New Book on Teachers’ Unions Offers Lessons for Today

Dan Beltaigne

Summary: How resentment of teachers’ unions was used by capital to weaken labor as a whole. Especially important in light of today’s mass strike by West Virginia teachers — Editors

This is an original work using a full array of contemporary and archival materials. A volume in the series, “The Working Class in American History,” published by the University of Illinois Press just this past year, Teacher Strike! illuminates how the liberal-labor coalition, created in the 1930s, unraveled with the wave of teacher strikes in the 1960s and 1970s. Jon Shelton, assistant professor at the Democracy and Justice Studies program at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay (UWGB) and board member of the Wisconsin Labor History Society, shows how this unravelling opened the door for the neoliberal onslaught that the institutions of American public education, in particular, and unions for public and government workers, in general, face today.

Issue centered, Shelton’s book also provides a nuanced backdrop to show how the public education system in this country became so important to its economic, social, and political infrastructure and became the focus of many of the battles that ultimately led to the dismantling of many of the social programs designed to help society’s more disadvantaged. Asserting that “this conflict over urban education in the form of teacher strikes in the late 1960s and 1970s represents an important part of the explanation for why many Americans lost faith in the twin pillars of labor-liberal policy,” Shelton goes on to argue that this very conflict “was instrumental in cleaving the labor-liberal coalition” (p. 2). What was cleaved away from this coalition were “many white working- and middle-class Americans and corporate interests—imagin[ing] themselves as the only legitimate, ‘productive’ contributors to society” (p. 2). An important element to this story—and not just as historical backdrop—was the economic downturn of the 1970s, which up to that time was the worst since the Great Depression.

As with all other organizations for social change, Shelton sees teachers’ unions as an important force for social progress. But in addition, Shelton points out the historical significance teachers’ unions have had on the advancement of public education. Crucial to understanding the impact the Civil Rights Movement had on all of society, including the labor movement, Shelton does not shy away from pointing out the contradictions within teachers’ unions, which ultimately led them into conflict with local community groups over issues such as community control of local schools. Perhaps the most famous case in point is New York City Teachers’ Strike of 1968. Here, the local teacher’s union went on strike against the local school district, Ocean Hill-Brownsville, over issues of lay-offs and reassignments and the due process rights involved in those procedures. The Ocean Hill-Brownsville local district was set up as an experiment in community control over local schools. Parents of this newly created local district demanded not only a racial composition of the teaching staff reflective of the student body but also teachers—black or white—who were committed to teaching black students. In the end, this mostly African American community lost its battle with this almost all-white teachers’ union. These two major political power blocs—unionized teachers and inner-city African American community organizations—instead of being able to come together as an important force for social progress—public education—were driven apart. A “victorious” teachers’ union proved to be no match for what was to come in 1975: deep recession and the unprecedented fiscal crisis in New York City. Crucial to understanding this development is chapter four of Shelton’s book, “Dropping Dead: Teachers, the New York City Fiscal Crisis, and Austerity.”

Shelton covers all of the most important teacher strikes leading up to the early 1980s: New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Washington, and St. Louis. While he focuses on the strikes, he also places them in the context of larger national narratives. In fact, this contextualization undergirds Shelton’s entire narrative, including his conclusion:

“Only by bringing together teachers of all backgrounds, a conscious feminist assault on gender inequality, a deeper critique of spatial inequality in the nation’s metropolitan areas, and a real commitment to ensuring that all children have access both to good schools and freedom from the chronic stress and hunger so often brought on by poverty will the classroom become a space that facilitates a fair chance at a secure and fulfilling life for everyone” (p. 198).

Such a conclusion, grounded in the past five decades of the many struggles to improve the public education in both primary and secondary schools of this nation, also offers perspectives for continuing this struggle into the future.

Perhaps the book’s greatest strength is Shelton’s approach to the broader subject matter—the socio-economic value of nationwide public education. Shelton not only shows the central role that public education has played in American society after World War II, but that that role itself became a center of an overall political debate that took hold in what is now called the “long 1970s.” As Shelton points out, that overall political debate, which was formulated then, is still with us today as big as life. Lastly, hinted at but never quite explicit is the always looming question of what constitutes the purpose of an education: Is it simply the training ground for the future work force of the nation, or is the school where the mind can develop to its full potential? This question, not quite posed and not at all answered, can, in the framework Shelton has constructed in his book, be put into a perspective that can offer the possibility of a wider and deeper dialogue—one that has long been neglected.

Several last thoughts: First, in a society wracked with inequality, such as this one, education has on many levels been both a virtue and a vice. To be sure, the interests of capitalism will always dictate the narrowest of purposes for education; characterizing slavery as an institution that had some benefits for slaves in our public-school history textbooks is yet another example of not only the breadth but the depths to which this battle must be fought to free public education from the confines of corporate interests. In recent years, the Republican Party, with its anti-labor policies, has been taking over state, local, and federal governing bodies, including boards of education. In response, teachers, students, and parents have been coming together, not only to fight these anti-labor trends but also to demand that education be a public good and an individual right, not simply a corporate tool to manipulate the working class.

Last year, we have witnessed a school teacher in Louisiana being arrested for questioning the president of the board of education for raising his own salary when teachers there have not seen a raise in at least ten years. Surely, in the coming days, we will find out that money is not the only issue in the case of this one school district in Louisiana. More recently, we have seen the state-wide teachers’ strike in West Virginia. Here it must be asked: How did things get so bad there?

Typically, as usually happens, issues of money have always represented something deeper in labor struggles, including those that take place in the realm of public education. Education, like freedom, has never been just a means to an end. In the end, like freedom, it is, it has, and it always will be an end in itself. In the final analysis, we, as a society, cannot allow our public education system to be converted into a venue for propaganda or reduced to providing only vocational skills to the masses at the behest of corporate interests. A democracy, should we choose to fight for it, can only thrive if all citizens have a right and access to the kind of education that makes for the individual a life worth living, and not just as a cog in the corporate machine.

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