If Teachers Can’t Make Their Unions More Democratic and Social Justice-Minded, Public Ed Is Doomed

Bob Peterson February 12, 2015

Teachers march during the Chicago Teacher Union strike in 2012. The CTU has emerged as a strong democratic, community-minded union in recent years.

If we don’t trans­form teacher unions now, our schools, our pro­fes­sion, and our democ­ra­cy — what’s left of it — will like­ly be destroyed. I know. I am from Wis­con­sin, the home of Scott Walk­er and Paul Ryan.

In 2011, in the wake of the largest work­ers upris­ing in recent U.S. his­to­ry, I was elect­ed pres­i­dent of the Mil­wau­kee Teach­ers’ Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion (MTEA). Unfor­tu­nate­ly, that spring upris­ing, although mas­sive and inspi­ra­tional, was not strong enough to stop Gov. Walk­er from enact­ing the most dra­con­ian anti-pub­lic sec­tor labor law in the nation.

That law, known as Act 10, received sup­port from the Koch broth­ers and a cabal of nation­al right-wing fun­ders and orga­ni­za­tions. It was imposed on all pub­lic sec­tor work­ers except the police and fire­fight­er unions that endorsed Walk­er and whose mem­bers are pre­dom­i­nant­ly white and male.

Act 10 took away vir­tu­al­ly all col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights, includ­ing the right to arbi­tra­tion. It left intact only the right to bar­gain base-wage increas­es up to the cost of liv­ing. The new law pro­hib­it­ed agency shops,” in which all employ­ees of a bar­gain­ing unit pay union dues. It also pro­hib­it­ed pay­roll deduc­tion of dues. It imposed an unprece­dent­ed annu­al recer­ti­fi­ca­tion require­ment on pub­lic sec­tor unions, requir­ing a 51 per­cent (not 50 per­cent plus one) vote of all eli­gi­ble employ­ees, count­ing any­one who does not vote as a no.” Using those cri­te­ria, Walk­er would nev­er have been elected.

Imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing Act 10, Walk­er and the Repub­li­can-dom­i­nat­ed state leg­is­la­ture made the largest cuts to pub­lic edu­ca­tion of any state in the nation and ger­ry­man­dered state leg­isla­tive dis­tricts to priv­i­lege con­ser­v­a­tive, white-pop­u­lat­ed areas of the state.

Hav­ing dec­i­mat­ed labor law and defund­ed pub­lic edu­ca­tion, Walk­er pro­ceed­ed to expand statewide the pri­vate school vouch­er pro­gram that has wreaked hav­oc on Mil­wau­kee, and enact­ed one of the nation’s most gen­er­ous income tax deduc­tions for pri­vate school tuition.

Under these con­di­tions, pub­lic sec­tor union mem­ber­ship has plum­met­ed, staff has been reduced, and resources to lob­by, orga­nize, and influ­ence elec­tions have shrunk.

Peo­ple famil­iar with Wisconsin’s pro­gres­sive his­to­ry — in 1959, for exam­ple, we were the first state to legal­ize col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing for pub­lic sec­tor work­ers — find these events star­tling. And they should. If it hap­pened in Wis­con­sin, it could hap­pen anywhere.

And it has. In New Orleans, fol­low­ing Kat­ri­na, union­ized teach­ers were fired and the entire sys­tem char­ter­ized. Fol­low­ing Wisconsin’s lead, Ten­nessee abol­ished the right for teach­ers to bar­gain col­lec­tive­ly. In Philadel­phia, the School Reform Com­mis­sion uni­lat­er­al­ly can­celed its expired con­tract with the teacher union. In city after city, pri­vate­ly run char­ter schools are dom­i­nat­ing the edu­ca­tion landscape.

For­tu­nate­ly, teacher union activists across the coun­try are revi­tal­iz­ing their unions and stand­ing up to these relent­less attacks. And this grow­ing trans­for­ma­tion of the teach­ers’ union move­ment may well be the most impor­tant force in our nation to defend and improve pub­lic schools and, in so doing, defend and improve our com­mu­ni­ties and what’s left of our demo­c­ra­t­ic institutions.

