Post Reports on Bizarre Teacher Lobbying Effort  

I opened my e-mail to find this little ditty from DCLabor:

LABOR IN THE NEWS: Teacher Lobbying by Outside Group Raises Ire of DC Teachers: DC teachers and their union, the Washington Teachers Union (WTU) Local 6, are accusing a newly-created community group of inappropriately interfering in the ongoing teacher contract negotiations, reported Bill Turque in Wednesday’s Washington Post. The group, which has members with past ties to School Chancellor Michelle Rhee, has hired teachers to lobby co-workers to support the Chancellor’s controversial pay-for-performance plan that would end tenure rights for workers who take it. "We think it's inappropriate to interfere with the union's communications with its membership about a future contract," Local 6 President George Parker told the Post. Teachers have also voiced concern that Chancellor Rhee’s ties to the group may indicate she had a role in orchestrating the lobbying campaign.

From the Strong Schools website:

Strong Schools DC is an independent, informal group of individuals who came together last spring to support strong public schools and great teachers in the District. Through community meetings, literature distribution, and outreach to teachers, we have learned what teachers are looking for in a new teaching contract, and we have provided a solid, independent information source for teachers. Our mission is to support the growing movement to make Washington, DC the best place to teach in the country.

We are now eagerly awaiting the completion of negotiations for a new contract. When an agreement is reached, we will be prepared to mobilize support for the contract and to continue our role as a pro-teacher community advocate and source of independent information.

Gee, the way this site is written, it does sort of sound as if they intend to lobby teachers to get them on board instead of involving them in a crocess or collaborating in general. Teachers have a voice in negotiations with the Mayor and Rhee, they have their union. And one of the best things the union can do for them is to protect tenure, not for the scapegoat, "the poorly performing teacher" but for the next generation of teachers to come. But there's more than just tenure involved, there's safety, there's coordination, there's community, all subjects that DCVoice has been advocating for since 1998.

Growing up in rural Ohio, I know what it's like to have community involved in the school. All events centered around the school. From parties to girl and boy scouts to language classes, PTA meetings and plays, just to name a few. Together, we reinforced the idea that we really were all in it together. To organize a lobbying effort during district and teacher's negotiations sens a strong message to me, a DC parent, it tells me that you don't care about the teachers and aren't looking to work with the community. It says that you're willing to spend money to sway opinion, like the oil lobby or the insurance lobby. Is that the message you really want to send Rhee? If that what the entire message is Fenty?

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  • Peter  
    5:33 PM

    It's great to see people in DC taking such a strong interest in this issue. I am a teacher in DCPS and, just for the record, am not affiliated with Strong Schools DC. There are two things in your post that I take issue with, and I'd like to explain those things.

    First, you write that Teacher have a voice in the negotiations -- their union. As a member in good standing with the WTU, I have not once been asked my opinion about the new contract. There have been no surveys, phone polls, emails, or any other means of communication between the WTU and me in which my opinion was asked for. How can the WTU claim to represent me if they don't know my opinion? The teachers who are working for Strong Schools DC are all teachers in DCPS, and therefore their voices are just as important as the voices coming from the unions.

    Second, I think there is a huge difference between the Strong Schools' lobbying efforts and the efforts of Big Oil or the insurance industry. When corporations lobby, they do so to make more money. The people involved in Strong Schools DC are not financially tied to DCPS. In fact, they support this effort because they just happen to agree with it philosophically. And I think it is great to send the message to Chancellor Rhee that people in the community are interested and are willing to put their own money on the line.

    I really appreciate your blog post, and I would welcome any response to my comments. The most important thing to remember in the reform effort is that it must start with discussion and debate.

    -Peter Poer

  • Richard  
    8:01 AM

    Hi Peter,
    I wanted to take a minute to reply to this one element in your comment:
    First, you write that Teacher have a voice in the negotiations -- their union. As a member in good standing with the WTU, I have not once been asked my opinion about the new contract. There have been no surveys, phone polls, emails, or any other means of communication between the WTU and me in which my opinion was asked for. How can the WTU claim to represent me if they don't know my opinion?

    I am curious to know if you ever go to your union meetings? The reason is because if you are not hitting them up, there is probably no way your local will hear your point(s)-of-view.

    I work at a very large union and know the daunting task of reaching out to large groups of members scattered around various geographies. We rely on our members to take a pro-active stance and get involved with meetings, rallies, functions, etc. For example, if I were in your union and you shared with me the above stuff on polls, surveys, etc.; I might suggest you find a minute to get down to the local, propose that we do this ... and do it. If you are not getting the level of communication from your local that you require, my guess is that others feel the same way ... so ... change it!

    A union card is not a passage into a country club, in my opinion -- the worker must use the card as entry into an arena where fantastic change for him/her and all the coworkers can occur.

    I don't know how strapped your local is for funds or human resources, however, my guess is that they'd more than love you volunteering to take on some communications for and with them.

    Remember this, Peter, the union is not separate from you ... you are, in fact, the union. If you don't like it ... you must change it! It is your responsibility to yourself and your colleagues.

