Over the past 10 years, the popular media has increasingly reported upon teacher union efforts to influence educational policy through radical tactics like school walkouts and strikes. Less visible though is the behind-the-scenes organizing work by social justice caucuses. Such caucuses strive to push their broader unions to take on more radical stances and tactics while advocating for traditional workplace concerns alongside broader common good issues.
The United Caucuses of Rank-and-file Educators (UCORE) reports that social justice caucuses have formed in more than 40 locations in North America over the past 12 years, the vast majority in the United States. This includes caucuses in historically conservative locations, such as the “red states,” as well as regions known for their progressive politics. Much of the impetus for such organizing stems from educators’ desires to protect public education from privatizing and corporate influences. They seek to improve their working conditions through strengthening public investment in schools, while striving to remedy systemic racism and economic disparity through their union organizing work.
In this interview, Rhiannon Maton talks with 2 founding members of Raising Educators’ Voices (REV), which is a caucus that formed two years ago in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. Karine Ng and Preet Lidder speak about why and how they formed a caucus to push for enhanced member engagement, transparency, and increased focus on racial and social justice issues within their union. The interview opens with a conversation about the guiding principles of REV. Then it turns to a discussion of the caucus’ recent successful campaign to oust police officers from Vancouver schools. They talk about pushback that the caucus has faced from their broader union. Finally, they close with some guiding tips for newly-forming caucuses.
Karine Ng: My name is Karine Ng, I was born in Hong Kong, and so I’m a settler, immigrant settler, in what is now called Vancouver, British Columbia, in Canada. I’ve been a teacher for 15 years now in Vancouver and I’m part of Raising Educators Voices (REV). Outside of teaching, I’m also involved in the Asian Canadian Labor Alliance.
Preet Lidder: My name is Preet Lidder. I am also here residing in so-called Vancouver, the unceded traditional territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Coast Salish people. I have been teaching for 10 years. I started my teaching career up north in the Stikine District, which is Tahltan Territory, and Haida Gwaii, which is of course Haida territory. I’m also part of the British Columbia Teachers Federation (BCTF), which is the provincial body made up of 45,000 members. And I’m part of REV as well.
Karine Ng: At REV, I think what really stands out is this idea of grassroots, member-led activism, and activism through organizing. We were very inspired by a Labor Notes conference in Vancouver that happened in the fall of 2019, and that really was the birth of REV. From Labor Notes, we learned about how the organizing model is the most effective way to make a change, as opposed to just advocacy, which was really what we saw from our unions. Advocacy doesn’t really address the frustration of members, and it doesn’t mine and tap into the members’ energy and talents.
Preet Lidder: I think it’s a similar story for a lot of different grassroots caucuses, that this union model is not really working for us. It’s really challenging, because it’s not bringing more member voices in, and it’s not bringing diverse voices into it either.
Karine Ng: In November 2019, REV started with four people. I think at last count, we’re around 40 members, and this is a grassroots organization. We don’t have membership fees or anything like that. Out of those 40, there is of course a core, people who are more engaged than others, and there are some who are steering what REV does, because ultimately we also need that leadership.
Preet Lidder: I think if I were to highlight one other value or core belief, it would be the idea of anti-oppression-oriented ways of being and doing things. An anti-oppression approach means examining how we relate with each other, how labor is done and divided between us, and whose voices are we holding up, and who are we foregrounding, what issues are we foregrounding.
At REV, we try to support BIPOC self-identifying women in taking on more leadership roles, and we have the conversations you don’t get to have in your typical union spaces, which is, “Hold on, let’s just talk about who’s doing the work right now. Who’s doing the grunt work?” We call it the sexy work versus the unsexy work. Historically, the sexy work in union organizing or union activism is white men, and then later white women, and a lot of the people that do the background work are often folks that look like me or Karine. So we are trying to have more of those conversations because it spills into our work as educators as well.
The other piece of it is that we are also community members. Our lives are not disconnected from our students, and so we see our work as teachers, as union organizers, to be inextricably linked with the conditions that our students come from. We are trying to think a little bit more holistically. How do we bring those pieces into the way we bargain? How can we bring that into the collective agreement?
In the BCTF we often say:, “Our working conditions are our students’ learning conditions,” which is a pretty common rallying cry. But, we really want to breathe life into that and bring that to the forefront. We don’t shy away from what’s going on around us, in our communities and globally, and we try to have those conversations. And we think about how we transform our union to care about social justice issues in a much more meaningful way than ticking a box or doing just a land acknowledgement.
Preet Lidder: It is a response to what we see as a business model of a union. We got really frustrated and confused about how the structures work. Information is concentrated at the top, and we didn’t feel like your average teacher in the classroom really understands the basics of their union. We were kind of baffled by how many decisions were made behind closed doors. We view this as very problematic, because you can’t really make decisions collectively if you’re not informed. There is a lack of transparency, and not a lot of effort into bringing membership on board.
