Learning to build power

Michael de Wall
City Organiser

Public educators in Wisconsin have a proud history of rethinking schools and social justice unionism. The emerging challenge is to harness the unique and untapped potential of teacher unionists and lead the labour movement in the process of rethinking "organising".

No other unions have the working conditions of members so intimately connected to the hopes and aspirations of future generations. The learning conditions of children are the working conditions of teachers.

No other unions have members so deeply embedded in what remains of civil society. If there is any hope for the notion of a critical citizenship, democracy and a revitalised public sphere, then that hope will most likely be discovered in our classrooms.

No other group of workers has such deep knowledge about people, pedagogy and change. No one is better positioned to do what I think needs to be done: that is, to put the learning of everyone involved in our struggle at the heart of our organising practice.

In short, members are always learning about their union, and learning about their own capacity to act, as they are being organised. Much of that learning is informal and incidental and we need to acknowledge that such learning is not always positive.

What do members learn when we service them, when we take their problem from them, and the potential power that might be found through their involvement in the problem-solving process, and attempt to provide them with arbitrary answers and solutions?

What do members learn when we encourage them to lean so heavily on the "industrial" rather than enter that largely unexplored and complex space between the industrial bottom line and the grievance, where they might exercise professional judgment, engage in dialogue about problems, collectively find solutions and contribute to decision-making?

If we are serious about developing cultures of organising in our schools and associations, we need to start thinking about every Organiser as a popular educator, and every educator as a potential Organiser. We have to take back from the corporate world the notion of being a "learning organisation" and reclaim the critical and progressive potential of such thinking.

In the United States and in Australia a "good union school" is often determined by the enthusiasm and capacity of the union rep at the site. This is unsustainable. It is also counter-intuitive for unions to accept a situation where one person is carrying the load and holding things together. We need to invest more time and resources in developing workplace committees that are geared towards learning how to build power by engaging with the everyday concerns of colleagues and bringing greater dignity and respect to experiences of teaching and learning in our public schools.

Another important challenge is to start moving outwards and establishing more effective and sustainable working relationships with our parents and communities.

In San Diego, I attended a session run by a corporate-backed group that is actively organising parents and promoting the choice agenda and parent trigger laws. The broader curriculum on offer was sound. The session mostly focused on how parents can engage with their school and build constructive relationships with the principal and teachers to improve the educational outcomes of their kids. This is the kind of work that we should be doing as part of an organising effort to build a public education movement.

Of course, so much of the potential in these thoughts requires a great deal of unlearning and pushing forward in new ways. Those who lead and organise in our teacher unions must take responsibility for realising that project.

Michael de Wall is the current recipient of the Eric Pearson Study Grant. He has been looking at capacity building and parent engagement in the United States. This is an edited version of Michael’s speech delivered to teachers and union leaders at the Wisconsin Education Association Council.