The revi­tal­iza­tion builds on the strengths of tra­di­tion­al bread and but­ter” union­ism. But it rec­og­nizes that our future depends on redefin­ing union­ism from a nar­row trade union mod­el, focused almost exclu­sive­ly on pro­tect­ing union mem­bers, to a broad­er vision that sees the future of union­ized work­ers tied direct­ly to the inter­ests of the entire work­ing class and the com­mu­ni­ties, par­tic­u­lar­ly com­mu­ni­ties of col­or, in which we live and work.

This is a sea change for teacher unions (and oth­er unions, too). But it’s not an easy one to make. It requires con­fronting racist atti­tudes and past prac­tices that have mar­gin­al­ized peo­ple of col­or both inside and out­side unions. It also means over­com­ing old habits and stag­nant orga­ni­za­tion­al struc­tures that weigh down efforts to expand inter­nal democ­ra­cy and mem­ber engagement.

From Bread and But­ter to Social Justice

The MTEA is a mem­ber of the Nation­al Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion (NEA), which has a long his­to­ry of being staff-dom­i­nat­ed. In some locals, elect­ed pres­i­dents were (and still are) just fig­ure­heads. Allan West, a nation­al NEA staff mem­ber, memo­ri­al­ized this staff-run union approach in a wide­ly dis­trib­uted 1965 speech. Accord­ing to West, the exec­u­tive direc­tor was the one who should be the pub­lic spokesper­son, devel­op agen­das for elect­ed exec­u­tive boards, and direct most of the union’s affairs. This pow­er struc­ture was writ­ten into our local’s con­sti­tu­tion, and it had pro­found con­se­quences. When a mem­ber of a pro­gres­sive rank-and-file cau­cus in Mil­wau­kee was elect­ed pres­i­dent in 1991, for exam­ple, it took him six months just to get a key to the office. For near­ly a decade we pushed for a full-time release pres­i­dent, a pro­pos­al resist­ed by most pro­fes­sion­al staff.

Mean­while, by the late 1980s and into the 90s, teacher activists in Mil­wau­kee were con­nect­ing with oth­er rank-and-file teacher union activists through Rethink­ing Schools and the new­ly formed Nation­al Coali­tion of Edu­ca­tion Activists (NCEA). In 1994, 29 teach­ers’ union activists from both the NEA and the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers (AFT) met at the Port­land, Ore­gon, NCEA con­fer­ence and issued a state­ment: Social Jus­tice Union­ism: A Work­ing Draft” (see side­bar, p. 18).

Social jus­tice union­ism is an orga­niz­ing mod­el that calls for a rad­i­cal boost in inter­nal union democ­ra­cy and increased mem­ber par­tic­i­pa­tion. This con­trasts to a busi­ness mod­el that is so depen­dent on staff pro­vid­ing ser­vices that it dis­em­pow­ers mem­bers and con­cen­trates pow­er in the hands of a small group of elect­ed lead­ers and/​or paid staff. An orga­niz­ing mod­el, while still pro­vid­ing ser­vices to mem­bers, focus­es on build­ing union pow­er at the school lev­el in alliance with par­ents, com­mu­ni­ty groups, and oth­er social movements.

Three com­po­nents of social jus­tice union­ism are like the legs of a stool. Unions need all three to be bal­anced and strong:

  • We orga­nize around bread and but­ter issues.
  • We orga­nize around teach­ing and learn­ing issues to reclaim our pro­fes­sion and our classrooms. 
  • We orga­nize for social jus­tice in our com­mu­ni­ty and in our curriculum.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, few pub­lic sec­tor unions in Wis­con­sin adopt­ed this mod­el of union­ism. As long as we had an agency shop and could pro­tect our mem­bers’ com­pen­sa­tion and ben­e­fits, most mem­bers were happy.

