Open Letter to SEA President Jonathan Knapp

An Open Letter to Seattle Education Association President Jonathan Knapp from the Social Equality Educators

Dear President Knapp,

As members and supporters of the Social Equality Educators (SEE), an organization of rank-and-file social justice activist teachers and educational employees in the Seattle Education Association, we are writing to express our dismay over your recent remarks in the Seattle Times article titled, “Seattle teachers union adopts softer strategy.”

To read our union president announce to the world that we do not intend to mount the most vigorous struggle necessary to counter the specious arguments of billionaire education reformers (and any understudies they may have in the Seattle School District) was one of the most disheartening things we could read about our union.  Educators are under assault these days.  We have seen our pay cut, our cost of living adjustment cancelled, and many of our colleagues laid off or displaced.  Last year, in fact, nearly every elementary school counselor was pink-slipped.  We are increasingly unable to afford our homes, childcare, and other basic necessities.  We are more stressed as public education and teachers are routinely maligned.  We need and expect your help to do whatever it takes to defend us, yet, if this article is accurate, it seems clear you will go only so far in our defense.

You were quoted in the Seattle Times saying,

“‘The climate has changed, and we have to be advocates for public education in a way that 20 years ago we didn’t,’ Knapp said.  ‘And the way that we do that is building relationships, not by confronting people and saying it’s our way or the highway'” (our emphasis).

The Seattle Times article goes so far as to suggest that you have essentially abandoned our fundamental right to strike:

“Compromise was less important a generation ago, Knapp said; in those days, the threat of a teacher strike was often enough for officials to back off attempts to slash benefits or request more accountability.  But after years of criticism from groups wanting to overhaul public education, teachers have less power than ever before, he said.”

Your remarks about our union threaten our membership and our profession for two main reasons:

1) No one in our union has ever said, “It’s my way or the highway.”  That statement is simply a mischaracterization of teachers’ unions promoted by billionaire education reformers like the owners of Wal-Mart, Eli Broad and Bill Gates, Jr.  They have spent a mountain of money in their attempts to convince the public that teachers’ unions are selfish and won’t do what’s best for education.  While the SEA has never made this straw-man of an argument, unionists have rightly said, “It’s what’s best for public education, students, and teachers, or you will get a hell of a fight!”

2) Without struggle there is no progress.  The Tacoma educators’ strike this past school year is strong proof.  Tacoma teachers and educators defeated a contract that would have eroded their seniority and cut their pay by 2 percent.  And when a judge ruled the strike illegal and threatened a fine of $10,000 per teacher, Tacoma voted over 90 percent to stay out on strike.  Then they won every single one of their demands.  By contrast, our union obediently took the 2 percent pay cut, in a region that is saturated with corporate cash.  You don’t get victories for public education and your union members by being soft or by “not confronting people” when backbone is called for.  As the Tacoma educators in Washington State and the Reynolds School District educators in Oregon have recently shown us, most educators have not given up and we don’t have any less power than we did before – unless we choose, as you suggest, to give up that power.  Whatever your personal beliefs about the strength of our union, we work too hard to see our elected leadership prepare for contract negotiations by publicly announcing that our membership is too feeble to strike.  We all hope for successful negotiations that improve our working conditions and education without a strike, but why go into negotiations with the built-in disadvantage of saying it isn’t an option?  It is completely possible to announce your intention to negotiate in good faith and strive to reach consensuses without preemptively abandoning our ability to strike.

Yet our fight is not for SEA members alone. It is a struggle for the very nature of public education, one of the last major services guaranteed for all by the government. It is a struggle to bring back funding for the arts, music, field trips, and sports. It is a struggle to help remake pedagogy to address social responsibility and leadership, not simply to prepare for tests. It is a struggle to educate our youth about what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the interrelated triple evils of racism, militarism, and exploitation. In short, it is a struggle to remake public education as an institution devoted to developing the whole child.

