Learning from the Teacher Walkouts

Milwaukee public school teachers, parents, students and supporters staging a large picket line outside MPS administration building. Image courtesy of Charles Edward Miller/Flickr.

The teacher walkouts in Spring 2018 displayed the powerful potential of teachers asserting the collective power and needs of workers.  What was game-changing in the “red state” walkouts was the prominence of ordinary women, as leaders and participants, especially elementary school teachers. The movement’s power was “women power.” While women teachers didn’t discuss gender on the Facebook pages and didn’t self-identify as feminists, and most who were interviewed at first denied that gender was a factor in their participation, many later changed their minds.  They saw many gender-related issues: who did housework and shopping for the family while teachers were protesting, the ways in which their work and intelligence were devalued by school administrators, and injustice in health care policies. They were ferociously protective of “their kids” (the term especially elementary school teachers use for their students). When West Virginia teachers made sure “free lunch” students were fed, they were continuing a communal sense of schooling and also reinforcing the psycho-social aspects of teaching, nurturing, traditionally the mother’s role.  Their participation in the walkouts brought #MeToo to teacher unionism.

The activists who led the mass walkouts and the teachers who participated dispelled the idea that only male work counts and that only men are workers. They affirmed that teaching is real work and teachers are real workers. Though women have long been essential in the workforce, their work has been discounted and devalued. This comes from the nature of the work they’ve done in what’s called the “semi-professions” – social work, teaching, nursing – and the denial that any work other than manufacturing production by the white, male, factory worker constitutes work and the working class.

The gendered reality of teaching is no accident. As David Tyack explains in The One Best System, his history of the creation of US public schools in the late 19th century, teaching, as “women’s true profession” – women being uniquely suited to nurturing work – was invented to provide white women with a respectable career (until they married), which factory and white collar work did not. Teaching had previously been temporary work, done by men, in rural schools. As the industrial revolution took hold, fueled by money that had been earned from slavery, the population boomed in cities as immigrants came for jobs. Newly expanded city school systems hired white women to teach in the elementary schools, at wages lower than men earned in the high schools, working under the supervision of white male school administrators. Racism, too, was inextricably embedded in the creation of public education and teaching. Teaching was one of the few careers open to black men with an education, and they, like black women, were restricted to teaching in segregated schools for black students.

Understanding the mass teacher walkouts requires understanding the regressive transformation of public education and teachers’ work over the past forty years. The aim has been to destroy the “one best system,” or as Chester Finn described it, to “blow up” the school system. While “the one best system” educated most workers for factory jobs being created at a breakneck pace (and a few for jobs requiring high school and college), contemporary captains of industry and capitalism have pushed “reforms” that reduce public schooling to vocational education of a different sort: producing workers who are easily replaceable by robots and will compete for jobs easily “outsourced” to the country with the worst conditions and pay. Accordingly, public education doesn’t need to be well-funded and teachers for most kids need only be “good enough,” to follow scripted materials that prepare students for standardized tests that are the de facto course of study. Despite claims that the reforms will increase educational opportunity, the reality is contradicted by the outcomes: low-income students of color are being “pushed out” of schools through school closings, inferior charter schools, and punitive disciplinary policies, that manifests in the notorious “school to prison pipeline.”

The other key element in this project to destroy public education is privatizing and commercializing schools.  Education is the last sector of the economy that is still mainly “owned” by the public. The powerful elites (who contribute to both political parties – this has been a bipartisan effort) see public education as a “monopoly” that must be smashed so that for-profit companies can have access to the education “market.” Despite their problems, teachers’ unions have been the main impediment to the full realization of this project. The unions and teachers have thus been subject to a sustained assault. But, as we saw in the strike of the reformed Chicago Teachers Union in 2012 and again in the Spring 2018 statewide walkouts, teachers – particularly women – are not giving up their professional ideals without a struggle.

Unions and Union Democracy

Still, the role of the unions has not been what it could and should be. It’s important to understand that the very factors that make unions stable and potentially powerful also weaken them. As I explain more fully in The Future of Our Schools. Teachers Unions and Social Justice, (Haymarket, 2012), neither unions as organizations nor union members as individuals are immune to prejudices like racism and sexism, that infect a society, even when these prejudices contradict the union’s premises of equality in the workplace

Further, union bureaucracies can discourage members’ sense of their own agency. In states that have collective bargaining rights for teachers, contracts may offer some protection but they are very complex documents, and the staff's specialized knowledge and skills in negotiating and enforcing contracts can encourage members' passivity. In states that have no collective bargaining rights, the unions have become marginal, or as teachers in both blue and red states often put it, “irrelevant” to their work. Moreover, the unions have presumed that they should resemble a business, servicing members’ needs – as defined by staff or elected officers.  And like businesses, the unions lobby and officers establish comfortable relations with political friends, who are asked to deliver economic gains for members. In the “red states” the walkouts were organized from below, by rank and file teachers who banded together, learned from one another, and gave one another courage to act together. The official union organizations represented only a handful of teachers and were, at best, bystanders. While individual teachers and school workers who were union members were able to use union resources, the union apparatus did little to help and at times actually hurt the movement by brokering deals with legislators behind the backs of the activist teacher groups.

