By Kathleen Melville
After reading two books about how racist and punitive systems harm our students (Pushout and Discipline Over Punishment), the West Philly Summer Book Group read The Future of Our Schools to help us understand what we, as unionized teachers, can do about it. Lois Weiner’s 2012 book describes a burgeoning form of unionism, which she calls “social movement unionism.” Social movement unions are different from business unions in both their aims (bargaining for the common good instead of just for wages and benefits) and their way of operating (democratically and with broad community support instead of hierarchically and bureaucratically). By transforming our own union into a social movement union, we can build the power we need to make our schools the safe, caring communities that our students deserve.
Many teachers that I speak to express dissatisfaction and disconnection from our union. They do not feel a part of decisions that are made or priorities for the future. Very few members attend union meetings because they are seen as boring or pointless. In Weiner’s view, “A strong, democratic union values each constituency’s unique contribution and takes care to demonstrate to all members that it is a union of equals” (14). This ideal reminds me of what I strive for in both my classroom community and the community of educators at my school. It makes sense that we should also strive for this ideal as a union of educators.
Weiner also addresses the racial divides that often take root in urban teachers unions like mine. In many of these unions, teachers are primarily white, while the students and families they serve are made up primarily of people of color. She points to Newark as an example of a teachers union torn apart by race riots and she recommends that teachers unions “nurture a culture in which race and racism are critiqued frankly” (28). The Caucus of Working Educators makes discussions of racial justice a priority. These discussion are often complicated and difficult, but we hope to build trust among different groups of people so that we can build the power to enact policies and win funding that will make our city and our school system more racially just.
In the third chapter, Weiner outlines what makes a social movement union different from a business union. One of the primary differences is organizing. In a social movement union, members organize to build power, win campaigns, and solve shared problems. In Weiner’s words, “A social movement unions casts the union’s strength as a function of its ability to mobilize its members to struggle on their own behalf. Union power comes from the bottom up, as it does in social movements” (36). This clarifies for me that my union is definitely a business union or service model union that “depends on the smarts or district or national staff and central headquarters” (42) instead of a broad base of union members and community partners. In order to transform the union, the Caucus of Working Educators needs to focus on engaging members at the building level - visiting schools, having one-on-one conversations with educators, and giving the support and framework for members to “struggle on their own behalf” (36). All public educators in Philadelphia have unmet needs, and we need to find out what those needs are, educator by educator, school by school.
This is what the Caucus of Working Educators has been attempting to do with its “Listening Survey.” We sit down with members to find out what issues are most important to them and what changes they would like to see in the next contract. This has been an extraordinary experience for me as an educator and an organizer. Over and over again, I have asked rank-and-file union members to name their top three priorities, and over and over again, they name improvements that will benefit students: more counselors and social workers, smaller class sizes, safer building conditions. I have yet to meet an educator who names a “bread and butter” issue like wages or benefits as one of their top priorities for negotiations. To me, this proves teachers’ deep commitment to social justice, even among teachers who don’t necessarily consider themselves “activists” or “social justice educators.”