In negotiating our last contract that allowed students’ MAP test scores to trigger further teacher evaluations that could lead to disciplinary actions and termination, you, as Vice President of SEA, decided to ignore the overwhelming research that shows standardized testing is an ineffective measure of student learning while simultaneously showing that it is effective at narrowing the curriculum, imposing racial bias, and sorting students to determine their access to success. You told us that this was a savvy strategy, because by not completely giving into the district’s proposal that test scores directly make up part of our evaluation, SEA had satisfied their desires for reform, while holding at bay the most destructive reforms. Yet, by legitimizing high-stakes testing as a tool that can and should play a role in our evaluations, this helped open the door for the continued use of these unscientific tests to further dominate education. The SEA Representative Assembly said as much when they voted “No Confidence” in the MAP test in the spring of 2011.

In place of a soft approach to unionism we believe in “social movement unionism.” The term “social movement unionism” was developed out of the massive strikes in South Africa of workers who had joined together with the anti-apartheid political struggle. The principles of Social Movement Unionism were summed up by Martin Luther King, Jr. when he said, “The two most dynamic movements that reshaped the nation during the past three decades are the labor and civil rights movements. Our combined strength is potentially enormous.” Now more than ever, we believe this social movement unionism approach is needed, and will be more effective because it centers on these major points:

  1. Mass participation of membership. Instead of relying mainly on a strategy of the union president and few other union officials building relationships with the district, the rank-and-file of our membership should also be involved making their voices heard through collective actions, rallies, teach-ins and community/labor forums, and job actions.
  2. Building alliances. Relationship building is a critical component of any effective union strategy. We want to bargain in good faith with the district and if they want to partner with unionized teachers to deliver the best education possible, we welcome their support, input, and collaboration. However, should the district support corporate reforms (privatizing schools through charters, high-stakes testing, merit pay, closing schools, and such.) – measures that have been shown by the data not to improve education – our union must be ready to stand in shoulder to shoulder with parents and students to build the broadest possible fight. Fighting for schools and curricula that reflect the needs and desires of the community is critical to building these relationships. Union leadership’s past support of school closures, particularly the closure of the African American Academy, demonstrates a lack of understanding of this key principle. Shifting our energy to strengthen alliances with parents and movements that are struggling for social justice—rather than hoping to have a cozy enough relationship with management—is a much more powerful strategy.
  3. Fighting for a strong contract. We believe that the SEA has a duty to build the most rigorous democratic struggle necessary, to defend teachers from the corporate education reform agenda and the austerity-minded politicians who would slash our compensation, raise class sizes, and turn education into lifeless test-prep. Sometimes this struggle may take the form of strike authorization votes before negotiations (like the Chicago Teachers Union recently did) or even strikes, but often other lesser job actions, such as “working to the contract”, can help educators win their demands. Whatever contract you help negotiate, a basic commitment to democracy would require that you give the membership ample time to review the contract—for our last contract we had only about 24 hours, not nearly long enough to evaluate a complex new bargaining agreement.

 

Given our perspective on public education and social movement unionism, we, the Social Equality Educators, call on you to do the following:

1. Release a public statement that you are not opposed to “confronting people” who favor corporate education reforms that will erode our member’s rights, public education, and democracy.

2. Release a public statement that renounces the anti-strike position that you were cited as having in the Seattle Times article “Seattle teachers union adopts softer strategy”.

3. Launch a regular forum to deepen our members’ understanding of the history and present day practice of our union and public education. This regular forum could be used to partner with parent, student, and community groups to discuss how the union can help to bring back the funding for the arts, music, field trips, and sports and remake pedagogy to address social responsibility and leadership, not simply to prepare for tests.

 

In this past SEA election, the Social Equality Educators won several seats on the Executive Board of the SEA and our presidential and vice-presidential candidates garnered approximately 40 percent of the vote, all running a campaign explicitly on the approach to unionism we have outlined in this letter. Finally, we hope that as you begin your term as president of SEA you will take note of the great anti-slavery freedom fighter, Fredrick Douglass, who famously said:

“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without plowing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Thank you for your consideration of these points and we look forward to your written reply.

Sincerely,

Social Equality Educators and the undersigned teachers

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