Tom Mooney – a little late but in memoriam

Posted December 8, 2007

I just learned–too late–that the Ohio labor movement lost a great leader at the end of 2006 in Tom Mooney. In fact he died a little over a year ago today.

What I didn’t know is that Tom started out as a ’60s radical at Antioch College and worked on a ton of public and collective education projects, then rose through the ranks of the union. He ended up head of OFT/AFT in Columbus, OH, and I knew him through labor-coalition work. He died much too young, at 52, of a heart attack.

Tom Mooney: September 12, 1954 – December 3, 2006.

Tom probably wouldn’t characterize himself as a labor radical–I don’t know, I could be wrong. He had complicated positions on testing, on teacher accountability, those flash-points of debate that many feel are codes for corporatization of education. He wasn’t categorically against them, but I think he was trying to get into the debate rather than trying to shut down those questions. He said in an interview with Rethinking Schools that he thought the industrial unionism model for teachers’ unions was not useful. I am not in a teachers’ union; I find these things interesting but I have to do a lot more thinking about them. He pushed for charter schools to be held accountable and he pushed for an equitable funding model for public schools and a constitutional amendment in Ohio that would have set such a model in place.

A wonderful tribute to Tom’s vision–and his true focus on internationalism in the union movement: This is from Edwise, the UFT blog:

“I knew right away that Tom was unique in the annals of teacher union leaders. He has inspired me for two decades. His strategy to fight for better schools for children was his way to win decent wages and working conditions. He combined that strategic perspective with an ongoing mobilization and public relation campaign to change the perception of the public, the corporate elite, and parents of the motivation and desires of teachers.

But he was not mere rhetorical bluster. His strategy lead to teachers in Cincinnati gaining leadership roles in the school and district unprecedented across the nation. He saw teacher unions as the fulcrum for creating a true profession for teachers where teachers, not administrators, made all the evaluation, curriculum, and classroom decisions to educate children. He turned the definition of a teacher union on its head. Teacher leadership in the classroom and the school was the moving train for protection, respect and educational improvement.

At a time of narrow parochialism within education and the union movement, Tom was an internationalist. I still remember schmoozing with Tom before a national conference of teacher union newspaper editors. I asked him, “How do you get ready for collective bargaining?” He rapidly responded with, “We analyze what we accomplished in the last round, survey our membership, figure out the administration goals, look at national trends, and examine what is going on internationally.”

“Yeah, right” I thought. What is going on internationally influences local collective bargaining.

With a straight face I asked, “What is going on internationally with teachers?” Tom never missed a beat. “Michael, do you know that there is not a word for superintendent in Ukraine and that teams of teachers are making decisions in Australia?” A few years later every school in Cincinnati had Instructional Leadership Teams to determine the educational direction in that school and subject area teachers elected powerful district curriculum councils.

Tom was a visionary. Knowing that the road to professional unionism was not enough to transform education at a time of intense attack by privateers, Tom and I and a few other teacher union leaders developed the concept of Social Justice unionism in Portland Oregon in 1994. That perspective looked at not only professional leadership for teachers but the need for outreach to low income communities of color by teacher unions to gain support for public education.”

So these are not coherent thoughts, but it makes me wonder in my frustration at labor coalition work how often I forgot to ask, “What were you doing 10 years ago? 20 years ago?”

It makes me wonder about how labor leaders today can be in positions where it’s easiest to hide the array of political experiences they have.

Tom was always down for coalition work, always generous and willing to take students seriously. I thought he was a pretty cool bureaucrat, and now it’s ridiculous that it took his death for me to google him and learn about him. Damn.