The Radical Teachers’ Movement Comes to Baltimore

Originally published in The Nation on June 7, 2019.
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In mid-May, 37-year-old Diamonte Brown won her bid to lead the Baltimore Teachers Union, defeating Marietta English, who has led the nearly 7,000-member union for most of the last two decades. The shakeup in Charm City school politics marks a victory not just for Brown, a middle-school English teacher, but the Baltimore Movement of Rank-and-File Educators (BMORE), a social-justice caucus that has been organizing since 2015.

Yet English, who was seeking her ninth term in office, says she cannot “in good faith concede” and has demanded a re-vote—alleging Brown and the slate of candidates she ran with committed a series of election violations, like illegally campaigning on school grounds. Critics say the incumbents have their own campaign missteps to account for, including writing rules that discourage challengers and trying to suppress the vote.

The American Federation of Teachers, the national parent union for the BTU, is stepping in, and plans to hold a formal hearing to adjudicate the complaints next week. The election drama reflects a stark departure from what are typically sleepy Baltimore affairs.

Still, with roughly 500 more ballots cast this cycle compared to last, observers say the increased interest in the election should not go ignored, regardless of what happens when the AFT concludes its investigation.

BMORE says that no matter the outcome they’re here to stay, joining a national movement dedicated to using teacher unions as a vehicle for broad social change. This movement first caught fire with the Chicago teachers strike in 2012, an eight-day protest of educators, parents, students, and community members who called for increased funding for public services. Similar radical caucuses have since emerged in cities like Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Seattle, and St. Paul and now they’re banding together to help those in Baltimore.

BMORE’s story begins with Natalia Bacchus, an ESOL teacher who moved to Baltimore in 2013 after teaching in suburban Maryland for nine years. Bacchus was bewildered by the bureaucratic hurdles she encountered at nearly every turn.

“When I worked in Montgomery County, I didn’t know anything about our union, I was just like, I’m a public-school teacher, I’m a public servant, I have a unionized job, that’s cool,” she said. “Then I came to Baltimore, and I was like, wow—everything is a hassle every step of the way. And what do you mean kids can’t drink from the water fountain? And kids have to go to bathroom in groups? All these restrictions that would never fly in Montgomery County.”

Bacchus didn’t know many other Baltimore educators, and didn’t know if she was alone in feeling this way. Eventually she met Helen Atkinson, the executive director of the Teachers’ Democracy Project, a local education advocacy group. In 2014 Atkinson invited Bacchus to become a TPD fellow, where she would research progressive teacher unions around the country.

The next year Bacchus and Atkinson started traveling to different cities to learn from activist teachers. In August 2015, they went to Newark, New Jersey, for the annual United Caucus of Rank and File Educators conference, and began asking more practical questions about what launching a union caucus might look like.

“I was like this could be big, and Chicago’s social-justice caucus was called CORE and New York’s was MORE—we should call ours BMORE!” Bacchus said.

That fall, Atkinson introduced Bacchus to two other radical educators she knew in Baltimore—Cristina Duncan Evans and Corey Gaber. Bacchus was then working at a traditional public elementary school, Gaber was a charter middle-school teacher, and Duncan Evans was teaching at a specialized high school for the arts. Their diverse experiences struck them as a powerful opportunity.

Together they started a book club, reading texts like How to Jump-Start Your Unionabout the Chicago Teachers Union, and The Future of Our Schools, by education scholar Lois Weiner. Later that year they traveled to Chicago, to meet the CORE educators in person. That summer Samantha Winslow from Labor Notes, a media and union activism organization, came out to Baltimore to lead an organizing workshop, and five Baltimore educators went to Raleigh, North Carolina, in August for UCORE’s next conference. Leaders describe BMORE’s beginnings as “a lot of slow, but really deep” organizing.

In the fall of 2016 the newly formed BMORE steering committee decided to launch their first campaign—a petition drive to allow absentee voting in BTU elections. That winter they held their official BMORE launch party at a local barbecue restaurant, and wondered if anyone would even show up. Nearly 70 people did. “We knew then that this type of connection and work was resonating with people,” said Gaber.

Amplifying black leadership and centering racial equity, they stressed, would be at the core of their efforts. They created a closed Facebook group for members, and began holding regular meetings at different schools. By April 2017 they formally met with their union’s leadership, receiving guidance from Philly’s social-justice caucus on how to approach that conversation. The BTU, they said, was surprisingly receptive to their group.

“Marietta even offered to come to our meetings, but we said no that’s not how we operate,” said Bacchus. “We’re from the rank-and-file.”

