One More Time On School Unions, the Big Tests, and Social Change
by Rich Gibson

Dear Friends, 

Miles and Sue raised criticism of my earlier post which stated the NEA did
nothing to oppose the Bush Education Bill, that its leaders in fact
supported the bill, along with their key congressional contacts like Ted
Kennedy. I was tickled that nobody complained about my calling Bush and
Kennedy, "Killer drunks." 

Sue raises the question of unity. Miles suggested that NEA is a democratic
group that must represent many differing tendencies. Sue concludes to
suggest that only a classroom teacher can make legitimate criticism of
teacher unions. 

I will add a couple of things to what I said earlier. On Jan 10 on the
Diane Reems show on NPR, Monty Neil of Fairtest appeared with Sandra
Feldman, President of the AFT, and another guest. While Feldman did
criticize the funding of the bill, Feldman supported the bill as a whole
and the standardization and accountability (regulation and testing)
maneuver in particular. The AFT is wholly behind the Bush plan. The NEA is
on board as well. 

Today, we see in the LA Times a deepening of the attack on school workers
with four schools being 'reconstituted'. Here is a link

We shall see what the vaunted UTLA does about this. 

Now, I will respectfully address Sue's concluding remark, which would
foreclose my saying anything at all, and then move forward: 

I was a Detroit classroom teacher and social worker for nearly a decade. I
had the same problems that any urban educator would have. I think George
Schmidt does a fine job of describing those problems in his Chicago paper,
Substance, and will only suggest that his experiences were much like mine.
Substance is worth your subscription. At the same time, I taught at the
Labor Studies Center in Detroit. 

I then worked as a union organizer for another decade, for NEA, the UAW,
AFSCME and the largest union in federal government service. I was the
national director of organizing and internal education. Reaching the top of
that sector of unionism, I chose to quit to go back to the the classroom at
the college level. I took a 2/3 cut in pay to do that. I did it because I
concluded from my experience that the union movement was utterly corrupt,
mostly undemocratic, structurally incapable of meeting the challenges
ahead---more of a problem than a solution. 

While there are many good rank and file people in the unions, on the whole,
the union movement is now a weapon of the bosses, not the workers. It
serves to discipline and divert the work force, not mobilize them to fight.
The 'union' movement divides people and always has (especially by race and
gender/sex), much more than it unites them. Do the custodians and
secretaries have a vote in Sue's teacher union, or are they in distinct
locals? If all the teachers and secretaries and bus drivers and custodians
are all in the same local union with Sue, meeting and voting together, that
is a very very unusual local, worth studying and supporting. While there
are surely outbursts, and locals, that indicate contrary tendencies, (like
the Jersey teachers recently jailed----whose fight I supported) on the
whole it is correct to say that the union leaders in the US are not on the
side of the people who pay them dues. 

My teaching load in the CSU system is about the same as it would be at a
mediocre high school, which is what much of the CSU system is. I am
expected to teach and publish and do 'service." I taught more than 100
students last semester, wrote a book, published three articles and an
edited journal, and led demonstrations against the war and racism. My hours
are much better than the hours of a classroom teacher. My work load and the
curriculum is much more free. I like my job, my students, the struggle in
academic life, as well as on the streets of California.

My guess is that everyone on this list works hard, is about a six months'
illness from real poverty, and has less control over their conditions of
work than more. That makes us all workers. But as a worker, I know I have a
more free job than most. 

I am a voluntary member of my union, CFA, affiliated with the NEA and a
hodgepodge of other unions. I urge people to join and am on the state srike
committee. Inside my union, I attack the union leadership every bit as much
as I do here. My union, like unions in general, does not mainly protect my
wages or working conditions, it organizes the methods of my oppression. 

Now, Sue suggests that to attack the school unions and their leaders is
divisive and may drive people away, that we need to be united to fight the
tests. Of course, to be not divisive would be to agree with Sue.

What would it be to agree with Sue? That is unclear to me. Perhaps it would
be to agree that we should fight the tests, and only the tests, and that we
should do that in unity with the unions and their programs. But that is not
possible. The unions are FOR the exams. Their leaders wrote the standards,
in part, and supported the tests.  While no one has ever voted on the
programs adopted by NEA's President Bob Chase, or AFT's Feldman, they have
gone forward with their joint project of New Unionism, that is, the unity
of government, business and labor in the national interest. I have said
before that this viewpoint is an important pillar of fascism, the corporate
state. Again, here is a link to what I think fascism is:

New Unionism, a false sense of common national interest rooted in their own
remarkable priveleges gained from betraying their own union members, is the
basis of the union leaders' support for the current oil war, their refusal
to fight the tests, and their inability to mobilize their own rank and
file. AFT and NEA leaders are both better, tho, at fighting their members
than they are at fighting the employers. NEA leaders are so profoundly
alienated from the rank and file that, in a recent memo, the executive
director of NEA, John Wilson, refers to the rank and file as "Customers.." 