We are now pay­ing the price for defin­ing our unions as con­tract bar­gain­ers and enforcers. Today, when we try to sign up mem­bers, many are aware that our col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights have been severe­ly lim­it­ed. Often they respond, Why should I join?” Oth­ers think we don’t even exist, as our iden­ti­ty has been so tight­ly woven to the contract.

Trans­form­ing a Local

Our chal­lenge in Mil­wau­kee was to trans­form a staff-dom­i­nat­ed, busi­ness/ser­vice-style teach­ers’ union into some­thing quite dif­fer­ent. The local had focused nar­row­ly on con­tract bar­gain­ing and enforce­ment, with the staff play­ing the role of insur­ance agents who would inter­vene on mem­bers’ behalf to solve their prob­lems — instead of help­ing mem­bers orga­nize to solve their own prob­lems. It was a code­pen­dent rela­tion­ship — mem­bers didn’t have to do much more than make a call to have their prob­lems tak­en care of, and staff didn’t have to go out to do the hard work of orga­niz­ing mem­bers, except for occa­sion­al mobi­liza­tions at con­tract time. The impor­tance of parent/​community alliances was down­played, and the union took the atti­tude that it was not their respon­si­bil­i­ty — but rather the administration’s — to ensure qual­i­ty education.

A few years before I was elect­ed MTEA pres­i­dent, our local’s lead­er­ship agreed that the three legs of social jus­tice union­ism should guide our work. But it’s eas­i­er to agree to a prin­ci­ple than to change old habits and put new ideas into practice.

So when I stepped in as pres­i­dent of our local, the pro­fes­sion­al staff was hos­tile to the orga­niz­ing, mem­ber-dri­ven approach on which I was elect­ed. I was exclud­ed from most staff meet­ings and only saw the union newslet­ter after the staff had sent it to the print­er. The 22-mem­ber elect­ed exec­u­tive board was split. There was a slim pro­gres­sive major­i­ty, includ­ing sev­er­al peo­ple who were elect­ed at the same time as I was. A few peo­ple were allied with the old staff through friend­ship; oth­ers were scared of any change because of the uncer­tain­ties foment­ed by Act 10.

With­in four months, oth­er lead­ers and I ini­ti­at­ed a cam­paign to reimag­ine” our union to make it more demo­c­ra­t­ic and par­tic­i­pa­to­ry, based on a vision of social jus­tice union­ism. Key ele­ments of our local’s reimag­ine” cam­paign and our sub­se­quent work include:

  1. Build­ing strong ties and coali­tions with par­ent, com­mu­ni­ty, and civic orga­ni­za­tions, not only on edu­ca­tion­al issues, but also on broad­er issues of com­mu­ni­ty concern. 
  2. Replac­ing col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing with col­lec­tive action. With col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing lim­it­ed to only base wages, we put more empha­sis on orga­niz­ing mem­bers to appear en masse at school board meet­ings, to lob­by indi­vid­ual school board mem­bers, and to enlist par­ents and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers to do the same. One of our ear­li­est vic­to­ries was secur­ing an extra $5/​hour (after the first hour) for edu­ca­tion­al assis­tants when they cov­er” a teacher’s classroom.
  3. Build­ing our union’s capac­i­ty to reclaim our pro­fes­sion by becom­ing the lead­ing edu­ca­tion orga­ni­za­tion in the city and con­sis­tent­ly pro­mot­ing cul­tur­al­ly respon­sive, social jus­tice teaching.
  4. Trans­form­ing the inter­nal dynam­ics with­in our orga­ni­za­tion to increase mem­ber and leader par­tic­i­pa­tion, change the role of pro­fes­sion­al staff, over­haul our com­mu­ni­ca­tions with and among mem­bers, and encour­age mem­bers to lead our work.

