Teachers’ Unions and Social Justice

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Common Dreams

Teachers’ Unions and Social Justice

From 1968 until their last strike in 1987, the Chicago Teacher's Union lead eight strikes that won smaller class sizes, medical benefits, sick leave, and more preparation time. But for nearly 25 years the combativity of the union declined, capped by their failure to lead a concerted campaign against Arne Duncan’s disastrous “Renaissance 2010” plan that slated some100 schools for closure, predominately in Black neighborhoods, and converting many to non-union charter schools or military academies. When the Chicago Teachers Union wouldn't lead the struggle, teachers in the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) organized teachers and communities in sixteen schools to resist closures. They organized hundreds of parents to picket Chicago Board of Education meetings protesting. As a result, teachers from this slate were elected to leadership positions in the Chicago Teachers Union in the spring of 2010.

With the initiation of the CTU’s September 10th, 2012 strike with some 98 percent of teachers voting in favor, the fighting spirit of the CTU was revived by this CORE leadership and its activated rank-and-file. As Lewis said on Labor Day this year, “This fight is for the very soul of public education, not only in Chicago but everywhere…our children are not numbers on a spreadsheet. When you come after our children you come after us and we will protect them.”

This excerpt from Education and Capitalism: Struggles for Learning and Liberation (edited by Jeff Bale and Sarah Knopp, Haymarket Books, 2012), is an attempt at providing the historical and theoretical tools for teachers and activist to remake their unions into a social force that can win this struggle for public education and a more equitable society.

The Neoliberal Attack and the Lies Behind It

The best evidence that unions are good for the public is the fervor with which they’re being attacked by the business and political establishment bent on making the working class pay for the crisis. In January 2011, the Economist magazine made a full-throated call for an attack on teachers’ unions to resolve the global economic crisis:

Now that the sovereign-debt crisis is forcing governments to put their houses in order, the growing discrepancy between conditions in the public and private sectors has eroded much of the sympathy public-sector workers might once have enjoyed. . . . Public-sector unions combine support for higher spending with vigorous opposition to more accountability. Almost everywhere they have demonized competition, transparency and flexible pay. Teachers’ unions have often acted as the Praetorian Guard in this fight. Unions have also made it almost impossible to sack incompetent workers. . . . Even people on the left are beginning to echo these complaints. Andrew Cuomo, the incoming Democratic governor of New York, is rattling his saber against public-sector unions despite the fact that they make up an important part of his base. Davis Guggenheim, an impeccably liberal film director whose credits include Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, subjected the teachers’ unions to a merciless critique in Waiting for Superman. . . . But will governments have the courage to tackle the root causes of the problem (such as pensions) rather than dealing with secondary problems (such as wages)? And will they dare to tackle questions of power rather than just pay and perks? If they are to claim victory in the coming fight, they need not just to restore the public finances to health. They also need to breathe the spirit of innovation into Leviathan.

Thus, in an act of political hocus-pocus, the investment banks and hedge fund managers disappear as the cause of the global economic crisis, and teachers’ unions are revealed as Roman mercenaries preserving an empire marked by inept educators. The elites have ample reason to need a scapegoat: the year 2011 has been labeled the year of “municipal default” with some sixteen US cities, including Detroit, Los Angeles, New York City,

San Francisco, and Washington, DC, threatened by bankruptcy if they cannot find substantial sources of new revenue or make deep spending cuts. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia project budget shortfalls totaling $125 billion for fiscal year 2012.

With state and city budgets in free fall due to evaporating tax revenue, the bull’s-eye on the backs of teachers is not really about whether they develop effective learning objectives in their lessons. As education theorist and social commentator Henry A. Giroux writes, “Money-soaked foundations . . . pour millions into a massive public pedagogy campaign that paints America’s system of public education, teacher unions and public school teachers in terms that are polarizing and demonizing. . . . Real problems affecting schools such as rising poverty, homelessness, vanishing public services for the disadvantaged, widespread unemployment, massive inequality in wealth and income, overcrowded classrooms and a bankrupt and iniquitous system of school financing disappear in the educational discourse of the super rich.”

