The significance of Providence Teachers for a Democratic Union

On May 9, Providence teachers will have an opportunity to vote for the leadership of their union.  And, unlike most all of the elections in recent memory, there will actually be a real choice presented to the members.  For the first time in a very long time, Steve Smith and his leadership are being challenged by a slate calling itself Providence Teachers for a Democratic Union.  This new challenge is a welcome development—and also a harbinger of things to come.

We had a first taste at last Friday’s Meet the Slate event, held at Patrick’s Pub on Smith St.  Several of the slate members spoke—Pearl Holloway, Crystal Swepson, Nancy Krahe, Anna Kuperman, Susan Friendson, and the ever intrepid Ed deBoo.  What was immediately striking was how well spoken they all were—an incredible contrast to the barely articulate Steve Smith.  But beyond that, they were so well able to articulate the real shortcomings of the union leadership in standing up to the onslaught of education reforms.

Take, for example, the PTU’s support for Rhode Island’s Race to the Top Application.  RTTT was a total sham, millions of dollars dedicated to consultants and “data collection systems”, none of it for kids.  Only Providence supported it initially—and Steve Smith never even informed the members what the stakes were, let alone had them vote on it.  So now Providence’s teachers are caught up in a punitive evaluation system that is itself in part formulated by the union (unlike other RI locals)—even while the union tells its members that the system will fall apart under its own weight.

Meanwhile, Gist & Co. are using the School Improvement Grants and the language bequeathed by NCLB to target schools for “transformation” or “restart” or whatever new terminology they come up with.  The PTU leadership is complicit in this union-busting scheme, having entered into a labor-management agreement such that PTU members who want to work at these schools must sign an “election to work” agreement.  The agreement explicitly states that the arrangement is about “removing barriers to educational reform imposed by previous contractual agreements”.  That’s right, folks, your union has agreed to rescind your contract!  And, for teachers at the affected schools, there’s been precious little in the way of real information coming from the union leadership.

The core of the slate came together through the formation of the Coalition to Defend Public Education.  While the CDPE has always been open not just to teachers but also parents, students and community members, it was an important center for organizing teachers from the beginning.  Formed initially in response to Mayor Taveras’ firing of all Providence teachers, it quickly took up the struggle against the closing of the elementaries (Asa Messer, Windmill, Flynn, and West Broadway) and Bridgham Middle School.  Teachers from those schools, especially Bridgham and Flynn, were at the heart of the CDPE’s work, and communicated to clarify the stupidity and treachery of the “speed-dating” process by which displaced teachers were to vie for the relatively few open jobs in the system.  And while CDPE did not take a position on the PTU contract negotiated last summer, it did provide the only space in which both for and against positions could be democratically and openly argued.  People within the coalition disagreed—and voted both ways—but at least there was a real attempt to clarify the issues, which could not be said of the union leadership which rushed through a membership meeting in August of all times.

As one person at the event last Friday commented to me, the CDPE is the only game in town for activist teachers.  That’s why it was such a natural point of departure for the PTDU.  At the heart of its program is the notion that the union should embrace social justice unionism.  Rather than focus narrowly on salary, benefits, and working conditions, the union must take up all aspects of public education, and must actively work to support parents and students when they get screwed over by the school administration and the mayor.  The union should work actively to combat racism in the schools, and to ensure that special efforts are made to recruit more teachers of color, to correct the massive racial disparity between teachers and students.  The union should call out education “reform” for the corporate shake-down it really is.  The union should expose the hypocrisy of the corporate reformers’ “stand for children” which is, in reality, simply further justification for the dehumanizing testing frenzy they want to impose on all of us.

What are the PTDU’s chances of winning?  It’s hard to say, particularly given that the existing leadership has not been exactly forthcoming with information about what the slate’s rights are.  Furthermore, given that the slate only has eight members (instead of the full ten) and that members of the executive board are elected individually anyway, a victory of any sort for the slate could produce a difficult situation.  A total victory might be the most difficult of all, given that the union is in a very rough spot, one that will require tremendous active effort to push back the attacks on every aspect of teachers’ working conditions.  Anna Kuperman—or “Madame President”, as Steve Smith apparently already calls her within his own circle—is an English teacher and an agitator with small children, not a bureaucrat, politician, and former truancy officer.

I tend to think, though, that the slate’s chances of victory in this election are limited, primarily because of the overall passivity of the PTU membership.  I don’t blame teachers for their passivity in union and political matters: teaching is a hard job that leaves little time for anything else.  Especially if your building is not affected by transformation, if your job appears relatively in-demand and safe, if you don’t know other activists and don’t know where you would plug into a different model of being a teacher, you’re not going to get active.  The passivity of the PTU membership has been cultivated by the Smith leadership, as well: they only begrudgingly called a rally against the firings, and have done essentially nothing to actually mobilize their members ever since that rally more than a year ago.  They did, of course, rush through a contract that they said was a wonderful contract—despite the many holes in it that have become apparent over time.  And while anger over the contract, the evaluations, and the transformation schools is rising, that has not yet translated into a clear upwelling of rank-and-file struggle from below.

When that explosion from below finally arrives, the PTDU will almost certainly ride that wave to victory.  But then, once that explosion happens, maybe electoral victory will turn out to not really be the point.  The real contradiction is that an excellent, activist leadership in a union of highly passive members will have little choice but to lower its level of activity so as not to be completely divorced from its membership.  It’s entirely possible for an excellent reform leadership to win a union election, only to have its actual program defeated by the pre-existing conditions within the union.  Without a large section of the union that’s mobilized for struggle against the administration, the reform leadership may be forced to make precisely the opposite decisions to those it would like.

And this is where I think it necessary to understand the longer-term implications of the Providence Teachers for a Democratic Union.  This is not about a slate that is contending for power on May 9; it’s about a long-term program for revitalization of the union from below.  The members of the PTDU slate represent the real activist core within the PTU.  Even with the 40 or so people who came out to the event on Friday, they are not large enough or influential enough to really take the union in a different direction immediately.  But they represent an important potential, the seed of a real rank-and-file caucus that could revolutionize the union from within.  May 9 will be an important test for the slate, but I think we should be cautious and understand that the results are mostly about how fed up (or not) teachers are with the current leadership.  The bigger test will be whether PTDU can keep itself together past May 9, whether it can develop connections to all the buildings in the system, whether it can start to organize some basic shop-floor actions to resist the onslaught from management—and to undermine the collaborationism of the Smith leadership.  This is a tall order that requires long-term vision.  But the PTDU represents the best possibility for that alternative yet.


About riredteacher

I'm a foreign language teacher and socialist in Rhode Island.
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