Children lose a leader

By Michael Charney

The death of Tom Mooney was not only a blow for the labor movement and Ohio’s teachers. Ohio and the nation also lost a champion for public schools and the education of all children.

I still remember the first time I met Tom. Our oppositional caucus within the Cleveland Teachers Union had just won majority power of the CTU Executive Board in the spring of 1988. I had heard of Tom’s innovative leadership as president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers. Tom came to Cleveland to share his outlook with the CTU Executive Board. After an hour, most of the board drifted away. After two hours a few were left. After four hours I was still listening. I had just met a friend and mentor for life.

I knew right away that Tom was unique in the annals of teacher union leaders. He has inspired me for two decades. His strategy to fight for better schools for children was his way to win decent wages and working conditions. He combined that strategic perspective with an ongoing mobilization and public relations campaign to change the perception of the public, the corporate elite, and parents of the motivation and desires of teachers.

But he was not mere rhetorical bluster. His strategy led to Cincinnati teachers gaining leadership roles in the schools and district — unprecedented across the nation. He saw teacher unions as the fulcrum for creating a true profession for teachers where teachers, not administrators, made all the evaluation, curriculum, and classroom decisions to educate children. He turned the definition of a teacher union on its head. Teacher leadership in the classroom and the school was the moving train for protection, respect and educational improvement.

At a time of narrow parochialism within education and the union movement, Tom was an internationalist. I still remember schmoozing with Tom before a national conference of teacher union newspaper editors. I asked him, “How do you get ready for collective bargaining.” He rapidly responded: “We analyze what we accomplished in the last round, survey our membership, figure out the administration goals, look at national trends, and examine what is going on internationally.”

“Yeah, right,” I thought. “What is going on internationally influences local collective bargaining.”

I asked, “What is going on internationally with teachers?” Tom never missed a beat. “Michael, do you know that there is not a word for ‘superintendent’ in Ukraine and that teams of teachers are making decisions in Australia?” A few years later, every school in Cincinnati had Instructional Leadership Teams to determine the educational direction in that school and subject-area teachers elected powerful district curriculum councils.

Tom was a visionary. Knowing that the road to professional unionism was not enough to transform education at a time of intense attack by privateers, Tom joined other teacher union activists from around the country to articulate the concept of social justice unionism in Portland, Ore. in 1994. That perspective looked at not only professional leadership for teachers, but also the need for outreach to low-income communities of color by teacher unions to gain support for public education.

To his dying day Tom kept up his compassionate advocacy for public education and opposition to the forces that would deny quality education to the poorest of the poor. A news story right after his death quoted Tom blasting the section of Ohio’s Academic Core legislation that would exempt students in drop-out programs from the same standards as regular high school students. He attacked lawmakers for supporting another pay-to-play plan from the privateer David Brennan, organizer of the unaccountable Life Skills Centers for drop-outs.

My wife, Ohio Senate Minority leader CJ Prentiss, and I are still devastated by the news of Tom’s death. We are still wiping away our tears. He always took the time for empathy and concern for both of us. Tom provided untiring emotional support for CJ as they battled together the consistent offensive by the opponents of quality education for all Ohio’s children. They talked just a few days ago about the problems of the Academic Core and their perspective on the opportunities presented by the election of Ted Strickland.

Tom often compared the ongoing struggle against public education and unions as a guerrilla war with regular skirmishes and twisting maneuvers. The nation has lost the foremost general in that war. Despite Joe Hill’s dictum, we will join thousands in mourning this incredible loss of such an inspiring leader. Yet, we will continue to organize.

Michael Charney is a retired Cleveland teacher and Cleveland Teachers Union (AFT) official. He is now the Director of Youth Voices for Economic Justice.