Slinghot: Take the High Road
When I ran for president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association I ran headlong into attacks about my character, my competency, and the intentions of our reform caucus. We were accused of being divisive, of being controlled by outside forces, and of cheating.
The union’s previous leaders had cut deals with legislators to limit seniority rights, increase the cost of health insurance, and allow student test scores to be included in teacher evaluations.
As we campaigned, we tapped into a deep vein of anger and disappointment with the former leadership. We put forward a vision of well-funded schools, autonomy in the classroom, and dignity at work. We invited each other into building a fighting union that would organize to achieve these goals.
Instead of proposing their own vision, our opponents pulled out all the stops to discredit me as an individual. Each week, when the campaign committee met, there were new reports of things said about me and us, and new revelations of bad deals they had made.
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Smarting from the attacks and angry about past practices, we would have been entirely justified to return fire with fire. Correct the lies and distortions. Question their characters and intents.
That would have been a terrible mistake. I intuited it then, and I am convinced of it now, with more elections and experiences under my belt.
RISE ABOVE THE MUD
I had a feeling it wasn’t right because the slander never came up when I was talking to members. And talking about how the old leadership had worked against members would have sidetracked us into conversations that led nowhere.
The members I spoke to were drawn to realizing a vision in which their classrooms were plentiful with resources and their teaching was imbued with the agency and creativity of a dignified workplace.
These campaigns taught me that, when it comes to internal union struggles—union elections or caucus-building—you should take the high road.
Here are a few specific reasons:
- When you throw mud, some of it will land on you. Members just see the fight, and not the substantive issues of disagreement.
- People may be drawn to fights like they are to car crashes, but eventually they drive on by. Over and over I’ve seen members disengage due to what they see as internal squabbling that is not about the issues they are facing every day.
- When you make it personal, you communicate that the fight is about good or bad individuals, rather than about what kind of union we want. Our victories are only secure when won by the collective power of workers, not the power of one individual.
Take the high road because it is the most welcoming place. Unions are the place we want to—and have to—bring workers together across all kinds of differences.
SHOW THE DIFFERENCE
That doesn’t mean we blur our differences. As reformers, we want to be crystal clear about the vision for the union we are inviting members to be a part of—a union that is democratic, transparent, and militant, and where members are connected to each other and leading the work.
Show it’s not just words. If your campaign is about building a member-led union, don’t just be giving speeches about what this means—bring members into problem-solving discussions.
If the tentative agreement falls short, don’t attack the bargaining team—offer a plan for building the power to win more.
If the leadership constantly tells members what cannot be done, organize members into action.
Walk the high road looking toward the horizon, and always remember, there is one target: the boss.