Is Unionism Dead in the USA Post-Janus?

Janus isn’t the issue — “collective bargaining” has become “centralized bargaining.”

Unionism can be equated to “collective bargaining.” Unfortunately for many union leaders, our culture is very individualistic and the only “collectives” we are comfortable joining today are Facebook groups. That’s both good news and bad news for the future of unions. The true question is: “will unions allow collectivism back into their now centralized bargaining efforts?”

Let me be totally upfront — there is an opportunity now with the Janus decision for unions to be reborn from the inside-out. To be reborn, something must die. The other option is that this something will just be born — in competition with unions. Regardless of the number of union members who stop paying dues in the immediate future, the union movement has been on the decline, before Janus, and with Janus declining dues will accelerate this decline. From my own experience as a proud fifteen-year card holding member of educator unions (first the UFT and now the CSA), our unions have become top-down, lawyer-driven structures not dissimilar to corporations. Collectivism has left “collective bargaining.” The union boss’ opinion matters more than the “brothers and sisters” they represent. Whereas once we had top down corporations and bottom up unions, now we just have two flavors of top down, command and control, divide and conquer, money trumps values organizations.

I was recently featured on the front page of the New York Times, June 4, 2018 print edition, June 3rd online edition. The article was about me and two other principals who took over really toxic schools where the adult drama had led to abysmal student outcomes. After the article came out the three of us asked to speak with the president of our union to discuss next steps in our common fight. His response: “I’d rather meet with each of you individually.” This is a good strategy from a legal perspective or a political perspective. I understand that. I don’t even hold it against him. I share it here only because I was struck by the fact that my own union was dividing us, pushing for centralization rather than collectivism in our fight. The fact that the three of us were even talking to each other was odd to anyone who works day-to-day in the NYCDOE “system.” It took Kate Taylor at the New York Times spending months assembling facts, timelines, conducting tens of interviews and even then we had to reach out to each other across this invisible abyss that divides us from banding together for fear of hitching ourselves to the wrong people. Ask anyone who works in the New York City Department of Education and they will tell you that everyone is scared for their professional lives, if they speak honestly. Baseless attacks throw a student-focused educator into a political/legal arena where they are out of place and where their livelihood is being threatened and so they just capitulate, eager to get back to working with students. This happens mostly to teachers, I would guess, and social workers, and assistant principals. The more you are focused on students, the more vulnerable you are to these attacks, apparently.

The New York Times story talked about my fight with a “small faction of teachers” which led to a district boss arriving at our school to divide my staff (NYTimes narrative, based on facts revealed in my termination transcripts). The fact is that the teachers’ union held a vote in the first week of May, 2016 and their members voted in my favor and their union bosses ignored that rather unfortunate vote as they appealed to the DOE at the highest levels, ignited NY Post attacks, and repeatedly sent a district representative who even pulled my teachers out of classrooms to presumably spread lies about me. Lies that I could not defend or even address based on the legal directives I received from the DOE. The union even told Kate Taylor that they had won that vote of no confidence, only to retract once Kate mentioned that she had sworn testimony contradicting that position. My superintendent, an honest educator, warned me of the target on my back. When I asked his deputy what I can do to protect myself, he couldn’t predict what they would use to attack me. Ultimately the superintendent was forced to take me down, despite his appeals regarding the impact on students, I suspect. I would not expect him to put his own career on the line for my own. My point? More evidence that collectivism is dead and the top-down, divide-and-conquer corporate model is in full effect.

I know I was a very good boss to my teachers who I respect more than any other professionals I have ever met. I had the best Special Education and ELL teams in the city. The best programmer. The best alternatives to suspension and restorative justice programs. The most and deepest partnerships to support teachers. The strongest budget because of my own fundraising efforts. We used data in ways that was exciting and even emotional — our weekly grade analysis could show us which students had a sudden drop in performance or a sudden spike up. That day we knew who to reach out to, often learning of major life events. I get emotional thinking of those moments, pulling a student into my office and saying “I noticed your grades dropped last week compared with the weeks before…” Lots of tears and working on the core issue rather than reacting to outbursts, then suspending a wounded young human being. We had social justice partnerships, many digital media production classes, hands on food justice and karate programs. We were a dream team. We worked tirelessly to empower teachers to empower students and the results spoke for themselves.

Then somehow, some lawyers and union PR efforts dismantled everything. Student films stopped, data systems ordered taken down by NYCDOE, recording studio turned into computer lab, greenhouse programs closed, student suspensions skyrocketed, student Regents passing rates plummeted, as the school returned to its dysfunctional roots where adults are free to take four-day weekends and arrive late with no lesson plans or just a worksheet. And those teachers that cover all those classes on Fridays and Mondays are isolated or pushed on to other schools. Several staff members commented to me (I live next door to the school) that the new principal is just worried of pissing off the teachers’ union. Who can blame him?

