Chances are that you don’t think that New York City Patrolman’s Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch has much in common with Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers. In fact, after Lynch sparred earlier this year with Weingarten protégé Michael Mulgrew, the president of the union’s United Federation of Teachers local, over the unit’s collaboration with Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network on stemming police brutality, you wouldn’t think Lynch and Weingarten share anything in common at all other than being heads of two influential public-sector unions.
But in their respective reactions over the past few months to criticism and less-than-sterling coverage from politicians and media outlets, both Lynch and Weingarten, along with many of their members in their respective rank-and-file, have plenty in common. They have embraced the kind of solidarity mindset that stifle important efforts to transform America’s criminal justice and public education systems that our children and communities need.
As you already know, Lynch and the PBA accused Big Apple Mayor Bill de Blasio and advocates for reforming criminal justice systems nationwide of having “blood” on their “hands” this past weekend after tragic murders of police officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos by Ismaaiyl Brinsley (who had come to town after a rampage that included critically wounding his ex-girlfriend). Why? Because de Blasio dared to sympathize with advocates who are righteously outraged over a grand jury’s decision earlier this month to not indict one of the PBA’s rank-and-file, Dan Pantaleo, for murdering Eric Garner this past July.
Lynch and the PBA were already incensed at de Blasio over protracted negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement, annoyed with the mayor’s move to formally end a police practice called stop-and-frisk (which criminal justice reformers say has been used disproportionately and abusively against young black men), and looking to weaken him by convincing New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to sign a bill passed by the legislature that would allow the PBA to all but stifle any efforts by the city to discipline corrupt and incompetent cops. But Lynch went ballistic, accusing de Blasio of throwing officers “under the bus” after the mayor, who is married to a black woman, commented immediately after the verdict that he advises his son, Dante (who is both black and white) to be careful when dealing with law enforcement. As far as Lynch and the activists in control of PBA’s rank-and-file are concerned, de Blasio’s statement of sympathy with advocates against police brutality was an affront to all of the Big Apple’s police officers because he didn’t have their back. Some of the rank-and-file echoed those sentiments when they turned their backs on de Blasio when he walked into a press conference to address the murders of the two officers.
But Lynch isn’t just mad at de Blasio. As far as the police union boss is concerned, criminal justice reformers are wrong in criticizing Pantaleo’s state-sanctioned murder of Garner as well as criticizing those in the rank-and-file who are engaged in abusing citizens and other forms of corruption. From where he and PBA sit, protests held in the city since the grand jury verdict should be stamped out altogether. The public should be in solidarity with police officers, not calling out bad cops or demanding reforms of laws governing use-of-deadly-force rules that allow rogue officers to get away with murder. [As you would expect, an amen corner that includes congressman-turned-MSNBC host Joe Scarborough and Daily Newscolumnist Mike Lupica, are cheering him on.]
Lynch isn’t saying anything that hasn’t been echoed by his fellow police union bosses over the past few weeks amid protests over the Garner verdict, the decision last month by a St. Louis grand jury to not indict now-former Ferguson police officer Dan Wilson for slaying Michael Brown, and the murders of 12-year-old Tamir Rice and 22-year-old John Crawford by officers too quick to pull out guns (and too scared of unarmed young black men to take less-drastic action). Earlier this month, the St. Louis Police Officers Association demanded the National Football League to punish players for the Rams franchise for engaging in an “inflammatory” display that insulted cops everywhere. What, pray tell, was that nastiness? Walking out onto the field of Edward Jones Dome doing the “hands up, don’t shoot” sign that has become a protest symbol for criminal justice reformers everywhere. [The NFL reminded the union that its players have freedom of speech — other than when it wants them to appear before mandatory press conferences.]
Around that same time, the police union in Cleveland went into uproar after Browns wide receiver Andrew Hawkins wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the names of Rice and Crawford as well as a call for justice on their behalf; the union demanded the NFL franchise to apologize for the football player’s supposed affront to men and women in blue. [The Browns refused to do so as did Hawkins, who noted how he was driven to protest by concern for his own two-year-old son.] Now, with the sad murders of Liu and Ramos, police unions and their allies are accusing protestors of endangering the lives of police officers by, well, exercising their First Amendment rights. You can expect similar statements from the police union in Milwaukee today after criminal justice advocates began protesting the decision of District Attorney John Chisholm to not indict former cop Christopher Manney for allegedly slaying Dontre Hamilton this past April.
