Check Out this Fine New Book on Social Justice Unionism: “Teachers Unions and Social Justice”

Rethinking Schools just published an excellent new handbook, Teachers Unions and Social Justice: Organizing for the Schools and Communities our Students Deserve.  I call it a handbook because it was written as a guide for teachers union social justice advocacy and organizing. But it is also a handbook for activists, writers, and bloggers strategizing to confront the recent collapse of public education funding, the alarming growth of school privatization at public expense, and the message, spread for too long, that holding schools accountable according to business principles is more important than educating children.

         The beloved former president of the Chicago Teachers Union and a pioneer in social justice unionism, Karen Lewis died on Monday.  Please read this wonderful tribute to Karen Lewis by Chicago education journalist Sarah Karp.

The editors  have assembled more than 60 short compelling articles and stories by union activists and many of the nation’s prominent advocates for education justice, all telling the story of organized teachers confronting the blindness of the privatizers and the business-accountablity hawks. There is a 2012 interview with the great Karen Lewis, whose loss we mourn this week. And we hear from teachers union justice champions including Jesse Hagopian in Seattle; Jackson Potter and Michelle Gunderson in Chicago; Mary Cathryn Ricker in St. Paul; David Levine in Cincinnati; Eleni Schirmer in North Carolina, Arlene Inouye in Los Angeles; and Michael Charney in Cleveland.

The editors, Michael Charney, Jesse Hagopian, and Bob Peterson, introduce the collection of writings: “More than two decades ago in the first edition of this book, Transforming Teacher Unions: Fighting for Better Schools and Social Justice, we promoted a vision of social justice teacher unionism. We argued that such a vision was essential to improving our schools, transforming our unions, and building a more just society. Since then much has happened. Public schools, the entire public sector, and the basic notion of the ‘common good’ have come under severe attack. Wealth inequality has reached an unsustainable level. The scourge of white supremacy has been intensified by rampant xenophobia… But within our schools and the larger society, seeds of struggle have sprouted and grown.” (pp. 13-14)

In the decade since the Great Recession, the Education Law Center documents states’ collective disinvestment in public school funding at $600 billion—a trend following widespread tax cutting that has been exacerbated by alarming diversion of public school funding to charter schools and publicly funded private school tuition vouchers. From the points of view of teachers who led and participated in the Red4Ed strikes of 2018 and 2019, we learn, in Teacher Unions and Social Justice, the stories of the strikes that taught America what all this austerity has meant for our public schools: crowded classrooms of 40 students, shortages of counselors, social workers, librarians and nurses. Newspaper reporters and the rest of us don’t have an opportunity to go into schools to observe the conditions first-hand, but this book tells the story from inside the public schools in many places.

Stan Karp and Adam Sanchez summarize what happened in the widespread 2018-2019 walkouts: “The West Virginia strike began in late February 2018 when some 20,000 classroom teachers and thousands of other employees shut down schools across all 55 counties… By May 2018, walkouts in Colorado and North Carolina followed statewide actions in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky… the protests were more than red state revolts. They were rebellions against the austerity and privatization that has been driving federal and state economic policy for decades. The dynamics and political landscape are different in each state. Almost all of the places where statewide actions initially occurred, however, were right-to-work states, which have seen the steepest cuts in school funding and the sharpest erosion of teacher pay and benefits…  But other common factors underlying these grassroots protests kept the rebellion spreading to ‘purple’ states like Colorado… and North Carolina… and, beyond 2018 to blue states like California, where Los Angeles teachers won a landmark victory in January 2019, and Illinois, where teachers staged a bitter 11-day walkout in September 2019… Nationally, the number of public K-12 teachers and other school staff has fallen by 158,000, while the number of students rose more than 1.4 million.  The cuts in public education mean larger class sizes, old textbooks, and in Oklahoma and Colorado, a  four-day week in many school districts. And in addition to lower salaries, teacher pensions and health benefits, where they exist at all, have been slashed…. (T)he key question for teachers everywhere is whether they are organized enough to channel the energy sparked by West Virginia into fighting for greatly expanded support for public education and a broader political turn away from austerity and privatization.” (pp. 81-87)

While many of the short articles in the new book are written by teachers, the editors also collect resources for teachers—pieces about communication strategy as well as resources about practices for justice which have been modeled by teachers in particular school districts. Contributors describe union efforts to support restorative justice practices as alternatives to punitive discipline; unions introducing racial justice, African-centered, and Black Lives Matter programming across their schools; and unions collaborating to establish parent-teacher home visits and Community Schools with wraparound social and medical services right at school.

Each section ends by suggesting additional resources on teaching practices as well as recommended background materials about such issues as ameliorating opportunity gaps among students, confronting school privatization coming from state legislatures, and pushing back against high-stakes standardized testing.

The editors of this ambitious book are Michael Charney, a 30 year social studies teacher in the Cleveland Public Schools and Cleveland Teachers Union vice president; Jesse Hagopian, ethnic studies and English language arts teacher at Seattle’s Garfield High School, member of the Seattle Education Association, and author of several books including the recent, Black Lives Matter at School; and Bob Peterson, a fifth grade Milwaukee teacher for over 25 years, and the founding editor of Rethinking Schools magazine.  He has also co-edited several books.

Bob Peterson describes the history of the movement for social justice teacher unionism: “In 1994 we issued a call for activist teachers to build social justice unions, contrasting them with what we called industrial and professional models of unionism… We asserted, ‘Without a better partnership with the parents and communities that need public education most, we will find ourselves isolated from essential allies.  Without a new vision of schooling that raises the expectations of our students and the standards of our own profession, we will continue to founder.'” (pp. 99-101)

Arlene Inouye of the United Teachers of Los Angeles describes what social justice unionism and the dedication of the local’s members accomplished in the January, 2019 Los Angeles teachers’ strike: “UTLA’s strike shifted the narrative locally, statewide, nationally, and even internationally. We boldly fought for the schools our students deserve and the respect and recognition that public educators have been longing for. What did we win? In addition to a 6 percent salary increase, we got enforceable class size caps for the first time and a class size reduction program. We won more nurses, librarians, counselors, funding for community schools, a reduction in standardized testing, and resources for ethnic studies. We won improvements in special education loads and itinerant workspace. We won a greater voice for educators in schools targeted for charter colocation.  We won an LAUSD resolution calling on the state for a charter moratorium, improvements in adult and early education, the elimination of random student searches, expansion of green space and the removal of unused bungalows (portable classrooms) on our campuses, legal support for immigrant families, and the will to fight for more state and county funding.” (pp. 252-261)

Teacher Unions and Social Justice is available from Rethinking Schools.