It’s an incredibly difficult time to be a public school teacher. Collective action can help teachers realize that their problems are caused by systemic issues, not individual failings, and that the solutions require acting together.

Nierika Nims, an English teacher at Malden High School, walks the picket line with fellow Malden educators on strike on October 17, 2022. (Jessica Rinaldi / Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Fed up with unjust, unsafe conditions that devalued teachers and students, educators in two Massachusetts towns walked out last month in illegal strikes. Undeterred by judges, threats, and fines, the Haverhill Educators Association (HEA) and the Malden Educators Association (MEA) — both chapters of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) — stood together and won expansive gains. “At some point,” HEA vice president Barry Davis told Labor Notes’ Barbara Madeloni, “you have to choose between doing what is right and doing what is legal.”

Madeloni, staff organizer and former education coordinator at Labor Notes, helmed the MTA as president during its metamorphosis into the rank-and-file powerhouse it is now: a statewide union willing to go to bat for illegally striking locals and the common good. Madeloni is quick to point out that members, not just her or any other leader, deserve credit for the union’s impressive victories. Through her work with the MTA’s left caucus, Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU), and with Labor Notes, Madeloni has developed keen insights into the process of building transformative teacher power.

With conditions in US schools now at a particularly brutal point, Jacobin’s Nora De La Cour spoke with Madeloni about how ordinary teachers’ union members can fight back.

Nora De La Cour

When you agreed to let EDU run you for MTA president in an organizing campaign, it was with the understanding that you would lose. But positioning yourself as a fierce opponent of standardized testing and other neoliberal education reforms, you ended up winning in a seismic upset. Can you talk about the rank-and-file feelings that your campaign was able to tap into?

Barbara Madeloni

I think the campaign tapped into a real sense of the difference between why people had gone into education and what they were being allowed to do as educators. I was really struck by how secret people were keeping their wishes for what they could do in the classroom — like building relationships and taking care of kids’ broader intellectual, social, and emotional needs. By drawing that out, we moved from despair to a sense of, “Dammit, why don’t we have that?” But exciting that anger was only possible because we said, “There’s a way we can do this. We need a different kind of union.”

Nora De La Cour

While in office, you helped MTA members tackle serious threats including an effort to tie teacher licensure to narrow performance ratings, an aggressive kindergarten assessment plan, and attacks on teacher and retiree health coverage. The most stunning victory was against a $26-million charter school expansion campaign backed by Wall Street and groups like the Walton Foundation that have an interest in undercutting public goods.

Their charter expansion ballot measure was polling with a double-digit lead in April before elections. But the MTA, along with a broad coalition of labor unions and advocacy groups, was able to reverse that, defeating the measure 62-38. Thanks to that and subsequent work by the MTA, charters are not a threat to public schools in Massachusetts the way they are in other places. Can you talk about what that anti-charter mobilization effort looked like?

Barbara Madeloni

What we were able to do was excite a sense of possibility that was grounded in people’s hopes and values. We’d been told by the MTA leadership that the best we could do is get a not-as-bad deal. We were like, “No, we can fight this.”

The member engagement numbers weren’t great in terms of what we could count. But the Walton Foundation actually did their own report, which said that voters trusted teachers — and that teachers, even when they weren’t formally a part of the campaign, were out there talking to people about this. A small percentage canvassed and phone banked, but thousands and thousands talked to people in the grocery line, talked to their doctor, and talked to their neighbor about this. We laid the ground for those conversations when we went in and educated members and gave them the confidence to speak to the issue. We had more people ready to speak about the dangers of charters than the bad guys could find.

It wasn’t just about charters and privatization; it was about us needing to be the kind of union that brings people into the fight.

But I have to say, it was an incredible risk. We knew that we had to fight even if we were gonna lose. It wasn’t just about charters and privatization; it was about us needing to be the kind of union that says no to this and that brings people into the fight.

We passed a new business item that said we would hold forums across the state for members to be in conversation with each other about the issues that matter to them. We asked them: What gives you joy in what you do? What takes the joy out? What’s one thing that you would change? Then, they would go and talk to each other. And when I listened to those conversations, it was more than just sharing a description of their misery. They were beginning to share an analysis of what was happening.

Nora De La Cour

What advice do you have for teachers who would like to help make their locals more democratic and more energized?

Barbara Madeloni

Be the union that you want your union to be. Maybe you’ve got a principal who is harassing people and the union says, “Oh, there’s nothing in the contract about that.” Gather people together, identify the problem, figure out what your demand is, and organize your own collective actions to try to take on that issue.