    I hope that helps a little. It certainly struck a cord with me, and probably because I experience stuff like this all the time.

  • The Union Girl  
    8:15 AM

    Wow, glad you came by to the site. So, let's tackle your issues.

    When you voted for the leadership of WTU, did you ask how they'd poll the membership for contract negotiations? If you didn't, you should have. Your union is only as good as you and your co-workers make it. This is not specific to teachers unions, it's the same for all unions.

    A member in good standing, can you tell me exactly what that means? Are you a shop steward? Are you part of the executive committee? Are you serving as a delegate to the Metro area labor council? If "good standing" means that you pay your dues, then your voice isn't being heard because you aren't speaking up.

    Lobbying the way "strong schools" is lobbying is the same as the manipulative efforts of folks like Berman or the manner in which Wal-Mart hauls all its front line managers into a meeting and tells themt hat Employee Free Choice will pass if Obama wins and Wal-Mart can't afford it, but hey, they aren't telling you how to vote.

    My brother is a teacher and he's a member in good standing. He has many of the same comments you do in your comment. What I always tell him is that your union can only hear your voice when you speak up at meetings or through your shop steward. I've asked him "When you yell at a brick wall, does the person on the other side hear you?"

    The union is responsive to the members who are most active because there's never an opportunity that is wasted by them to get the leadership to listen. If these aren't the things that you want or your co-workers, do something about it. And if you have before and are frustrated, try again, then try again.

    I'm glad you came over here and hope you do so in the future. I've had a kid in DCPS and never had a bad teacher. But boy did we run into bad kids. Teachers have a tough job, "Strong schools" is only making all of this even harder by manipulating the process.

  • Peter  
    3:35 PM

    I have to admit that I do feel convicted by the fact that I do not do enough to make my voice heard in the union. This is my first year teaching in DC, and it is my first year in the WTU. Therefore, I didn't get to vote for the leadership. I would also point out that teachers in DC must be represented by the WTU, whether they want to be or not. Therefore, I would argue that the union leadership has more of a responsibility to reach out to teachers, since we do not have the option of signing a contract that the union doesn't approve of. However, I am a firm believer that people who don't vote shouldn't complain about politics. I suppose it is the same thing in the union. I have written emails and made phone calls to my union leaders, but if I feel like I am not being heard then I do need to try harder.

    I still stand by my argument that Strong Schools DC's lobbying is not the same as the examples in the original blog post or in the comments above. When Wal-Mart "tells" its managers how to vote (something which, if true - and I don't know why you'd make that up - is horrible), they are doing something very different from what Strong Schools DC is doing. First, those are employers speaking to employees from a position of authority, which may cause the employees to fear for their jobs. Strong Schools DC is not a part of DCPS, has no authority over teachers, and therefore is only expressing opinions. It has no more leverage with which it can manipulate teachers than anyone else who expresses their opinions openly. Second, when Wal-Mart, Big Oil, and the Insurance industry lobby voters, they are doing so to make more money. Strong Schools DC will make no money from this new contract. Their interest is philosophical, not financial. This is an extremely important difference, to me. Finally, I would point out that the people that Strong Schools DC has hired as lobbyists are DCPS teachers themselves. The union is a group of teachers which can and does endorse political candidates and contract proposals, and lobbies its membership to vote a particular way. Why shouldn't Strong Schools DC's lobbyists, also a group of teachers, be allowed to lobby too?

    Fundamentally, my problem is that the WTU leadership frequently makes decisions that I disagree with, and I have no other option but to deal with those decisions. If the union operated as an unbiased body that truly reflected the opinions of all of its members, then this would be fine. But it doesn't, and therefore I see no problem with an outside organization, also made up of teachers, representing the other views out there.

    I really appreciate your responses to my comments. They've definitely challenged me to think critically about my positions and, even more, my actions. Thank you also for being such a strong supporter of teachers. It means a lot to know that there are people in the city who truly care about and appreciate the struggles associated with being an educator in DCPS.

  • Peter  
    8:13 PM

    First, let me say that I am really enjoying this discussion. It's got me very excited and fired up about working on the issues facing DCPS. So thank you for hosting a forum where people can debate and discuss issues like this.

    An update: Feeling like I should put more effort into communicating with the union, I went to the website ( I should mention that, although I have never attended a union meeting, I've also never been asked to attend a union meeting. I have attended the meetings at my school, but these are infrequent and don't tend to discuss much actual union business. Anyway, looking at the website, there is no place to find information about when/where meetings take place. I have never received an email or letter telling me when meetings are.

    Now, I certainly could do more to communicate with the union. However, I don't receive any info from the union. In fact, the union's information packet about the contract (which, incidentally, cannot even be found on the WTU website) was sent to me not by a union member or building representative, but by a teacher friend who works for Strong Schools DC. So, my point is that a union that makes no effort to include me cannot really claim to represent me. I would say that Strong Schools DC does a better job meeting that requirement than my union does, which is probably part of the reason that I don't have a problem with their lobbying.

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