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Book Review: The Future of Our Schools; Teacher Unions and Social Justice

Today I am taking time to review an insightful new book, authored by Lois Weiner: The Future of Our Schools; Teachers Unions and Social Justice (2012, Haymarket Books.) This work presents a useful guide to teachers who wish to make the most out of one the most powerful tools we have - our unions. futureofourschools.jpg

In our discussion of how to improve schools, teacher unions are a frequent focus of discussion. The education "reformers" portray unions as defenders of the status quo and protectors of bad teachers. On the opposite side, we also hear those who are frustrated when teacher unions agree to the use of test scores in teacher evaluations, or endorse wayward politicians. Sometimes, in frustration, some even wonder if the unions are of much use at all.

Lois Weiner makes a strong case for why our unions are important:


Unions press for collective voice and intervention to counter the employer's absolute control. Working together, employees possess a strength much greater than they have as individuals. Without a union, employees have no protection and no rights except those the employer grants. Especially in an occupation like teaching in which there is so much disagreement about what constitutes ideal practice, a supervisor has tremendous power to decide whether an individual is doing the job well. At its best the union brings individuals together to create a collective definition of professional conduct and responsibilities. (p. 9)


The propaganda campaign we have experienced has achieved its goal of discrediting unions as organizations and even the idea of teacher unionism among much of the public and teachers as well. Yet we need democratic, vibrant, progressive teachers unions to turn back privatization of schools, which spells destruction for public education. To stand up as individuals for our dignity and our students' well-being, we need the institutional support a good union can provide. If we fail to make the unions what they should be, most students in our country - and the world - will be trained for a life of menial labor, poverty, or imprisonment. (p. 12.)

Dr. Weiner also encourages us to think about solidarity more globally:

...early childhood teachers in Newark, New Jersey, almost all women of color, were being laid off as permanent employees and rehired under temporary contracts just as I read on Mary (Compton's) website that the same policy had been imposed on preschool teachers in Trinidad and Tobago. There was one important difference: Newark's teachers weren't publicizing what had occurred while teachers in Trinidad and Tobago, also women of color, had gathered parent support and organized public protests, getting wide coverage in the local media. What if the two groups had connected and offered one another mutual support? (p. 63.)

Although we in the United States tend to think that our situation is unique, we have much to learn by staying informed about resistance elsewhere. (p. 64)

The real heart of the book is nuts and bolts wisdom for teachers who are or aspire to leadership in our unions. Some of this advice is broad:

The ideal of social movement unionism relieves you from needing to know all the answers when you are elected to union office. Your job is to mobilize the membership and revitalize the union's organization so that members tell officers what to do. If there's a crisis, the place to turn is the most representative body in the union. Your job as officers is to think through and research the options, which you present to your members, as your best shot at how to proceed. Trusting in democracy takes a leap of courage because we so rarely see it actualized. But once you've seen the tremendous energy and creativity released when a social movement takes off, you never forget its potential. Trusting in your members is practical because as leaders you often face people with far more power than you have as an individual. Your power resides in your membership. When union officials experience themselves as solely in control, they feel weak and act accordingly. They make decisions based on a stance of weakness and fear. (p. 66.)

This passage reminds me of what happened in Chicago when, towards the end of the strike, Mayor Emanuel presented union leaders with an offer, and was shocked when they insisted that rather than end the strike immediately, the members get a few days to read the contract and then vote to approve or reject it. Karen Lewis said at the time:


This union is a democratic institution, which values the opportunity for all members to make decisions together. The officers of this union follow the lead of our members. The issues raised in this contract were too important, had consequences too profound for the future of our public education system and for educational fairness for our students, parents and members for us to simply take a quick vote based on a short discussion. Therefore, a clear majority voted to take this time and we are unified in this decision.

But Dr. Weiner also gets into the nitty gritty. In a section entitled Teacher Unionism 101 she offers pages of detailed advice about how to get started in union activism. How does collective bargaining work? What are effective ways to connect with and engage other teachers, so we are not on our own? How can we relate to elected union leaders? How can we win allies?

The roots of our unions are to be found in the deep desire for justice and dignity. Ms. Weiner brings us back to those roots every time, and places our unions in that long struggle that we can trace back generations, and will be with us for generations to come. She points out:

...we speak to deep human desires that cannot be so easily erased: of parents for their children's social and emotional well-being; of school workers for dignity and economic security; of citizens for schools that will educate the next generation. As we face challenges, we need to keep in mind that many of the laws and social norms we take for granted were achieved by "fringe" groups not long ago.

The Future of Our Schools may indeed depend on our teacher unions. This book offers some great insight into how teachers can take greater initiative in these unions, and make sure they fulfill their promise.

What do you think? Is Lois Weiner's call for a reinvigorated teacher unionism useful?

Continue the dialogue with me on Twitter at @AnthonyCody

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