Lynch’s rhetorical charlatanism sounds quite familiar to those of us in the school reform movement. It should. After all, it is no different than defensive statements against criticism of traditional teacher compensation and other failed practices within American public education made over the past few years by Weingarten and her colleagues within both the AFT and the National Education Association.
The latest round came in October after Time came out with a story onVergara v. California and the sparring between reformers and the Big Two unions over teacher quality reform that featured the headline Rotten Apples and included a cover photo of an apple about to be smashed by a judge’s gavel. Weingarten was so incensed by it that the union rounded up signatures from some 80,000 teachers and other supporters demanding the magazine to “Apologize to teachers.” [Timedefended the piece and the cover.] Four months earlier, Weingarten demanded that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to back down from his mild praise of the California superior court judge’s ruling in the case to abolish near-lifetime employment and dismissal rules, complaining that he was adding to the “polarization” of debates over education policy. Duncan’s refusal to do so — and, in fact, move to double down on his original comments — led the AFT as well as the NEA to pass resolutions at their respective conventions demanding the Obama Administration to fire him. As you already know, that’s not happening.
In fact, when it comes to constantly being outraged, no public-sector union leader is as good at it as Weingarten and her fellow NEA and AFT leaders. And education traditionalists have defenders of existing law enforcement practices beat when it comes to being insulted by any criticism of the established order. There’s AFT honcho-turned-Albert Shanker Institute boss Leo Casey, who tossed an Reductio ad Hitlerum-like statement against Steve Brill three years ago after the Class Warfare writer accused the AFT and other traditionalists of being “deniers” of the underlying causes of the nation’s education crisis. Casey would go on the next year to accuse news anchor-turned-teacher quality reform activist Campbell Brown (along with several other reformers) of committing “the equivalent of a blood libel” against teachers for daring to expose the complicity of the AFT’s Big Apple local (and that of the national union) in keeping criminally abusive teachers on the city’s payroll. [Casey never apologized for his incivility.]
Based on all the data on the depths of the nation’s education crisis — including the fact that three out of every 10 fourth-graders are functionally illiterate as well as how traditional policies and practices keep laggard teachers in classrooms — you would think valid criticism, internal and external, would be welcomed. But it isn’t. Dare any reformer mention how tenure protects laggard and criminally-abusive teachers from being sacked from classrooms and you will see NEA and AFT bosses, along with traditionalists in their amen corner, accusing that person of hating teachers and not respecting their hard work. This is also true for teachers who dare break the thin chalk line and challenge unions and their colleagues.
But why so little tolerance for criticism in both sectors — and so much faux outrage from both Lynch, Weingarten, and their colleagues? Chalk it up to the solidarity mindset, legacy of the old industrial union model (and its mindset of employees as being little more than mules who can only perform singular tasks ad nauseam) borrowed by both police and teachers’ unions that continues to pervade both the law enforcement and teaching professions.
Because unions, by their very nature, thrive on the idea that the rank-and-file are in bitter struggle, they emphasize unity and common cause over and above everything else. Disagreements within the rank-and-file over a policy direction? Treasonous disloyalty that must be squelched. Questioning of longstanding practices by outsiders? Insulting, and therefore, unacceptable. Criticism from within and opposition from without? Hatred of the hard-working people who dedicate their lives to serving others.
Yet the solidarity mindset is problematic for both professions — and for the children, families and communities for who they work.
For one, by placing unity unchallenged above everything else, the solidarity mindset leads to those who bear it failing to do high-quality work for the people they serve. This is because blind loyalty keeps people from thinking clearly about matters before them and engaging issues thoughtfully. For police officers in an age of community-oriented policing (and the Broken Windows Theory that is a key aspect of it), the solidarity mindset can keep them from making smart short- and long-term decision on their own. For teachers, whose jobs are increasingly challenging, the solidarity mindset can keep them from diagnosing and addressing the learning issues of the children in their care.
