Tom Dooher, new Education Minnesota president, brings labor legacy

Print

Tom Dooher is a third-generation union member.

Tom Dooher, the new president of the state’s largest union — Education Minnesota — brings a unique legacy to the job. Dooher is a third-generation union member. His father, Bob Dooher, worked at Northwestern Bell and was a union member. His grandfather, Patrick Corcoran, was a Teamsters leader who was murdered in 1937 for unknown reasons by still unknown assailants..

“I’ve always had this affinity for my grandfather and I didn’t know why,” Dooher says. “As I developed as a union leader, he really was my compass.”.

In his grandfather, Dooher sees a leader who stood up for his ideas and built coalitions..

(Corcoran helped found Teamsters Joint Council 32 and built bridges between the radical leadership of Teamsters Local 574 in Minneapolis and the national Teamsters leadership)..

“I can understand the greater union movement because of what my grandfather went through,” Dooher says. “We all have to work together.”.

Dooher, 44, won a contested election in March to become Education Minnesota’s president, succeeding Judy Schaubach, who retired (Labor Review, June 21, 2007). With 70,000 teachers and other education professionals as members, Education Minnesota is the largest union in the state..

Dooher took office July 1 and announced that one of his first initiatives will be to take a tour around the state with the union’s other new officers to listen to the concerns and ideas of Education Minnesota members..

Dooher says one goal as president of Education Minnesota will be to engage its members not only in their own union, but also in the broader labor movement..

A teacher with community roots

Dooher grew up in Crystal and graduated from Armstrong High School in 1981. He earned a B.A. at the University of St. Thomas in 1985, then returned to the school district he grew up in as a teacher..

“You get so much from your teachers and your coaches. I wanted to give back to the community that gave me so much,” Dooher says..

For 10 years, Dooher worked as a physical education teacher for the middle school grades in the Robbinsdale schools. He also was a high school coach for soccer and track and field..

“I loved working with the kids,” Dooher says..

With middle school students, known for their challenges, “you deal with tremendous physical and mental development,” Dooher notes. Some kids come ready “to learn and stretch and do great things” while some are “immature and confused.”.

Dooher became involved in his union — the Robbinsdale Federation of Teachers — very early in his teaching career. “From the older teachers I got encouragement to become involved in developing my leadership skills,” he relates..

He first served as building representative, then as a vice president..

He was elected president of the Robbinsdale Federation of Teachers in 1997 and served 10 years. The local has 1,200 members who work at 20 sites..

In 2000, Dooher earned his Masters degree from Hamline University..

During his time as president of his local, he also became involved in statewide leadership and served on Education Minnesota’s governing board, among other positions..

Dooher says his background as a local teachers union president, teacher and coach prepared him well for his new role as Education Minnesota president..

In particular, he notes, the leadership he developed as a coach — working with the community, schools, parents, and kids — fits his new job..

Schools: ‘foundation of society’

For Dooher, “our schools are the foundation of society.”.

“Minnesota has this rich tradition of investing in its schools, investing in itself, and we’ve had a high standard of living,” he observes..

Unfortunately, in recent years, a troublesome shift in the political climate has eroded support for public education..

Public school critics, he notes, “demonize Education Minnesota, the union.”.

But talk to parents, he observes, and even public school critics profess admiration for the individual teacher..

He wants to remind everyone, “that second grade teacher you love so much, he or she is a union member.”.

Dooher sees two goals ahead..

First, create the climate where we have adequate funding for quality education..

Second, close the achievement gap between white students and students of color. “It’s so much larger than schools,” he emphasizes. “It’s a community issue.”.

“We need time with students, we need sustained support, we need to invest,” he says..

He’s mindful that public education needs to embrace change..

“What we taught and how we did it 10 years ago isn’t going to work,” he notes..

Dooher hopes his planned listening tour across the state will tap teachers’ ideas for what will work..

He knows teacher concerns include classes that are too big. Class size matters, Dooher agrees. “In order to have significant learning, you need to have significant relationships with teachers.”.

Dooher says teachers also are concerned that recent educational policy has produced too much emphasis on testing. “We have narrowed our curriculum,” he says. Learning shouldn’t just be “facts and figures.” What’s key, he says, is teaching students how to think and how to become life-long learners..

Changing the climate

Hope for public education, Dooher says, depends on changing the political climate. “If we don’t do something to change the climate, we’re going to see more school cuts and larger class sizes.”.

“You change the climate by developing relationships,” he adds..

And so Dooher sees building coalitions as a major focus of his first year as Education Minnesota president..

“I see my job as developing relationships, both within the labor community and outside. Why do we want to have society? What’s the common good?”.

Looking to labor’s roots.

“We need to start remember our roots, so we can make a better Minnesota,” Dooher says..

Dooher’s grandfather, Patrick Corcoran, rose to leadership in the Teamsters union during the struggles of the 1920s and 1930s..

As recounted by Dooher’s brother Doug Dooher, in an August 1998 story in Mpls. St. Paul magazine, Pat Corcoran joined the Milk Drivers Union Local 471 in 1922, where he developed skills as an organizer and negotiator, driven by “an innate sense of fairness” and outrage at working conditions..

Later, Corcoran helped found Teamsters Joint Council 32..

After the famous 1934 strike, national Teamsters leadership clashed with the radical leaders of Teamsters Local 574, Farrell Dobs and the Dunne brothers. Corcoran negotiated a way for the two sides to work together and build together..

“I’m able to do what I’m able to do because of my grandfather,” Tom Dooher now says. “It’s in my blood to do this.”.

“We as union workers need to understand each other’s struggles if we can succeed,” Dooher says. “If we don’t start working together, we’re going to continue to struggle.”.