Learning from the Rank and File: An Interview with Barbara Madeloni

Learning from the Rank and File: An Interview with Barbara Madeloni

A conversation with Barbara Madeloni, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association and a leader in the successful No on Two campaign against charter school expansion, about the lessons from that fight for organized labor in the Trump era.

Massachusetts Teachers Association President Barbara Madeloni on election night (courtesy MTA)

On November 8, as the electoral map turned redder and redder, Massachusetts and the surrounding northeastern states began to look like a little blue island. Reliably Democratic in presidential elections even after a Republican took the governor’s office in the state two years ago, Massachusetts was still the site of significant election-night drama, as an initiative that would have drastically expanded the reach of charter schools was on the ballot—and went down, sixty-two to thirty-eight.

Barbara Madeloni is the president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association and helped build the No on Two coalition that defeated the initiative. She spoke with Dissent about the lessons from that fight for the future of the labor movement as it prepares for the attacks that will likely come from a Trump administration.


Sarah Jaffe: This election shocked many people, including quite a few labor leaders. Yet it’s not as if labor has had an easy time of the last few years under a Democratic administration. What did you learn this election, and what does the future hold for labor?

Barbara Madeloni: On one hand, there is a whole heightened level of danger in terms of what we are up against around “right-to-work” laws, immigration, women’s issues, and Black Lives Matter. On the other hand, I don’t know that the answers to what we have to do have changed at all.

We have to do it with a heightened sense of urgency, but it is about, more than ever, making sure that the rank and file is the union and is experiencing themselves as the union. That is absolutely essential for our long-term project of creating a more economically and racially just world, and for the short-term project of being able to keep alive union structures, which are the path toward that economically and racially just world.

At the same time, as teachers unions, we have to focus on coalition building and deepening our relationships with students, parents, across labor and our communities to both create a real vision for what we want our communities to look like, and then to organize to claim that. It is overwhelming, in part, because we know that the only way that we are going to get where we need to go is through lots of local conversations and local organizing. The steps we have to take are the steps we have to take. We can’t jump there.

In Massachusetts, we knew Hillary Clinton was going to win and we knew that we had to build a coalition to fight to preserve public education. Our fight was around a ballot question that, if it had passed, would have allowed for twelve new charter schools to open in the state every year, in perpetuity. And it would have exploded the cap on the percentage of district funds that could go to charter schools, which would have opened the door for takeover of entire school districts and the destabilization of public education throughout Massachusetts. In April 2016, the polling showed the question winning something like fifty-one to twenty-six. The Yes Campaign raised $26 million to try to win. It was one of the most expensive ballot questions in the country in this election cycle. About 80 percent of that $26 million was dark money, so we don’t even know who funded most of it. We know the money primarily came from Wall Street, hedge-fund managers, private equity firms, and the Walton Family. The campaign was also supported by our Republican governor, Charlie Baker.

In the Massachusetts Education Justice Alliance—a group that formed in 2015 to talk about charter schools, hyper-accountability, and high-stakes testing—we already had the loose structure of a coalition that was ready to organize to fight this. Our steering committee for the campaign included the MTA, AFT Mass, the Boston Teachers Union, NAACP Northeast Regional Office, Boston Education Justice Alliance, youth organizing out of Boston, and Citizens for Public Schools. We won because we knocked on doors and made phone calls across the state. It is amazing how much this is about conversations. We won because parents stepped up and joined educators in the struggle, because the community stepped up and joined educators in the struggle, because labor was totally unified in this and really came out strong for us.

What we discovered that will be important to the ongoing struggle now that we have Trump as president-elect, is that people really value public education. Even people who send their kids to charter schools are conflicted: they are making an individual choice, but they don’t want to undo something that is for everybody and that they really value. We discovered that people actually want to join together to fight for the common good. They want our public schools to be funded.

I feel really fortunate that we had that fight, because it gave us a chance to lay down the foundation for the movement we are going to need to push back against Trump and his policies and practices.

What is interesting post-election is to look at the map of Massachusetts. In some ways the state is as divided as the rest of the country. Even though Clinton won by sixty-one to thirty-four, she lost in significant places. She won because the places she carried, she carried them so overwhelmingly. [Trump carried several whiter, more rural towns in the center of the state, including the suburbs of Springfield and Worcester, as well as Bridgewater and its surroundings.] We have to figure out why those people voted for him and what that means. The way I am framing our struggle right now is that we have to take the righteous position and show clearly where we stand. We have to do that in the context of figuring out how we can talk to people who don’t understand our position. I’m not talking about Trump, I’m not interested in him, but I am trying to understand the people who voted for him.

