During their 2012 strike, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) popularized the slogan “Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions.” CTU demonstrated the necessity of genuine solidarity and cleared the way for the return of social justice unionism. They stood shoulder to shoulder with students, parents and community members to fight school closures, racial inequality, and the privatization of public education. Writing for Jacobin Magazine, Micah Uetricht summarizes the significance of CTU’s approach, “When a union like the CTU can establish itself as a body that fights not just for its members’ own narrow interests but for the entire working class, it can become the vehicle for a much broader leftist agenda.” In short, it can affect change beyond the confines of the contract; it can deliver a broader slice of justice.
Teacher’s working conditions are students’ learning conditions. The United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) understood this when they launched a strike earlier this year, winning not only pay increases and smaller class sizes but also an end to “stop and frisk” policies within the schools and the addition of an immigrant defense fund to support undocumented families. In these instances, education unions have embraced the interests of the entire working class, and in doing so, they have helped unleash a collective imagination that has raised the expectations of communities everywhere.
That collective imagination, that boldness to dream, is exactly what is needed in this moment of national crisis when families and children are being detained at the border, kept in squalid conditions and held, in what Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez rightly calls, concentration camps.
The physical and psychological harm that the Trump administration’s immigration policies inflict on our communities directly impedes our ability to succeed in this work.
Being an educator is about more than raising test scores, supporting knowledge acquisition or skill development. Public educators, from pre-K to college, are gifted with the opportunity to shape lives, influence values and give voice to ideals. Our working conditions extend far beyond the classroom walls, as do a student’s learning conditions. The physical and psychological harm that the Trump administration’s immigration policies inflict on our communities directly impedes our ability to succeed in this work. Mass deportation rips parents from their citizen children, leaving youth homeless, hungry and sometimes hopeless. Moreover, the psychological warfare of these policies has a sweeping effect, hampering the conditions necessary for learning to occur.
Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” has long been applied to pedagogical theory and utilized throughout teacher training programs. In short, Maslow argues that the conditions for learning require that a students’ physiological needs, safety needs, community needs be met. In other words, a student cannot be hungry, cold, pained, or scared (ie. experience a raid; experience the threat of a raid; encounter images, in person or in media, of fathers and daughters drowned at the border; endure the images of children sleeping in cages) if learning is to occur.
Solidarity is not only built in anticipation of a contract fight; it is a constant element of being an educator and a union member. As such, I am calling on Randi Weingarten and The American Federation of Teachers, to assist in the coordination of national protests and mobilize membership in response to the ongoing crisis at the border.
Together, let us carry the torch reignited by the CTU and the UTLA to illuminate the collective imagination and the bold dream for justice.