What if we fight just the tests, and leave the other issues aside? That
would be a mistake at both ends. It is perfectly possible to have rotten,
racist schools teaching kids lies, using methods designed to alienate
children from the struggle for rational knowledge, and not use Big Tests,
but the Big Tests sure help. So, winning that fight would not be much of a
win, tho it would be something---probably for suburbanites. On the other
hand, trying to address the tests without addressing their social context
(war, racism, rising inequality, jingoism, etc) entirely misses the point.
That social context (segregation, inequality, war)  is why the tests and
standards exist, as tools of social control. 

The tests do nothing to address questions of poverty, health care, the
absence of time and control that plagues poor people, etc. Nor do the
standards. To the contrary, the tests are designed to mask these problems,
or to convince people that science demonstrates that they deserve their own
misery. Yet here is a precise quote from AFT on the Bush Education plan,
issued on January 11 2002:

Flanked by both Republican and Democratic members of Congress, President
George Bush last week signed into law the newly reauthorized Elementary and
Secondary Education Act, now called the No Child Left Behind Act. The new
legislation "provides a framework for a national commitment to education,"
said AFT president Sandra Feldman in a statement. The AFT "is pleased and
optimistic that the comprehensive legislation embraces a number of positive
measures," she added, including the Reading First and Early Reading
programs; accountability for student progress and the testing requirement;
provisions for adopting high standards in core academic subjects; and the
alignment of professional development around the standards. "It is
especially significant that Congress and President Bush made this kind of
investment in education and to our urban schools at a time of fiscal
austerity," Feldman said. This commitment should be instructive to states
that are considering sacrificing educational investment because of shrinking

AFT is somewhat different from NEA, less democratic, but this statement
largely reflects NEA's position as well. 

To demonstrate just how far on the other side the unions are now, here is a
quote from conservative columnist Mike Antonucci, whose outlook I do not
support, but whose research is usually on the mark:

    +  The Interlocking Directorates of Professional Development. The
National Education Association is negotiating a deal with Teachscape, a
private firm that will provide web-based teacher professional development
services. You can be forgiven if your first reaction to this news is "So
what?" The deal seems even more logical when you discover that Teachscape
already has the American Federation of Teachers as a partner.
          Teachscape's professional development system includes:
video-based case studies that illustrate and analyze exemplary teaching in
real classrooms; examples of student work from featured classrooms; study
groups that promote professional dialogue and mutual support; tools for
self-reflection; and self-assessment opportunities. If this sounds
remarkably similar to the requirements for achieving national
certification, it shouldn't surprise you to learn that the National Board
for Professional Teaching Standards (NBPTS) is also a partner of Teachscape.
          National certification has been one of the hallmarks of new
unionism and the call for teacher professionalism. Indeed, many NEA and AFT
officials sit on the NBPTS board. So it shouldn't surprise you to learn
that David B. Sherman sits on Teachscape's board of directors. Sherman is
vice president of the United Federation of Teachers (New York City) and
also sits on the board of the Teachers Union Reform Network, the primary
internal union organization in support of new unionism.
          Well, it's only natural that these groups cooperate and interact
in order to maintain teacher control of the profession and avert a
corporate takeover of the essence of public education. They are joined in
this mission by Michael Finnerty, president and chief operating officer of
Teachscape. What did Finnerty do before Teachscape? He, according to his
bio, "served as an officer of Edison Schools Inc. from its inception in
1992. He participated in every aspect of the development of the company,
from the conceptual design of product and business plan development to
current operations in 21 states, which generate more than $350 million in
annual revenue."
          The ideological divide between unions and corporations over
public education is real, but the pursuit of profit never seems quite so
bad when you get your own cut. Teachers should ponder this while they
instruct students out of textbooks from McGraw-Hill, which, by the way, is
another partner of Teachscape and "has made an equity investment" in it.
Close quote

Mike Antonucci Jan 7 2002 
The Education Intelligence Agency

There is at least one thing that the union leaders want us to believe, and
one thing that they want us to forget. 

They want us to believe that the government is a potential ally, that it
may be your friend. Surely events have shown that the government is an
instrument of the rich. The current Oil War, the Enron crisis, the
Energy/Money Crisis in California, the bogus Bush/Gore choice, all
demonstrate that the government at every level functions, not as a neutral
arbitor of disputes, but as a tool of those who hold power, the rich.
Lobbying, voting, encouraging them; that is the blind alley the union
bosses want us to pursue.