BMORE’s organizing got an unexpected jolt the following winter, when local and national media on Baltimore students trapped in freezing classrooms with broken heaters. Some schools never even opened due to malfunctioning boilers, while others sent children home early. BMORE quickly organized and sent a list of demands to the school board and school district CEO, signed by more than 1,500 supporters. The school CEO, Sonja Santelises, wrote BMORE back with gratitude for “fiercely advocating for solutions,” and the school district largely adopted their recommendations. The next month BMORE joined 20 other cities in hosting a Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action, demanding things like more culturally competent curriculum and the hiring of more black educators.

Last summer BMORE leaders started discussing running their own candidates in the next union election—something that happens every three years. They decided to team up with another young social-justice group, the Caucus of Educators for Democracy and Equity (CEDE), and run jointly under the banner of The Union We Deserve. Diamonte Brown would run for president, and they’d run additional candidates—including Gaber and Duncan Evans—for the executive board. The Union We Deserve slate would compete against the Progressive Caucus, a slate that included Marietta English and which has held power in the union for years.

The insurgent candidates admit there are some things the BTU already does well. Baltimore teachers have some of the highest salaries in both Maryland and the nation, and their health-care benefits are notably strong. “At a time when people are going on strike over low wages and poor health care, the Progressive Caucus has pushed for even more salary increases and our good health care to get even better,” said Corey Debnam, the Progressive Caucus chair and a Baltimore educator for the last 19 years.

Still, the teachers with The Union We Deserve say they want more than an effective service union, and to prioritize more than just good pay, benefits, and professional development. They want to mobilize teachers into a political force for students and communities—through the ballot box, at the bargaining table, and through direct action.

“I taught American government for nine years, and 6,000 organized voters can really have a big impact on electoral politics when you look at the turnout in some of our races,” said Duncan Evans. Baltimore is a deep blue city, and in the last Democratic primary for mayor, the winner emerged with less than 2,500 votes.

Whether the new social-justice educators maintain control of the Baltimore Teachers Union will likely be resolved later this month.

Marietta English did not respond to a request for an interview, but sent a statement saying she is glad the American Federation of Teachers is coming to oversee an investigation. “As I have said numerous times, there were egregious violations throughout this campaign process,” she said. “I am confident that this investigation will allow all members to have their voices heard and restore the integrity of our elections.”

Sandra Davis, the chair of the union’s chapter for paraprofessionals and school-related personnel (PSRPs), and a member of the Progressive Caucus, told The Nation that this election is extremely unusual, and that in her 30 years as a Baltimore educator she’s “never seen anything like this.” If Brown’s presidency is upheld, Brown would serve over a joint-executive board—with the teacher chapter chaired by Duncan Evans, and the PRSP chapter chaired by Davis. “At this point, no one is including us,” said Davis. “We don’t have a clue what’s going on—we’re just in limbo.”

Davis and Debnam said union members contacted them to object to BMORE/CEDE supporters canvassing at their homes this past spring. The union’s election guidelines prohibit the BTU from sharing members’ personal contact information, leading some to view the canvassing as a violation of their privacy, even if BMORE/CEDE didn’t get the home addresses from the union itself.

“We have people who are really offended that someone late at night—at 6 or 7 PM, is coming to their home to campaign about an internal election,” Debnam said. “That’s just something we would never do.”

The Progressive Caucus is not just accusing BMORE/CEDE of wrongly canvassing at people’s homes. They also accuse them of illegally campaigning on school grounds. With additional election rules like prohibitions against teachers leaving campaign literature in educators’ mailboxes and sending campaign literature on work email accounts, candidates are left with few ways to actually reach prospective voters. Critics say that’s by design, to protect those already in power. Bacchus, who resigned in 2018 and now works with the Teachers’ Democracy Project full-time, said The Union We Deserve’s main goal throughout the campaign was to spread awareness about the upcoming election. “Most teachers don’t even know that every three years there’s an election for BTU leadership,” she said.

BMORE/CEDE, for their part, say the BTU leadership tried to suppress the vote before and during the election, in part by limiting voting hours, removing a voting location, and denying a bulk of absentee ballots. On Election Day, local media also covered complaints from educators who said the ballots on their voting machines were designed in a confusing way, formatted as if to encourage re-electing the incumbents. Debnam of the Progressive Caucus said all candidates had the opportunity to meet with the elections vendor beforehand to see how the ballot would be formatted. “We have no say in how the machine looks, that’s Elections USA, and now there’s this really disturbing narrative that it’s we who have done wrong when in reality we ran a fair and honest campaign,” he said.

Duncan Evans says she isn’t entirely surprised their caucus’s victory is being contested.  “The BTU has challenged elections in the past,” she said. “So I certainly knew this was in the realm of possibility.”

BMORE leaders say if the election results are upheld, then they hope to begin meeting with individual members, to revamp their union website, and to bring full-time organizers on staff.

“I’m looking forward to people understanding more about how a union works, but I think a large part of transparency means us listening,” said Duncan Evans. “This is all long overdue.

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