Tom Mooney: Union Power for Quality Schools

By Mark Simon

Those of us who had assumed the presidency of our own teacher union locals in the 1980s learned from and tried to emulate Tom Mooney’s trailblazing, adopting our own “bargaining for better schools” programs.

Sunday morning December 3rd, when Tom’s heart failed him massively, decisively, while he was having breakfast, I was having breakfast at my home in Washington DC with Bill Bigelow, our mutual friend from our Antioch College days. We were talking about Tom.

Bill thought that the work Tom and I and other progressive teacher union leaders were doing with union locals needed to be written up in Rethinking Schools. Few people knew about this Institute for Teacher Union Leadership created by about a dozen teacher unionists to nurture the kind of leadership skills that a progressive vision of teacher unionism requires. The ITUL planning team was to meet the following Saturday in Washington DC to map our next steps. Instead of gathering to map the road forward that Tom was so looking forward to, we traveled to Cincinnati to attend the memorial to his life, cut short.

Tom had emailed me to make sure that the group would be having dinner together Friday night because there was much to celebrate and friendship to affirm. What made him so irresistible is how hard Tom worked during the day and how hard he played at night. I can’t help but be angry with him for living life so full and hard and putting his longevity at risk.

Tom’s vision integrated the urgent need to improve teaching and learning, with the too often unrealized collective power of unions to speak for the best professional practice of classroom teachers. The notion that unions have to choose between a traditional “bread and butter” emphasis and professional concerns about the quality of teaching is wrong, Tom said. He taught us that proposing solutions that improve student learning helps earn credibility that gets better pay. But we looked at Tom and we saw that it wasn’t that simple. Tom demonstrated that progressive union leadership means mastering both agendas plus the details of the school system’s budget and the literature on alternative compensation and much more, so the union president is the smartest one in the room.

I’d known Tom since college. We traveled the same path into teaching and union leadership and championing rather than fighting education reform. I stole his ideas with sincere flattery, and he used me as a sounding board. The politicizing of education made Tom’s life a battleground, and he was the best of generals and a fine street fighter. But what made Tom different from his adversaries was that he understood teaching, he had a vision of schooling with the teaching profession at the center, and spoke with authority for teachers as professionals.

When the terms of the conversation needed to be refreshed, Tom could broaden the paradigm so that solutions unseen came into view. His worldview encompassed the language and assumptions of his adversaries so that even if there was profound disagreement on proposals, dialogue was not only possible but also satisfying. I wasn’t surprised that one of the first public epitaphs with profoundest respect for Tom came from his arch-enemies on the privatization issue at the Fordham Foundation.

Tom looked to history and to other countries to teach us that knee-jerk industrial unionism made less sense than an alternative vision for educators that drew from craft unions and the professions. The structures and approaches unions have are accidents of the 1960s and 70s, he said. Why shouldn’t teachers and their organization be the guardians of quality? Why shouldn’t the best teachers be paid more? Why shouldn’t the union champion meaningful accountability mechanisms like other professions? Tom never took categorical positions. Rather, he made sure the details of policies were right, taking the time to understand ideas others had developed and what would make them friendly or anathema.

An eloquent teacher representative on national boards and commissions, Tom understood the national policy landscape. He cared about and advised the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards and others. He was the most dynamic of guest speakers at Harvard or Washington think tanks. For almost three decades, Tom was one of the most credible voices in the top leadership at the AFT.

His intense curiosity meant that when he arrived in a new town, Tom had always researched what was most exciting going on. He had close friendships throughout the world, from Australia, to Europe, to South America, and Africa. Following Tom late at night in Harare, Zimbabwe, I once ended up about 20 miles outside of town by cab, down a dirt street in a seedy motel, the only white people packed into a tiny room, dancing and listening to a particularly hot, but obscure band.

He identified with his revolutionary Irish heritage and would lead us to the best Irish bar in any American town. This past July in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when others went to bed after a full day of meetings, Tom had suggested a drink at the Plough and the Stars on Mass Ave. He lit on a frequent topic: his fallback life plan to start a bed-and-breakfast in Jamaica. I never doubted that I’d either see Tom AFT president or I’d be visiting his Jamaican B&B.

It’s hard to believe that after just 52 years, Tom’s voice and his wild plans will stop. We’ve counted on his wisdom, to make change happen. Who understands as well as Tom what is needed at this time to help straighten out education funding in Ohio, now that it is finally possible under a Strickland administration? And succession at the AFT will have to proceed without considering the Tom Mooney option. And though poorer without his ideas, the Institute for Teacher Union Leadership and the Teacher Union Reform Network he helped to create will continue. So many plans won’t be implemented, because few of us could keep up Tom’s pace. But he taught us well, and within the teacher union movement, from his hometown of Cincinnati, to Columbus, to Washington DC, Tom Mooney’s impact, his leadership example, and memories of his wonderful friendship will continue.

Mark Simon is past president of the Montgomery County Education Association (NEA) in Maryland, and currently directs the soon to be re-named “Tom Mooney Institute for Teacher and Union Leadership.