Looking Inside the Education Crisis

Against the Current, No. 166, September/October 2013

Robert Bartlett

The Future of our Schools:
Teachers Unions and Social Justice
By Lois Weiner
Haymarket Books 2012. 220 pages + index, $16 paperback.

TEACHERS CONCERNED WITH the ongoing vilification of their profession and the worsening conditions under which they work will be interested in reading Lois Weiner’s new book. It’s written for a new generation of activist teachers who are being shaken into action by the attacks on them and public education, and perhaps inspired by the successes of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) in forging a message that unites the interests of teachers and the communities they serve.

The book doesn’t flinch from putting the attack on teachers and public education in the context of a neoliberal capitalist agenda that is worldwide in scope, well organized, and musters considerable resources in pursuit of its goals.

Since the book is aimed at an audience of relatively new teachers with little experience in their union or indeed unionism, one of Weiner’s focuses is explaining both the history of and differences between the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA), and more importantly the politics of both unions that have left them relatively helpless in the face of the attacks on public education. Along that line there is a practical and useful section outlining just how to get involved in a local union.

To those familiar with the radical critique of business unionism, the book does an adequate job of explaining its contradictions and weaknesses; but more important, the proposed alternative of social movement unionism is a topic that all activists should want to read and discuss. This topic, of course, has relevance beyond teacher unionism as the labor movement is choking to death on business unionism.

The book is divided into two sections. The first contains a coherent argument putting the attacks on education into a political context, and explaining why the current nature of the two education unions is inadequate to the task of defending public education. It also gives both practical suggestions for teachers who want to become involved in their unions, and an alternative vision of the type of unions that activists need to change the AFT and NEA into if they are to be capable of resisting the attacks on them and public education.

The second section has reprints of Lois Weiner’s articles written for New Politics over the last 25 years. Some of them prefigure themes that are developed in the first part of the book, while others go into depth in some very contentious struggles that resonate today.

Understanding the Attacks

There are three themes that I think education activists will want to think about. The first is the nature of the attack on teachers and public education. It has been impossible to ignore all the attacks on teachers and their unions over the last 12 years. From the passage of “No Child Left Behind” to Obama’s “Race to the Top” and magazines like Newsweek’s infamous “We Must Fire Bad Teachers” cover, the public is inundated with propaganda that places the blame for the failures of education squarely on teachers and their unions.

The fix is simple, just get the bad teachers out and replace them with good teachers. That can be done either through expedited means of firing teachers through the elimination of tenure and due process, or by wholesale firings as schools are closed and replaced by charters or turned around and their staffs replaced from top to bottom.

Of course, the means of detecting “failure” are based on an onerous regime of testing that decides the fates of students, teachers and schools — but where did this all start?

To those familiar with the state of education in underfunded rural and urban areas, there is little doubt that education is sorely failing a majority of students in the country — but where are the solutions coming from? If you believe the press releases of advocacy groups who “Stand for Children” or put “Students First,” they all claim to put the needs of children at the top of their agendas, but they fall into a category of free-market reformers whose uniting goals are to weaken or ultimately destroy unions, eliminate any sort of tenure or due process, and promote the privatization of education through the expansion of charter schools.

This systematic dismantling of public education dovetails with the privatization schemes that neoliberals have pursued for years through policies promoted by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. This is the international context within which education is being “reformed.”

What Makes Educators Unique?

While the motives of the proponents of education reform are suspect, the goals of defending teachers and public education are not simply to protect tenure and provide job security for teachers, but must take into account what is truly unique about educators’ roles as “idea” workers and our ability to promote critical thinking and social justice in our classes.

This is precisely one of the targets of the reformers, who want to eliminate academic freedom and limit our curricula to thinly veiled test prep classes. The narrowing of the curriculum is tied to corporations’ need for less skilled workers in future jobs. I vividly remember a former principal explicitly stating that our school had to prepare our students for the jobs that industry was looking for.