The myth recounted by neoliberal education reformers has become so patently absurd that billionaires such as members of the Walton family, Bill Gates, and Eli Broad are positioned as heroic underdogs in the struggle for more equitable schools against the unions and the status quo. Politicians continuously lament the falling test scores of American students in relation to students internationally—particularly in Europe and Asia. Just as frequently, they portray teachers’ unions as the primary obstacle to innovation. However, there is a glaring contradiction in this anti-union argument: the European nations that outperform the United States have much stronger teachers’ unions and higher rates of unionization. Neoliberal reformers also have no explanation for why southern “right-to-work” states, which have mostly managed to keep unions out of public schools, score lower on standardized tests. As Arizona State University’s Education Policy Research Unit reported: “Several studies found math, economics and SAT scores in unionized schools improved more than in non-unionized schools. Increases in state unionization led to increases in state SAT, ACT and NAEP scores and improved graduation rates. One analysis attributed lower SAT and ACT scores in the South to weaker unionization there.” Moreover, numerous studies have revealed that charter schools, which are largely nonunion, rarely perform any better—and often perform quite worse—than their unionized public-school counterparts.

If these attacks on teachers’ and other public-sector unions are so intense today, it is because they follow a thirty-year assault on private-sector unions. While 11.9 percent of US workers are in a union, only 6.9 percent of private-sector workers are. This means that public-sector workers, 36.2 percent of whom are unionized, at once comprise the last bastion of organized labor—and the next target. Within public employee unions, the 1.4-million-member American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the 3.2-million-member National Education Association (NEA) represent the single biggest sector of unionized workers in the United States today. From the perspective of the politicians, bankers, and captains of industry who direct the economy, busting teachers’ unions is a key component to slashing salaries, benefits, and pensions in cash-strapped states.

The unprecedented attacks on teachers’ unions are about a fundamental transformation of the American economy. Those holding America’s purse strings are determined to transfer the burden of the Great Recession onto working people. In this era of austerity, even shamefully low teacher salaries are too high for a US government locked in an international competition to maintain its economic superiority, especially with the rising power of low-wage China. To complete the transition to a domestic economy based on the pauperization of the American workforce, any example of a section of the working class that has decent benefits and adequate pay must be broken—lest others get the idea that these basics of life are attainable by organized workers. The question of whether teachers’ unions will organize the scale of struggle necessary to defend public schools and their employees across the country is one that will come to define both the quality of public education and the very nature of employment in the United States. The following section, which assesses the state of the two main teachers’ unions in the United States, underscores how far we have to go in rebuilding and reorienting our unions for that fight.

Struggle or Surrender? The Teachers’ Unions Today

The irony is that far from being the impervious colossus portrayed in the media, teachers’ unions—and the labor movement on the whole—have spent the last several decades in retreat, accommodating many of the demands made by business leaders and government. The “collaborative” strategy of top teachers’ union leaders, detailed below, is marked by commitment to partnership with management; unwavering support for the Democratic Party despite that party’s subservience to Corporate America; and ignoring the possibilities of rank-and-file initiative.

While both the NEA and AFT have adopted the defensive race-to-the bottom approach of collaboration with management, it should be noted that the AFT and the NEA have important differences. For example, the keynote speaker for the NEA’s 2010 national convention was Diane Ravitch, perhaps the most prominent opponent of corporate school reform. By contrast, the AFT’s keynote speaker at its 2010 convention was Bill Gates, one of the most prominent proponents and financiers of neoliberal reforms. At the 2010 NEA convention, delegates passed a resolution rejecting Obama’s Race to the Top initiative, while Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, was equivocal: she didn’t condemn Race to the Top, but rather said that it proves that “the federal government knows how to be a lever for change,” at the same time giving a nod to some of the “concerns” that the AFT has. Their differences in organizational structure partially account for the different postures of the two unions. As Education Week explained, “If the NEA structure gives state affiliates the primary role in developing and overseeing policy among local unions, an inverse situation exists within the AFT, where the central leadership actively works to persuade locals to try out new ideas. . . . Ms. Weingarten exerts considerable influence over the union’s policy landscape partly because many of its vice presidents and resolution vetting committee members belong to the same internal political coalition she supports, the Progressive Caucus.”