To help make this work pos­si­ble, with­in six months the elect­ed lead­er­ship decid­ed to release two teach­ers to be orga­niz­ers; three months lat­er we added two addi­tion­al released teach­ers to head up a new teach­ing and learn­ing depart­ment. Even­tu­al­ly we also released an edu­ca­tion­al assis­tant orga­niz­er. A year after my elec­tion, we amend­ed the con­sti­tu­tion to shift cer­tain pow­ers from the staff to the elect­ed lead­er­ship. A few months lat­er, we bar­gained a staff con­tract that encour­aged the pro­fes­sion­al staff that didn’t want to adapt to a new orga­niz­ing vision to leave. All but one left. Our new pro­fes­sion­al staff is com­mit­ted to a broad­er vision of union­ism with an empha­sis on organizing.

We did this all in an increas­ing­ly hos­tile, anti-labor, and anti-pub­lic school envi­ron­ment. State bud­get cuts caused sub­stan­tial lay­offs. Our mas­sive mobi­liza­tion of mem­bers and allies to recall Walk­er failed because Walk­er out­spent his Demo­c­ra­t­ic oppo­nent sev­en to one, and con­vinced vast swaths of the white work­ing class to vote their prej­u­dice, not their class inter­ests. We don’t want Wis­con­sin to become anoth­er Mil­wau­kee,” Walk­er said.

Social Jus­tice — Root­ed in Alliances

The strength of the Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU) 2012 strike, under the lead­er­ship of Karen Lewis, rest­ed in large part on their mem­bers’ con­nec­tions to par­ent and com­mu­ni­ty groups. In two oth­er cities — Port­land, Ore­gon, and St. Paul, Min­neso­ta — the unions put forth a vision of the schools our chil­dren deserve” pat­terned after a ground­break­ing doc­u­ment by the CTU. Their joint edu­ca­tor-com­mu­ni­ty mobi­liza­tions were key fac­tors in forc­ing the local school dis­tricts to set­tle on con­tracts before a strike.

In Mil­wau­kee, our main coali­tion work has been build­ing Schools and Com­mu­ni­ties Unit­ed, a broad coali­tion of near­ly two dozen edu­ca­tion and non-edu­ca­tion groups that fights against school pri­va­ti­za­tion and for con­crete edu­ca­tion­al improve­ments with­in the pub­lic schools.

The coali­tion grew out of an ear­li­er group, the Coali­tion to Stop the MPS Takeover, that — with allies on the school board and state leg­is­la­ture — suc­cess­ful­ly fought a Democ­rats for Edu­ca­tion Reform attempt to get rid of the demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly elect­ed Mil­wau­kee school board. Three years after that fight, the MTEA helped revive the coali­tion in order to fight the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mil­wau­kee Asso­ci­a­tion of Commerce’s leg­isla­tive plan to turn Mil­wau­kee into a New Orleans-style recov­ery zone.

As we orga­nized press con­fer­ences, pick­et lines, and lob­by days, we real­ized we need­ed a more for­mal orga­ni­za­tion­al struc­ture and a broad­er pur­pose. We want­ed to move past react­ing, being on the defen­sive, and appear­ing to be only against things. After some intense plan­ning ses­sions, we renamed our­selves, cre­at­ed short- and long-term plans, and for­mal­ized orga­ni­za­tion­al membership.

Key to the coalition’s renew­al was the devel­op­ment of a 32-page book­let, Ful­fill the Promise: The Schools and Com­mu­ni­ties Our Chil­dren Deserve. Build­ing on the work of the CTU, our doc­u­ment address­es school issues and adds con­cerns of the broad­er com­mu­ni­ty beyond the school­house door. Specif­i­cal­ly, we cri­tique the return of the New Jim Crow” to Mil­wau­kee. The 19 groups issu­ing Ful­fill the Promise includ­ed the NAACP, Voces de la Fron­tera, Cen­tro His­pano, ACLU, Mil­wau­kee Inner City Con­gre­ga­tions Allied for Hope, Par­ents for Pub­lic Schools, Insti­tute for Wisconsin’s Future, Wis­con­sin Jobs Now, 9to5, Youth Empow­ered in the Strug­gle, and AFT and NEA locals.

