So, as if on cue, on the UFT’s blog Leo Casey has responded to the Hess – West op-ed in the NY Daily News the other day. Casey is like Michener, long and almost every post starts with a grand historical sweep. In Leo’s case it’s usually a reference to a thinker who certainly doesn’t qualify as a household name (in this instance it’s Maimonides, you’ll get no Aristotle or Aquinas here rube!). I would have paid more attention in political theory and been a better student of religion had I known how relevant it all was to contemporary education policy.
In any event, Hess and West (or others, NYC Educator questions Casey here) can respond to the main points of the post but there is one aspect of it I want to tug on because I think it’s relevant to the discussion of teachers’ unions more generally. Basically, in his response, Casey picks at the particulars in an effort to discredit Hess-West. In one instance he writes:
Hess and West assert that innovative and collaborative teacher union leaders are voted out of office by their members, and then cherry picks a total of three anomalous examples to make their case, ignoring the far more numerous instances ignoring the far more numerous instances where the most outspoken union reformers, such as Adam Urbanski in Rochester and Tom Mooney in Cincinnati, were re-elected for decades.
Leave aside the specifics and the two anecdotes rebutting three, I’m not sure Casey does his brethren any favors with this argument. As Julia Koppich described in Collective Bargaining In Education, being a reform union leader is difficult for a variety of reasons (Joe Williams makes the same point in his recent book). Not the least of these is that it’s always easy for someone to come along on your flank and make the case that you’re selling out the membership.
To put it in a New York context, there are a bunch of things that UFT head Randi Weingarten could say or propose that would make me very happy but likely cost her job (never mind the stuff that would make the conservatives happy). Now that of course doesn’t mean that there are not things unions leaders should do, in my view, or that I’d like to see Weingarten do, or that more incremental progress isn’t possible, just that it’s important to be realistic about the constraints union leaders operate under. And lest the reactionaries label this “union bashing,” since it’s obviously not a very flattering picture of some teachers’ union members, it’s nothing of the sort. Rather it’s basic organizational behavior in any membership organization. Even if so inclined, the leader can only get so far out in front of the members. And we know that in the case of the teachers’ unions, at least with the NEA and presumably the AFT, too, it’s even a bit more complicated because the more active minority drives things (again, something not too atypical from an organizational standpoint).
The UFT’s charter school initiative is a good example of all this. As vilified as Randi Weingarten has become in parts of NY’s charter school community over the cap issue, she catches equal heat from a lot of folks in the AFT universe who pretty much loathe her charter school initiative. And yet Weingarten is one of few union leaders even dipping a toe into the water around providing more choice in the public sector and is much more forward looking than many. It’s too bad because teachers unions do have things to bring to the table here and so that posture is counterproductive.
So, the problem with Leo’s argument (and with this post I’m starting to mimic his brevity!) is that if it’s so easy to be a reform union leader in this environment, as he seems to be saying, then what the hell is the hold up? Again, while I think there are a bunch of things that need to change, that the pressure needs to stay on, and that the status quo is untenable for public education, that doesn’t make it easy to make those changes. For their part, union leaders obviously can’t go around blaming their own members for the politics they have to manage behind them, but it surely doesn’t do them any favors when their own people say that this is all a piece of cake! It’s not.
Afterthought: As a national issue, former NEA president Bob Chase illustrates this. understood the changing landscape and tried to move the ball, but got clobbered. Not because he wasn’t sincere in his efforts but because the active membership wasn’t there yet (and still isn’t). Again, doesn’t mean that’s not a problem but it’s a complicated one.