Secondly, because the solidarity mindset prizes the collective (and group cohesion) over anything else, it keeps those blinded by it from viewing others outside their ranks as their fellow men and women. Outsiders aren’t worthy of respect or consideration because they are outsiders. [It can also exacerbate the bigotries of those in the ranks, as well as the shoddy thinking they may have of people from backgrounds different than their own.] This is problematic in law enforcement because police officers must earn the trust of the citizens who they protect (and are dependent on for the taxes used to provide them compensation) in order to preserve law and order. It is also problematic in American public education because teachers are trusted with the futures of children for who they must have empathy and concern, and must work with families of backgrounds who are the rightful lead decision-makers for them. In both cases, solidarity thinking makes it difficult for them to comprehend and empathize with concern families and communities have for their children and each other — and leads to loss of trust from those they serve, as well as increased scrutiny from media and activists.
Thirdly, because the solidarity mindset exacerbates the cultism — be it blue walls of silence or thin chalk lines — that can be a problematic feature of any culture or profession, it enables and protects those who are incompetent, corrupt, even abusive and criminally venal. Those burdened by solidarity thinking cannot accept any statement by colleagues and outsiders other than “all professionals within my sector are hard-working, dedicated, and therefore, competent at their jobs”, or “if not for some outside force such as poverty or bad parents, we could be successful at our jobs.” When coupled with bad policies and practicesthat govern professions — be they use-of-force laws and dismissal processes in law enforcement, or near-lifetime employment rules and subjective teacher quality evaluation regimes in education — as well as the legacies of the state-sanctioned bigotries that are America’s Original Sins, the damages to both professions, peoples, and communities are devastating. Especially in both professions, the works of those who are honorable and high-quality are marred by the incompetence and evil of those who shouldn’t work with them.
Finally, the solidarity mindset gets in the way of mature professionalism. One of the hallmarks of a mature profession, be it law or medicine or journalism, is that criticism within it of institutions, practices, even people is not only the norm, it is expected. This acceptance of external criticism and productive conflict, a key part of lifelong learning, leads to improvements for the profession, for the people who are in it, and the sector in which it works. Such isn’t the case for a profession burdened by the solidarity mindset. By being unwilling to broach conflict and criticism, professions burdened by solidarity thinking (and those who are its members) end up being ill-equipped to deal with evolutions in sector that challenge it. Part of the decline in influence for AFT and NEA can be attributed to the failures of the two unions to ditch their outdated industrial union model, which is, in turn, partly results from the solidarity mindset plaguing its leaders.
For school reformers and criminal justice reform advocates, tackling the solidarity mindsets of the teaching and law enforcement professions is critical to the systemic overhauls of both sectors. Both are already taking the first step of challenging such thinking with data, advocacy, and action. At the same time, both must address some of the key obstacles to stemming the prevalence of solidarity thinking.
One obstacle lies with the dismissal policies within both sectors that keep rogue cops and bad teachers in their jobs. School reformers, especially Parent Power and teacher quality advocates, have been actively challenging those policies, especially through the launch of lawsuits such as Vergara. Criminal justice reformers should build upon those efforts, while school reformers must press harder on what they are doing so far. In New York, this means demanding Gov. Cuomo to veto the bill effectively giving the PBA control over the process for firing rogue and incompetent cops.
Another obstacle lies with public-sector unions whose coffers and political influence benefit from solidarity thinking. This is another area in which school reformers have led the way, from the successful efforts by governors such as Scott Walker in Wisconsin to end the ability of those unions to forcibly collect dues from teachers regardless of their desire to be members, as well as the development of professional association alternatives such as Educators4Excellence who represent younger teachers who want to elevate their profession. Again, school reformers must work harder on these fronts, while criminal justice reform advocates should work on such efforts within law enforcement. Weakening the PBA, for example, would do wonders for civil liberties.
No matter what reformers in both sectors do, they need to understand the solidarity mindset that pervades the teaching and law enforcement professions. And they must challenge it successfully on behalf of our children, their families, and their communities.
About the Author: RiShawn Biddle is Editor and Publisher of Dropout Nation — the leading commentary Web site on education reform — a columnist for Rare and The American Spectator, award-winning editorialist, speechwriter, communications consultant and education policy advisor. More importantly, he is a tireless advocate for improving the quality of K-12 education for every child. The co-author of A Byte at the Apple: Rethinking Education Data for the Post-NCLB Era, Biddle combines journalism, research and advocacy to bring insight on the nation’s education crisis and rally families and others to reform American public education. This article originally appeared in Dropout Nation and is republished here with permission from the author.