Lost in much of the narrative about teachers’ unions – from their defenders and critics – is engagement with the basic political reality that teachers’ union leaders are elected. That means that like any politician they must be attuned to constituencies and the political winds within their union. And the winds do blow, there are many factions within teachers unions that agree or disagree on various issues, have different priorities, or have different political underpinnings.
One dynamic we see a lot is that if you’re trying to unseat the incumbent you attack them as insufficiently strident, not getting everything they could for members, not fighting hard enough and so forth. That tactic cost a lot of pro-reform union leaders their jobs during the aughts. But it can also lead to the absurd. Take the case of Chicago where Karen Lewis was just elected to a second term. Her opposition attacked her, as the Chicago Tribune reports:
“…Saunders-Wolffe said contract negotiations didn’t result in sufficient raises for teachers and that Lewis “didn’t deliver at the bargaining table” with issues surrounding teacher seniority and teacher evaluations.”
That line of attack is about someone, Lewis, who broke the teachers’ union losing streak with a strike that paralyzed Chicago, got sizable increases in compensation that may ultimately bankrupt the schools, reshaped the debate in Chicago and to a large extent nationally (AFT President Randi Weingarten had to go get herself arrested in Philly, for instance), forestalled evaluations in Chicago, and is fighting the proposed school closings tooth and nail. In the stridency department there is stuff like this.
The line of attack is also, of course, the same one that Lewis used to win the presidency from her predecessor. So the point is as obvious as it generally is intractable. Just as in our national politics, in an environment like that genuine sustained moderation and consensus will remain hard to come by.