But while the AFT organizes on a model that concentrates power in the national president and the NEA generally empowers state presidents, the differences between the two unions should not be overstated. Top officials in both unions have made it clear that rather than leading a determined struggle against privatization, their goal is to win a seat at the table to help shape the reforms. The outcomes of this relationship show that the unions have continued to lend their support to management-driven proposals, even when they have proven educationally bankrupt. As New York City teacher and member of the United Federation of Teachers (UFT, the local affiliate of the AFT) Peter Lamphere wrote: “Over the past year [2010], American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten has intervened in negotiations between local school districts and AFT locals across the US, pushing contracts that undermine—if not abandon—the traditional core of teacher collective bargaining agreements. In cities like Baltimore, Washington, DC, New Haven, Pittsburgh, and elsewhere, Weingarten has advocated deals that undermine tenure, impose unreliable evaluation systems based on student test scores and divide teachers with merit pay.” Weingarten’s unwavering pursuit of the partnership model of unionism even led her to get ahead of the neoliberal education reformers by spurring the UFT in New York to create and operate its own charter schools. Weingarten’s reasoning was to prove to other charter operators that they could run their schools with a unionized staff. Unionizing charter school teachers is certainly an important goal. Yet, by becoming both the operator of the charter and the representation of its workers, the failed strategy of collaboration reached its zenith: Weingarten, now representing both labor and management at charter schools in New York City, is in fact in partnership with herself. Teachers have complained that labor/management officials have arbitrarily fired teachers critical of the charter school, and the traditional public school teachers, who had to give up space to share the building with the new school, have lodged ongoing complaints.

The need for member-driven unions was made evident again when NEA president Dennis Van Roekel undermined his union’s resolution in opposition to Race to the Top, saying: “NEA supports the plan to limit Race to the Top to school districts. We commend the Administration’s further refinement of this program, as long as it requires local collaboration, best practices that boost student learning, more flexibility for turnaround models without minimizing the need for results, and as long as it does not reduce the basic funding for children in poverty.”

The unions’ unwavering loyalty to the Democratic Party has been another factor in their weakened ability to defend public education. The NEA made a combined $56.5 million in federal and state contributions during the 2007–08 election cycle, with the overwhelming majority flowing to Democrats. These contributions poured into the party at the same time that Obama was stumping for the very corporate education reforms that later became his Race to the Top initiative. Imagine the clout that teachers might have had if the union had put the $56.5 million into strike funds for locals challenging contracts that included merit pay, charter schools, erosion of seniority rights, or lifting class size lids. Worse, when Democrats know they will receive millions of dollars from the teachers’ unions while they advocate for policies that erode public education, they have little reason to pay attention to teachers’ demands. Whether Democrats acknowledge teachers’ issues or not, they can rest assured that union contributions will keep flowing. While teachers’ unions—and the labor movement in general—have

long been in retreat, the struggle that erupted in Wisconsin in February 2011 against Governor Scott Walker’s antiunion legislation could signal the beginnings of a new era for US labor. Unions that have long been surrendering to management’s offensive were compelled to take action by the prospect that these new laws would destroy their organizations. With state governments across the country proposing similar legislation against the bargaining rights of public sector workers, Wisconsin workers’ struggle to preserve trade unions demonstrated an awakening of class solidarity and action, even though it ultimately suffered a legislative defeat. To be sure, progress on class solidarity and action has been halting. While entire unions entered into mass action to defend collective bargaining rights, many of Wisconsin’s public-sector unions have since agreed to concessionary contracts, following the logic that concessions are the high price to pay for the salvaging the union at all.

But thousands of teachers have drawn important conclusions from their own direct participation in the rallies, sick-outs, and occupations in Madison and elsewhere, demonstrating that mass collective action holds promise for reanimating the entire labor movement. One teacher in the Madison Public Schools reflected on her experience of deciding to occupy the state capitol in opposition to Governor Walker’s union-busting legislation: “Shutting down the state seems really scary to me . . . [And yet] when I’m in the Capitol, I love just walking around and talking to people from everywhere. The solidarity and camaraderie are amazing. You turn to your left, turn to your right, and you can chat with people who’ve come to support us from all over the state, and all over the world.” As part of Occupy Wall Street (and what is coming to be known as the “Occupy movement”), which began in September 2011, teachers all over the country have participated in protests and teach-ins at banks to highlight how banks got bailed out during the Great Recession rather than schools, even though banks precipitated the crisis through predatory lending practices.

Jesse Hagopian

Jesse Hagopian teaches history and is the Black Student Union adviser at Garfield High School, the site of the historic boycott of the MAP standardized test.  Jesse is the editor and contributing author to the forthcoming book, More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing (Haymarket Books, 2014). Jesse an associate editor for Rethinking Schools magazine, a founding member of Social Equality Educators (SEE), and recipient of the 2013 “Secondary School Teacher of Year” award from the Academy of Education Arts and Sciences. Follow Jesse on his blog at www.iamaneducator.com or on Twitter: @jessedhagopian

John Green

John Green teaches world history at Castro Valley High School in California and is president of the Castro Valley Teachers Association.

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