The other piece for me is this idea that there are “experts,” that only some people can hold that knowledge. In reality, every single day that I chat with my colleagues in the staff room, I see that they are the experts of their work.” They know their working conditions more than anybody else, and given the opportunity, we can come up with effective solutions. Teachers are brilliant. We are by definition organizers because all we do is multitask and organize. It was feeling, “I want to make change, but I feel like there’s no mechanism,” or those mechanisms are a bit veiled. I think it’s a culture of the union, and something that’s been existing for a long time.
Karine Ng: How I got activated in all of this organizing, pre-REV, was really through racial justice. There was an awakening there, just knowing I spent so many years as a teacher, [and] even before being a teacher, [wondering] why I felt so powerless? There’s all that theoretical knowledge, we learn about democracy. But, why is it that I still felt so powerless and did not know how to make change?
Preet Lidder: We do really want structural change, and how do you get structural change? You have to gain power, organize for a power, right? I don’t think we should tiptoe around it. Yeah, we do want to take over the union. I don’t necessarily mean REV in itself has to take over the union, but shifting from a business to an organizing union.
Of course we want it to be very, very member-driven and from the ground up, and bring as many people to the table as possible, and help them be part of that collective decision-making. But, in order for us to really make some more dramatic change, we’re going to have to be there. We’re going to have to eventually be table officers and sit on the executive committee and be on bargaining teams. That’s really critical. But in order for that to happen, we need a groundswell and we actually need our membership to get on board, because there’s no point in taking over a union if most of your membership doesn’t believe in you.
Right now, we really are in that stage of building and building and building. We did look at places like Chicago, for example, where they said, “Hey, it took us five years from the infancy of the caucus to being the sort of caucus that runs the union.” We had the pleasure of meeting one of the Chicago Teachers Union folks a few days ago, Jen Johnson. She said you have to be unapologetic about your politics, but also recognize that the reason why you can be unapologetic about your politics is because your politics are right. We’re not going to shy away from an anti-oppression lens, we do need our leadership to be reflective of the membership, but also the communities that we serve.
Every election cycle, we want to build a little bit more and more and more, and in the interim, we want to have those one-on-one conversations and get people to care about their union again. A lot of people don’t know what that means and what power is, so there’s a lot of political education that has to occur. REV is willing to take that on, [saying] “Let’s educate our members. Let’s get them to understand their own power.”
Karine Ng: It’s political education. Of course, we’re not Chicago, we’re not L.A. What is common underlying all these movements is you always have a more radical group or faction who’s willing to do that work and take those risks, and bring the people along and occupy or infiltrate those structures. You need to have those positions of power filled in by some of these people, and then you move the needle. It’s constantly the two-prong approach—building up leadership, expanding capacity and developing political analysis.
Preet Lidder: In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, especially last summer after George Floyd’s murder, the conversation around policing and the presence of police in all forms in our schools became a bit more at the forefront. Three years ago, there was nothing. There was no conversation, but there was an entrenched presence of police in almost every district. Our school system has been, and continues to be, complicit in the policing of communities. In Canada, our schools are built from residential schools [where First Nations children were forced to attend schools that reinforced white supremacist ideology and curriculum], so it goes so, so deep.
REV tried to push this issue to our union. That’s why it was a very important strategy for us to have people in very different positions sitting on, say, the social justice committee, being staff reps at their school site, sitting at the executive table, or on BCTF committees. We had a multi-prong approach where we did not let this conversation die. We would try to push it in one body, and it would get crushed or it would get moved to somewhere else. We were starting to learn to be strategic.
So long story short, after several attempts, we finally did build enough momentum. That took so much organizing on the ground, helping members become more informed on this issue. At our Winter AGM in 2020, we were successful in making it our official position to end the School Liaison Officer (SLO) program through a racial justice lens. The SLO program has been in our district for over four decades, so it’s very entrenched. I don’t believe we could have made those gains without REV.
Karine Ng: How many hours do you have?
Preet Lidder: Our lives are just really defined by pushback from the moment we walked in.
Karine Ng: What they don’t know is that the more they push back, the more it actually fuels us, right?
Preet Lidder: It’s backfiring, but there’s a consistent concerted resistance to us. Almost an unnecessary amount of energy put into resisting us, but we try really not to get mired in the interpersonal stuff. We know that the response from folks that’ve been holding power for a long time comes from a place of fear, and the fear of losing power.
There is a belief that “Well, you got to pay your dues” to move up the “ranks” and we are responding with, “No, no. Anyone should be able to run.” We don’t stop people from getting involved whether you’re a first-year teacher or you’ve been in this for 40 years. This paradigm shift is causing a lot of ruckus because the model has been built on “shoulder-tapping”.
The backlash has been swift., Sometimes it’s intense, sometimes just funny. It shows up in a combination of slander and rumors circulating about our caucus and its members, coupled with seeing the union react in terms of policies that they formulate or create as a response. That in itself has been kind of more disturbing, [the old-guard union leadership] saying, “Oh, we’re going to try to move things. We’re not going to allow people to run from the floor,” or, “We’re going to make elections really convoluted,” or, “We’re not going to be very open about where we publicly put these things.” All these sort of very structural responses to us have been, I think, one of the most jarring things, which is “Wow. That’s a lot of energy putting in to just not letting us be at the table.” Closing meetings, making up rules, changing practice.
