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Teachers Unions

  • In Memoriam: Nat LaCour

    Written on October 13, 2020

    It is with great sadness that we report the death of Nat LaCour, one of the founders of the Albert Shanker Institute. He was 82. Nat was a giant of a man, who served as a mentor and an inspiration to many of those whose lives he touched.

    The son of a shipyard worker and a school cafeteria employee, Nat attended Southern University, a historically black public university in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he began his participation in the Civil Rights Movement. He graduated in 1960 with a B.S. and Master's in Biology. He began his first day of work as a New Orleans high school biology teacher on January 3,1961—four months late because of citywide disruptions over school integration. One of his first actions was to sign up with a local union, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 527, which he knew was in full support of integration. 

    In 1972, the predominantly white Orleans Educators Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, and AFT Local 527 merged to form United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO), electing Nat LaCour as its first president. That year, Nat was also elected to serve as a national AFT Vice President and a member of the AFT Executive Board. 

    The merger of the two unions led to the solidarity necessary to win collective bargaining rights in 1974 for all teachers in New Orleans. UTNO became the first teachers' union in the Deep South to win a contract through collective bargaining, largely helped by Nat’s campaign to gain parent and community support. Over 20,000 signatures by citizens supported collective bargaining rights for teachers in Orleans Parish.

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  • The Early Years Of The New York City Teachers Union

    Written on April 30, 2020

    New York Citys Greenwich Village Society for Historical Preservation (GVSHP) has published an appeal to grant protected landmark status to the “12-story Beaux Arts style office building” at 70 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The building was built in 1912 for George Arthur Plimpton, a publisher of education textbooks, a collector of rare books, a philanthropist and a peace activist. For many years, the GVSHP tells us, the building was a haven for radicals and liberals.” I immediately recognized the address as that of the offices of the New York City Teachers Union (TU) for two decades. There is an intriguing story behind that address and the Teachers Union, and it provides a revealing window into the political history of early teacher unionism.

    In the same year as 70 Fifth Avenue was built, Henry Linville and a small number of New York City teacher comrades launched a publication, The American Teacher, to report on the economic and professional status of the educator workforce and the politics of American public education. Linville was a biology teacher of some note with a Ph.D. from Harvard; one can still find copies of influential science textbooks he authored. He was a democratic socialist and pacifist who had a particularly close relationship with Norman Thomas, the longtime leader of the Socialist Party. The two worked together in an unsuccessful effort to oppose American involvement in World War I.

    In the early twentieth century, there was a great deal of trans-Atlantic cross-fertilization between British and American leftists, with London and New York as the two intellectual centers in this exchange of ideas. From the Womens Trade Union League and the settlement house movement to Fabian Society proposals for reform and the idea of labor party, from anti-imperialist support of Irish and Indian independence to militant suffragist tactics and campaigns for birth control, sex education and the decriminalization of gay sex, New Yorkers often drew inspiration from their British counterparts. The American Teacher followed the development of the National Union of Teachers in the United Kingdom, and New York teachers on the left increasingly looked to it as a model of what could be done in the United States.

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  • What Do Teachers Think About How Teachers' Unions Affect Schools?

    Written on May 30, 2018

    You don’t have to follow education policy debates for long to notice that teachers’ unions invoke a wide range of opinions; they are admired by some, and abhorred by others. Although they are often portrayed as one big monolithic organization (“the teachers’ union”), there are in fact over ten thousand local teachers’ unions across the nation. All of them are led by teachers who are elected by teachers, their contracts are approved by teachers, and their policy advocacy tends to reflect the preferences of their members, who are teachers.

    Given that the vast majority of U.S. students are educated in public schools, which are funded by tax dollars, it makes sense that public scrutiny of teachers’ unions tends to be more extensive than it is for, say, steel or auto worker unions. The leaders of teachers’ unions and their members understand (even welcome) this. Communicating with parents and the community is a big part of being a teacher. People are very serious about education, and rightfully so. Everyone should participate in the debate over how to run our schools. I dare say most teachers would agree that this debate, while sometimes overly contentious, has a net positive effect.

