Thomas Ultican: Teachers Unions Are Selfless
Thomas Ultican looks at a paper from Dr. Keith Benson and considers how teachers unions have stood up against the march of neo-liberalism in education. Reposted with permission.
Dr. Keith Benson wrote the research paper “Teachers Teach and Do the World Good ….” In this scholarly piece published by Scientific Research, Keith, an inspirational young man and community leader, described the world wide neoliberal attack on public education highlighting the often dangerous stand teachers take to save public schools. In the introduction, Benson writes, “To be sure, teachers have a rich and valuable history of standing up and pushing for the best interests of their societies, and it is my intent to discuss just some of that here.” (Benson 218)
In 2016, Benson earned a Doctorate of Education from Rutgers Graduate School of Education. His website shares, “Dr. Keith Eric Benson, is a Camden public school educator, qualitative researcher, and current President of the Camden Education Association (CEA).” It is from this background as a scholar and teacher activist that he states unequivocally teachers’ unions are fighting for far more than self interest. They are standing up for the future of public education and well being of their communities.
Why They Went on Strike
The Chicago teachers strike in 2012 was pivotal. At the time, a corporate ethos had eclipsed democratic ideals of public education. Neoliberal politician from both of America’s major political parties and their deep pocketed backers were working to change school governance in the image of free market capitalism. They were coalescing around the deceptive banner of “reform.” With few exceptions, the burgeoning business centered education groups had two things in common: they embraced market solutions to school improvement and viewed teachers’ unions as major barriers to changes sought.
A book, A Fight for the Soul of Public Education: The Story of the Chicago Teachers Strike, by University of Illinois labor education professors Bob Bruno and Steven Ashby is a postmortem on the 2012 strike. First, the authors look deeply into the bargaining process and how the parties eventually produced a labor agreement whose pro-teacher substance few thought possible.
In a TV interview author Bob Bruno stated,
“Second, we seek to tell, through the teachers’ and staff’s voices, the story of how the CTU was transformed from a top-down, bureaucratic organization into one of the most member-driven unions in the United States. In this process, a labor conflict focused solely on compensation at the start developed into a challenge to a national education reform movement that, teachers charged, was systematically destroying public education and using Chicago as its test case. Unlike in past strikes, tens of thousands of teachers, clinicians, and paraprofessionals marched repeatedly in Chicago’s neighborhoods and downtown. Thousands of community members and parents joined the demonstrations. Crowds swelled, shutting down streets in the city’s Loop district. Instead of accepting the loss of classroom control and corporate style-management of schools, which teachers had been told for decades was “inevitable,” the CTU reinvigorated a national teachers movement by fighting back. The ripple effects of the 2012 strike are being felt in school districts and union halls across the country.”
Red for Ed swept across the nation in 2018 with such ferocity that write wing media outlet Breitbart claimed, “This teachers union effort, called #RedforEd, has its roots in the very same socialism that President Trump vowed in his 2019 State of the Union address to stop, and it began in its current form in early 2018 in a far-flung corner of the country before spreading nationally.” Ultra-conservative political leaders were frightened by successful teachers’ strikes in right to work states like West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona.
A Red for Ed Rally in Arizona
As the Red for Ed movement stormed into 2019, the Jacobin described its objective which did not include spreading Karl Marx ideology.
“Of the 2019 work stoppages, the most important were certainly January’s strike in Los Angeles and October’s strike in Chicago. Each were offensive actions to reverse the education policies imposed by corporate Democrats over the past two decades; each foregrounded “common good” demands on behalf of students as well as the broader community.
“These common good demands, for example, included an increase in the number of nurses and counselors as well as smaller class sizes. Importantly, each of these strikes highlighted the interconnection between the fight for public education and racial justice.”
