Teachers Unions and the War Within
The failure is the inevitable result of the difference between what teachers unions are and what they would like others to think they are. This difference manifests itself as two messages: an internal one, meant for the unions' leaders and activists, and an external one, meant for education policymakers and the public at large. In the good old days, the two audiences were always separate. But in today's world, where everyone with a phone or Internet access can act as a reporter, the two messages can overlap, causing confusion and contradiction.
The teachers unions now face an environment in which their traditional enemies are emboldened, their traditional allies are deserting, and some of their most devoted activists are questioning the leadership of their own officers.
Moment of Truth
The events of the last five years have led the two national teachers unions to what normally is referred to as "the moment of truth." But truth is tricky to define when perceptions are an integral part of the unions' influence. Even weakened, together the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) constitute the single most powerful force in American education policy. Nothing moves forward without an answer to one question: What will the union do?
Will the NEA and the AFT continue to exert veto power over education reform? Are their recent setbacks the beginning of an irreversible decline? Will they become more militant or less as the years go on?
…The teachers unions are under duress. Their efforts to simultaneously exist as the champions and opponents of education reform are meeting resistance even internally. Their public image has never been worse. How do they plan to turn this around?
The clues are in the address made by John Stocks to the NEA Representative Assembly delegates: "play the long game."
Times are bad, but bad times don't last forever. As long as the unions can head off any more reversals in state collective-bargaining laws, and stem the bleeding in right-to-work states, they can await a more positive correlation of forces. As the economy rebounds, teacher hiring will increase, though probably not to previous levels. A few key governorships, a few key legislature flips, a couple of new U.S. Supreme Court justices, and the momentum could shift quickly.
Renewed membership growth and an increased revenue stream will not only improve the unions' bottom line, but it will quiet the internal dissent. Unions are well aware that no one wants change when things are going well.
There are two problems with playing the long game. The first is that if you keep getting trounced in the short game, you don't last long enough to win the long game. The unions need a major victory in the short term to stop the death spiral. The second problem is assuming that your strategy is the correct one and only needs time and better circumstances to work. Such thinking stifles internal reforms just as effectively as its stifles school reform.
People have been waiting patiently for the teachers unions to champion school reform since the days of Al Shanker, who served as AFT president from 1974 to 1997. But the reality never seems to match the rhetoric.
…What we are likely to see in the future is simply more of what we have seen in the past and are still seeing in the present. The NEA and the AFT will be the obstacles in the road, blocking the way of new ideas, even those generated from within. Their adherence to a mission designed for the world of the 1960s will cause them to follow in the footsteps of the private-sector industrial unions, albeit several decades later.
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters was a massive political and social force in the 1950s and 1960s. Today, the union still exists; it still can deliver PAC money and campaign workers, but no one worries about the power and influence of the Teamsters anymore.
Even if their current difficulties continue, the NEA and the AFT will never disappear. But their days of dominating the education environment are on the wane. In the future, we will look upon them as we now do the Teamsters, as remnants of an earlier age.
Teachers Unions and the War Within
Making sense of the conflict
WINTER 2015 / Vol. 15, No. 1