Teachers unions face fight within party

Press Releases

September 3, 2012

Long-dominant organized labor groups not in sync with reform goals

By Ben Wolfgang

(The Washington Times, September 3rd, 2012)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The overwhelming power of teachers unions, Democrats’ most loyal foot soldiers for decades, has sparked tensions within the party as some question whether the labor groups have made public school reform — a key policy goal of President Obama — more difficult.

The sheer political muscle of the National Education Association — the nation’s largest union with more than 3 million members — and the American Federation of Teachers has, over time, led the party to avoid substantive and controversial reform ideas that may inflame organized labor, education activists within the party contend.

“The Democratic Party, quite bluntly, needs teachers unions to be effective,” said Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform. “We can count on teachers unions to send busloads of teachers into swing states at the right times. The relationship between the party and the unions is very long-standing. As a result of all the work the teachers unions were doing for the Democratic Party, party leaders threw their hands up on education.”

The rift was on display at the party’s otherwise unified convention on Monday and centered on an upcoming film seen by some labor leaders as anti-union. “Won’t Back Down” has been heralded by education reform advocates in the party, including Mr. Williams, for shining a light on the need for parents to challenge school bureaucracies. It hits theaters later this month but has been shown to select audiences at both party conventions.

In the movie, two women use a fictional version of the controversial “parent trigger” laws to radically overhaul their failing local schools. Such measures exist in four states and are being considered in others.

Led by AFT President Randi Weingarten, labor officials have ripped the movie for purportedly painting teachers’ unions as part of the status quo, contributors to those failing systems and a part of the problem with American education today.

“Using the most blatant stereotypes and caricatures I have ever seen … the film affixes blame on the wrong culprit: America’s teachers unions,” she said in a recent statement.

Critics of the film attempted to organize a protest of Monday’s screening, but the effort fizzled when only a half-dozen demonstrators showed up.

Inside the downtown Charlotte theater, Mr. Williams and other education reform leaders — including former D.C. schools chief Michelle A. Rhee — made clear that they aren’t anti-union, but that they want to see average teachers and parents given their own pulpits to talk about what needs to change.

Read the full post here.