Teacher Insurgency: What Are The Strategic Challenges?

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.

In a similar way, many of the leaders and activists of the Teacher Insurgency are veterans of the protest movements of the last eight years, and in particular, of the movements that have emerged since Trump’s election – the Women’s March, the airport demonstrations that met the Muslim travel ban, the demonstrations and civil disobedience on behalf of the DACA Dreamers and against the separation of immigrant Latino children from their parents, the Me Too movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the nationwide school protests and March for Our Lives that followed in the wake of the Parkland school shootings. More than a few of these activists were involved in the national protests against the confirmation of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Secretary of Education. Their experience in those movements deeply shaped their approach to the Teacher Insurgency strikes, in the ways they approached mobilization and organization, and in their understanding of the relationship of direct action to the contest for political power.

In the 1960s, there were two epoch making mobilizations of these movements that provide the setting for today’s discussion: the 1960 strike by New York City’s United Federation of Teachers, the first major teacher strike, which won collective bargaining for American teachers for the first time; and the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, the first national mass demonstration, which set the stage for the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In both cases, the mobilization was entirely based on established organizations. The 1960 strike was made possible by a network of union activists in several hundred schools, which had been built painstakingly over a number of years of union work; the 1963 march was made possible by an alliance of civil rights organizations, black churches, progressive unions and a national network of African-American trade unionists that had developed over many years. In both cases, the means of communication were rudimentary by today’s standards: a limited number of face-to-face meetings, one-on-one telephone calls and leaflets, letters and press releases run off on mimeograph machines and distributed by the U.S. mail or in person. All communications went through the organizational center.

Compare the mobilizations of the 1960s with the strikes of Teacher Spring and the 2016 Women’ March. Revolutionary changes in the means of communication – the development of social media, mass emails and video conferencing platforms – made it much easier to mobilize large numbers of people. These means of communication have expanded the reach of mobilization efforts well beyond existing “real life” networks into “virtual” networks, and enabled horizontal communications among individuals participating in the mobilization who had no pre-existing relationship. They have considerably shortened the amount of time required to mobilize large masses of people: the Women’s March, the largest demonstration in the history of the U.S. thus far, was mobilized in a matter of two months. Organization continued to play an important role in these mobilizations – it was established unions that provided the infrastructure for school and district meetings and that called the Teacher Spring strikes and organized strike activities, and it was established feminist groups and unions that rented buses and trains for the Women’s March and provided the infrastructure for the organization of the demonstration site – but mobilization is no longer the sole province of organization.

As the Women’s March and the strikes of the Teacher Spring demonstrate, these new means of communication are extraordinarily powerful tools, and the strategy of the labor movement going forward must be one which incorporates and embraces their use. Unions will need to learn how to function in a world in which communications among our members are not limited to those which go through established organizational channels. A positive approach is necessary, one which views these new means of communication, not as a threat, but as an indispensable set of tools that can enable greater membership engagement and facilitate their mobilization.

But we also need to be clear about the limitations of these new means of communication and the continuing need for established organization. In her excellent book, Twitter and Tear Gas, Zeynep Tufekci writes of the “power and fragility of networked protest.” Her analysis focuses on the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street protests, both of which ended largely in defeat, with at best marginal moral victories. But the insight is also applicable to the Women’s March and the Teacher Spring strikes, since all share a mobilization method reliant on social media networks. The recent controversies surrounding the ongoing Women’s March are attributable in part to serious political missteps on the part of its leadership, but also reflect the fragility of protest movements that rely so profoundly on social media networks. 

There is a substantial body of research which shows that social media are not innocent of the larger power dynamics of society. Access to different forms of social media and the ability to mount an influential presence on social media are mediated by the power of class, race and sex. The “instant mobilization” that social media can produce means that hard issues (think of the problems of the Women’s March) are not able to be addressed over time or in the context of trusting relationships that have been established by common work and common struggle. When these hard issues arise in networked protests, as they invariably do with any attempt to build broad and inclusive movements, they are more difficult to resolve in ways that maintain and build unity. In the era of Trump, when the struggles against racism and sexism are so crucial to building a unified movement, we need to be especially aware of the limitations of the mobilization tools we use.

Indeed, in many ways, social media is a poor medium for addressing questions of power in unifying ways, because they accentuate the tendency in protest movements toward what Jo Freeman called “The Tyranny of Structurelessness.” They operate with informal leadership, rather than democratically elected (and thus accountable) leadership. There are no clear democratic mechanisms for establishing group consensus or direction. With social media’s capacity for individuals to remain anonymous – and for exchanges among individuals who have no real world relationships – they can become the breeding ground for a social toxicity that can cause disunity and drive people away. This makes them a fertile ground for provocateurs and others seeking to disrupt these movements. 

Solidarity is NOT a natural state; it must be forged out of relationships of trust and mutual commitment that are formed by working people during their daily lives. For teachers, solidarity takes shape in the raw material of their interactions with each other and the relationships that are born from them – interactions over morning coffee, at the Xerox machines running off class handouts, in discussions of how to teach a particular topic, how to employ a new teaching technique and how to work with a struggling student, in the lunchroom, in the café or bar Friday evening after a long and hard week, and, yes, in face-to-face union meetings. In difficult struggles such as strikes, it is the strength of these relationships and the sense of commitment to one another, not abstract principles, that creates the solidarity that can withstand intimidation from the employer or the state. It is in these relationships that teachers develop the trust that allows them constructively to address issues of race, sex and class that have the potential to divide them. Social media can be a powerful tool of mobilization, but the construction of a powerful solidarity requires face to face relationships and ongoing organization.

