Raising Our Voices in Solidarity to Defend Our Rights

By Diann Woodard, AFSA President
Originally published in the 2011 Spring edition of The Leader

There comes a time in each of our professional lives when our mettle as leaders and our commitment to quality education for children is tested severely. For educators in Wisconsin, Ohio, Florida and numerous other states, that moment is upon them.

The political attack on their collective bargaining rights being conducted by Republican governors behind a smokescreen of budget cutting is a blatant power play to transform our commitment to public service into shameful servitude.

For some of our members, this autocratic assault on our bargaining rights is nothing new. In my hometown of Detroit, principals and assistant principals were stripped of their bargaining rights a decade ago under the guise of budgetary necessity.

Nor did the assault on their service end with those disgraceful violations of our rights. The Michigan legislature recently passed a “financial marshal plan” that gives a state emergency financial manager near total control over every aspect of the state government, including the power to override decisions of elected officials.

This unrelenting pursuit of autocracy is at the heart of the campaign to undermine our rights, much as it is central to the push for the corporate model of school reform.

Financed by corporate interests, politicians—in this case Republican governors—are accreting to themselves and their campaign benefactors powers that trump the traditional checks and balances crucial for meaningful democracy.

As we consider how best to mount a united front in resisting this transparently coordinated assault on our rights, the lesson the Detroit experience teaches is clear. Appeasing our adversaries by effectively “going along to get along,” as some school districts in Michigan and elsewhere have done, only encourages our adversaries.

Our roles as school leaders complicate our ability to engage in resistance akin to that on display in Madison, Wis., and some administrators, especially those in smaller districts, undoubtedly feel isolated and relatively powerless.

We are anything but powerless, as the positive developments resulting from the protests in Wisconsin are showing. Two months ago, who would have imagined nearly two-thirds of America’s voters would express their support for protecting our collective bargaining rights as they did in a recent national survey?

The size of our membership will not determine whether we succeed or fail. The size of our spirit in rising up to challenge autocratic domination will.

Members are urged to take action

At the recent meeting of the AFL-CIO’s Executive Council, the general presidents of international unions from the private and public sector alike voted unanimously to mount a national day of action to protest the assault on our bargaining rights, which took place on April 4.

We must continue to follow the lead of the AFL-CIO and show our solidarity and challenge union-busting policies being foisted on us for purely political reasons.

We strongly encourage you to attend meetings of your central labor councils to familiarize other union leaders with our issues and to learn what actions are being taken in your area to build mounting opposition to the attack on our rights.

We are one—join in solidarity

There also are actions we can legitimately take to express our solidarity with fellow educators who are under attack. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the newly elected Republican governor is advancing a budget with sweeping cuts to education funding that inevitably will lead to layoffs.

In addition, his budget legislation, if passed, will empower administrators to lay off teachers without regard to seniority. Actions such as these confront us with both a challenge and an opportunity. If we engage in violating teachers’ seniority rights, we not only will become fifth columnists in the assault on our own rights, but we will effectively be co-dependents to the addiction of Republicans and their corporate allies to undermining universal public education.

Instead, we have every right to express our solidarity with teachers and all public employees by refusing to engage in violating their seniority rights. Indeed, uniting to resist the movement by autocratic politicians to undermine public employees’ rights does more than express our solidarity—it offers us the opportunity to pledge allegiance to the very principles of democracy we teach our students to value.

There’s no question we’re confronted with a Hobson’s choice. But unless we raise our voices in protest and join in solidarity with all public employees now, we’ll lose more than our bargaining rights. We’ll willfully be surrendering the dignity and respect every worker deserves.