    Yet all the debate about the effect of teachers’ unions often omits an interesting (and, perhaps, important) question: What do teachers think about this issue? You don’t have to agree with all policy stances taken by teachers’ unions; such disagreement is not “teacher bashing,” as is sometimes alleged. If, however, you respect teachers and their opinions about how to run schools, and if teachers tend to agree with their unions, then it makes sense at least to keep this in mind when expressing opinions about their unions.

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  • America’s Union Suppression Movement (And Its Apologists), Part Two

    Written on April 18, 2013

    This is part two of a two-part post. The first part can be found here.

    As the war against American unions reached a fever pitch in recent years, there emerged a small group of right-wing academics and think tanks that have taken up the anti-union cause in intellectual circles. Of particular note for our purposes are Terry Moe’s book, Special Interest, and a recent study, How Strong Are U.S. Teacher Unions?, which was jointly sponsored by the Fordham Institute and Education Reform Now. [6]

    Since I’ve already written a critique of Moe’s book for the American Political Science Association’s journal, Perspective on Politics, my focus here is mainly on the Fordham/ERN report.

    Both publications tell a very similar story (all the more remarkable given the political and economic context I discussed in Part I of this post), in which incredibly powerful teacher union Leviathans invariably win the day in all manner of educational and public policy fights. The Fordham Institute’s Michael Petrilli offered a ten-second sound bite for this meme, when he recently wrote that teacher unions "were the Goliath to the school reformers' David."

    How does one find one’s way to such an unfounded conclusion? With an ideological analysis that has only the thinnest veneer of social science.

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  • America’s Union Suppression Movement (And Its Apologists), Part One

    Written on April 17, 2013

    Last week, in "Is There A ‘Corporate Education Reform’ Movement?", I wrote about the logic of forming strategic alliances on specific issues with those who are not natural allies, even those with whom you mostly disagree. This does not mean, however, that there aren’t those – some with enormous wealth and power – who are bent on undermining the American labor movement generally and teachers’ unions specifically. This is part one of a two-part post on this reality.

    The American union movement is, it must be said, embattled and beleaguered. The recent passage of the Orwellian named ‘right to work’ law in Michigan, an anti-union milestone in the birthplace of the United Auto Workers and cradle of American industrial unionism, is but the latest assault on American working people and their unions.[1] Since the backlash election of 2010 that brought Tea Party Republicans to power in a number of state governments, public sector workers have faced a legislative agenda designed to eviscerate their rights to organize unions and bargain collectively in such states as Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Iowa, New Hampshire and Virginia.

    Fueling these attacks is an underlying organic crisis that has greatly weakened the labor movement and its ability to defend itself. Union membership has fallen from a high point of 1 in 3 American workers at the end of WW II to a shade over 1 in 9 today. [2] At its height, American unions had unionized basic industries – auto, mining, steel, textiles, telecommunications – and had sufficient density to raise wages and improve working conditions for members and non-union workers as well. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics report for 2012, organized American labor has fallen to its lowest density in nearly a century. Today, American unions have high density in only one major sector of the economy, K-12 education, and in that sector unions are now under ferocious attack. [3]

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  • Teachers And Their Unions: A Conceptual Border Dispute

    Written on May 2, 2012

    One of the segments from “Waiting for Superman” that stuck in my head is the following statement by Newsweek reporter Jonathan Alter:

    It’s very, very important to hold two contradictory ideas in your head at the same time. Teachers are great, a national treasure. Teachers’ unions are, generally speaking, a menace and an impediment to reform.
    The distinction between teachers and their unions (as well as those of other workers) has been a matter of political and conceptual contention for long time. On one “side," the common viewpoint, as characterized by Alter's slightly hyperbolic line, is “love teachers, don’t like their unions." On the other “side," criticism of teachers’ unions is often called “teacher bashing."

    So, is there any distinction between teachers and teachers’ unions? Of course there is.

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