Let Members Lead
It was a decisive moment in the West Virginia teachers strike. State union leaders, presenting a deal that would leave out some public sector workers, were greeted with a chorus of “back to the table!”
Those educators refused to be talked into a compromise. And, after days out on strike, they knew they had the power to back up that demand.
Janus decision or no, there’s a lot to be excited about in the labor movement right now. One in 20 educators walked out this past spring—and that doesn’t include the thousands who walked in Washington, nor the strikes coming in Los Angeles, Oakland, and who knows where else in the year ahead.
After enduring decades of austerity budgets, intensifying work, abusive rhetoric from policymakers and the press, privatization, school closings, hyper-accountability, and the deliberate erosion of professional autonomy, educators in public schools are fed up and fighting back.
As president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association for the last four years, I saw and was able to support the growing militancy in education unions.
But even though I speak as a former president, let’s be clear: the organizing and resistance in public education is a rank-and-file movement.
Across the country, working educators are the ones who feel the impact of the assault in their classrooms every day. So they’ve been talking to each other, assessing their power, developing plans, and organizing to fight back.
My job as president was to create opportunities for union members to do all those things—and then to step back and let the members lead.
I understand only too well how elected leaders can get confused about their role. Union bureaucracy and access to politicians and policymakers conspire to convince us that our movement’s strength comes from the top down.
But how we fight shapes what we win. The chant “When we fight, we win” doesn’t only mean that collective action gets us victory. It means that the struggle changes our understanding of what’s possible, of where power lies, of who we are and can be.
STRUGGLE CHANGES US
When classroom teachers march into a principal’s office and demand that he stop trying to divide and conquer, and instead meet with them together...
When educators of color lead a diverse coalition to the school board to demand the hiring of more Black and brown teachers and an end to nepotism...
When educators, parents, and students take to the streets together to refuse staffing cuts...
...those actions change us.
Sure, there’s fear out there. There’s uncertainty and plenty of caution. Standing up to the boss is new terrain for most workers. But even watching others take a stand changes us.
Teachers are inspiring other workers across the country with their courage, conviction, and willingness to assert strong demands for better schools—for a better world—and to strike in order to achieve them.
That’s no small potatoes. That is serious, lived hope. I’m looking forward to the continuing labor upsurge.