Duffy blazed a trail for a new unionism. Who will follow?

A.J. Duffy, the former president of United Teachers Los Angeles and outspoken critic of charter schools, illustrated the dilemma teacher unions are facing when he recently explained why he is now running a Los Angeles charter school:

I saw that despite the promises made by the district to pilot school leaders, the district just piled the bureaucratic rules back on and never made good on the promises of autonomy. The only way to make a difference is to have real independence. Besides, charters were started in the first place from the ideas of a real union leader — Al Shanker — he wanted teacher-led schools. I want teacher-led schools. I believe that will be best for the students.

Teachers began forming industrial unions fifty years ago to protect themselves from the abuses of school districts, which were political monopolies. I became a teacher union organizer in the winter of 1978 when a colleague lost her job for rejecting the sexual advances of her boss. My two primary union mentors had both been fired in the sixties because of their political beliefs. Agriculture was king in Florida back then and the political elite ruled public education like a plantation. Workers were expected to be docile conformists who did what they were told, and any questioning of authority was not tolerated.

After a long political struggle we succeeded in implementing procedures that protected education employees from these political abuses, but unfortunately that’s where we stopped. We never used our collective power to transform these political monopolies and that failure is haunting teacher unions today. Increasingly teachers, parents and taxpayers want teacher unions to do more than protect teachers from dysfunctional school systems. They want teacher unions to help transform those systems. They want teachers to be empowered to create more diverse learning options for parents, and they want parents empowered to match their children with the learning options that best meet their needs. They want teacher unions to put the interest of teachers, parents, students and taxpayers over the interests of school districts.

By becoming a charter school operator, Duffy has put teachers and students first, but don’t expect other teacher union leaders to follow suit while they’re still in office. Teacher unions are feeling insecure at the moment and consequently are highly resistant to change. Just last spring, I watched as the Florida Education Association pushed out its talented chief of staff, Alfreda Davis, as she was trying to move the union out of its siege mentality by finding common ground with social justice efforts like the tax credit scholarship program I lead.

Nonetheless, public education is expanding beyond school districts, teacher and parent empowerment is increasing and a few teacher union leaders are beginning to speculate in private about post-industrial teacher unionism. Duffy may have been the first large urban union leader to run a charter school after leaving office, but he won’t be the last.

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BY Doug Tuthill

A lifelong educator and former teacher union president, Tuthill has been president of Step Up For Students since August 2008.