In 1968, New York teachers went on strike in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville School District in Brooklyn after a dozen teachers and six administrators were unilaterally dismissed. The school district was established by the New York City Department of Education as an experiment in community control in the mostly African American neighborhood.
The locally elected school board dismissed the teachers, who were white, for their hostility to community control. The teachers union (United Federation of Teachers, or UFT), struck schools across Ocean Hill-Brownsville, demanding the teachers be rehired. The strike spread across the entire city and lasted about two months until the New York State Education Commission trusteed the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district, rehired the teachers, and took control over the school.
The strike created enormous tension in New York, some of which lingers today. Many saw this as a historic fight between mostly white and Jewish teachers and their union, against black students and parents. Some longtime progressives crossed the picket lines to support the community controlled school; others did not. To this day, there are those who feel that support for the demands of teachers unions often comes at the expense of quality education and learning conditions for students of color.
Last week, members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) went on strike. Mainstream media outlets quickly picked up on the historic tension, claiming that the Chicago Teachers were once again putting their own needs above those of the black and Latino students in the city. Charles Lane writes in the Washington Post: “I cannot describe the moral repugnance of this strike by aggrieved middle-class “professionals” against the aspiring poor,” noting that 85 percent of Chicago students are African American or Latino.
This perspective has been voiced before. Due to real conflicts, such as in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, as well as the gap, real and perceived, between African American parents and children on one side, and public school teachers on the other, supporters of vouchers and Charter schools have highlighted the ways in which public schools fail children of color, and used these failures as a pretext to curb teacher union rights.
Critics are right to question the power dynamic between teachers and students, and they are right to raise concerns about the priorities of many teachers unions. I have been a member of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association in three states, and have seen firsthand how these unions can be narrowly self-interested, prioritizing wage or pension issues to the exclusion of educational content and student concerns. I’ve seen my union give millions of dollars to politicians, lobbyists and consultants, while paying lip service to the needs of other unions, community allies and student groups.
But it would be a mistake to draw the conclusion that the situation in Chicago is the same as it was in 1968 New York.
First, the composition of the teacher workforce has itself changed, particularly in large urban school districts. In Chicago, 45 percent of CTU members are African American, and about 15 percent are Latino. Arguing that teacher unions only represent the interests of white workers is a pat answer that misses the mark on many levels.
Second, many teachers have themselves worked to build stronger alliances between the union, parents and students. Indeed, over the last fifteen years building parent and community connections has become a common strategy for teachers working to build rank-and-file networks inside their unions. These reform-minded teachers have built momentum in a number of cities.
In Chicago, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) began as a study group among a small number of teachers, who read about the politics of school closings together with broader analysis like Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine.
According to current CTU president Karen Lewis, the group learned that school closings were about real estate and gentrification so they decided they had to do something about it. They pushed their union to get involved but had no luck. They organized themselves into a larger group and got active fighting school closures and privatization. The activists saw that politicians and education reformers wanted to talk about an achievement gap, but not the poverty gap, and the union seemed unwilling to enter the debate. They decided they had to run for office and take control of their union.
In Los Angeles, teachers built a left-leaning caucus, Progressive Educators for Action (PEAC), to push their union to be more responsive and active. At the same time, some of the teachers built the Coalition for Educational Justice, which was an independent coalition of parents, teachers and students working on student-centered issues such as access to bilingual education or dealing with ROTC in the schools.
Caucuses like CORE and PEAC developed in a number of cities, many with roots in the workplace activism of an earlier generation of leftists. In the 1970s, many young left activists entered workplaces to get active in union politics, foster more internal democracy, and push unions into a more social movement direction. The practice, often referred to as “industrialization,” frequently targeted blue-collar industries like auto, telecom, transit, and steel. But teaching, along with various other public sector occupations, were also popular among left-wing activists in the 1970s. By the 1990s teaching became an even more frequent avenue for radicals to get involved in union activism, as manufacturing and other industrial jobs were harder and harder to find. The opposite was true in teaching, and it appealed to many young activists as a place to be active in their union and bring radical ideas into the classroom.
Others were drawn to reform work inside teacher unions because of their own experiences as a student, or because of exposure to community organizing or racial justice campaigns. Still others saw reforming teacher unions as a way to challenge educational reforms that they saw as detrimental to learning.
These caucuses had their limitations, but one common current was the idea that teachers unions needed to organize based on the deep interconnection between teachers working conditions with student learning conditions. These activists pushed teachers unions to intersect their demands with those of parents and students – both because it was necessary to win, but also because they saw addressing the problems in the schools as a political priority.
Progressive caucuses eventually won leadership of the teachers unions in Los Angeles and Chicago, although in Los Angeles more conservative members have won some key offices in the union. Elsewhere, they continue to meet and work on ways to build stronger alliances between teachers, students and parents. It is challenging work, and raises lots of questions.
For example, how do you balance democratic voice in these coalitions when the teachers start with a clear institutional structure (the union), but parents may not have any organization of their own? And how can you build democratic and transparent alliances between teachers and students, given the wide gaps in power, age, authority, and status? What options do you have to win improvements in a financially strapped school district, or when parents themselves face incredible challenges getting by? How do you fight the forces that attempt to co-opt real reform efforts or real community control?
These are hard questions, and no one has easy answers. But the experience in Chicago shows that teachers unions can evolve into social movement unions, and that the historic tension of race versus class, students and parents of color versus white teachers, need not hold true today.
There are a few key lessons to learn from this:
- Teacher union supporters should remember Ocean Hill-Brownsville, and many other examples, of when unions were pitted against people of color. The US labor movement has an ugly history of racism inside of unions and that impacted communities of color as well. Many students of color have suffered, and continue to suffer, in school systems that don’t have enough resources, don’t have enough teachers of color, have poor teaching practices, and seem to be more intent on training an obedient workforce than fostering creative and critical thinking. There is a lot of work to be done improving schools, and teachers unions need to play a central role alongside parents and students.
- Teacher unions have had problems, but there are thousands of teachers working to reform their unions for the better. The days of Ocean Hill-Brownsville, when big-city teachers unions were overwhelmingly white, are gone. Teaching is quite racially diverse, although the rise of high-stakes testing, vouchers, and charter schools have disproportionately pushed teachers of color out of the profession. Teachers are also connected to the school system, as parents and also as taxpayers. Many students of color want to grow up to be teachers, and teaching remains one of the few living wage job options for many students. We can’t let ourselves fall into false dichotomies (teachers versus taxpayers; teachers versus parents).
- Teacher union reform work and educational justice coalitions have proven to be a fruitful arena for collaboration among left activists. At a time when the left is very weak, and when a number of experiments to unite the left have failed or fizzled, teacher union reform projects are often a bright spot. In fact, many activists have found a way to collaborate even if the left organizations they belong to do not This offers hope for a different kind of left based on common work.
Stephanie Luce is Associate Professor of Labor Studies and has gained national and international recognition for her research on living-wage campaigns and on the impact of globalization on jobs and workers. She serves on the editorial board of New Labor Forum and is a moderator for Portside Labor.