Our defense of teachers has to be linked to what all parents desire for their children. We can’t defend an education status quo in schools to which we would not want to send our own children. This is a difficult dynamic in that unions have to defend their members, but to do a proper job of it, they need to tie the needs of their members to those of the communities where they work — indeed to the entire working class.

This joining of teacher interests with parent and community interests is at the heart of this book’s concerns. The gains of unionization have come with a price.

While collective bargaining increased the pay of teachers, it focused the attention of teacher unions on wages and benefits at the expense of participation in the development of curriculum and building collaborative structures within schools. The school day itself limits the ability of teachers to work collaboratively, with no time provided for discussion among teachers and common preparation of lesson plans.

In various states, legislation limits what teachers are able to bargain over and unions need to find ways to push issues in bargaining that are of direct value to students and parents like limitations on class size, a broad curriculum that includes art, music and foreign languages, and meaningful parental involvement in running their children’s schools. This was one of the tricky items that the CTU had to navigate as the public demands they raised before and during the strike were only subjects for bargaining if both sides agreed — matters which, of course, the school board had no interest in talking about.

A Flawed Union Model

This leads into the book’s second theme, in which Weiner discusses the nature of the AFT and NEA and what they need to become if we are to be able to defeat corporate “education reform.”

For longtime union activists, the critique of the service model of business unionism that is sketched out in the book will be familiar. For teachers who, like most union members, never attend union meetings, just how a union functions may be unfamiliar — and if they do know something of the grievance procedure, union elections, and so on they may be happy that someone else is willing to spend the time from their busy days attending to those matters.

The problem with the business unionism model is that it’s not only undemocratic in that it delegates responsibility for important decisions to layers of the union hierarchy that are far above a local level, but it discourages members from playing an active role in discussing and formulating union policy.

In the past when unions could reasonably expect to receive raises in wages as a matter of course, this might have worked well enough for many members; but there was a dangerous tradeoff in limiting the scope of bargaining narrowly on behalf of the union’s own members and not on broader social goals like national health care.

That decision has come back to haunt unions whose benefits are now under attack and who find themselves fighting a losing battle to hold on to things that have been taken away from almost everyone else. It didn’t have to be that way, and now we need to find a way to broaden the scope of what unions concern themselves about.

The response of the AFT to the attacks on “bad teachers” is an example of both a concession to the ideological attack and the failure to broaden the issue. The AFT implicitly has bought into this campaign and endorsed the idea of raising teacher standards in a process similar to what lawyers or doctors go through to enter their professions. This drive to legitimize teaching as a “profession,” similar to others, acknowledges that “the quality of teaching is the most important in-school factor of student learning.”(1)

Researchers and leaders of the AFT also know that the most reliable indicator of student success is socio-economic status. That is not to excuse the failures of our students or schools on standardized tests as the fault of their parents, or to excuse ourselves from any ability to improve education, but rather to acknowledge and even embrace the need for teachers to broaden our goals and horizons beyond our own needs to those of the school community.

The current political context of gutting collective bargaining in states like Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan for public employees, and threats that this may happen in other states, should force unions to prepare for these possibilities, rather than caving in on political attacks like merit pay or evaluations based on standardized test scores.

A New Strategy

The old model of business unionism never worked well and now has one foot in the grave. What can be done to reanimate the AFT and NEA as well as the larger labor movement?

In education we have to move from the mindset imposed on us by free market ideologues, viewing students and parents as customers, and move to a vision of schools owned by parents, citizens, teachers and students. Our schools are becoming less democratic, and parents and teachers have less control over both the nature and goals of education.

Grotesque school boards, like Chicago’s, are appointed by the mayor and staffed with billionaires and bankers — none of whose children ever set foot in the schools they dictate to. Policies of closing schools and moving children around like pawns on a chessboard give unions like the AFT and NEA an opportunity to break out of their isolation and find the many areas where unions, parents of children, and the public can work together to advocate for a rich and equitable education for all.

This new model of unionism Lois Weiner calls “social movement unionism.” Others have called for social justice unionism, but no matter the name what counts is the ability of the unions to advocate not only for their members, but for broader policies beyond our immediate interests and encompass demands that are part of a broad movement for social justice.