The union bosses want us to forget that educators now have centripetal
power in US society, right now even more power than the industrial working
class, and that the source of that power is the ability to foment civil
strife, in cooperation with parents, students, and community people. Civil
strife can range from test boycotts, to educational efforts like petitions,
to strikes, and uprisings for which the Argentines have recently offered a
model. Civil strife ultimately breaks the boundaries that the bosses, and
the union bosses, create--grievance procedures, legal restrictions, etc.
The unions leaders will do nearly anything to distract teachers from the
source of their power and on-the-job direct action--even criticize
"over-testing" from time to time. 

The unions in urban areas have assisted, played key roles, in organizing
the collapse, decay, of public education for poor and working class kids.
To unite with the union leaders is to abandon both the struggle against the
tests, and the struggle for democracy and equality in society, two factors
which cannot be split apart. Still, to abandon the unions altogether, as
places to meet people and to go elsewhere, would be foolish. 

I think that we may all generally agree on where we would like to be
someday in the future, with schools that are more free than less, that are
inclusive, with authentic assessment along the lines of the Learning
Record, with literacy programs that matter, places where creativity and
freedom are unleashed through collectivity and collegiality, new kinds of
schools within a society that is democratic and equitable.....etc.....

However, we do not agree on, perhaps, exactly where we are right now and
how to get where we want to be. That passage will not be made by magic, nor
by writing another fine journal article, nor by just teaching well, but by
civil strife---which is going to come whether teachers are involved or not.
The international war of the rich on the poor and working classes is
blazing everywhere. At issue is not the question of being divisive. At
issues is the old union slogan, "Which side are you on?" 

I have come to believe that, on the whole, schools closed by civil strife
are better than schools that are open and operating normally. Surely, good
things do go on inside capitalist schools. Some kids learn to read and
write, and some teachers even learn to learn from their kids. In general,
however, kids who are learning in segregated, exclusionary schools, kids
learning the dominant curriculum, kids being abused by authoritarian and
violent methods of instruction; those kids and their instructors would be
much better off focusing on how to shut down the schools, and to open
freedom schools in the midst of that battle. 

Here is what Robert Moses wrote quite some time ago: "
        "We got freedom schools. You form your own schools. Because when you come
right down to it, why integrate their schools? What is it that you learn in
their schools? Many Negroes can learn it, but what can they do with it?
What they really need to learn is how to be organized to work on the
society in order to change it. They can't learn that in schools. 

        Now what the SNCC people have found in a slow process is that they don't
have to accept society's definition of work. That they can define on their
own. And that they understand a little better what it means to work. That
is to really put energy into something and to make something that is
meaningful to yourself. In a sense these people have found freedom. 

        They have been able to confront people who are on their backs. They take
whatever is dished out—bombings, shootings, beatings, whatever it is. After
people live through that they have a scope that they did not have before.
There is a whole new dimension ....."

At 08:39 PM 1/9/02 EST, you wrote:
>In a message dated 1/9/02 2:18:03 PM Pacific Standard Time, 
>> I must respectfully call into question your attempts to castigate NEA for 
>>  giving aid and comfort to the one-way topdown methods of politicians and 
>>  bureaucrats trying to control, if not eliminate, public education for 
>>  own venal purposes.
>I agree with Miles. Last time I remember consciously staying out of this 
>argument. Our purpose here, I believe, is to oppose destructive uses of 
>standardized tests. It would be a shame if in that effort we were further 
>divided. Also it's hard to say how many people have been alienated and left 
>the listserv due to assumptions made about *everyone's* politics. California 
>is the big state, probably the big prize for testmakers, so isn't it 
>important that this particular listserv work together?
>Further, we can disagree with our union leaders on the national level, but, 
>as I think I've said before, actions and opinions on the local level can
be a 
>whole different story. I work in a large (1800) high school with over 80 
>teachers. There is no one mechanism for getting people together and changing 
>anything other than union building meetings, unless you count faculty 
>meetings which are, of course, run and controlled by management. Our local 
>represents custodians, office workers, subs as well as teachers. Our
>management has a healthy respect for the union, perhaps due to a long and 
>contentious strike which occurred over 20 years ago, but is still well 
>remembered by old timers.
>And for Rich, if you do not work in an environment like ours, teaching 5 
>classes a day, having 175 student contacts a day, no time to eat lunch or 
>even run to the bathroom, facing any number of kids with problems in a given 
>day, maybe in your environment it's easy to attack the ideas of the union's 
>national positions without seeing value in having a union to protect one's 
>rights and working conditions (and to work toward taking stands on issues 
>such as testing which previous posters have carefully detailed over the 

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