This Labor Day, Thank a Teacher

Teacher unions offer our best shot at revitalizing the labor movement.

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Who would have thought that teachers, who often don’t consider themselves workers, would provide the most widespread, most sustained global resistance to capitalism’s anti-labor assault? From Chicago to Mexico to the UK, teachers unions are engaging in militant, head-to-head battles with ruling elites who are remaking education as a market and taking ideological control of what is taught. Why are teachers unions so prominently in the news? Why are they being attacked? And what should we be expecting from them this Labor Day?

Union density and span is one reason. Public school teachers comprise the largest segment of public sector workers, and over half of all unionized public employees in the US are teachers. In 2010, governments employed 3.2 million public school teachers, about 70 percent in unions, either the National Education Association (NEA) or the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). No other occupation in the US can claim this union density and this national presence – not the building trades, not auto, not steel, not health care, not federal workers either.

But teachers unions defy the Left’s orthodoxies about working class struggle — that mental picture of a (male) production worker. Teaching is “women’s work” and union members are overwhelmingly female. Teachers don’t produce anything. Whether teachers realize or not, they engage in what sociologist Raewyn Connell describes as socially transformative labor, educating the next generation and shaping society. But teachers unions are now key to labor’s survival and revival because teachers unions have what other unions (and the rest of the working class) lack: an organization based on members who do essentially the same work, in almost every community, in the US and throughout the world.

The assault on teachers unions and on teachers’ competence and caring (gender is a key element of the attack) should be seen in light of education being the final sector of the economy that is public and unionized. Education is being restructured in a global project to “marketize” schooling, using the rhetoric of “modernization” and “putting students first.” Throughout the world we see the same footprint of reform, which includes privatization and loss of democratic oversight; use of standardized testing to control what is taught and turn teachers into contract labor; increasing costs to “users” while simultaneously limiting access.

Teachers unions block the way to this project being realized. This explains the well-funded, well-orchestrated campaigns to weaken or destroy the unions, de-legitimizing them and eliminating the right to bargain collectively or gutting what unions can negotiate. Pushback in the US has been slow in coming, but it’s finally happening. We’re seeing important developments here and internationally, encouraged by the magnificent struggles of Chicago teachers, led by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) which aims to build social movement unions that are democratic and work in partnership with parents, community, and other unions in struggles for social justice, like the current struggle to raise the minimum wage.

What’s more, important changes are occurring in Europe’s teachers unions, especially the UK. The upcoming national strike of the UK’s largest teachers unions, which may be joined by other militant public employee unions in that nation, should be watched. The National Union of Teachers (NUT), one of the unions that will strike, is consciously shifting the way it casts its demands, embedding in its vision for public education and developing on-the-ground alliances with parents and students.

We’re also seeing more international cooperation among teachers unions, encouraged by a former NUT president who maintains a website that chronicles global struggles of teachers and will shortly launch a research collaborative for scholars and activists to share information and analysis. Cooperation depends in good part on developing personal connections among leaders and activists, so the presence of NUT’s President at the Chicago gathering of union reformers from the USA in mid-August is a hopeful sign. In the Americas, the Trinational Committee to Defend Public Education, uniting teachers unions in the Americas augments work of Latin American teachers unions that collaborate with the British Columbia Teachers Federation. These networks are not new (the BCTF also aided Chicago Teachers Union reformers in their movement’s infancy) but they are becoming more formalized. Still, on-going struggles in Africa and Asia for teachers’ most basic rights, like being paid, deserve far more support than they receive from unions in the Global North. A major problem yet to be addressed is the AFT’s and NEA’s conservatizing stranglehold on the Education International, the international confederation of teachers unions.

The power unleashed against teachers unions when they struggle is breathtaking in scope and intensity. Teachers are jailed, assassinated, fired. As of yet, outside of Chicago, the unions, and in this I include many union reformers who want the unions to be more militant, don’t fully “get” that union battles cannot be waged for economic benefits alone and that the unions have to be rebuilt at the school level. Changing faces at the top, as has occurred in the Washington DC local is not by itself a viable strategy, though the change may be an opening for activists to bring a different message.

Traditional trade union demands must be embedded in a vision, a program for public education that recognizes past injustice and inequality. We can’t return to the 1960s, when the AFT organized on the slogan “Teachers want what children need,” as is sometimes suggested. Teacher unionism’s rebirth in the 1960s was fatally flawed from the start by its failure to acknowledge systemic racism and inequality in schooling’s structures and practices. Moreover, we have to acknowledge that neoliberalism’s weakening of unions has been accompanied by a significant ideological victory. Teachers’ demands for a professional wage and pensions do not have the same political resonance they did forty years ago, when workers earned more and had not been subject to ubiquitous anti-public employee propaganda.

With all their flaws, teachers unions remain the most stable and potentially formidable opponent of the global project wreaking havoc on the schools. To succeed, the unions need to find ways to push back on restraints imposed by contracts, which don’t address many of kids’ most important needs and teachers’ professional obligations. AFT and NEA endorsement of the “Common Core,” a national curriculum developed and promulgated by the same powerful elites that have imposed standardized testing, has undercut trust and sabotaged alliances that are critical to formation of a new movement. The same is true of both unions’ acceptance of money from the Gates Foundation, one of the worst culprits in using venture philanthropy to make education serve the interests of transnational corporations.

This Labor Day marks the point when lots of children in this country start a new school year. It’s a time teachers and kids have traditionally greeted with excitement tinged by apprehension about what lies ahead. Many teachers don’t sleep the night before classes start. I always make sure I have a new outfit to wear — still in my forty-first year of teaching. But political attacks on teachers, weakening of the unions, and imposition of evaluations pegged to students’ standardized test scores cast a pall over this year’s start of school. Though they have come into teaching because they love children and/or the subject they teachers, teachers must now understand that they are workers and need strong, democratic unions. Teachers have to open their classroom doors and engage with this global project that aims to destroy the ideals that have brought them into the classroom and the working conditions that permit them to make teaching a career.

As many readers of Jacobin no doubt know already, the decision to celebrate Labor Day on the first Monday of September was made in the 1880s, when US unions disassociated our labor movement from the struggles of the working class internationally, which celebrates on May 1. So to teachers and supporters of free, quality public education for all children, I propose we all enjoy “Labor Day” as a well-deserved holiday and make May 1 the day we celebrate and renew the promise of international labor solidarity, needed now more than ever, for our children’s futures.