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Two important documents from Milwaukee's teachers' union

By Ron Whitehorne on Nov 30, 2011 03:59 PM

In May, Bob Peterson was elected president of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, the largest teachers union in the state of Wisconsin.

Peterson is well known as a founding editor of Rethinking Schools and a long-time advocate of social justice unionism.

Peterson detailed "why and how" to reinvent the MTEA:

  • In a speech to the union convocation, he described what he calls the reinvention and the reimagining of the MTEA. The themes of the speech and its analysis of where teacher unions have fallen short has a broad relevance for teachers in Philadelphia and across the country.

  • He also gave a PowerPoint presentation that describes how teachers could organize themselves at the school level to implement a social justice vision of teacher unionism. Teachers would organize around "six leaders in each school."

Peterson's victory by a 16-percent margin is one more important indication that teachers, battered by the recession and attacks from corporate education reformers, are turning away from traditional business unionism toward a model that embraces teaching, learning, and building alliances with students, parents, and the community.

I hope Notebook readers will read these documents and think about how they might relate to our circumstances here in Philadelphia. 

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Comments (2)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 1, 2011 10:07 am

This is so encouraging. Thanks.

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on December 1, 2011 3:53 pm

This is the type of unionism that could gain not only wider support among teachers, but also wider support in the public.

This type of leadership requires understanding that reformers are not, in fact, completely evil and wrong in every way. It involves recognizing valid concerns about education and offering an alternative that taps the value of teachers as leaders.

(As opposed to the traditional reflexive response from old-school union leaders that any effort to change the paradigm in schools is automatically a malicious attack on teachers that must be defended above all else).

This is the path that unions will need to take if they want to be a serious part in the conversation. Local unions that repeat the teacher-as-martyr lines and frame every attempt to change the system as an attack on teachers have lost support from everyone except the core of their membership and allied labor unions. The general public, and even a lot of teachers, grow weary when the union never actually proposes what to do about education (or, worse, claims everything would be totally fine if it were just left alone).

As much as I wanted to strongly support the PFT when I was in Philly, since there was clearly a need for a constructive counter to Ackerman, all they ever sent me were postcards reminding me to wear red for solidarity and who to vote for. Perhaps if they put forth a vision for exactly what they stood for as professional educators (like Milwaukee in this article), I'd have been more inclined to actively support the organization.

I hope many local unions start to adapt this mindset and move away from the reflexive defensive response to every reform effort.

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