What Does the Victory of Educators for a Democratic Union Mean?
On Saturday, May 9, the 1200 or so delegates to the Massachusetts Teachers' Association (local affiliate of the National Education Association) Annual Meeting elected as their new president a member of the insurgent MTA caucus, Educators for a Democratic Union. Barbara Madeloni, a contract (adjunct) faculty member from UMass Amherst, will assume the presidency of the MTA when the term of the current president expires in mid-July. Struggles between Left and Right factions within unions often take the form of caucus politics, where normally the right-wing is in control of the union's leadership, while the left-wing caucus contests for control. Generally, in such situations, the left-wing caucus loses, for a number of reasons, the most important of which is the conservative and bureaucratic character of American "business unionism," which became the norm in the labor movement when communists, trotskyists, and other radicals were purged from the unions during the McCarthy period. Because of the dominance of business unionism in the United States, any victory by an insurgent, left-wing union caucus is a matter for celebration. So let's pause to celebrate EDU's victory.
Now for some hard-nosed analysis. An affiliate of the National Education Association (by far the biggest union in the United States), the Massachusetts Teachers' Association represents the large majority of schoolteachers, higher ed faculty, and educational support staff in the Commonwealth. Its 110,000 members provide it with a dues base of more than $50,000,000 per year, which enables it to give a great deal of money to Democratic Party candidates, as well as to maintain a sizable staff of lobbyists, lawyers, and consultants. Whenever action is necessary to defend the interests of teachers, the MTA almost always pursues an insider strategy, emphasizing lobbying at the State House rather than mobilizing its members for even mild forms of direct action, let alone strikes. In other words, its basic approach is to cut deals with politicians, which it then proceeds to try to sell to its membership. In cutting these deals, it normally assumes an obsequious, supine position, even though it is a major source of funding for the Democratic Party, which, of course, controls all three branches of Massachusetts government. In addition, the "Association" is still deeply marked by a status-anxiety that expresses itself in the ideology of professionalism. Many of its leaders, staff, and rank-and-file members have never quite gotten used to the idea that the Association is really a Labor Union. This often inhibits the MTA from embracing labor militancy.
There have been progressive rank-and file-opposition caucuses in the MTA for longer than the 15 years I have been active in it, but Educators for a Democratic Union is, to my knowledge, the first to capture the commanding heights of the union. What enabled it to do so is a particularly unsavory deal that the current leadership cut with Governor Duval Patrick. The deal raises the minimum retirement age from 55 to 60 for new teachers, as well as all other state and municipal workers, makes them contribute a larger share of their pay to their pensions, and 50% of the cost of medical insurance after retirement, as opposed to the 0% that they now pay. None of these give backs apply to teachers with 10 or more years in the system who are less than 5 years from retirement. To be blunt, the MTA sold its young and future members down the river. They are not the first union to pursue a "let the young be damned" strategy, nor are they the first to have the support of "the jobs trust" - those among older members and retirees who place what they take to be their individual interests above cross-generational solidarity. But this particular exercise in I've-got-mine-ism caused widespread rebellion in the ranks, including among some teachers close to retirement. They at least understood that the two-tier retirement system is sure to weaken their union down the line, including its ability to defend the interests of even the privileged tier of older retirees.
Educators for a Democratic Union came to power in part by mobilizing opponents of the deal the MTA cut with the Governor. In numbers that exceeded anyone's expectations, pro-EDU voters took the time to get delegates' credentials from their chapters, and come to the Hynes Convention Center to vote for the new president on a beautiful Saturday morning in May. Strangely, however, although Madeloni won the presidency by 97 votes out of around 1200 cast, a resolution condemning the MTA-Patrick deal lost by 9 votes. Why the discrepancy? Two factors may have played a role. To begin with, 500 of the 1200 delegates had never been to an MTA convention before. Most of them were undoubtedly Madeloni voters who had no idea just how tedious an MTA Annual Meeting can be. After listening to hours of nit-picking over the organization's budget, it is possible that Madeloni supporters left the convention immediately after her victory, before the policy vote was cast, while supporters of the more experienced old guard hung around. Probably, though, the more important factor is that Madeloni voters were driven by more than their opposition to the retirement deal. As in the rest of the country, teachers have been raked over the coals by right-wing Republicans and Obama Democrats alike. They are increasingly likely to find employment in non-union charter schools, rather than in public schools paying union salaries with benefits. Their pay, and even the fact that they have jobs at all, is being increasingly tied to student performance on stupid, boring, and ideologically skewed standardized exams. And their unions have been made scapegoats for the inability of young people to thrive in a low-wage capitalist economy, with high rates of debt, and equally high rates of under- and unemployment. Madeloni, like the EDU caucus as a whole, gave expression to an anger that is now palpable among significant numbers of teachers from coast to coast. In 2012, the Chicago teachers demonstrated how powerful such anger can be when tempered by the vision of a more just and democratic future, when they struct, largely successfully, against their mayor, Rahm Emanuel, attack-dog for President Obama's regressive education policy. EDU's victory builds on that of the Chicago teachers.
EDU has won an important battle, but a war remains ahead, and not only with the educational, "free-market" troglodytes who now have the ear of both political parties. The Executive Board of the MTA is packed with EDU opponents, as is the leadership of some of the chapter affiliates. And, of course, there is still the "jobs trust" of conservative teachers to contend with. Whether the victory we are now celebrating is the beginning of a determined attack on the Right outside and within the MTA, or whether it is just a flash in the progressive pan will depend on whether the EDU can expand its membership and help them organize into a powerful and genuinely democratic force. If it is to have any chance at succeeding in rolling back the corporate agenda in education, it will have to institutionalize a new democratic and militant form of teacher unionism against the powerful tradition of the MTA's bureaucratic "professionalism" and preference for insider dealing.
Gary Zabel, a long time union activist, was a delegate to this year's Massachusetts Teachers' Association Meeting.