JOhn Thompson, retired teacher in Oklahoma, explains to a young teacher who led the walkout in Oklahoma why unions are still necessary.

A Letter to a Young Teacher Walkout Leader

The New York Times’ Dana Goldstein and Erica Green report that “about 70 percent of the nation’s 3.8 million public school teachers belong to a union or professional association,” but that is “down from 79 percent in the 1999-2000 school year.” The Supreme Court’s Janus decision could mean the loss of tens of thousands of union members (or more) and tens of millions of dollars that would otherwise promote education and other efforts to help our students and families.

The Goldstein and Green report:

The teachers who led the protests first gathered supporters on Facebook, sometimes with little help from union officials. But the state and national unions stepped in with organizing and lobbying muscle — and money — that sustained the movement as it grew. That support could wane if teachers in strong-union states like California or Illinois choose not to pay dues and fees.
The Times cites a 25-year-old Oklahoma teacher, Alberto Morejon, as an emerging leader who has “little loyalty to unions.” Morejon is one of many Oklahoma teachers who expressed frustration when union leaders called off the nine-day walkout.

In my experience, however, most teachers later realized that the unions not only funded the labor action, but quickly became more responsive to the grass-roots movement’s concerns. Now that Oklahoma teachers have pivoted and led this summer’s unprecedented and successful election campaigns, my sense is that teachers understand why unions needed to work with school districts to reopen schools before a backlash occurred. We were then able to keep up the momentum, maintain unity, and commit to political actions.

The Times offers just one example of the reason why a continuing intergenerational dialogue about teachers union and Janus is essential:

“Teachers starting off, the salary is so low,” Mr. Morejon said. Foregoing union fees means “one less thing you have to pay for. A lot of younger teachers I know, they’re not joining because they need to save every dollar they can.”
I sure hope to converse with Mr. Morejon. I very much appreciate his organizing efforts. But I would remind him that the year before the 1979 Oklahoma City teachers’ strike, the Oklahoma average teacher salary, adjusted for inflation, was $13,107. I’d also like to share these recollections.

The bipartisan, anti-union, corporate school reform movement took off in the 1990s when “New Democrats” used accountability-driven reform as a “Sister Soldja” campaign. It allowed them to act tough by beating up on traditional allies, teachers and unions. My sense is that reform began with non-educators treating teachers as if we were a mule who needed a club upside the head to get its attention. Angered by educators who didn’t embrace their theory, corporate reformers now seek to knee-cap unions – or worse.

In 2003, the notorious and ruthless Republican consultant, Karl Rove, articulated the scenario that the New Yorker’s Nicholas Lehman dubbed “the death of the Democratic Party.” Rove explained that school reform and the destruction of public sector labor unions could be one of the three keys to destroying the Democrats.

I hope young teachers will read the papers by reformers gloating about the way they defeated unions. After 2011, when Right to Work became the law in Wisconsin, teachers’ union membership dropped from over 80,000 to below 40,000. The decline in union membership after Michigan adopted Right to Work in 2013 was twice as great as the gap between the state’s votes for Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. This raises the question as to how much these reformers thus contributed to Trump’s electoral college victory.

Neoliberal reformers are crying crocodile tears as they downplay their role in imposing Right to Work on the entire nation’s public sector workers. Peter Cunningham acknowledges:

Corporate power is increasing and income inequality is worsening. Anti-tax politicians are starving governments at every level. President Trump is dividing Americans in ways we could not imagine and reversing progress on important issues from climate change to trade. The Supreme Court has shifted to the right, and with Justice Anthony Kennedy stepping down, the entire progressive agenda is in peril.

Cunningham admits that “unions built America’s middle class,” and that because they have been decimated in the private sector, “wage growth has been anemic for decades.”
Cunningham says teachers should respond by getting on board with the data-driven campaign to evaluate school outcomes.

The TNTP’s Dan Weisberg also says correctly, “The past six months have shown that teachers no longer need to rely on union leadership to advocate for basics like higher salaries.” Then, he admits that when many legislatures are “freed from the unions’ political clout,” then teachers’ political victories are likely to be preempted or limited.

Weisberg calls for unions to “get out of the collective bargaining business and become professional associations.” In other words, teachers should go with the Janus flow and give up their due process rights.

It sounds like the long-time union hater would love to support unions – once they became Rotary Clubs.

I want to be clear that I seek an inter-generational discussion, and I’m not criticizing colleagues who are too young to have witnessed twenty years of assaults on teachers and unions. Today’s Millennials are struggling in a notorious “gig economy.” To keep young educators from being reduced to transitory clerks who are even more under-paid, we must learn from recent history. And in Oklahoma, it was the combined passage of “Right to Work” in 2001, as the NCLB Act of 2001 became law, which launched our tragedy.

In my experience during the first years after NCLB and Right to Work, weakened teachers unions and state and local education leaders suffered plenty of defeats but, together, we mitigated the harm. Year by year, however, our strengths – and our professional autonomy – were undermined.

The single most destructive policy that I witnessed was implemented in 2005 when weekly high stakes tests drove 40 percent of our school’s tested students out of school. I attended a meeting that was mostly boycotted by Baby Boomers like me, and I tried to persuade younger teachers to resist. A great young teacher yelled at me, “You are just like my parents! Your generation had unions and could fight back! We can’t!”

Less than five years later, I was at many of the tables when value-added teacher evaluations, the concessions made to compete for the Race to the Top, and School Improvement Grant regulations were imposed. The intent of the new rules was clear; an obvious component was “exiting” Baby Boomers in order to rid districts of our salaries and keep veteran teachers from socializing young teachers into opposing teach-to-the-test mandates.

Our weakened unions had little choice but to continue to work within the system to mitigate the damage done by bubble-in accountability. With the help of another grassroots movement, the Save Our Schools (SOS) campaign, we became more and more successful in defending our students’ rights to a meaningful education. Without our SOS experiences, would teachers have been able to organize this year’s walkouts?

None of these fights are over. We still have to fend off corporate reformers with one hand, as we battle budget cuts with the other. Even if we push back this latest assault on collective bargaining, there is no guarantee that the technocratic micromanagers won’t eventually privatize our schools. But, Mr. Morejon, please remember that without due process rights, we will be incapable of defending our profession. We have a duty to our students to unite and defend the principles of public education and our kids’ welfare