Tufecki’s analysis points to the danger of what she calls “tactical freeze” in the “structurelessness” of social networked protests: the difficulty such movements have in adjusting tactics, negotiating demands and pushing for policy change. What made the strikes of Teacher Spring and the strikes in Chicago and Los Angeles successful was the existence of union organizations that could engage in these tasks. Without the established political and organizational presence of teacher unions in West Virginia, with their capacity to force a recalcitrant state legislature to adopt legislation which it clearly did not want to adopt, the strike would not have been successful. Which brings me to my second point…

There is a strong, one could even say dominant tradition in American union and protest movements of what can best be described by a term out of labor history: syndicalism. By syndicalism, I mean the perspective that focuses entirely on protest and direct action, such as strikes, job actions, sit-downs, picket lines, demonstrations and other various forms of civil disobedience as the path to winning reforms. What is usually unspoken in this approach, but is nonetheless ever present, is a complementary refusal to engage in the contest for political power, and in particular, seriously to take on electoral struggles. One can make demands upon the state, but one does not contest for state power itself. In labor, syndicalism can take a more conservative form, such as among some craft unions which focus entirely on collective bargaining, and a left form, such as those who refuse to engage in electoral work unless and until there is a pure political vessel in the form of a labor or socialist party – which, in the context of the U.S., means absenting oneself from the arenas in which meaningful political and electoral struggles take place. But this approach is by no means limited to labor: Alinskyite community organizing is a classic form of syndicalism. The civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s was a movement of protest and nonviolent direct action that made demands on the state, but did not contest state power. The cadre of that movement – men like Bayard Rustin, who introduced Martin Luther King to non-violent direct action, and James Farmer, who led CORE – had been trained by A. J. Muste, a man deeply steeped in union syndicalist traditions.

In 1965, at a moment when the civil rights movement had used this syndicalist approach of protest and nonviolent direct action to achieve the unprecedented victories, and as de jureracial segregation was in its death throes, Bayard Rustin recognized that this approach was not adequate to achieving  what would be essential for the full emancipation of African-Americans, including the broad social democratic program that was embodied in the Freedom Budget that he, King, Randolph and others in the civil rights movement formulated after the 1963 March. Rustin wrote what was a classic essay, From Protest to Politics, in which he laid out the case that the civil rights movement would have to seriously contest for political power, as part of a broad majoritarian coalition that included the labor movement and other forces for progressive change, if it was to achieve the economic advances that would end poverty in the African-American community and complete its freedom struggle. 

That argument was an essential corrective, but in bending the branch back, Rustin went too far. Rather than politics replacing protest and direct action, it should be seen as a partner of protest: our strategy needs to be two pronged, with a productive tension between protest and direct action, including strikes, on the one hand, and the politics in which we seriously contest for state power, on the other hand. Protest and direct action are forces that disrupt the status quo, playing an essential role in upsetting and thus shifting the existing balance of power. They are the grounds on which a visionary critique of the existing order is best made, and the form in which ordinary working people assert their unwillingness to march forward under the tutelage of the powerful. But for meaningful, lasting change to be made, for there not simply to be a critique of the new Gilded Age, with the extraordinary concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the richest 1%, but for there to be a political and economic transformation that creates a far more egalitarian social order, political power must be contested and won.

This understanding makes it possible for us to appreciate the role of the strike in the Teacher Insurgency. In recent years, strikes in the American labor movement in general, and among American teachers in particular, have dwindled to a mere handful. The reestablishment of strikes as a form of direct action is a welcome development, and augers well for our movement. But we need to resist the temptation to fetishize the strike, making it into a magic bullet that is seen as the sole means of asserting the power of working people, including teachers. The civil rights movement taught us the importance of having a full panoply of tactics, and of engaging in constant tactical innovation. To the extent that we become overly reliant on a single and predictable form of direct action, we make ourselves unnecessarily vulnerable to attempts to undermine us. Indeed, the power of the strike as a weapon relies upon surrounding it with other forms of direct action, political action and alliance building. The power of strikes of the Teacher Insurgency has been magnified and multiplied by the work of teacher unions in building deep, long-lasting ties to their communities. This approach can be seen in adopting such approaches as “bargaining for the common good” and advocating for such reforms as community schools, which provide essential services to abate the obstacles that poverty places in the way of learning. It can be found in bargaining demands, put forward in the Chicago charter school and Los Angeles strikes, that schools provide a safe space for immigrant students under pressure from the Trump administration’s predatory and racist attacks upon them and their families.

Direct action without the contest for political power provides a moral critique that is incapable of transforming law or government policy; electoral politics without direct action is reduced to transactions within the established political and economic order. The issues that have motivated the recent teacher strikes – the underfunding of public schools, with all of its impact on teaching and learning, not just its direct effect of teacher livelihoods, but also deteriorating school facilities, oversized classes, outdated textbooks and technology, schools stripped of the arts, music, foreign languages and physical education, and the loss of such essential services as librarians, guidance counselors, school psychologists and social workers – can only be addressed successfully through legislative action. Of necessity, these strikes are political strikes and their demands will only be fully achieved when labor has won a real measure of political power.