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WHAT HAPPENED TO OUR MOVEMENT?

8/15/99

 The National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) appear to be locked in the most unusual of competitions. Where once upon a time they taunted one another like Anglo-Saxon warriors, boasting of their real accomplishments in the struggle to improve education and the working conditions of people who provide it, today they appear to compete for the privilege of ringing the dismissal bell for public education.

Is it romanticizing the past to recall the militant action of AFT members who organized and won strikes that began a process where, at least in some places in this country, teachers now earn decent wages? Is it romanticizing to remember the very significant contribution of NEA members, called to action by national leaders, to the civil rights movement and to the movement to stop the war in Viet Nam?  What about all of those contract clauses that limit class size, teacher load?  Weren't they part of improving public education? Isn't there more work like this to be done?

What are our causes today? The leaders of both national organizations would say that they are working to save public education, and I believe that they believe that this is what they are trying to do. But I also believe that their efforts are feeble and defeatist. Thus we are against charter schools, but we can accept them if they meet certain criteria. Result? We have them. We are against vouchers, but the NEA holds its convention in Orlando, Florida, a state in which Governor Jeb Bush had just pushed a voucher bill through the legislature. What did we do? Did the 10,000 delegates stage a demonstration that would have received national attention? Did we announce to the assembled media that all 10,000 of us were going to leave Orlando 1 day earlier, thereby depriving the city of millions of dollars? Essentially, we whined to one another in what was billed as an "internal demonstration," whatever that is.

About the same time that we in the NEA were avoiding taking serious action on serious issues, concentrating instead on punishing the members of Minnesota for their wisdom to merge (See News in Brief), the AFT, through its President Sandy Feldman, made its own contribution to weakening whatever is left of our movement. Although it’s been reported variously in the press, Feldman apparently said that local unions should only negotiate general working conditions, leaving educational issues to be worked out between union members and their building administrations. This is her take, I suppose, on the new unionism in which a well intentioned management works with union members cooperatively, sharing power and responsibility. Twenty years ago, if management had made such a demand, it would have been a strike issue for some of us. Today, it is put forth by the President of the AFT. What has happened to our movement? We are both worth and capable of more.   Why do our national leaders not think that we are up to the challenge?

 

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