We released the doc­u­ment and eight-page sum­maries in Eng­lish and Span­ish on May 17, 2014, the 60th anniver­sary of the Brown vs. Board of Edu­ca­tion deci­sion. A march, pro­gram, and net­work­ing ses­sion attract­ed more than 500 peo­ple and put our coali­tion on the map.

Cur­rent­ly the coalition’s three com­mit­tees focus on fight­ing school pri­va­ti­za­tion, pro­mot­ing com­mu­ni­ty schools, and sup­port­ing pro­gres­sive leg­is­la­tion. We are part of a nation­al com­mu­ni­ty schools move­ment that sees schools as hubs for social and health sup­port, not only for the stu­dents of the school but also for their fam­i­lies and the sur­round­ing com­mu­ni­ty. The mod­el seeks to build strong com­mu­ni­ty-school ties and help empow­er par­ents and com­mu­ni­ty activists.

The coali­tion work is dif­fi­cult. All par­tic­i­pants have oth­er orga­ni­za­tion­al pri­or­i­ties, mak­ing meet­ings and com­mu­ni­ca­tion a chal­lenge. As we broad­en the coali­tion, dif­fer­ences in strate­gies and pri­or­i­ties emerge. This work reminds me of the words of activist/​musician Ber­nice John­son Reagon, of Sweet Hon­ey in the Rock: If you are in a coali­tion and you are com­fort­able, that coali­tion is not broad enough.”

Dif­fer­ences emerge in var­i­ous ways. For exam­ple, as we’ve dis­cussed how schools need to improve, some com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers believe that a strong phon­ics empha­sis will solve read­ing prob­lems. Oth­ers see forced adher­ence to a rigid basal read­ing pro­gram that down­plays lit­er­a­ture as a key cul­prit. One way we have sought to bring such diver­gent per­spec­tives togeth­er is by focus­ing on proven prac­tices that we can all agree on — such as devel­op­men­tal­ly appro­pri­ate prac­tices at the ear­ly child­hood level.

In line with our reimag­ine cam­paign, we’ve worked hard to build coali­tions beyond those focused on edu­ca­tion. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, for years the MTEA’s main coali­tion work was with the police and fire­fight­er unions to get rid of a city res­i­den­cy require­ment. This did not sit well with the com­mu­ni­ties of col­or we serve. In con­trast, in the past three years, the MTEA has been a strong sup­port­er of Voces de la Fron­tera and their youth group, Youth Empow­ered in the Strug­gle, stand­ing with them for immi­grant rights, for in-state tuition for undoc­u­ment­ed high school grad­u­ates, and in sol­i­dar­i­ty with a long strike by immi­grant work­ers at Palermo’s Piz­za. We have sup­port­ed a vari­ety of oth­er com­mu­ni­ty issues, includ­ing rais­ing the min­i­mum wage, paid sick days, expand­ing health­care cov­er­age, vot­er rights, incar­cer­a­tion reform, and stop­ping unfair hir­ing prac­tices at a major fed­er­al hous­ing project. Our sup­port ranges from finan­cial aid to street protests, press con­fer­ences, lob­by­ing, pick­et lines, and elec­toral work.

Although coali­tion work is essen­tial for build­ing mutu­al trust and cre­at­ing sus­tain­able social move­ments, its suc­cess will ulti­mate­ly depend on our capac­i­ty to involve sig­nif­i­cant num­bers of rank-and-file and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers in coali­tion activ­i­ties that direct­ly affect their lives.

Reclaim­ing Our Profession

Anoth­er essen­tial path­way to a revi­tal­ized teach­ers’ union move­ment is orga­niz­ing our mem­bers to be lead­ers on all K – 12 edu­ca­tion­al issues. Although some locals have tak­en on the hard issues of teacher eval­u­a­tion through peer assis­tance and review pro­grams, that is only the beginning.

