: Standardized testing is ruining the potential of the Common Core. (Ravich responded that it is an outrage that so few kids pass Common Core tests who passed the tests they replaced.)

Lily: Many Common Core standards can’t be evaluated on standardized tests. They ignore the best parts. Organize a project, give an opinion, do a multi-media presentation. You can’t assess that with a multiple choice fill-in-the-bubble test.

RESULT: They agree again. The rank and file hate Common Core. The majority of teachers are against it or uncertain, but our largest union leaders think it’s just swell. It’s so gosh darn great, but toxic testing is ruining it. Are you freaking kidding me!? Why are the leaders of our biggest unions – who are supposed to represent us – defending standards that were not developed by educators, are developmentally inappropriate and have never been proven to work!?

Standardized tests are bad, but standardized curriculum is good!?

Once again light starts to shine through the cracks here. Somewhere, sometime ago, a decision was reached between these two ladies and parties unknown to make a compromise. Save Common Core by lightly ribbing standardized tests. Champion a slight decrease in testing (that may not actually reduce testing at all) in exchange for saving standardized curriculum.

I’m sorry. I’m calling the fight. No winners here.

BUT WAIT!

OFF THE TOP ROPES COMES RANK AND FILE UNIONISTS FROM THE BREAKOUT SESSION ON SOCIAL JUSTICE UNIONISM!

Michelle Gunderson chaired an incredible session about the need to transform our labor unions around the issues of social justice.

Remarks included:

-Get Up! Get down! Chicago is a union town!

-After Gov. Walker, there weren’t supposed to be any unions. But WE’RE STILL HERE!

Rosemary Vega: true leaders don’t make more followers. They make more leaders.

-Everyone is a worker. Everyone deserves rights – whether you’re in a union or not.

-Fighting for social justice is key to building strong unions.

-Do you want a service union or an activist one? Associations shouldn’t just be about salary and benefits. They need to be about Justice.

-People of color used to be banned from joining unions. Now they’re leaders.

-You’d never know how much our unions had to fight for the rights we have today. We don’t pass that on to the next generation. We should.

Michelle: Union members aren’t friends. They’re brothers and sisters.

RESULT: Randi and Lily are teetering on their feet! They’re almost down! Somehow they’re still standing! How can they still be standing!?

OH! IS THAT KAREN LEWIS ENTERING THE RING!? NO WAY!

Diane had a brief talk with the Chicago Teachers Union president to end the entire NPE conference. Karen didn’t say anything revolutionary.

In fact, she deflected any kind of praise back to someone else. When Diane said Karen was her hero, Karen said she felt the same way about Diane. When Diane asked her about being attacked in the media, Karen thanked the Badass Teachers Association for coming to her aide on Twitter.

She was poise, finesse and grace.

The strength she demonstrated! The power! The integrity!

RESULT: Boom! It’s all over! It’s all over! Ring the bell! Ring the Bell!

Unions still have an important place in our fight as teachers. But it’s not top down. Unions work best when they’re bottom up – just like any Democracy.

Lily and Randi seem like very nice ladies. In many ways they DO stand up for teachers and students. But there is more to their stories. They have seats at the table in the smoke filled rooms where decisions are made at the highest level about how our country will be lead. And to keep those seats, they have to make compromises. They have to sell these compromises to you and me as if these were their own ideas. They want to convince us that these are really OUR ideas.

But it’s not true. It’s showmanship.

We have to be smart enough to see through it and call them out on the bullshit when it comes.

Unions have always been about people power – and what powerful people we have on our side!

The audience at NPE was full of these courageous, big hearted activists and organizers. I’m so honored to have been included in this tremendous event.

Power to the people!


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NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association blog.