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Democracy happens

On May 10, 2014, the delegates to annual meeting of the Massachusetts Teachers Association choose Barbara Madeloni as president. It's hard to overstate the significance of this tectonic shift in the organization.

Every two years, the organization chooses a president by election, but the practice is for the current president to be re-elected for a second term and then, when term limits prevent running again, for a two-term vice-president to become president. Occasionally there is a challenger, but challengers have usually -- perhaps always -- been defeated. In fact, that's how this whole thing got started, I think.

Several years ago (and if I were a journalist, I would go back and document all this, but I'm not, so these are just my recollections). Several years ago, at MTA annual meeting, the delegates passed a motion calling on the leadership to make no agreement that included high-stakes test scores in teacher evaluation. Then, in January, many local union presidents woke up with their members mobbing them with demands to explain why the press was running articles trumpeting that MTA had signed just such a deal with the Department of Education. Presidents were livid.

This was just one of many defeats that the leadership has tried to explain away as victory: "It's better than it could have been" or "It might have been much worse". There has been a generation-long challenge to public education with teachers being villified and the institution so badly damaged that the whole idea of public education is being brought into question. It's been a death of a thousand cuts.

I recall someone offering themselves as a challenger for president that year and being defeated. The ground wasn't yet prepared for a change of direction.

Activists have been trying for years to get the MTA to move toward an organizing model -- to activate the rank-and-file membership to stand up and demand change -- but with little success. When the leadership directly contravened the will of the delegates, a group of people got together and formed Educators for a Democractic Union. Each year since then, they have worked together as a caucus to advocate for a more activist stance. And this year they put forward a candidate for president with a year to really organize.

Barbara Madeloni was a uniquely qualified candidate for the role. As a former high-school teacher, she had credibility with rank-and-file teachers. As a professor, she understood higher ed and could represent faculty. And as someone who'd been driven out of her faculty appointment for challenging the corporate take-over of teacher certification, she offered hope to people daunted by the status quo.

I think her opponent was blindsided and, by the time he realized what was happening, the movement was unstoppable. He, and the rest of the MTA leadership, had simply assumed that he would win. It was his turn. When it became clear that it was actually going to be a contest, it was too late to organize a meaningful campaign. The only message his candidacy presented was more of the same. With one exception: he and several of his supporters expressed outrage over the successful campaign tactics that EDU employed. His campaign speech, which lacked vision and complained about his opponent's tactics, came across as petty and negative.

Barbara did everything right as a candidate: she worked tirelessly on her campaign, visited dozens of local unions, and carefully crafted her campaign message and her speech. She and her campaign advisors spent months honing the campaign speech and measuring every word. She had obviously practiced it and timed it carefully. She had five minutes and she used every second. It was a visionary speech that resonated with the audience and created a sense of optimism that teachers and faculty can aspire to more than watching public education dismantled piece by piece right before our very eyes.

When the vote came in, it wasn't even especially close. She won by 97 votes, or around 7%. Her acceptance speech was also uplifting and acknowledging the hard work to come. She was not elected to be our hero or savior, but rather to kick us in the ass and put us to work on the front lines defending education. It's the only way we're going to win. And if we organize and activate the membership, we can win. We will win.