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  • Teacher Insurgency: What Are The Strategic Challenges?

    Written on February 13, 2019

    The following post was the basis for a talk by Leo Casey, the Executive Director of the Albert Shanker Institute, which was delivered at “The Future of American Labor” conference held February 8th and 9th in Washington, D.C. 

    There is every reason to celebrate the “Teacher Spring” strikes of 2018 and the more recent strikes in Los Angeles and Chicago’s charter schools. They provide ample evidence that American teachers will not acquiesce to the evisceration of public education, to the dismantling of their unions and to the impoverishment of the teaching profession. A powerful new working class movement is taking shape, with American teachers in the lead. But to sustain the momentum of this movement and to build upon it, we must not only celebrate, but also reflect and think strategically – we must address the strategic challenges this movement now faces. 

    Today, I want to focus on two strategic questions posed by this “Teacher Insurgency:”

    • First, how mobilization differs from organization, the changing relationship between the two and what that means for our work; and
    • Second, the relationship between protest, direct action and strikes, on the one hand, and the struggle for political power, focused on elections, on the other, as well as the role both play in our work.

    At the outset, I want to be clear that my approach is a broad one, viewing the current movement not only through the lens of labor history and working class struggles, but also as part of the history of protest movements as a whole, with a particular emphasis on the civil rights movement. There are many reasons for this approach, but one particularly compelling reason lies in the intimate connections between the civil rights movement and America’s public sector unions, including teacher unions. We know, of course, that Martin Luther King was an ardent supporter of the labor movement, and was assassinated in Memphis while he was organizing support for striking sanitation workers in an AFSCME local, and that A. Philip Randolph was both a labor leader and a civil rights leader. But what is perhaps less understood is that the leaders of the teacher unions and public sector unions in the 1960s, the period during which they became established, formidable forces, were often veterans of the civil rights movement. And most of these leaders drew upon their experiences as civil rights activists as they organized their unions.

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  • Reviving Labor After Wisconsin: Unions Need A New Approach Emphasizing Civil Rights

    Written on June 11, 2012

    Our guest authors today are Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, and Moshe Z. Marvit, a civil rights attorney. They are authors of the book Why Labor Organizing Should Be a Civil Right: Rebuilding a Middle-Class Democracy By Enhancing Worker Voice.

    Conservatives are calling the failure of public sector unions to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker labor’s “Waterloo.”  Just as private sector unionism has declined from a third of the workforce in the 1950s to less than 7 percent today, Charles Krauthammer writes in the Washington Post, “Tuesday, June 5, 2012, will be remembered as the beginning of the long decline of the public-sector union."

    This forecast seems an exercise in hyperbole (many voters don’t think recall elections are an appropriate response to policy disputes) but the setback for labor was indeed serious.  One of the lessons of Wisconsin is that if public sector unions want to survive, they need to find ways to help revive trade unionism in the private sector.

    The fates of the two sectors are deeply intertwined.

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  • Labor In High School Textbooks: Bias, Neglect And Invisibility

    Written on September 6, 2011

    The nation has just celebrated Labor Day, yet few Americans have any idea why. As high school students, most were taught little about unions—their role, their accomplishments, and how and why they came to exist.

    This is one of the conclusions of a new report, released today by the Albert Shanker Institute in cooperation with the American Labor Studies Center. The report, "American Labor in U.S. History Textbooks: How Labor’s Story Is Distorted in High School History Textbooks," consists of a review of some of the nation’s most frequently used high school U.S. history textbooks for their treatment of unions in American history. The authors paint a disturbing picture, concluding that the history of the U.S. labor movement and its many contributions to the American way of life are "misrepresented, downplayed or ignored." Students—and all Americans—deserve better.

    Unfortunately, this is not a new problem. As the report notes, "spotty, inadequate, and slanted coverage" of the labor movement dates at least to the New Deal era. Scholars began documenting the problem as early as the 1960s. As this and previous textbook reviews have concluded, our history textbooks have essentially "taken sides" in the intense political debate around unions—the anti-union side.

    The impact of these textbook distortions has been amplified by our youth’s exposure to a media that is sometimes thoughtless and sometimes hostile in its reporting and its attitudes toward labor. This is especially troubling when membership in private sector unions is shrinking rapidly and the right of public sector unions to exist is hotly contested.

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