Issues that should be taken up are obvious ones that include extending health care, defense of our immigrant families, economic justice for low-wage workers, and confronting the endemic racism of society.

This type of unionism is not just a matter of proclaiming a set of goals, but must include the mobilization of the membership in a myriad of ways. Many critiques of business unionism as hierarchical, paternalistic, undemocratic, and politically passive in only acting as fundraisers or phone bankers for mostly Democratic Party candidates point to what we don’t want, but we also have to know what we do need.

Those who want to transform their unions have the responsibility to be open about their program, and campaign on that basis. They have to be willing to have discussions within the union when members object to portions of this social agenda, which they will. During the course of discussion you have the ability to educate your members on issues that should be important to them, and whether you lose some votes is less important than building the democratic space for debate and discussion that can only strengthen the members’ control over their union and participation in the decisions that need to be made.

This kind of union demands a lot from both the members and those who would advocate for it — trust in the ability of the members to be involved, trust in our allies to work toward shared common goals, and trust that when our goals aren’t aligned we can advocate our needs to each other.

This new type of unionism has to be careful to balance traditional bread-and-butter struggles with the larger social issues that need to be embraced. Failure to do so will spell disaster for union reforms.

Race, Class and History

The third part of the book that I recommend to readers is the historical memory contained here. Along with very useful profiles on AFT-NEA relationships, their methods of functioning and the ins and outs of getting involved in a union, all of which are very practical, there are discussions of struggles for community control in the late 1960s and early ’70s that were opposed by the AFT in both New York City and Newark, NJ.

The 1968 strike by the New York AFT affiliate (United Federation of Teachers, led by Albert Shanker) against community control is well known to longtime activists, but necessary reading for those who are unaware of this tragic chapter. Weiner’s review of a book on a series of strikes in Newark is particularly moving and insightful.

Questions of race and class are never far away from life in the United States, and the dynamics when union interests collide with the interests of the community they work in can be catastrophic. The inability of unionists to define their interests in a context that allows for a sharing of goals and prevents the workers’ and community’s interests from being opposed, can have effects that will reverberate and be exploited for years.

The analysis of what went wrong in these conflicts needs to be ingrained in teacher activists so that the imperative of working together with parents and the community cannot be forgotten. Without such an alliance it is hard to imagine how this last sector of majority unionism in the U.S. labor movement can withstand the forces aligned against them.

This tension between the needs of an underserved community of color, pitted against unions portrayed as only being interested in the salaries and benefits of their members, is being played out again today. Today charter schools are often touted as being in the interest of underserved communities while unions are pilloried as being against this improvement in education solely for selfish reasons.

A film like “Waiting for Superman” — contrasting schools like the Harlem Success Academy in New York or Chicago’s North Lawndale College Prep, which boasts that 100% of its graduates go to college, with an under-resourced public school system — promotes a narrative that the failures of the public system have more to do with union rules than the lack of resources.

To avoid the trap of just protecting the public school system, without addressing the needs of the students of that system and becoming their advocates, would repeat the disastrous rift that grew between urban teacher unions and Black and brown communities who viewed the union as more an enemy than an ally.

Recent efforts to recast the needs of public school students through union-issued reports like “The Schools Chicago’s Students Deserve”(2) and a similar report by the St. Paul, Minnesota Federation of Teachers show a way to talk about the needs of all students, and forge an alliance between unions that champion the needs of students with parent and community organizations, all of which need to work together to demand the resources to provide that education.

The Future of Our Schools is a welcome book that teachers and those who are interested in learning from struggles like those in Wisconsin and Chicago will appreciate. The practical advice for those new to the union movement and the strategies posed for a growth of a new kind of social unionism are topics that should spur discussion and inspire activists with a broad vision of what we are fighting for.


  1. “Raising the Bar, Aligning and Elevating Teacher Preparation and the Teaching Profession,” AFT Teacher Preparation Task Force, Dec, 2012.
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  2. http://www.ctunet.com/quest-center/research/the-schools-chicagos-students-deserve.
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September/October 2013, ATC 166