Where should we look to build a new teacher unionism? Look to Minneapolis.

The teachers union in Minneapolis has a long history of progressive leadership. My friend Louise Sundin was president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT) for 22 years and helped us start the Teacher Union Reform Network in the mid-1990s. Under Louise’s leadership, the MFT was an intelligent force for innovation and the MFT’s current president, Lynn Nordgren, is continuing this tradition.

In this recent Minneapolis Star Tribune column, Nordgren foreshadows the future of teacher unionism as she explains why the MFT is embracing charter schools as a vehicle for teacher empowerment.

We believe there can and should be outstanding new schools with autonomy over increasing student achievement, defining curriculum, and managing budget, scheduling, and staffing … This isn’t the first time, of course, that the MFT has led the way in establishing innovative, teacher-run schools. The union tried for years to launch “self-governed” schools, which give teachers a powerful role, in partnership with Minneapolis public schools.

The industrial model of unionism teachers borrowed from the steel and auto workers in the 1960s erroneously assumes that individual teachers must be disempowered in the interest of greater collective power. But the new unionism the MFT is implementing through this charter school initiative sees collective and individual power as mutually enhancing, and not in conflict. The MFT’s collective power will grow — and not diminish —  as it uses its collective power to empower individual teachers.

Teacher-run schools are consistent with a larger cultural trend toward worker-run enterprises. As this recent New York Times column observed, Americans are increasingly becoming involved in co-ops and worker-owned companies: “Some 130 million Americans, for example, now participate in the ownership of co-op businesses and credit unions. More than 13 million Americans have become worker-owners of more than 11,000 employee-owned companies …”

In public education, the movement toward greater teacher and parent empowerment is accelerating, and Nordgren and her MFT colleagues are smart to begin repositioning their union now. The future of teacher unionism is being formed in Minneapolis.

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BY Doug Tuthill

A lifelong educator and former teacher union president, Tuthill has been president of Step Up For Students since August 2008.