The National Education Association (NEA) is spending $15 million to get pro-education candidates elected in November, while the California Teachers Association (CTA) routinely outspends all other state lobbyists. Figures like these make good fodder for anti-teacher rants by conservatives, but they also anger teachers. As an organizer for a local that is affiliated with both the CTA and NEA, I often find myself talking to irate members who are frustrated with the top down paternalism of our state and national organizations, particularly with respect to how our dues are spent. For all the money CTA funneled into political campaigns, the California legislature still cut $17 billion from education over the past two years, fired teachers and increased class sizes. Politics is a losing game for unions. Candidates are fickle, unreliable allies of working Americans. They are wealthier than us, with substantially different financial interests. When forced to make tough budget decisions, they side with business, not labor.
Take Jerry Brown, who the CTA is lavishly supporting for governor in California. His billionaire opponent, Meg Whitman, is clearly an enemy of public education and unions, but can teachers and parents count on Brown? The answer is no. As Mayor of Oakland he appointed three additional members to the Oakland school board and tried to impose his own hand-picked superintendent in a power grab that angered teachers and parents alike. He created two charter schools, the Oakland Military Academy (OMI), and the Oakland School of the Arts (OSA), neither of which performed better than Oakland’s traditional public high schools despite the fact that he personally raised $12 million for the schools, allowing them to spend almost twice as much per student as Oakland’s traditional schools. Not surprisingly, the military school serves predominantly lower income students, while the art school serves a mostly middle class clientele. In general, Brown has been a strong supporter of charter schools, while giving little indication he has the stomach for helping traditional public schools. Indeed, as mayor, he diverted city staff members to charter school duty, even moving the City Manager’s office from City Hall to OMI headquarters at the Oakland Army base.
I’m not interested in telling anyone how (or if) to vote. If you want to vote for the lesser evil, more power to you. My argument is that my union’s vast resources should not be given to a lesser evil who may or may not make some favorable decisions. A union’s strength does not come from buying politicians. It comes from mobilizing its members to fight for better working conditions and a better society. They accomplish this most effectively through organizing and educating their members and the public around critical issues of common interest. One example is health care. With insurance rates increasing 25-40% annually, workers are being forced to pay more out of pocket, a de facto pay cut that worsens each year. Lack of healthcare causes poor children to be absent as much as 40% more often than middle class kids. This can have a profound impact on academic success. In one study of Baltimore teenagers, high school drop-outs averaged 27.6 absences per year, while graduates averaged only 11.8. A single payer system should improve attendance and graduation rates by ensuring that everyone has health coverage. It reduces uncertainty in school budgeting and prevents insurance companies from holding employee pay hostage. Countries with universal coverage have higher life expectancies, lower infant mortality and healthier citizens at a fraction of what we spend. Yet insurance giants have spent millions to convince us the opposite is true. Instead of buying politicians who might vote for single payer, unions should educate members and organize them to fight for it.
There is power in a union, but it comes from its members, not politicians. Lobbyists may be effective for corporate America, but for the rest of us, organizing gets the goods.