It’s gonna take time. I don’t want to pretend that it’s easier than it is. What I do know from my experience and from watching it happen elsewhere is that if we actually start by listening to the people with whom we work, and if we’re interested in what’s on their minds, then from that we can say, “I talked to five other people who have this issue, and I’m wondering if you want to get together so we can figure out what we want to do about it.” The first ask is to bring everyone together.

Nora De La Cour

So, you can start by talking to colleagues and identifying shared concerns, then focusing on those.

Barbara Madeloni

Absolutely. It’s amazing how often we skip that step. Probably because we’re frustrated, right? So, we’re like, “Damn it, I’m so pissed off about this. I’m gonna get people together to organize around the thing that I’m pissed off about.” But they may or may not be pissed off about it. So, you gotta start by finding out what they care about.

Nora De La Cour

Teachers are so overburdened and exhausted by their work lives that they may not feel they have time and energy to pursue structural change. And many teachers are understandably afraid to get involved with union activity because they worry that they’ll be targeted by their bosses. How do you get past that reluctance?

Barbara Madeloni

I think partly you have to acknowledge that the fear is real. In organizing trainings, we talk a lot about one-on-one conversations, and we talk about action. But there’s a critical step between those things, and that is getting workers in conversation with each other. That is the space where I have seen people overcome fear, just by understanding, I’m not alone in feeling this. And then, we figure out where we’re ready to walk.

So low-level asks: I remember Red for Ed shirt days, and some of the teachers would be wearing their red T-shirts. Others, you had to look to see that they had a T-shirt underneath with a little bit of red coming out. That’s what they were ready to do.

There’s not a magic trick, and it can all sound sort of mushy. But it is a different thing for us as people living in capitalism to be in a space together, understanding that there’s a problem, and acting collectively to solve that problem. So, to the degree that we keep inviting people into that kind of space, people start to walk together.

Through that collective action, you bring educators into confrontation with the system, so they come to know themselves as having a shared problem. They go solve that problem in whatever low-level way — we’re all gonna wear red T-shirts — and then they see a principal have an angry, dangerous, controlling response. And they go, “What’s going on here?” They begin to see the structures of power and how they operate. Now, they’ve moved from being afraid to being angry. And they’re angry with others — they’re not angry alone, ruminating.

That’s why open bargaining is so effective. It brings people together to have a shared experience of the boss trying to screw us over, and then they can see: this is about structures of power trying to make me afraid. The key is helping people see that their fear is not about individual weakness: not my fear or your fear. That fear is being generated by the system in which we live. So, we need to change that system.

Nora De La Cour

For many teachers, “the union” means the local, and the local means the local president. Local presidents are often tirelessly devoted to their work. But the fact that power is so concentrated in these officers (who sometimes insist on coordinating most or all union activity) can end up discouraging rank-and-file members from taking action and bringing new ideas to the table.

What advice do you have for teachers who would like to help their locals think outside the box but who feel that the union is a closed-door club? Where should they start?

Barbara Madeloni

I faced a lot of opposition from local leaders and the MTA Board of Directors when I was first elected, and the answer was to get the members in conversation with each other. I couldn’t necessarily go into a local and say I’m going to meet with your members if the presidents wouldn’t allow that. But I could have a regional meeting for rank-and-file members to talk about a particular topic, and then anybody could come. That’s how members got to experience something different.

Just changing leadership without changing how members think about what kind of union they want is likely to fail. We have to bring people together to begin to experience that a union can behave democratically.

It’s about shifting the focus away from “I have to get approval from the president or the field rep” to “We’re gonna go be a union in this building or on this floor, and that means we’re gonna organize collectively for the things we want and need.” If the leadership stands with you, that’s great. But if they’re standing in between you and the boss, then you’ve got an opportunity to start a caucus.

Nora De La Cour

What do you say to leftist teachers who want to bring about transformation by running for office in their locals?

Barbara Madeloni

I’m always embarrassed to say this as someone who ran for president of a statewide union: just changing leadership without changing how members think about what kind of union they want is likely to fail. We have to bring people together to begin to experience that a union can behave democratically, with a shared sense of purpose and militancy.

Nora De La Cour

While in office, you worked with the Raise Up Massachusetts coalition to lay the groundwork for a ballot measure, the Fair Share Amendment, that generates money for schools and infrastructure by taxing annual income over $1 million. After seven years of organizing by MTA members and others, it narrowly passed on November 8. Do you think this will open the door to more economic redistribution in Massachusetts?

Barbara Madeloni

It’s gonna make it much harder for them to say we don’t have the money. And when people get used to having a public good again, they’re gonna want more of it. People will see that we can have school buildings that are healthy, that we can have roads that aren’t dangerous. I think that’s a really important shift away from, “We can’t have it be better.”

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