When “Teachers Want What Children Need”: Reconciling Tensions in Teachers’ Work and Teacher Unionism

By | Published in of the Monthly Review

“Teachers want what children need—or do they?” Questioning—and rejecting—the slogan used by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) to fight for collective bargaining in the 1960s, David K. Cohen, a contributor to Socialist Revolution, in 1969 dismissed the progressive potential of teachers’ unions.1 This article revisits the AFT’s slogan and Cohen’s question, examining tensions between “what teachers want” and “what children need.” The history of U.S. teacher unionism supports the argument that when teachers’ unions adopt a “social movement” orientation and press against the confines of the scope of bargaining embedded in collective-bargaining agreements, the unions minimize tensions between teachers’ rights to organize as workers in defense of their material interests and the unique political and social responsibilities of their work.

Though not apparent from either the capitalist mass media or many critiques of what has come to be called “corporate school reform,” the fate of the world’s children depends in great part on resistance from teachers and their unions. We in the United States are experiencing a version of a global project that financial and political elites began forty years ago when they imposed school reform on Latin America, Africa, and Asia, first under brutal military dictatorships supported by U.S. imperialism and then as a quid pro quo for economic aid. Though well-documented by scholars and activists in the global South, the project (and resistance to it) is still not well-known in this country.2 Specifics differ from one country to another, yet its program has the same footprint and purpose of making schools fit neoliberalism’s vision of what the world needs: vocationalization of schooling, privatization of the educational sector, and deprofessionalization of teaching. All of this is tied to reliance on standardized tests as the exclusive measure of students, teachers, and schools.3

The powerful elites who share information and policies across international borders understand (unfortunately, better than do most teachers) that despite their all-too-glaring problems, teachers’ unions are the main impediment to the full realization of the neoliberal project. As is true for labor unions generally, teacher unionism’s principles of collective action and solidarity contradict neoliberalism’s key premises—individual initiative and competition. Neoliberalism pushes a “survival of the fittest” mentality. Labor unions presume people have to work together to protect their common interests. Another reason unions are a threat is that they can exercise institutional power: as organizations they have legal rights; because of their institutional roots, they are a stable force; and they are able to draw on membership dues, giving them a regular source of income. These characteristics give teachers’ unions an organizational capacity seldom acquired by advocacy groups or parents, who generally graduate from activity in schools along with their children. Yet, the very factors that make unions stable and potentially powerful also induce hierarchy and conservatism. Neither unions as organizations nor union members as individuals are immune to prejudices that infect a society, even when these prejudices contradict the union’s premises of equality in the workplace.

Read more: http://monthlyreview.org/2013/06/01/when-teachers-want-what-children-need

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