Jaffe: After the election, you put out a statement about what the role of schools should be under President Trump, under a rising wave of hate crimes. Can you talk about that and about what role you see public institutions like public schools playing in this moment?

Madeloni: In November I spoke at our conference for new teachers, and I said: “Education has always been political work. We are making decisions that have to do with how we know ourselves in the world, what kind of questions we ask and actions we take.” There is an immediacy now to making sure we defend our students and their families and make schools places of real, meaningful safety.

On the other hand, there is the larger political aspect of educating. How are we going to help our students understand this world right now? There is a demand for us right now as educators to really think about how we are going to help students to frame their understanding within the context of empathy and give them the critical skills to question structures of power. It is scary for a lot of people, but history shows us that it is especially important for educators to be leaders in creating spaces where we can preserve the possibility of democracy and freedom.

Jaffe: Labor got a reprieve last year from the potential bomb of the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case when Justice Antonin Scalia died, but now Trump may be making Supreme Court appointments. Teachers unions, in particular, and public-sector unions were already in the crosshairs. What kind of work were you doing within the union anticipating that decision, and what lessons can be implemented?

Madeloni: We really have to, at the local work site, have members clearly experiencing themselves as the union. That means taking leadership of the union, not necessarily through elected positions but in the kinds of actions they take. It means experiencing the possibility of collective action around bargaining, but also around day-to-day issues: fighting for workplace democracy, professional autonomy, respect, and academic freedom. [Organized labor] needed to do that anyway. In the MTA, we were slowly working our way there, but we are trying to change a union that has lived a certain way for a long time and I think that is true of unions across the country.

How do we change the culture of a union in the context of what is basically an emergency right now? How do you do that in a way that is real, that is not just more mobilizing efforts, but is really deep building and organizing? We need to create structures to do that, but we cannot become bureaucratic in the way that we do that.

One of the beauties of the No on Two campaign was the degree to which it was structured, but there was also a level of controlled chaos. People got excited and picked up the issues that interested them and went to work. I would find out three days later that there had been a forum that somebody held. We need to keep educating people, we need to identify leaders and give them the tools to organize within their buildings. We have to help people think about power and recognize how important it is to use their power. Then, at some level, we have to also let things go and let people pick up the issues that are most relevant to them.

Jaffe: I think the controlled chaos point is really important, because labor has not been very good at that. There have been some glimmers of it, like with unions embracing Occupy Wall Street.

Madeloni: It really comes down to whether or not we are going to let rank and file lead or if we are going to try to say from the top how it is going to happen. That means creating opportunities for rank and file to talk to each other about the issues that matter to them, supporting them as they name what is happening to them so that they develop an analysis, and supporting them as they make plans for how they are going to fight back and take control.

I would also say that coalition building is really complicated work. The key to coalition building is to stay in it and to be brutally honest with ourselves so that we, as labor, don’t stop listening to our coalition partners, but learn from them about the work that we have to do.

There is not one clear answer. We were able to get as much engagement as we did [in the No on Two campaign], because we made it a local issue, and identified the local threat that charter schools represented. Our members, in reaching out to the community, began to experience themselves as powerful in a way that they had not had for a long time. We need to build on that.

Jaffe: The labor movement has not had a great record on immigration, on racism—some of the issues that Trump really exploited. It has only been in recent years that labor leadership really started to fight for immigrants. What is labor’s role around these issues now?

Madeloni: I think the first thing we have to do goes back to my remarks earlier about taking the righteous stand. It is our first duty to be really clear that we are going to protect our students who are immigrants. We are going to protect our students of color. We are going to protect our transgender students. We are going to protect our female students. We are going to protect our gay and lesbian students. The list goes on, because they have really gone after everybody.

I have taken a lot of flak from the right wing because I have taken a strong position that something is happening that is dangerous for students. Labor leaders need to put themselves out there and make that really clear. Then, we have to go back and have conversations with our membership. We have to create opportunities for people to listen and talk across their positions. That is where organizing starts—talking to each other and then seeing if we can help each other name what is happening and develop an analysis that undermines the analysis that some people have been given in terms of who is to blame. It is basically going to have to come down to an anti-racist, anti-capitalist position. I think we could actually be close to that if we were more explicit about it.

When we create opportunities for rank and file to talk to each other, then name what is happening to them and develop a plan for action to change things, it is always remarkable. It actually works. We have to let go of our need to control what is going to happen and really give people the tools to do the work.

Sarah Jaffe is the author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt (Nation Books, 2016) and the co-host of Dissent’s Belabored podcast.