At the most recent Fed Rep Council meeting, union leadership continued an ongoing discussion about the growing workload for special education teachers. The district has been making many numerous and unclear mandates with little to no training constituting an undue burden. Union leadership has made efforts to rectify this situation by meeting with district leadership and has been unsuccessful. This advocacy model in which union leadership acts for the rank and file, but not with the rank and file, is a problematic approach that fails to actually challenge power; to alter the existing power structure, the rank and file must win our own battles. This would require union leadership to step aside while an empowered rank and file engages in direct and collective action. Rather than closed door meetings between the union president and the boss, district should hear from us directly and publicly. These opportunities will encourage teachers to get involved, fight back, and advocate for themselves.
Because union leadership admittedly failed to solve this problem, the issue was brought to fed reps. Fed reps were sent to their constituency meetings with the task of brainstorming tactics to pressure the Board of Education, and the superintendent, Raquel Reedy. While the campaign objectives are vague, the overarching goal is to alleviate the unfair hardship placed on special education teachers. Initially, leadership recommended teach-ins at board meetings and letter deliveries to Reedy.
Rank and file who have participated in the recent fights over the high school schedule and the budget know that picketing board meetings, writing demand letters, and speaking frankly to the board are effective measures. In the high school schedule fight, teachers from across the district took it upon themselves to act on their own behalf which built trust, solidarity, and agency amongst the rank and file. Second, we shook leadership up. When high school teachers took turns delivering letters to demand the 5/7 schedule, Reedy became so uncomfortable that she had security stop teachers at the door. In addition, the constant barrage of teachers voicing their opinions to the board sent a clear message that teachers would not do extra work for no pay. In fact, during one picket, board of education members were seen using a side entrance to avoid their disgruntled constituents. Due to this action, high school teachers won their schedule.
In this campaign, high school teachers executed these actions not only without the support of union leadership, but in spite of their direct resistance to our efforts. However, when these actions saw success, union leadership was quick to claim credit for the win. Now, it would appear that union leadership seeks a cheap imitation with vastly different goals. Rather than handing power, autonomy, and credit to the rank and file, union leadership seeks to maintain control and claim victories as their own. When union leadership curtails the power of the rank and file by controlling actions and the narrative, this results in a maintenance of the existing power relations. It is important that the rank and file self-direct and actively participate because it is this type of mobilization that will not only triumph, but also challenge power in a real way. Union leadership should facilitate rank and file activity, not dictate and control the terms upon which we struggle.
It is rare to sit in Fed Rep Council and engage in conversation about how to organize against district leadership. This type of dialogue has proved elusive as Fed Rep Council is not generally a place for deep discussion or organizing. It was refreshing to have such discourse – this is what we should be doing all the time! This positivity ceased after becoming apparent that Board of Education member, Barbara Peterson, had participated in the elementary teachers’ discussion of tactics and was to remain at the meeting for the subsequent large group discussion on organizing. This is clear evidence that both union and district leadership seek to regulate and restrain the rank and file.
One fed rep stated that Barbara’s presence was a conflict of interest. How can union members have a candid discussion about organizing against district leadership when district leadership is sitting in the same room? Barbara’s presence was defended by union leadership on the grounds that she was a teacher and union member for many years. This should not grant her uncensored access. Union meetings should consist of union members, not those who hold power over us. This represents the all too familiar trend of union leadership placing their cozy relationship with the the boss over the interests of the rank and file.
District leadership now has access to all the information discussed at our meeting such as insight into the potential activity, and which teachers suggested certain actions. This not only undermines the work, it destroys the trust and solidarity we should be building in our union. The union hall should be a place where members can speak freely and express ideas – not a place where union leadership’s inappropriate relationship with management manifests itself at the expense of members. This is an affront to the rank and file.
Friendly folks in positions of power will not win the fight for the working class; we will. It is important that we recognize that labor and capital have fundamentally opposing interests that cannot be negotiated away by champions and advocates. The rank and file must wrest their victories from the firm grasp of power and this requires direct and collective action. Inviting management into our union building violates the space and illustrates a clear refusal on the part of union leadership to build real power through an organized and active rank and file. We do not need champions, we need working class unity and solidarity. Together, we are a force to be reckoned with and it is our power that will ultimately triumph. Unite and resist.