Re-imagining union organizing

Ann Finkel

September 23, 2020

Black Lives Matter at School poster (www.blacklivesmatteratschool.com/)

In her Organizing Upgrade article, From Resolutions to Transformation: How Unions Are Organizing for Racial Justice, Stephanie Luce reported on how teachers, nursing home workers and telephone workers are re-imagining what “union” demands and organizing look like. Here, Boston teacher Ann Finkel reflects on her experience in light of Luce’s article.

As a member of the Boston Teachers Union (BTU), I appreciated reading Stephanie Luce’s article on how a number of unions are organizing for racial justice. Our country is clearly in the middle of multifaceted crises that make the need for rank-and-file organizing in this moment especially critical and exciting.

As Luce discusses, in June the BTU passed a “Resolution to Build an Anti-Racist Union.” While I was not involved in writing or organizing around this resolution, from the receiving end I can say the recruitment to show up to the meeting was very effective. I have only attended a handful of membership meetings before being involved in BTU Caucus of Rank and File Educators (BTUCORE), but after receiving emails over four different lists, texts from three colleagues, and one voicemail asking me to attend this particular meeting, I was certainly committed to attending.

This resolution comes at a time when staff at my school, and at schools across the district, are meeting to figure out how to talk with students about racism and the Black Lives Matter movement, and white teachers are starting to have conversations about how to educate ourselves in the ways that racism plays out in our own classrooms. Showing up to vote for this resolution was a first step in turning this talk into action by putting our commitments down on paper. Now, as a union, we can move forward with the hard work of turning these commitments into reality.

We are in a moment when COVID necessitates that school be completely reimagined. By passing this resolution, the BTU proactively put forward a vision for schools in which every student has ethnic studies courses, special ed students receive the services they are entitled to in high-quality inclusion classes, there is a fulltime mental health professional in every school, teachers are trained in anti-racism practices, and the halls are free of school police.

Getting rid of school police was the contentious item in the resolution, with some teachers being resistant. While some no doubt have concerns arising from deep-seated racism, others have very legitimate concerns about safety.

We see time again a school or district begin to implement an initiative, and then watch as the training and funding fizzle out prematurely, and responsibility for follow-through ultimately lands solely on the shoulders of already-overburdened educators. Teachers then get faulted for the inevitable shortcomings of these initiatives, when in reality the fault lies in the systems which made success impossible in the first place.

In order to remove police from schools successfully, there has to be a commitment from the city and the district to fully fund mental health professionals, hire folks trained in de-escalation, and properly implement restorative justice practices.

BTUCORE, the rank-and-file caucus in the BTU, is in the process of forming, and we will eagerly join with rank-and-file members of other unions in organizing for racial justice, and demand that we are given the tools to follow through on our anti-racism commitments.

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