I talk to veteran union critic Mike Antonucci about what’s next for unions, whether charter school teacher organizing is *a thing,* and whether he has any advice for teacher union heads Randi Weingarten and Lily Eskelsen Garcia…
Jennifer Berkshire: You’ve been predicting that it’s only a matter of time until the Supreme Court delivers a crushing blow vs. public sector unions. This interview has barely started and your powers of prediction are already being borne out. What happens next?
Mike Antonucci: Essentially agency fees [which require public employees who choose not to join a union to instead pay a fee to the union] will be banned regardless of what state you’re in. There’s no question it will be momentous change, but as long as there is collective bargaining it won’t be *the end of unions,* as some have claimed. I’ve used Florida or Nevada as the model for what public sector unions will all look like post-agency fee. Heck, before their recent problems, the Alabama Education Association was the dominant force in that state’s politics. So I don’t want to downplay it, but I think both sides are somewhat overstating the effect it will have externally. Internally there will have to be belt-tightening. That’s where we’ll see the real fireworks.
Berkshire: I want to dwell for a moment on the name of the gentleman at the heart of the case that now appears to be headed to the Supreme Court. It’s Janus, which is also the Roman god whose two faces look to the past and the future. This strikes me as a perfect metaphor for the state of unions right now: both stuck in the past, unable to adjust to the changing nature of work and workplaces, yet in many ways more necessary than ever.
Antonucci: The unions that we have now haven’t changed in any significant way since the late 70’s, and this is especially true of the public sector unions. They’re working in a world that no longer exists. I’ve written a lot about the lack of input from younger teachers and millennials in the teachers unions. The union is sincere about wanting to get more of those members into the leadership, and yet the paradox that I always see is that those teachers have different priorities, different ways of looking at things and different things that they want from the union. Some people are going to want to set up their own conditions of employment. They feel comfortable setting a value on their own labor and going to an employer and saying: *this is what I’m worth and this is what I want.* A lot of the economy works that way now. Other people are going to need representation of some sort, whether it’s a union or some other kind of agent. Some of them will bond together to make a larger group with unified interests so that they can negotiate as one to get what they want. All of those things will continue to be true into the future.
Berkshire: I’m going to offer up some Kimmy Schmidt-style relentless positivity here. Don’t unions also have an opportunity right now to play a positive role and speak on behalf of individuals and institutions that are under attack? I’m thinking, for example, about how unions in cities including Boston have been out front on behalf of immigrant and undocumented students.
Antonucci: There’s a fine line to walk here and I’ve seen this go back and forth. You want to be A) a professional association B) a collective bargaining representative and C) a social justice movement. The standard view is that we can be all three of those things. But not everyone wants the union to be all three of those things. A lot of them want the union to be one of those things at the expense of the other two and that’s where you run into trouble. So you can go out there and say *we are a social justice union. These are the issues we really care about and we’re going to go out there and push for them.* That gets you all your social justice people on board but you end up alienating members who are saying *look—I’m paying you money to represent me against the horrible school district I work for. I don’t want you out there marching for immigration when you should be in here protecting me.* Other people go the other direction. They want to know why the union is spending so much time fighting for reduced benefits, crumbs at the bargaining table, when we should be out there marching for various causes. I think maybe there’s a middle ground, but from where I sit I think it’s more divisive than the unions let on.
Berkshire: It seems like everyday there’s another story about charter teachers, like these teachers at a Sacramento network overseen by Michelle Rhee, who are unionizing for the very same reasons cited by these teachers in New Orleans, these teachers in Los Angeles and these teachers in Philly. But you have a grievance with this line of thought, so to speak, largely because you insist that there isn’t a trend.
Antonucci: It’s all a matter of context. I mentioned the other day that people get all hyped up about a DC charter school with about 30 teachers petitioning for a representation election, while a 955-teacher bargaining unit in Indiana decertified NEA and no one says a word. There are a few other factors at play as well. The obvious one is that as the union attitude toward charters grows increasingly hostile, it becomes increasingly difficult to persuade charter teachers to join. As unions become weaker, they become less appealing for charter teachers to join. Finally, charter operators can greatly influence how unionized the sector becomes by moderating the size of individual networks. Unions would love to organize Walmart or McDonald’s workers, but can’t do it store by store. The bigger a charter school or network is, the more cost-effective it becomes for a union to organize it. Unionizing 30 teachers at a time is like trying to scoop out Lake Michigan with a bucket.
