Democracy means a culture of control by the members,” wrote Alexandra Bradbury in her March 2018 Labor Notes article, “The
Only Way to Survive Janus.” It is such a powerful
idea that I’ve written it on
the wall in my office to
serve as a guiding principle
for my work as MTA
Why do I find it so
powerful? Both because
it reminds me of my own
practice as an educator
and because, too often,
we don’t experience
democracy in the places
that we care most deeply
about and to which we
devote most of our time — our classrooms, our
worksites and our union.
Democracy in the classroom
— or the absence of it
We come into this profession wanting to give
students agency. Putting decision-making in the hands
of students allows them to take ownership of their
learning and prepares them for life in a democracy.
Teaching in an affluent district — with well-resourced schools and where children with privileged
lives come to school with far more than just their
basic needs being met — afforded me the luxury of
creating a culture of democracy in my classroom.
My students could take charge of their learning.
Educators who work in districts with adequate
resources can more readily create conditions in
which students have a say. That should be the norm
for all students.
But in far too many districts, two decades of
austerity have created conditions that have deprived
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Democracy is more than an election
students of small class sizes and essential resources
such as school nurses, counselors, and even sufficient
time for lunch and recess, all of which are central to
meeting their basic needs. Educators spend the day
trying to maintain a semblance of control and keep
children safe. In underfunded districts, conditions of
austerity have become the norm and often limit what
we imagine is possible for our students and schools.
And the accountability regime, which is
robbing us all of our autonomy, makes our worksites
The absence of democracy
at the worksite
Education “reform” mandates, driven by
the agenda to privatize public education from
prekindergarten through the university level, have
been imposed unilaterally from the top, all too often
by bullying managers.
Classroom teachers and education support staff
have little control over what we teach, how we teach,
for how long we teach and how we assess. We are
forced in many cases to write curriculum standards
on the wall, teach with “fidelity” lesson by lesson,
page by page — and keep pace with our colleagues.
Our workloads have increased, services have been
cut and programs have been outsourced — all
without even minimal consultation. We are being
forced to do more with less, often at stagnant wages.
There is no democracy in this model.
Building union democracy
in classrooms and at worksites
We can and we must reclaim democracy in
our classrooms and at our worksites. We do this by
democratizing our union. Members want to belong
to a union in which their struggles are central and
where leaders support them in their fight to improve
their working conditions and their students’ learning
Building that “culture of control by the
members” begins by coming together to listen to one
another, collectively name the problems we face, and
determine the direction and the action to solve our
own problems, rather than having other people solve
our problems for us. When we start to talk to each
other about how we can make conditions better, we
begin to imagine that something else is possible, and
then we resist.
We reclaim democracy in our classrooms when
we build democracy in our union. I believe that we
will get there, as I see educators — who for so long
had been feeling too afraid to do something — now
beginning to take action because they are more afraid
of doing nothing.
When we start to talk to
each other about how we
can make conditions better,
we begin to imagine that
something else is possible,
and then we resist.
Supporting locked-out workers
The lockout of more than 1,200 National Grid
workers continued as MTA Today went to
press, even as two recent incidents served to
demonstrate the need for trained and qualified
workers. On Oct. 8, a replacement National Grid
worker’s mistake led to a shutdown of service to
300 customers in Woburn and a moratorium on
work there pending a safety review. In September,
explosions in lines owned by Columbia Gas
rocked the Merrimack Valley, leading to one death
and the evacuation of neighborhoods in three
communities. MTA members have been on the
march in support of the locked-out National Grid
workers since the summer. On July 18, members
marched behind a banner in Boston to show
support for their fellow union members.
Photo by Bob Duffy