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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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  • Student Activism Is A Healthy Form Of Identity Resistance

    Written on December 11, 2015

    Our guest author today is Simone Ispa-Landa, Assistant Professor at the School of Education and Social Policy and (by courtesy) Sociology at Northwestern University. Ispa-Landa’s research examines the processes that reproduce and magnify social exclusion, as well as the ways in which subordinate individuals and groups make sense of, and seek to combat, social stigma.

    Across universities, Black college students are commanding national attention as they highlight racial injustice on campus (also here and here). Across social media platforms, many Black students and their supporters are demanding to be released from the limited roles they are asked to play at predominantly White institutions— e.g., the black friend, the student who provides admissions officers with a terrific “diversity” photo opportunity, the classmate who exists to “educate” Whites about race (see here and here).

    These student activists and their allies want to avoid the fate of the Black high school students I have studied—students who can only access a narrow set of roles that benefit others, but leave them feeling grossly misunderstood or, worse, exploited. In the next few paragraphs, I share some of what I found in my in-depth, qualitative interviews with Black adolescents who were bussed to affluent suburban schools, and their White suburban-resident classmates and guidance counselors, connecting my research with this emerging college student movement.

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  • Similar Problems, Different Response: “We Are Public Education”

    Written on October 28, 2011

    Thousands of people from all over Spain demonstrated Saturday October 22nd in Madrid against severe austerity measures affecting public education in several Spanish regions. The march on Madrid, which attracted more than 100,000 protesters – huge by Spanish standards – was jointly organized by national education unions and the national parents’ association, CEAPA. Taking part in the protest, a somewhat unprecedented coalition: educators, parents, and students.

    The economy in Spain is in terrible shape. Parents and teachers don’t always have an ideal relationship, yet  Spaniards seem to have avoided the divisive and unproductive quarrels we often read about in the US education debate – e.g., adults versus children or teachers versus parents – in an attempt to prioritize long-term educational investment over short-term, budget-driven savings. This broad alliance is building consensus around the notion of “the education community." As the protest’s manifesto notes, such community is “society as a whole," which must unite to oppose drastic budget cuts in public education and attacks by political leaders on public school teachers.

    The nationwide protest was triggered by a recent government decision that bans the temporary hiring of teachers as part of a plan to reduce government spending. In various parts of the country, teachers have already been laid off, class sizes and teaching hours have increased significantly, and teachers will have to teach subjects they are not specialized in. Many schools will have to reduce extra-curricular activities, remedial classes for struggling students and integration classes for the children of immigrants. This situation triggered a series of regional demonstrations across Spain throughout the months of September and October – including student demonstrations in defense of public education – with protesters arguing that education quality has been put at risk. National in scale, the march on Madrid sends a broader message, with the potential of immediate political impact.

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  • Green Shoots At The Grassroots

    Written on September 10, 2010

    How can unions regain strength in a political and economic environment that has been hostile for decades? What can unions accomplish for working people in the dismal current economy?

    These are tough questions that unionists grapple with every day – not just on Labor Day – and there’s probably no simple answer. One line of thinking is the coalition-oriented view that unions must embrace a "social movement" approach, and connect with other progressive groups that focus on "social identity, the environment, and globalization" (see here). Indeed, according to a recent article in The Nation, unions and environmentalists in New England are doing just that, and enjoying some success. Groups whose primary focus is teaching people how to save energy have joined with unions and community groups in coalitions that seek both to promote environmental stewardship and to create "high road" green jobs. According to activists, these will be good union jobs in sustainable, green industries. By recognizing shared interests and overlapping constituencies, they maintain, traditional tensions between unions and environmental groups have been overcome to the benefit of both.

    This social movement model is founded on three essentials: "deep coalitions, policy research, and political action." It’s an approach in which the article’s author, Amy Dean, has a wealth of experience, and which she describes in a book she recently co-authored. (Full disclosure: The Albert Shanker Institute provided some support to Ms. Dean for the writing of this book.)

    So does social movement unionism really blaze a grassroots trail to a union renaissance? That’s impossible to say with any certainty, but I have a few related points.

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