June 6, 2009

Sifting priorities, micro and macro

I had such good intentions this morning. After dropping off my daughter at the High School o' SATs, I figured I'd sit in the local Starbucks and read student work while she was wearing down No. 2 pencils. So there I was at about 7:45 in the morning, listening to slightly-too-loud Sinatra and reading drafts of one section of the major paper for the class I'm teaching this summer. After about a third of the batch, I bailed on both student reading and the environment of too-loud soft music and too-loud jovial fellow customers. I listened to Scott Simon's interview of Naturally 7 while driving a few blocks to the library branch that just opened up, and I'll sit here for the meantime, trying to figure out what to do for the rest of the weekend. As usual, I have Too Much to do, and I have to do some of it and not the rest. May I make the choices wisely, but more importantly, may I make the choices consciously.


In many ways, education policy and policy debates are about the same types of choices: you can't do everything at once, you can't fix everything at once, and being ambitious requires being selective about where you spend energy. It also requires a big-picture perspective. That's part of why I shook my head at Norm Scott's confectionary history of UFT. There's an important role for internal debates inside unions, and I have respect for UFT activists who are willing to go toe-to-toe with the most powerful teachers union leader in the country, but there are huge leaps of logic in Scott's thumbnail history and a failure to see a crucial big-picture issue.

Scott assumed that there was an overarching "sellout strategy" that Al Shanker consistently used after spring 1968, and that the sellout strategy was based on a circumscribed realpolitik vision of unions:

After the brutal '68 strike Albert Shanker knew the UFT could never again win much more than salary increases for teachers, and at some point only those at the expense of selling out. Thus over the next 15 years was born the "new unionism" where the union no longer is an antagonist but a cooperative partner with management.

The problem with this argument is not that it has no basis in fact but that it gives far too much credit to a single individual for the direction of the UFT (and AFT). Shanker was certainly a forceful unionist, and both the UFT and AFT were shaped by his leadership, but the general dilemmas facing UFT in 1968 were not new or unique, Shanker would never have been able to take the UFT on strike without the agreement of hundreds of UFT leaders, and there is something odd about the obsession of union dissenters with a single leader.

It's the last that's the most surprising to me on both intellectual and political grounds. If I were a member of ICE (a dissenting caucus within UFT), I would not be obsessing about Randi Weingarten. While focusing on individual targets can be useful for energizing one's base, it's useless for public discussion and the nuts and bolts of organizing and campaigning. To put it bluntly, it's following the reasoning template offered by the New York Post, whose editorial board loves to focus on personalities and the imagined virtues and vices of key figures. Imagine for a second that Shanker had died fifteen years earlier than he did, in 1982 rather than 1997. How would the history of the AFT have been different?

Oh, wait. We don't have to speculate. We can look at what's happened to the AFT in the past 12 years, since his death. There have certainly been stylistic differences, and the AFT has a far less closed culture (and is thus healthier) than it was at Shanker's death. But many of the strategic decisions taken in the late 1990s and early part of this decade would probably have been taken if Shanker had been alive, and it wasn't because anyone at AFT held seances to figure out "what Al would think" (despite the jokes made about Richard Kahlenberg's attempt to channel Shanker and probably some debates framed in that way). 

Consider the debates about mayoral control in New York City. I don't pretend to know the inside politics, but anyone looking at the picture three months ago could have predicted a few things:

  • Mayoral control would not be extended precisely as is, but neither would it end, and whatever came out would be a political compromise.
  • There would be test scores released that would be spun by multiple sides, and almost surely inaccurately on multiple sides.
  • Weingarten would have to make choices about where to push for change in mayoral control.
  • Someone would accuse Weingarten of being a sellout no matter what position she took, because she would be presumed to have given her okay for whatever came out.

I can't see either the logic in Scott's understanding of his own local or how Scott thinks teachers unions should behave in public debates such as over mayoral control. He either is using Shanker as a synecdoche for the strategic choices many UFT leaders have made over the decades or truly thinks that the key problem is that the wrong charismatic leader is in charge. Okay: Weingarten will be gone from the active UFT leadership in some months, so who's going to be the next target? I suspect that Scott knows deep down that his fight is with a very large group of fellow unionists who just disagree with his desire for more open conflict. 

One of the dilemmas with collective bargaining is the fact that the act of collective bargaining channels an adversarial conflict into a pattern of routines that then circumscribes relationships between union and management. Sit down and bargain, ratify, enforce agreements, picket and strike, lobby publicly for your members' interests and values: these are the public tools of power for a recognized union. A skilled union leadership knows how to use more than one of the tools at any time and if both wise and lucky will use the right tools more often than the wrong tools. An unskilled union leadership relies on a narrow set of tools in a predictable and increasingly less effective way until its members have essentially lost all the advantages of representation. But as several labor historians have pointed out (and my apologies for forgetting the names right now), there is no way to avoid the fact that if you buy into the legal authority of a union, you then buy into the set of tools that gives you.

Buying into that set of tools is not the only choice, of course; there's the historical example of the Wobblies who disdained contracts and collective discipline. I don't mean to suggest that the alternative is to match the violence by some Wobblies, but suppose for a moment that a union's leadership essentially ignored contracts, contract enforcement, and the like, and instead let the union culture evolve into wildcat direct action much of the time. There are two problems with arguments that unions should look more like the Wobblies (absent violence) than the UFT. First, I don't think it's a very smart political move. Because this country has 70 years of at least putative legal protection/recognition of union organizing and close to 40 years of effective public-employee organizing, most of the general public would conclude that anarchic direct-action participants over the age of 22 are trying to eat their cake and have it, too -- have the benefits of legal recognition without trying to take on any responsibility to follow the consequences of that recognition. In addition, in the internet age, glaring inconsistencies in the explanations of direct-action participants will make a union look like its members are less in touch with reality than George W. Bush, more manipulative than Dick Cheney, or both.

Perhaps more importantly, a lack of collective discipline and strategic choice is a path that is going to lose more often than win. Direct action does work where it's organized and lucky. It does not always work, and as one observer noted about the United Teachers of Los Angeles one-day strike fizzle, if it's intended as a public show without a broader strategy around it, it's nothing but street theater, perhaps entertaining and good enough for the evening news, but not enough to shape policy.

Maybe Weingarten needed to drive a harder bargain (and I think that's a reasonable position to take, that she made her peace too early), but you are making an implicit argument against collective discipline if you pretend that a union doesn't have to make strategic choices, make bargains with adversaries, or decide what is a reasonable settlement.

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Posted in The academic life on June 6, 2009 10:23 AM |