Union democracy is essential to transforming how unions operate, making them live up to their political and social potential. When unions insist that what counts is winning more for current members, rather than seeing members’ needs as inextricably bound to the fate of those who are most vulnerable, they establish a hierarchy of human needs that is inaccurate and self-defeating. Even progressive unions and radical leaders feel pressure to narrow the union's focus, take up "bread and butter" issues that may be more popular with many members than social justice concerns.

Deep, thorough union democracy certainly depends on norms and procedures that protect formal rights – absent in many unions. But democracy also depends on members understanding that they are the union, and have the right and responsibility to be part of an organization and movement that puts individual needs in the context of a more equal, just society. When unions are not democratic, even if they fight for social justice, they inadvertently perpetuate hierarchical relations that disempower working people and deepen the marginalization of those who already have less power and voice. This allows bigotry, racism, and patriarchal oppression to remain embedded in social relations in and out of the workplace. Undemocratic unions cannot educate workers to create a democratic society because the substance of union life reinforces workers’ subordination to others who (purportedly) know best for them. And most often those others come from social groups with more power and privilege.

The Challenges of Activism and Changing Consciousness

Often forms of social oppression are so taken-for-granted, and so normalized, that we don’t see the underlying inequality or injustice. The rise of new social movements, such as the teacher walkouts, educate us about forms of discrimination to which we’ve been blind. Similarly, while social movements most often start with a focus on a single injustice, in the course of struggle and the need to find allies and solutions, activists learn about the connectedness of other issues and movements. Still, this process of seeing and making connections doesn’t occur automatically. We may miss identifying and reaching out to “natural” allies, just as individuals may overlook the systemic aspects of what seem personal and private matters.

Power relations are illuminated suddenly and brightly when people challenge the status quo by putting their future at risk in collective struggle. They often see their self-interest most clearly when they are in struggle with others to improve their lives. As was evident in the Facebook pages of teachers in the walkouts, people’s ideas can change with breathtaking rapidity. They become open to new ideas and began to reject long-standing convictions. Teachers were stunned at the ridicule and abuse heaped on them by politicians for whom they had voted. Many had voted for the GOP politicians who accused them of harming children, of being greedy and ignorant. Many had voted for Trump. Yet, they stayed united in their conviction that their work counted and that direct action would accomplish what letter writing and voting had not. They changed the political climate in this country just as much as they changed themselves.

In Oklahoma and Kentucky, African American teachers were often key rank-and-file activists, pivotal to the success of the walkout in the largest cities. In Arizona, immigration wasn’t a demand, yet the walkouts depended on the support of Latino community members, parents, and educators close to these communities. Race, gender, and immigration are as inextricably connected together in education’s problems and solutions today as they were when “the one best system” was created. And yet, despite the free-wheeling democracy on the Facebook pages and the movement it created, social oppression often remained unspoken. In one case, a courageous working class educator who self-identified with labor struggles of miners shut down the Facebook page she managed when “noise,” meaning discussions about race and racism in the state legislature, was brought up by participants. The issue was too “divisive.”

When workers’ organizations represent all people at a workplace, they must address the inevitable tensions that arise from members’ very different consciousness about social justice. One key in supporting unions’ resolution of this dilemma is the understanding that union leaders, no less than members, are trapped when unions are not fully democratic and are unwilling to mobilize members lest the status quo be upset. In a union committed to full democracy and social justice in the society, all members are seen as a resource. Their self-interest is defined as being inseparable from having a just, democratic society. A fully democratic space that is developed to support struggles allows for hard questions to be debated and decided in a spirit of developing the consensus needed for collective action.

At a time when the gains made by social movements in the past century and democracy itself are under siege, there is apprehension about criticizing organized labor. For unions to live up to their full potential power, they need support and also critique, as is clear from the teacher walkouts. Union leaders and staff are confined just like members by ideological assumptions and organizational forms and norms that are hierarchical and patriarchal. Social movements committed to uprooting racism, patriarchy, and other forms of oppression need democratic unions as allies. Labor and movements for social and economic justice for workers need allies in social movements that illuminate and oppose other forms of inequality. Democracy provides the canvas for a collective envisioning of full human emancipation. To paint and sketch the picture, we need to elicit challenges and critiques that are often not what we want to see but ultimately strengthen the vision and outcome of what we are seeking. These are some of the lessons we can learn from the teacher walkouts.


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