by Dan Clawson and John Fitzgerald
December 7, 2016
Four years ago, corporate reformers came after public education and teachers’ unions and found that the leadership of the Massachusetts Teachers Association was unwilling or unable to fight. The result was the end of seniority for teachers in Massachusetts. Emboldened by their success, corporate reformers once again came after what are widely acknowledged to be the best schools in the country and the teachers who work in them with an attempt to lift the cap on charters. This time, however, the reformers encountered a very different union, a union with a far stronger rank-and-file movement and a president, Barbara Madeloni, who is a member of the rank-and-file movement, Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU).
In Massachusetts this year the corporate attack focused on charter schools was backed by $24 million in dark corporate money, and was expected–by the legislature, by corporate donors, by the charter forces–to crush teachers. This attack is fully bipartisan: most of the money came from finance capital, the largest on-the-record donors included the family that owns Walmart, billionaire Michael Bloomberg chipped in, and the corporate campaign sent a flyer from a shadow group called Continuing Obama’s Legacy. (The flyer used a quotation from Obama, but he had not authorized its use.) Despite their $24 million, the charter forces–which had more than a 20-point lead in the polls in March–lost by an amazing 24 points, 62% to 38%. It was a huge victory for progressive teacher unions, for a grassroots campaign that insisted on fighting even when it seemed the odds were against us, and for rank-and-file union president Barbara Madeloni.
Sadatu Mamah-Trawill led a chant prior to a “Yes on 2” rally, which received a rousing reception outside the Roxbury Boys & Girls Club in Boston on Monday. Photo © Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff
Charter schools are one of the two most important forms of the attack on teacher unions. (The other is high stakes testing and teacher evaluations.) Charter schools are privately run schools, almost always non-union, that receive the great bulk of their money from public funding, sometimes supplemented by donations from the one percent. Charter schools insist on being called “public” charter schools, an indication of the fact that public schools are widely supported. (Charters are “public” in the same sense as defense contractors or for-profit nursing homes are: most of their money comes from the government.)
If you believe test scores, Massachusetts has the best schools in the country. Except for the charter schools, the teachers are entirely unionized. A corporate victory in Massachusetts would have sent a message to the entire country that no one was safe; the grassroots victory sends a counter-message that people value and will defend their public schools.
Historically, Massachusetts has tightly regulated the number of charter schools, with a cap on the number of schools that can be opened, a single state authority that must approve any new charter, and an additional cap on the amount of money any district can be required to use to fund charters. When charter forces were unable to get the legislature to “lift the cap,” they initiated a referendum campaign and put the measure on this November’s ballot.
The past history of the 110,000 member Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) was to give in when attacked, negotiating a “compromise” retreat. Under the former union leadership, in 2012, the corporate forces used the threat of a ballot referendum measure to attack teacher seniority. Scared by the ballot measure, and unwilling or unable to involve members in fighting back, the then union president, Paul Toner, negotiated a legislative resolution in exchange for the corporate forces agreeing to withdraw the ballot measure. Under the “compromise,” most parts of the referendum were withdrawn; teachers “only” gave up their seniority rights for layoffs and involuntary transfers. This is what the old leadership considered a victory.
This time around the same dynamic was at play, but with a very different union president. Barbara Madeloni had been elected in 2014 in a stunning upset, a rank-and-file union member who had never been a local union president or a member of the MTA board. She and the Educators for a Democratic Union caucus that backed her argued that the union needed to be prepared to fight, even if that involved a risk of failure. In Barbara’s first year in office that “take no prisoners, we are fighting to the end” approach had been a spectacular success when the Commissioner of Education tried to impose new rules that would have made it impossible for teachers to renew their licenses unless either their students’ test scores went up by a sufficient amount, or their supervisor supported their license renewal. The old leadership would have negotiated a compromise; Madeloni said “hell no” and gave teachers a way to fight back. They did, by the thousands, and in three weeks the proposal was withdrawn.
The charter story was somewhat the same. The old union leadership would have seen good reasons to give in to the charter forces: they had pledges for more money than had ever been spent on any ballot referendum campaign in Massachusetts history, they were backed by a highly popular governor (who appeared in ads for the pro-charter campaign), the media were pro charter, and the spring poll results showed their ballot measure passing by a landslide. President Madeloni and Educators for a Democratic Union insisted on fighting, even if we ran a (non-negligible) chance of losing. The board of the MTA, still dominated by old-guard forces, was reluctant to embrace the fight, three times postponing a vote to fully commit to the campaign, finally making a partial commitment and throwing the issue to the 1500 delegates to the MTA’s Annual Meeting. The delegates to the Annual Meeting, the union’s largest and most democratic decision-making body, voted overwhelmingly for a full fight against charters. The MTA delegates pledged $9.4 million to the fight, the state’s AFT teacher union pledged $2.6 million, and the money was there not to match the charter forces, but to have enough to get our message out.
The rest is history. It was important to have enough money for TV ads, but we always knew we would be outspent by 2 to 1. The key to the pro-public schools campaign was grassroots involvement, by educators especially, but also by parent and community forces. The campaign phoned or knocked on the doors of 1.5 million voters. By the end of the campaign over 200 school committees voted to support the “No on 2” campaign and not a single school committee voted for yes on 2. The NAACP, Black Lives Matter, the PTA, the Mass Municipal Association, and lots more came out for No on 2.
The door knocking, the school committee votes, the alliances with community groups didn’t just happen; they took lots of hard work and member engagement. At the same time, it’s important to recognize that in fact a relatively small percentage of union members engaged in active voter outreach, although many more wore buttons, had lawn signs, or talked to friends. There is lots of room for a stronger union with more member engagement; the No on 2 campaign has helped us identify where we are strong and where we need to re-build.
In March of this year a rational calculus would probably have concluded that the charter side would prevail: they had more money, the full support of a popular governor, the backing of the state’s major media; the union side had never fought such a campaign, was internally divided, had always thought of political clout as coming from campaign money and paid lobbyists. But when the union decided to fight, lots of members stepped up and we found an amazing level of support from the public. Members uniformly reported that when they would knock on a door and say “Hi, I’m ______ , and I’m a teacher here in town, and I’d like to talk to you about supporting our public schools” people were always impressed and eager to hear what the teacher had to say. The lesson here is almost a cliché: When we fight, we win.
Dan Clawson is an active member of EDU and serves on the Executive Committee
of the MTA. He teaches sociology at the University of Massachusetts
Amherst. John Fitzgerald is a high school history teacher in the Boston area
and is an active member of EDU.