Teachers Union Caucuses Gather to Swap Strategies
With teachers facing similar attacks in school districts across the country, it makes sense to share strategies for fighting back. That’s the goal of the United Caucuses of Rank-and-File Educators (UCORE), a growing network of locals and caucuses within the teachers unions.
Seventy-five educator activists met in Los Angeles August 4-6, representing school districts from Philadelphia to Oakland and statewide groups from Hawaii, New Jersey, and Massachusetts.
Begun as an informal network of teachers looking to jump-start their unions, UCORE has held yearly conferences since 2013, bringing together caucuses that have won office in their locals with those that are still trying or have just started out.
“It allows for teacher activists at really different stages of development to both learn something and give something,” said Cristina Duncan-Evans from Baltimore, who started the BMORE caucus with support from UCORE leaders.
In workshops teachers talked about doing the work of the union even when they aren’t in power. Some have created their own newsletters for discussion and debate as they push for accountability in their locals.
Philadelphia and Seattle teachers’ caucuses have organized Black Lives Matter actions where they were both engaging with fellow teachers and wearing t-shirts to show solidarity with Black students. In contract negotiations, Seattle and St. Paul unions have demanded their districts address harsh and racially disparate student discipline policies.
Christina Medina from Denver’s Caucus of Working Educators said the conference was an opportunity “to connect with other educators who also want to see change in our unions.”
Increasing member involvement is a big issue for her union, Medina said, and now she’s thinking about how her caucus can follow the model used in other cities to campaign against issues like over-testing. Following the lead of its most successful members such as Chicago’s CORE, UCORE stresses involving parents and community groups and placing teachers’ fights in larger city and statewide campaigns.
Jessica Tang, newly elected president of the Boston Teachers Union, has learned a lot from the Chicago teachers. This year, she presented on her local’s work on building parent and community alliances that were crucial last year in defeating a statewide referendum to allow more charter schools. “It’s an opportunity to pay it forward,” said Tang.
Duncan-Evans wanted to hear examples of unions fighting around English language learning and special education for immigrant students, who make up a growing portion of Baltimore students. “Now I have people that I can ask these questions to in other cities,” she said.
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The host caucus, Union Power, won re-election in May to the leadership of United Teachers Los Angeles. The local's preparing for a showdown around its contract fight, with the goal of being ready to strike by February 2018.
UTLA wants real caps on class size, more health and human services staffers in the schools, protection for member and retiree health care, a raise that can attract and retain educators in one of the lowest-paid districts in the state, lower workloads for special education teachers, and funding to pilot community schools, in which parents, students, and teachers determine curriculum and activities to meet the needs of the community.
Seeking to “bargain for the common good,” UTLA is talking with community organizations about adding demands to create more green space at schools and to support immigrant and homeless families.
Something else is different about this contract campaign: UTLA helped form the California Alliance for Community Schools, a network of teachers unions across the state that can pressure the state as well as their local districts. Five locals have the same contract expiration date as UTLA and have pledged a series of joint actions.
UTLA is training chapter chairs (stewards) on how to create Contract Action Teams at every school. The goal is to have one CAT team leader for every 10 members, to engage everyone in strike readiness. A series of escalating actions will begin in September.
Besides its annual conference and regional meetings, UCORE holds monthly conference calls and regional meetings and trainings.
Groups seek advice on running for office, planning contract campaigns, and combating the policies of the Trump administration.
Gillian Russom is a high school teacher in Los Angeles and a member of UTLA’s Board of Directors.