A group of Denver teachers, many of them young and social justice-minded, has formed a caucus within the city’s teachers union with the goal of pushing the union to be more progressive — and more aggressive.
One of them — 31-year-old middle school special education teacher Tommie Shimrock — has announced his intention to run for the organization’s top job. Shimrock said he told president Henry Roman in September about his plans. Formal nominations are due later this month and election results will be announced March 24.
“It’s natural for teachers unions to become a little stale and to become the bread-and-butter union,” Shimrock said. “Labor is new and progressive and needs to adjust. ”
Roman, who has been president for the past eight years, said he can’t yet say whether he’ll run for another term. He said he’s focused on negotiating a new master contract and a new agreement for Denver Public Schools’ incentive-based pay system, known as ProComp.
Of the new caucus, he said the union “is a democratic organization and this group formed to do some work. As a democratic organization, they are definitely entitled to their opinions and that’s all good. We believe we’re doing everything we can to continue to strengthen the organization.”
The Denver Classroom Teachers Association has approximately 2,940 members, Roman said — which is about half of the teachers in DPS, the state’s largest school district, and more than belonged last year. By comparison, about 60 percent of eligible staff belong to the teachers union in Jefferson County, the state’s second-largest district, according to a union spokesman.
While union caucuses are not necessarily rare, the Jefferson County and Douglas County teachers unions don’t have them, union representatives said. The Aurora teachers union has two — one for special education and one for technology — that union president Amy Nichols said in an e-mail “provide trainings and support for members in those areas.”
At a December kickoff event for the Denver caucus held at a local brewery, several teachers said they were drawn to the caucus — called the Caucus of Today’s Teachers — because of concerns the union has been losing power for a decade.
During that time, district leaders, along with a school board dominated by non-union-backed members, have carried out a host of reforms such as closing low-performing district-run schools, replicating charter schools and expanding the number of innovation schools, which don’t have to abide by the union contract.
“People are losing interest,” said Shaun Seaholm, a high school social studies teacher who’s been on the job for 16 years and would like to see the union be more confrontational. “There’s more complaining than getting things done.”
It’s time for a change in leadership, said Jen Holtzmann, a fourth-year elementary school special education teacher. “We need to find something that will unify the membership,” she said. “Social justice is something we can all get behind.”
At the brewery, books including The Death and Life of the Great American School System, A is for Activist and How to Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers were displayed on a countertop alongside sign-up sheets and buttons featuring an apple core, the caucus logo.
Indeed, organizers point to caucuses in cities such as Chicago as an example of what’s possible. In Chicago, the Caucus of Rank and File Educators successfully ran candidates for union leadership positions — and those leaders went on to lead a strike in 2012. They claimed the strike was partly over unfair labor practices that also impacted students.
Similarly, several Denver caucus organizers were involved in a union-supported campaign last year to improve conditions for both DPS teachers and students. Called The Schools Denver Students Deserve, it made several demands. Among them: less testing, smaller class sizes and a full-time nurse, full-time social worker and restorative justice program in every school.
That campaign has fizzled, the teachers said. Shimrock described it as “on the back burner.”
The teachers have now turned their attention to building the caucus. One of their first actions was to oppose proposed changes to the union’s bylaws that would have limited who could run for president, vice president, secretary and treasurer to teachers who’d served at least one two-year term on the union’s board of directors and who had non-probationary status, or tenure.
In a December vote, union members rejected the proposal. If they hadn’t, Shimrock, who does have non-probationary status and was elected to the board of directors but hasn’t yet served a full term, would have been excluded from running for president.
Marguerite Finnegan, a third-year high school math teacher who was involved in the campaign and is now a member of the caucus, said the proposed changes are an example of how the union under the current leadership is “siloed and set in its ways.”
“We don’t have a strong union, and that’s the only way we can save public education,” she said.
While she said union leaders have done a good job building goodwill with the district, it seems they’ve been hesitant to press for anything in return: “There’s a perception that the union doesn’t do anything.”
Asked about the union’s direction and stance on social justice issues, current president Roman said, “At this time, we’re bargaining the master agreement and the ProComp agreement and both of them are priorities for us. We’ll see what parts of the overall agenda overlap and where we can extend ourselves a little more. Certainly, we have worked in the past few years with different community organizations, like Together Colorado and Padres Unidos, who work closely with the parents of the community. We’ll continue to do that.”
But Shimrock said the caucus would like to see the union more aggressively push for changes both inside and outside the immediate sphere of public education.
For example, Shimrock mentioned urging DPS to accelerate efforts to recruit more teachers of color in a district where about three-quarters of students are racial minorities and three-quarters of teachers are white. He also mentioned advocating on citywide issues such as affordable housing — the lack of which affects both teachers and students’ families.
“Teachers can be on the forefront of saying, ‘Gentrification is negative. It displaces people. We’re not going to let this happen if it doesn’t happen in a way that benefits kids,’” he said.
The caucus teachers hope that message will inspire more of their colleagues to get involved.
“It’s important for us to give teachers a reason to think that labor is important,” Shimrock said. “…It’s not just to say, ‘Give me a call if your principal is being mean to you.’ That’s still important. Employees need protections. But it’s so much more than that, too.”
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.