A tool to rebuild our teachers’ unions

January 4, 2013

Rhode Island teacher Brian Chidester reviews a new book that documents the assault on public education--and the struggle of teachers to resist it.

"IT'S IMPORTANT to say, loudly, that the potential of teachers' unions is not being realized and that they need to be transformed."

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten must have missed that line when she tweeted: "Gr8 review of gr8 book."@AnthonyCody: Lois Weiner's new book: The Future of Our Schools; Teacher Unions & Social Justice." Weingarten is the inheritor and enthusiastic promoter of the model of top-down business unionism that has made teachers' unions into willing collaborators with their enemies.

But Weingarten was right about Lois Weiner's The Future of Our Schools: Teachers Unions and Social Justice. It's a fantastic book and an indispensable tool for anyone who wants to fight against the corporate-led attack on our public schools. Every group of teachers' union and public education activists should study and discuss this book.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part is essentially a overview for activists, describing the lay of the land in public education in the era of Barack Obama's Race to the Top law. The second part is comprised of articles Weiner wrote for the journal New Politics over the past four decades, each one illuminating a key point made in the first part of the book.

Chicago teachers march with supporters during their strike to defend quality public schools
Chicago teachers march with supporters during their strike to defend quality public schools

Weiner begins with an analysis of the roots of the current assault on public education--an economic and political model shared by the elites of the world, including privatization schemes, attacks on unions and the reduction of wages globally, summed up in the term "neoliberalism." As she puts it:

Minimally educated workers need only minimally educated teachers. Oversight of lowered expectations for educational outcomes can be achieved through the use of standardized testing. Therefore, a well-educated (and well-paid) teaching force, it is argued by elites establishing educational policy, is a waste of scarce public money.

The fight is not simply economic, but also ideological, Weiner writes: "By insisting that education is the key to ending poverty, politicians avoid taking on the fight for economic policies the country desperately needs." Conclusion: the fight for public education is a fight for all the priorities of the working class against the 1 percent. This is precisely how the corporate "reform" agenda--and resistance to it--can galvanize a broader movement for the transformation of the whole of our society:

As Weiner explains:

Teachers have the potential to affect social arrangements, challenging the authority of elites who have an interest in maintaining their own power and privilege. While all labor unions--all citizens!--have a stake in promoting and protecting teachers' ability to educate students who can think for themselves, a union of teachers has a particular responsibility to safeguard teachers' rights to help students think critically.

Weiner then turns her attention to the main vehicle through which teachers can change the system: their unions. This may be counterintuitive to many readers. Aren't the teachers' unions selfish and greedy? Aren't they concerned with their members' rights, as against those of students and parents? From another angle, critics will ask: Isn't it the teachers' unions that have agreed to such major attacks on teachers as Race to the Top?

The root of these concerns is the business union model that has been the modus operandi of both major teachers' unions for decades. In this model, the focus is narrowly on "bread and butter" issues. The union sees itself as insular, fighting for its members, often against the interests of parents and students. The fundamental problem here is that it pits teachers against their natural allies--parents, students and the community--to the benefit of the wealthy, who now pay less in taxes for the schools than ever.

Another result of this model is a not-so-benign indifference to questions of social justice. One of the most challenging--and heartbreaking--chapters is on the Newark teachers' strikes in the early 1970s. The strikes against community control of schools pitted the white teaching force against the African American community, with African American teachers forced to choose a side--and generally, they did not choose the union. Weiner notes that the divisions created then are still visible today, even to people who know nothing of the history.

WHAT IS the alternative to this divisive and failed framework? Clearly, teachers' unions need to adopt a broader outlook, taking up not simply contract issues, but also questions of racism and poverty. This model is what many activists refer to as "social justice unionism," and it has gained a growing audience in the past several years. Weiner, however, goes beyond this model, advocating for "social movement unionism" as the alternative that can lead teachers in the struggle.

She explains:

I use the term "social movement" union rather than 'social justice' union...because I think "social movement" union addresses the need for unions' internal transformation, especially the need for union democracy. Social movement unionism gets at the relationship between the union's organization and its vision of social justice.

Democracy--real democracy from below--is the common thread in "social movement unionism" that ties the union not just to social movements, but to a vision for the transformation of itself, of the public schools and of the entire society.

But it's also a guideline for teacher union activists and reformers. Our role is to be the fighters for democracy throughout the union and beyond, even if our vision is not (yet) held by the majority. We do not have to win every argument, much less control our unions with a tight grip. Quite the opposite, as Weiner explains:

The ideal of social movement unionism relieves you from needing to know all the answers when you are elected to union office. Your job is to mobilize the membership and revitalize the union's organization so that members tell officers what to do.

The book was written just prior to the magnificent strike by Chicago teachers in September 2012, but it's clear from her remarks that Weiner was following the developments in the Chicago Teachers Union (and others) very closely. In the final chapter on "Teacher Unionism Reborn," Weiner chronicles the struggles of various new groups of reformers to take back their unions.

She ends the book with the optimistic claim about rank-and-file teachers: "The idea that they are the union is slowly percolating through the ranks, and increasingly, a new generation of teacher union activists is emerging."

Further Reading

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