1. Students First (for real though)
In Denver Public Schools, “students first” might have more to do with public image than reality, but that hasn't been the case for successful teachers unions in other cities.
Seattle teachers' recent strike was known for focusing on one issue: 30 minutes of guaranteed recess for all students. Pasco (Washington) teachers went on strike for appropriate curriculum for bilingual and special education students as well as smaller class sizes. St. Paul teachers successfully advocated for smaller class sizes – with smaller caps at schools more impacted by poverty.
All three unions also won better pay for their teachers, but it's important to note that these unions did not use student-centered issues as a veneer just to push for better pay. The unions legitimately focused on our primary interest: our students. When teachers unions focus on students' needs, the public is more willing to address the pay gap between teachers and workers with similar education and skill levels.
2. Engaging members is key
In 2011, the Illinois legislature enacted so-called reform legislation requiring a 75 percent vote of bargaining unit teachers (not just members) to authorize a strike. Non-voting teachers are counted as “no” votes. This legislation was intended to set the bar for legal strikes out of reach and to diminish the power of labor.
The Chicago Teachers Union, under the newly elected leadership of CORE (the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators), responded to these lofty requirements by setting equally high goals and organizing to meet them. Through conversations about students' learning conditions and by bringing the demands of rank-and-file members into negotiations, CTU underwent a democratic revolution. To authorize the historic 2012 strike, 90 percent of Chicago teachers cast ballots and 98 percent of those voted to approve the strike.
Since the strike, CTU's engagement with members has not faltered, and the union announced in September that the membership had overwhelming approved another strike if needed. That act of power and solidarity helped reach an agreement without another strike being necessary.
3. Build community partnerships
Contracts are not won at the bargaining table; they are won in the streets. Teachers unions win when parents and community understand what is at stake for educators and students, alike.
Working up to their 2014 negotiations, the St. Paul Federation of Teachers worked closely with community to create bargaining proposals focused on inequities in their school district and on better serving students. When parents and community members began to see that the union was not a financially-motivated political entity, but rather a democratic organization consisting of people that selflessly served their community, the power dynamic in negotiations shifted dramatically. When the public demanded the school district do better for their students, district leaders did just that and both sides had a collaborative series of negotiations resulting in a strong contract for teachers and students.
Colorado law now mandates district negotiations be open to the public. Denver teachers should utilize this opportunity and bring parents and community members into the bargaining process – not just as observers, but as participants to ensure that the best interests of students are realized by our school district.
4. Take back the narrative
There's an old saying that says, “If you give them an inch, they'll take a mile.”
Denver teachers, like most others throughout the nation, have been told to do more with less for years. Powerful corporate interests are pushing for charter schools, high-stakes testing, and merit pay for educators. Many students face obstacles to succeeding in school and so-called "reformers" have taken advantage of these inequalities to push forward their agenda.
Unions cannot afford to stand idly by while these attacks on public education occur. Schools and Communities United, a Wisconsin coalition including the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association, addressed racial inequities head-on with a detailed report about segregation in Milwaukee schools and communities. Nationally, many teachers unions are challenging the premise of outsourcing struggling schools to charters by pushing for community schools instead.
It is not enough to mitigate losses and sell concessions to the membership. As teachers, we must take the power back and confront issues like poverty, lack of affordable housing, racial injustices, and inequities in Denver schools and neighborhoods. The experts in education policy are teachers – not the politicians and lawyers influencing our elections and controlling our district.
5. Don't be afraid to stand up to big banks and corporate interests
The Chicago Teachers Union continues to demand city leaders, including the city council and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, take legal action against the predatory bank deals that have cost Chicago taxpayers more than $850 million. The same type of interest rate swaps have cost Denver Public Schools hundreds of millions.
While focused on infrastructure rather than education, the Fix LA coalition in Los Angeles continues to expose how Wall Street banks are gouging their city government through hundreds of millions in fees resulting from toxic swaps. The coalition highlights how taxpayer money should go towards “our streets and not Wall Street.”
The charter school and testing industries have a strong foothold in Denver. Looking at the amount of dark money being spent in Denver School Board elections, it suggests that private entities are protecting their financial interests and ensuring that Denver remains charter-friendly and invested in high-stakes standardized testing.
Education reformers have been more successful in taking over public interests in Denver than in other cities. Denver teachers must organize and expose the true intentions of these corporate entities, so that our public schools can remain accountable to taxpayers and community members.