Building Parent-Teacher Unions

Inspired by Chicago, teachers unions across the country are looking to parents and communities for support.

Jacob Wheeler

Saint Paul Federation of Teachers President Mary Cathryn Ricker talks with union allies at a March 3 town hall.

On a Sat­ur­day after­noon in ear­ly March, some 60 peo­ple packed into a class­room at a tech­ni­cal high school north of Saint Paul, Minn., to dis­cuss the strate­gic course of Saint Paul Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers (SPFT) Local 28’s upcom­ing con­tract nego­ti­a­tions. The remark­able thing is that most of them were not card-car­ry­ing union mem­bers, or even teach­ers. They were stu­dents, par­ents and com­mu­ni­ty activists con­cerned about their schools and the attack on pub­lic education.

'The idea behind the home visit is that you come as a guest in their home,' says Ricker. 'You start by asking only two questions: "What are your hopes and dreams for your child?" and "How can we support you?" '

Dur­ing the ses­sion, one group focused on the needs of teach­ers by answer­ing the sim­ple, yet impor­tant, prompt, If you had the best school in the world, what would teach­ers deserve?” The oth­er focused on stu­dents and asked, If you had the best school in the world, what would stu­dents look like?”

The answers from the two groups mir­rored each oth­er. They called for wages and work­ing con­di­tions that sus­tain a teach­ing career and long-term pro­fes­sion­al growth, small­er class sizes, a focus on inter­dis­ci­pli­nary and expe­ri­en­tial learn­ing, an empha­sis on teach­ing over test­ing, and time set aside to allow stu­dents to learn, process and grow.

The ses­sion reflects what SPFT Pres­i­dent Mary Cathryn Rick­er calls the new mod­el” of com­mu­ni­ty involve­ment, with teach­ers, and par­ents, at the cen­ter of advo­cat­ing for their pro­fes­sion, as opposed to teach­ers stand­ing on the side­lines.”

The suc­cess of the 2012 Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU) strike embold­ened and inspired oth­er teacher orga­ni­za­tions such as the SPFT by demon­strat­ing what strong com­mu­ni­ty alliances can do. We’re very con­scious of the false nar­ra­tive in our soci­ety — that what teach­ers want is dif­fer­ent from what par­ents and com­mu­ni­ties want,” says Paul Rohlf­ing, an SPFT mem­ber who joined the Chica­go strike and worked with 12 schools on the South Side. He wit­nessed Chica­go teach­ers engag­ing their com­mu­ni­ties and explain­ing to par­ents the con­se­quences of the war on pub­lic edu­ca­tion. That engage­ment paid off: Even as the nation­al media and main­stream politi­cians maligned the sev­en-day strike, polls showed Chicagoans sup­port­ed the union, 55 per­cent to 40 per­cent. This sup­port helped the CTU hold firm until a con­tract agree­ment could be reached.

Such alliance-build­ing strate­gies are not entire­ly new — for years, unions from Saint Paul to Chica­go to Oak­land have been build­ing rela­tion­ships with com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions. In the past, these rela­tion­ships have been most­ly trans­ac­tion­al, such as buy­ing a table at an annu­al fundrais­er. But today’s exis­ten­tial threat to orga­nized labor adds a new sense of urgency, as unions real­ize they must deep­en com­mu­ni­ty rela­tion­ships as bul­warks of defense.

SPFT has been ahead of the curve. Since 2011, the union has embraced Minnesota’s open meet­ings law — which makes teacher con­tract nego­ti­a­tions open to the pub­lic — and encour­aged the com­mu­ni­ty to attend and tes­ti­fy. As many as 100 com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers attend­ed ses­sions of the SPFT’s last round of con­tract nego­ti­a­tions, which end­ed in Jan­u­ary 2012. Com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers influ­enced the final con­tract by secur­ing a cap on class sizes.

The local is gear­ing up for its next round of nego­ti­a­tions in May, encour­ag­ing par­ents and activists to take part in these meet­ings as a way for teach­ers to learn from com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers what their chil­dren need at school and for the com­mu­ni­ty to under­stand what teach­ers need in order to help.

This strat­e­gy is spread­ing. The Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers (AFT) is now hold­ing sim­i­lar com­mu­ni­ty town halls in 12 cities, and AFT has invit­ed three com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers and two union teach­ers from each of those cities to speak at its nation­al con­fer­ence in April.

Because SPFT believes com­mu­ni­ty involve­ment must be rec­i­p­ro­cal as well, the union hasn’t just been invit­ing par­ents into its ter­ri­to­ry; the union has also been invit­ing its teach­ers into their stu­dents’ lives out­side of the class­room. When an edu­ca­tor looks at an issue, we can almost always draw that line to how improv­ing con­di­tions [in the home envi­ron­ment] will improve teach­ing and learn­ing con­di­tions,” says Rick­er.

A major val­i­da­tion of this approach came in 2007 when then-Repub­li­can Gov. Tim Paw­len­ty signed his Cov­er All Kids” bill into law, which expand­ed health­care access to approx­i­mate­ly 40,000 more Min­neso­ta chil­dren. Among those urg­ing the leg­is­la­tion had been SPFT school nurs­es tes­ti­fy­ing at the Capi­tol about set­ting up triage care in their offices to deal with oth­er­wise treat­able afflic­tions, such as pink­eye, impeti­go and even head lice.

SPFT is also work­ing with hous­ing jus­tice groups such as Neigh­bor­hoods Orga­niz­ing for Change to push for a legal mora­to­ri­um on evict­ing fam­i­lies with school-age chil­dren dur­ing the school year, and team­ing up with the Sec­ond Chance Coali­tion and Take­Ac­tion, Minnesota’s Jus­tice 4 All” cam­paign to empha­size reha­bil­i­ta­tion, civic engage­ment and rein­te­gra­tion for crim­i­nals, instead of prison and punishment.

Local 28 has also part­nered with the Parent/​Teacher Home Vis­it Project, which began in Sacra­men­to, Calif., 15 years ago and has since blos­somed nation­wide. The idea behind the home vis­it is that you come as a guest in their home,” says Rick­er. You start by ask­ing only two ques­tions: What are your hopes and dreams for your child?’ and How can we sup­port you?’”

If the Chica­go teach­ers’ strike and SPFT’s pre­vi­ous con­tract nego­ti­a­tions are any indi­ca­tion, the com­mu­ni­ty will rec­i­p­ro­cate by sup­port­ing their teach­ers and pub­lic edu­ca­tion sys­tem in the bat­tles to come.

Jacob Wheel­er is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at In These Times.
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