Our union is the democratically-elected, democratically-structured voice of the teachers and support personnel who work in SAISD.
When we say “our Union”, or “the Alliance”, what we’re really saying is “the organized voice of the vast majority of those who work in our schools”.
From the media output we’ve read this year, you’d think that people like us have been brainwashed by a monolithic, unaccountable structure called “The Alliance”: the teachers’ union that consistently stands in the way of the plans put forward by SAISD’s visionary leaders.
The truth is, unsurprisingly, a little more complicated.
Our union is the democratically-elected, democratically-structured voice of the teachers and support personnel who work in SAISD. We’re a wall-to-wall union, representing all non-administrative staff, elected by teachers and support personnel throughout the district to represent them in conversations with SAISD leadership. Every SAISD campus elects representatives, who meet monthly to discuss issues that are impacting their peers, and concerns that come from each school. Our union is run by an elected Executive Council, and has an elected President.
The Labor Movement is the most powerful force for democracy and equality in history.
As members of the consultation team, we are delegated the responsibility of representing the interests of teachers throughout the district as reported by the elected representatives of every campus.
When we say “our Union”, or “the Alliance”, what we’re really saying is “the organized voice of the vast majority of those who work in our schools”. The uncomfortable truth for those writing and speaking critically about us is that our 2,700 member strong union, the largest in Bexar County, is far more democratically-structured than any other organization in the district, and is the only organization with a mandate to represent SAISD educators. We always tell people that our union is a prefigurative project - the collective manifestation in the here-and-now of the future that we want to see. That future is more participatory, egalitarian, and democratic. It’s funny how that never gets a mention in all the talk about contracts.
SAISD, in contrast, operates as a rigid hierarchy. Orders are transmitted from the superintendent to his assistants and deputies, from them to campus principals, assistant principals, department chairs to teachers. Ironically, given that we live in a nominal democracy, it’s about the most anti-democratic structure you can imagine; a structure in which teachers, parents, and students are systematically excluded from decision-making. It’s funny how that never gets a mention amidst all the talk of teacher empowerment.
Democratic involvement in district affairs is limited to the public’s opportunity to vote for school board members every two years. And our union.
Our union represents the only check or balance on the uncontested power of SAISD's extraordinarily unpopular superintendent and board. In a functioning democracy you would expect to see some dissent from a board of seven diverse individuals, each tasked with representing the interests of their constituents. But we see nothing of the sort. As our elected representatives have chosen to neglect their responsibility to act as more than a rubber stamp for the superintendent’s plans, other individuals, groups, and organizations have stepped in to do the job that they should be doing themselves. Indeed, in the two years between board elections, a huge amount of damage can be done by a superintendent-board team, much of which may be irreparable. Democracy should mean more than this, and it’s important that teachers, students, and community members have a meaningful voice in decision-making, not just momentary input in periodic referenda on the board’s leadership.
The Our Schools Coalition is one growing example of this, as are the dozens of parents and students who have spoken out at board meetings, and who are organizing around the district. We’re proud to call them our allies; our brothers and sisters in the struggle to make SAISD the district that it should be.
But you wouldn’t know it from reading the simplistic accounts that dominate this discussion. It’s worth asking yourself why school board members, the superintendent, and the reporters who act more like official stenographers for the powerful than journalists, keep representing this conflict as one between the district’s leaders and the union. Why they keep writing the opposition of parents and community members out of the story. Why they keep reporting the superintendent’s claims as facts, and lazily claim to know what’s going on inside his head. Why they keep accepting his claim that this is just about union contracts, and union jobs, when we’ve repeatedly, clearly stated our positions.
The public is being presented with a caricature of the situation: a radical simplification of reality in the service of private power.
Over and over again, Superintendent Martinez’s positions are presented with a level of nuance and generosity that is never afforded to the positions articulated by teachers, parents, students, or other community members. It’s worth thinking about the impact of such reporting, on how it shapes thought. It’s worth thinking about whose voices, through this process, are amplified, and whose are minimized and erased.
The truth is that in an increasingly atomized and isolated society, in which fewer and fewer people belong to organizations that mobilize and organize together around shared interests, individuals have little opportunity to make themselves heard, and even less to meaningfully impact policy and decision-making. That’s why we organize collectively - so that we can act as a democratic counterweight to the powers that are acting so unaccountably, and with so little transparency, through Pedro Martinez and his rubber-stamp school board. But it makes us a target for the powerful, for those in whose way we stand.
Democracy is complicated, and the people at the top don’t necessarily know best. Elected officials lose their way, and lose contact with the reality that those of us in classrooms and communities face every day. And, in a democracy, it’s our job to disagree, and to advocate, and to push back against what we believe to be disastrous decisions made in the interests of big businesses and corporate charters.
So that’s what we do, no matter how unpopular the truth may be to the powerful, or the media outlets that uncritically repeat their claims as facts. Don’t be fooled. Our advocacy and, when necessary, opposition are essential to the democratic functioning of our public schools, and, by extension, our society as a whole.
"The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress." (Rev Dr. Martin Luther King Jr)
The Labor Movement is the most powerful force for democracy and equality in history. In the words of the Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr., the "labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress". Organized labor has transformed this country for the better, and much of what we value in American life was won by 19th and 20th Century unions; unions that continue to provide the most substantive counterweight to concentrated private power in America.
That's the history that we remember when we talk about our pride as union educators. And that's the present - a present of struggle - that we're talking about when we talk about our union. In San Antonio, as across the country, union educators are organizing to build a more democratic, more egalitarian future for all.