For us, this has meant mak­ing sure new teacher ori­en­ta­tion and men­tor­ing are avail­able and of high qual­i­ty. It also has meant work­ing to sus­tain the qual­i­ty teacher eval­u­a­tion and men­tor­ing pro­gram that was in our con­tract before it end­ed under Act 10. I tell my mem­bers that if there is a class­room down the hall or a school down the street that you would not send your own child to, then we have work to do.

In the past, too often union activists ignored cur­ric­u­lar issues, dis­miss­ing them as the administration’s respon­si­bil­i­ties. We failed to make sure prac­tic­ing class­room teach­ers were inti­mate­ly involved in edu­ca­tion­al inno­va­tions and ini­tia­tives. We need to become the go-to” orga­ni­za­tions in our com­mu­ni­ties on issues rang­ing from teacher devel­op­ment to anti-racist edu­ca­tion to qual­i­ty assessments.

At the MTEA, this has required a change in some of our pri­or­i­ties and rearrange­ment of resources. Our two full-time release direc­tors of teach­ing and learn­ing play a key role in this work. Soon after becom­ing pres­i­dent, I pro­posed that we set up a non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tion, the Mil­wau­kee Cen­ter for Teach­ing, Learn­ing, and Pub­lic Edu­ca­tion. The cen­ter focus­es most of its atten­tion on teach­ing and learn­ing issues, but also pro­motes pub­lic edu­ca­tion among par­ents and the com­mu­ni­ty. It has a pro-pub­lic school can­vass­ing pro­gram, fund­ed by the school dis­trict, that goes door to door, encour­ag­ing par­ents to send their chil­dren to the Mil­wau­kee Pub­lic Schools (MPS).

Our teach­ing and learn­ing work has focused on reclaim­ing our pro­fes­sion in three pri­ma­ry ways:

  1. We pro­vide pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment and ser­vices to our members.
  2. We advocate/​organize around spe­cif­ic demands to reclaim our class­rooms and our profession.
  3. We part­ner with the MPS admin­is­tra­tion through labor/​management com­mit­tees to ensure max­i­mum suc­cess of dis­trict ini­tia­tives and practices.

For years, many mem­bers viewed our union office (if they knew where it was) as a place to go if you were in trou­ble” or had a ques­tion about insur­ance or retire­ment. A scat­ter­ing of mem­bers attend­ed com­mit­tee meet­ings. Now our offices are bustling with mul­ti­ple com­mit­tee meet­ings, inser­vice train­ings, book cir­cles (for col­lege cred­it), and indi­vid­ual help ses­sions on pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment plans or licen­sure issues. Recent­ly, when the dis­trict failed to pro­vide qual­i­ty inser­vice train­ing on stu­dent learn­ing objec­tives that are a man­dat­ed part of the new state teacher eval­u­a­tion sys­tem, we offered work­shops that drew 150 teach­ers at a time. We had to sched­ule addi­tion­al work­shops once word spread. More teach­ers were con­vinced to join our union, too, because our teach­ing and learn­ing ser­vices are only open to members.

Anoth­er exam­ple of our suc­cess in reclaim­ing our pro­fes­sion is in the area of ear­ly child­hood edu­ca­tion, where our teach­ers have been very active. Work­ing with allies on the school board and in the com­mu­ni­ty, we used col­lec­tive action at board meet­ings and hear­ings, and our con­nec­tions to par­ent and uni­ver­si­ty part­ners to con­vince the MPS admin­is­tra­tion and entire school board to man­date 45 min­utes of unin­ter­rupt­ed play in 4- and 5‑year-old kinder­garten class­es. We also won a stag­gered start for all kinder­gartens: one third of each class attends on three sep­a­rate days at the begin­ning of the year so that teach­ers, stu­dents, and par­ents can build bet­ter con­nec­tions from day one.

Our bilingual/​English lan­guage learn­er com­mit­tee, which holds its meet­ing in the heart of the Latina/​o com­mu­ni­ty, includes teach­ers, com­mu­ni­ty activists, and par­ents. We have tak­en up a broad range of issues and mobi­liza­tions, includ­ing con­vinc­ing the school board to sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly expand bilin­gual edu­ca­tion pro­grams through­out the district.