Teachers unions have to accept that charter schools are part of the landscape and if they don’t organize the teachers and help them get them to the same level as teachers in district schools, the whole thing is going to fall apart. As far as charter school advocates go, they’re always worried. I’ve had charter school people call me lots of times over the years and ask for my advice on how they keep the union out of their schools. My advice has always been the same and it’s not what they want to hear. You don’t keep the union out, your employees keep the union out because they’re happy. Happy people don’t say *we really need a union here.* They form unions because they’re unhappy and they need protection and the unions provide that. I don’t think the situation is any different than it was two years ago or five years ago. But the argument that the numbers have changed doesn’t stand up to the statistics that we have.
Berkshire: You describe your website as a *listening post monitoring public education and teachers unions.* Here’s your chance to put down your spy gear and offer up some advice for the unions you’ve been monitoring for so long. What would you tell Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers, or Lily Eskelsen Garcia of the National Education Association, to do differently if you had the chance?
Antonucci: It’s really hard for me to answer that question. I look at what I do as descriptive rather than prescriptive. I feel comfortable describing what I see and interpreting it in a certain way but I’m very uncomfortable saying *seeing this situation, this is what should be done.* I think a lot of people do that without any real knowledge of the consequences or the unintended things that could happen. Having said all that, I think if there were one thing Randi and Lily need to do, it would literally be to turn over some of their power to some sort of assembly or group or larger board of directors that includes various organized groups, so that you have more like a parliament rather than just this hierarchical organization. I think what needs to happen is that there needs to be more of an input from various viewpoints, especially from places that are traditionally underrepresented: rural areas, brand new millennial teachers. But it needs to be formalized. Today what you have is people kind of informally getting together. Even the Badass Teachers Association is still an informal structure that a lot of people belong to. But what they really need is something that constitutes an opposition party or several opposition parties so that they have some real democracy going on. They have kind of a fetish for consensus. *If everyone agrees it must be good.* But everyone is agreeing who is sitting in the room. Maybe there are some people who haven’t been let in the room.
Berkshire: If I close my eyes and forget for a moment that you’re wearing a fedora and holding a magnifying glass, I could almost imagine that I was listening to, say, Karen Lewis speaking. The leaders of the social justice caucuses that have been popping up in various cities are basically saying the same thing about the unions needing to be more democratic and representative.
Antonucci: There are people behind the push for social justice unionism, and there’s real enthusiasm, but when it comes to transforming that huge governing structure, it just doesn’t happen. I’ve seen more change in the past five years then in the past 20 because a lot of these *dissidents,* if that’s what you want to call them, are more organized within the union than they’ve ever been. They’re not just a voice in the wilderness. They’re winning presidencies, getting control of boards of directors. The icon is Lewis in Chicago, but there’s also Alex Caputo-Pearl in Los Angeles, and Barbara Madeloni in Massachusetts. They’re not all on the same page together, but all of them are *anti-union-establishment* people. They’re not your traditional union officers. But unless they coalesce around a national agenda, that could just fade away.
Berkshire: I’m imagining you as a youngster, organizing your toys into a union, then systematically exposing said union’s flaws. Is that how it all started?
Antonucci: I actually started out as a military historian. This was back in the early 90’s. I wrote for publications having to do with military history, intelligence and diplomacy. I wasn’t making enough money so I started writing for anybody who had work for me. You probably understand that…I got work with a small political newsletter called Inside California that is now defunct. My primary job was tracking legislation as it worked its way through the California Assembly and the Senate. That was before the Internet, so I literally had to go down to the stacks in the legislative basement everyday and pick out stuff that I thought was interesting and write a column about it. I wrote about all kinds of things: recycling, property rights. The California Teachers Association was a big player in the capital in those days and when I started writing about them I got a lot more interest than in anything else I was doing. I didn’t know anything about unions at the time. I didn’t start out saying *I want to write about the unions and be critical of them or investigate them.* I could just have easily written about HMOs or Anheuser Busch. To use a cliche, market demand drove it.
Mike Antonucci is the director of the Education Intelligence Agency.
And while you’re here, check out the latest episode of the Have You Heard podcast on a not entirely unrelated topic: Buying Influence: Big Money and School Board Elections.