Despite all of this, I remain hopeful that unions could one day be reborn from the inside out. That will require members reclaim their collective power. The union of the future, and perhaps the corporation of the future, will be made up of networks of smaller collectives. Now that the Janus ruling has come down, it’s important that we continue to fight to allow collectivism to be reborn despite this flagrant attack on the right to collective bargaining. One day union members might be able to easily find like-minded colleagues or organize meet-ups to share teaching strategies. These collectives would advocate for causes together with the click of a button on their mobile devices even turning off their union dues and redirecting those dues to an internal union cause important to them. I may sound crazy, but consider the new generation familiar with open source software, social media apps, bitcoin-style banks… When these technologies eventually reach public sector workers, traditional unions will be no match to these new social architectures. The union model fits terribly well with the distributed computing / social media model. It would be a shame for them not to click together linking a rich union past to an exciting distributed future.

Janus is not a death blow to unions, but how Janus is implemented will be. If union members are empowered to keep their dues within an organization while giving members leverage to combine forces for a common internal cause, that technology could reignite collectivism for the digital, networked, open source generation. Essentially this would establish union budgets based on member input. And I don’t mean “voting” on budget items, but actually defining the issues to be considered similar to how issues are brought to the fore on Change.org, for example, but where the union member dues are built in. The union leaders of the future will have a dashboard where they see the issues their members want them to advocate for, thus generating authentic “collective bargaining” where individuals feel they have a real voice, especially if they have a group of colleagues connected to other groups with similar interests. Those that don’t see their union taking action will know why — their initiative didn’t make it into the annual budget. They will know that they have to organize to have a better outcome in the future. So even a union failure, from their perspective, leads to collectivism rather than anger and apathy.

The granularity of this control will determine whether it works or just leaves members feeling powerless and checked out. Think of my own story — a bunch of teachers within a school feel that their vote has been ignored by leadership. How could this new social media tool address that? There would have to be a way for members to “turn off” their dues, while not keeping those dues for themselves nor sending them outside of the union. They would create a new budget item and once they reach a set threshold, that item would be born. The faster/cheaper union officials respond, the more of that “held” money the union gets back for their larger initiatives. Right now that is not possible in the current HR environment. Like I said, we must wait for the open source, distributed, social network generation of tools to come online. Obviously unions will most likely seek to prevent such leverage for their members, and it will depend on union members to demand legislators give them the power to reform their unions from the inside-out.

There is something called a “funnel” which [Josh at BAMF Media] explained to me as a social media advertising campaign where, for example, people with a particular interest are encouraged to click on a banner for a free ebook related to their interest. Then they receive a free ticket which invites them to a “one time only” opportunity to join a private Facebook group where they will get up-to-the minute expert advice from an expert in this area of interest. In this way people are “funneled” into a Facebook group, and then those who created the group, or the members together, create value for the community or else it doesn’t sustain membership. Imagine if creating such a funnel was as easy as a few clicks — that changes an individual’s ability to find likeminded members of their larger union membership. I have always felt that the best collaboration for me as a teacher was when I collaborated with people who didn’t work in my building. Just because it’s easier to give direct feedback and get right down to business if you don’t have to work day-to-day with someone. I believe that tools like these “funnels” or the lawyer-free click-to-create contracts promised by Ethereum applications. When these tools are developed for union members, reducing legal costs and targeting union dues to issues important to members, the power of collective bargaining could be impossible for top-down organizations to compete with.

For now, the most important factor in all of this is that current union members who pay dues make a promise NEVER to stop paying union dues, and demand leverage to organize themselves within the union. If unions are already dead when the technology comes of age, whatever is born as a result may not be linked to the history of the labor movement. In other words, disruption of unions is unavoidable unless they reform and adopt these technologies first.

Janus demands that union members “opt in” disallowing a system of “opt out” for union dues. How do we convince colleagues who have been shafted by their union to keep paying their dues? Will new, young teachers opt in to dues from the start? Even if we are disgusted by current unions we have an important opportunity to advocate for laws and tools to be developed to give us leverage WITHIN our union, demanding that union bargaining is not based on the ideas coming from a few at the top but that the bargaining efforts represent the needs of professionals, in my case professional educators, as they empower the $#%1 out of their students.

Interested in the ideas presented here? check out my other related article.

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Is Unionism Dead in the USA Post-Janus? was originally published in Hacker Noon on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.