At the school lev­el, union activists have worked close­ly with par­ents in two key areas: school-based can­vass­ing around issues and pro-edu­ca­tion can­di­dates, and orga­niz­ing to remove inef­fec­tive principals.

But we have a long way to go; at times it feels like a los­ing bat­tle. Each year more teach­ing and plan­ning time is stolen from teach­ers by new ini­tia­tives and man­dates, most of which are linked to tech­nol­o­gy, tests, and stan­dards. New teach­ers are learn­ing to define teach­ing as data col­lec­tion and more data col­lec­tion. The heavy work­load imposed on all teach­ers shrinks the time and ener­gy they can ded­i­cate to being union activists.

With the pletho­ra of fed­er­al and state man­dates and the data­ti­za­tion of our cul­ture, even the best-inten­tioned school boards and prin­ci­pals balk at pro­mot­ing poli­cies that sup­port the craft of teaching.

It’s clear to me that what is nec­es­sary is a nation­al move­ment led by activists at the local, state, and nation­al lev­els with­in the AFT and NEA — in alliance with par­ents, stu­dents, and com­mu­ni­ty groups — to take back our class­rooms and our profession.

Pro­mot­ing Social Jus­tice Teaching

A key, but less talked about, aspect of social jus­tice union­ism is pro­mot­ing social jus­tice con­tent in our cur­ricu­lum. We need to fight for cur­ricu­lum that is anti-racist, pro-jus­tice and that pre­pares our stu­dents for the civic and eco­log­i­cal chal­lenges ahead.

It’s impor­tant for teacher unions to pro­mote social jus­tice in the class­room for two main rea­sons: First, it edu­cates stu­dents — the future mem­bers of soci­ety — in how to be active, crit­i­cal par­tic­i­pants in that soci­ety. Sec­ond, it edu­cates teach­ers. Too many teach­ers don’t know the real people’s his­to­ry of our nation. And that includes labor his­to­ry. Many years ago, I inter­viewed the late his­to­ri­an Howard Zinn, who said, Teach­ers not only need to be strong union­ists, but they have to be teach­ers of union­ism.” The more suc­cess­ful we are in pro­mot­ing social jus­tice teach­ing among our mem­bers, the greater will be their capac­i­ty and will­ing­ness to be active in our broad­er polit­i­cal campaigns.

To that end, we have host­ed work­shops and oth­er activ­i­ties. For exam­ple, our book cir­cles have read Lisa Delpit’s Mul­ti­pli­ca­tion Is for White Peo­ple. Teacher advi­sors to Youth Empow­ered in the Strug­gle par­tic­i­pat­ed in a role play work­shop on the U.S.-Mexican border.

Pro­mot­ing social jus­tice teach­ing also includes orga­niz­ing against its oppo­site — reac­tionary cur­ricu­lum poli­cies and stan­dards pro­mot­ed by school boards, state text­book adop­tion com­mit­tees, or pub­licly fund­ed vouch­er or pri­vate­ly run char­ter schools.

A Final Challenge

With the Wis­con­sin state leg­is­la­ture dom­i­nat­ed by right-wing Repub­li­cans wait­ing to use any per­ceived or real weak­ness in pub­lic schools as an excuse to accel­er­ate their school pri­va­ti­za­tion schemes, we must pro­ceed with cau­tion in our pub­lic crit­i­cism of and orga­niz­ing around school dis­trict policies.

On the one hand, we need to fight to improve our pub­lic schools by orga­niz­ing our mem­bers and allies to speak out against a vari­ety of prob­lems, includ­ing poor­ly rolled-out ini­tia­tives; large class sizes; lack of music, art, phys­i­cal edu­ca­tion, coun­selors, and librar­i­ans; restric­tive cur­ricu­lum man­dates; and rogue prin­ci­pals. On the oth­er hand, speak­ing out can play into the hands of the pri­va­tiz­ers as they seek to expand pri­vate­ly run char­ters in what is already the nation’s largest pub­licly fund­ed pri­vate school vouch­er program.