But, like Karine says, it is really swinging in our favor, because we have taken a principled stance. And even though we experience personal attacks, we are really trying to stay collected and stick to the issues, and just keep building something that feels more appealing. Pam Palmater, who’s an amazing indigenous activist and writer, was talking about decolonizing and was like, “It’s okay. We have to accept that there’s going to be a crisis.” I think we’re in crisis mode. The union is in crisis in terms of this turnover, and I think once we’ve gotten grounded in the idea of like, “let’s ride this wave, let’s weather the storm,” on the other side of this is going to be meaningful change.
Karine Ng: It went from personal targeting and attacks to this knee-jerk reaction, that I think is a projection of power when they’re being challenged. They project the worst onto you, and then you become smeared. You are personally attacked. I think it has evolved from the early days of pushback from targeting individuals to now—they’re a little bit at a loss. They cannot stick a target on individuals anymore, because here we are [as a collective]. There are many of us here now. It can’t be personal anymore. And so, this is where I think what Preet was saying about all these maneuvering of rules and policies and procedures, and changing rules on the spot, it’s just acrobatics on the establishment’s side. So that’s why I want to highlight the evolution of the pushback from the personal to the structural. But we continue to push.
Preet Lidder: I think we want to, in a lot of ways, get our power back [as a union]. Like, when Karine was talking earlier about feeling powerless, I want us to be a force to be reckoned with. I want us to be driving the conversation around public education in a broad way, and that intersects with what other issues are happening in our province and in our communities, because we want our employer to be like, “Oh, shit. REV is here,” or like, “Oh, this is going to be a hard bargaining round, because they’re going to really bring something to the table.”
Ultimately, for us, we’re trying to build better schools. We are the guardians of public education, and I do think we’re driven by our students and dramatically and structurally changing the conditions [in which] they not only go to school, but the way they get to live their lives, with dignity and support, and feeling like their families are welcome in the schools. So I think we’re building for something a little bit bigger, and also we’re trying to create space for those that come after us.
I think especially, for folks like us, where the union was not built with us in mind, we have more of a duty and larger responsibility to consider, “What is the legacy I want to live in?” I want racialized teachers, newer teachers to come into this profession and see things have actually changed. Not just platitudes, but really breathing life into it and becoming that union. I mean, we are teachers. We’re there. We are on the front lines. We are there day in, day out, really engaged with our communities and our students, so we’re the best people to know how we are going to transform this. So yeah, I think we are driven by who we serve, which is our communities.
Karine Ng: Two words come to mind. It’s respect, a deep sense of respect—and justice. I know it’s such a cliché: it’s not a destination but a journey. We must strive on that journey always in the direction towards justice and respect.
I want to expand a little bit on respect. When we have union leadership that is not afraid to fight for justice, I don’t think that the rank-and-file members will read them as difficult or oppositional. However, this is still the perception of a lot of rank-and-filers. It’s because they have bought into that neoliberal myth that if we cooperate, if we do that weak handshake, if we have that conversation in the back room behind closed doors, we will get considerable crumbs. We won’t. It’s busting that myth.
The myth is also partly [that] having a strong labor movement and union leadership is going to benefit everybody. I actually think that management will, if we can really live out our ideals and our values and our beliefs, they will actually look at us and respect us. They don’t treat us well, they don’t bargain with us well, because we don’t show our power. Agency is the psychology and action of showing up really grounded and with justice and reason on your side. I think having that gives you so much strength, and it signals to the other party across the table what a true leader you really are. I think they can read it really quickly, who you are and what you’re about. We need to put on that face, not just a face, but be that through and through.
Karine Ng: I’ve been telling people you need to have at least one, preferably a few more people, who are in this together with you, come hell or high water. The first step is to build commitment. Build that community and solidarity, find that buddy to do this with, and then hold each other accountable and walk that path together. You also cannot shy away from work. Organizing is hard work. We must look to, and learn from, marginalized folks who have always struggled the most because they are oppressed. They have much to teach us.
Preet Lidder: Like we said, it really started with four of us in our friend’s basement. We were in people’s living rooms, and we were just learning things and reading. We read the books, we did book clubs, we attended sessions, and we started practicing how to be organizers. It really was that education piece that was so critical, because we could be idealistic, but then to put it in practice, you really just have to open books and be like, “Hey, who has done this before? What works? What pieces can we bring into the context of where we are?” Learning has been so important for us because it ended up becoming the bones of the work that we did in terms of building our structures.
There’s that old adage, if you build it, they will come. You have to just build it, and you have to have a lot of hope. The truth is, people are looking for direction. They’re looking for a place to go. So many of our members come, and they’re just like, “Wow. Spent this many years in my career and I’ve never felt a place to feel like home in this profession.” You just have to just build it and slowly it gets around, people become attracted to it, and they will come.