This dilem­ma forces us to care­ful­ly con­sid­er our approach at the dis­trict lev­el. We use a vari­ety of tac­tics, includ­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion on labor/​management com­mit­tees, lob­by­ing school board mem­bers, and bal­anc­ing mass mobi­liza­tions with the threat of mass mobi­liza­tions. In the end, we rec­og­nize a key ele­ment in fight­ing pri­va­ti­za­tion is to improve our pub­lic schools.

A Social Move­ment for Edu­ca­tion­al Justice

And that’s a hard thing to do in face of the cor­po­rate shit storm that has engulfed much of pub­lic edu­ca­tion over the past few decades. But, just as I have been amazed at the resilience of some of my most belea­guered stu­dents, so, too, am I heart­ened by the increas­ing num­ber of teacher, stu­dent, and com­mu­ni­ty activists orga­niz­ing for edu­ca­tion­al jus­tice.
Rank-and-file union mem­bers and grow­ing num­bers of union lead­ers rec­og­nize the need for new approach­es to fight attacks on pub­lic schools and our pro­fes­sion. In addi­tion to the work in Mil­wau­kee, Chica­go, Port­land, and St. Paul, rank-and-file cau­cus­es and local lead­ers in many areas of the coun­try are hav­ing increased suc­cess mov­ing their unions toward a social jus­tice, mem­ber-based stance.

In Los Ange­les, an activist cau­cus, Union Pow­er, won lead­er­ship of the Unit­ed Teach­ers Los Ange­les, the sec­ond largest teacher local in the coun­try. The Union Pow­er slate, head­ed by Alex Caputo-Pearl, has an orga­niz­ing vision for their union. They have worked with par­ents fight­ing school cuts and rec­og­nize the impor­tance of teacher-com­mu­ni­ty alliances.

In Mass­a­chu­setts, Bar­bara Made­loni, a leader of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts EdT­PA boy­cott (see Stanford/​Pearson Test for New Teach­ers Draws Fire,” win­ter 2012 – 13), was elect­ed pres­i­dent of the Mass­a­chu­setts Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion last May. She ran with the Edu­ca­tors for a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Union cau­cus and promis­es to mobi­lize teach­ers in the strug­gle against high-stakes stan­dard­ized testing.

On the nation­al lev­el, the sen­ti­ments and actions of mem­bers attend­ing recent AFT and NEA con­ven­tions are more mil­i­tant and focused on build­ing orga­niz­ing capac­i­ty inter­nal­ly and in alliance with oth­er groups to fight the cor­po­rate reform­ers, obses­sive test­ing, and pri­va­ti­za­tion. The nation­al days of action” of the recent­ly formed Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools have encour­aged locals to build com­mu­ni­ty coali­tions and take an activist approach to fight­ing pri­va­ti­za­tion and pro­mot­ing pub­lic school-based improvements.

Will it be enough, soon enough? Will unions be able to trans­form them­selves to go beyond their past lim­i­ta­tions, reclaim our pro­fes­sion, and par­tic­i­pate in the broad­er social jus­tice move­ments? Will pro­gres­sive union lead­er­ship and cau­cus­es be able to con­vince recal­ci­trant mem­bers and staff stuck in an unten­able past?

Those are the ques­tions activists will answer in the next few years as we orga­nize for social jus­tice in our class­rooms, our schools, our unions, and our communities. 

This arti­cle first appeared in the Win­ter 2014/2015 issue of Rethink­ing Schools.

Bob Peter­son (bob.​e.​peterson@​gmail.​com), a 5th-grade teacher in the Mil­wau­kee Pub­lic Schools, is cur­rent­ly pres­i­dent of the Mil­wau­kee Teach­ers’ Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion. With Michael Char­ney, he co-edit­ed Trans­form­ing Teacher Unions: Fight­ing for Bet­ter Schools and Social Jus­tice (Rethink­ing Schools, 1999).
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