In January 2019, 30,000 members of the Los Angeles teachers union walked out to the picket lines. In this first strike in 30 years, wages were far from being the only issue. Reporting by the Las Angeles Times after the six day strike agreement was reached noted,
“Striking teachers were sincere, though, when they said the walkout was always about more than salary. The broader concerns they voiced — about overcrowded classrooms and schools without nurses on hand to help when a student got hurt or fell ill — had a lot to do with why the public responded so warmly and cheered them on, bringing food to the lines and even bringing their children to march alongside the strikers.
“For students who rallied and picketed, the strike was a real-life civics lesson, while students inside the thinly staffed schools were watching movies, doing online coursework or playing with cellphones.
“Families identified in particular with teachers’ complaints about overly large classes, because class size affects them directly.”
In March 2019, it was the same story in Oakland, California. EdSouce reported,
“Teachers’ union President Keith Brown, in announcing the agreement, called the strike historic. “We have achieved so much in the seven days of our historic strike in Oakland, in spite of an employer who has said that the sky is falling, that they could not pay for a living wage, they could not pay for lower class sizes,” he said. “They couldn’t make the investments for needed student support such as nurses, counselors, psychologists and speech therapists.”
In October 2019, Chicago teachers staged another strike lasting 11 days before their demands were met. The problem for city leaders was that parents and students were supporting teachers and marching with them. The Guardian reported on the big issues,
“Teachers said the strike was based on a social justice agenda and aimed to increase resources, including nurses and social workers for students, and reduce class sizes, which teachers say exceed 30 or 40 students in some schools. Union leaders said the strike forced the city to negotiate on issues such as support for homeless students.”
“The Chicago strike was another test of efforts by teachers’ unions to use contract talks typically focused on salaries and benefits and force sweeping conversations about broader problems such as affordable housing, protections for immigrants and class sizes.”
The Neoliberal Agenda
Benson’s well sourced paper asserts,
“Neoliberal Democrats like Hillary Clinton, Rahm Emmanuel, Barack Obama, Cory Booker, and Andrew Cuomo, much like Republicans and Libertarians, view education less as a social responsibility where through its process students are empowered to think critically and view themselves as agents of change, a la Freire, Greene, and hooks, but more of private commodity whereby students increase their human capital for their personal economy.” (Benson 222)
“Education privatization efforts in cities as large as New Orleans (Buras, 2011), and Detroit, along with lesser referenced locales like Puerto Rico and Providence, Rhode Island (Morel, 2018), and cities as small as Chester, Pennsylvania (Maranto, 2005) and Camden, New Jersey (Benson, 2018) serve as exemplars where the blueprint of weakened teachers unions, increased standardization of curriculum and assessments, and installation of corporate-operated charter schools coalesced to cripple the delivery of traditional, democratic public education.” (Benson 222)
When it came to attacking public education, Benson’s list of Neoliberal Democrats omits Albert Gore who was among the most effective.
Lily Geismer recently published Left Behind: The Democrats Failed Attempt to Solve Inequality in which she provides important insights into how these neoliberals gained political control of the Democratic Party and what they were selling. She points to Colorado Democratic Congressman Gary Hart’s call to “end the New Deal” as a starting point. (Geismer 22) After Walter Mondale’s trouncing by Reagan in 1984, market oriented politicians created the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC). Geismer shares,
“The architects recruited as founding members a lineup of fourteen senators, including Nunn, Chiles and Gore (who had just moved chambers); seventeen representatives, like Wirth, Gephardt, Leon Panetta of California, and Les Aspin of Wisconsin; and ten governors, such as Robb, Babbitt, James Blanchard of Michigan, Richard Lamm of Colorado, and Bill Clinton of Arkansas.” (Geismer 45)
In 1990, when Bill Clinton became the chairman of the DLC also known as New Democrats, the organization stated its intention to modernize both the government and the Democratic Party. Geismer recounts,
“By 1990, the DLC had issued a statement called the New Orleans Declaration that deemed the ‘fundamental mission of the Democratic Party is to expand opportunity, not government,’ ‘economic growth is the prerequisite to expanding opportunity for everyone,’ and the ‘free market regulated in the public interest, is the best engine of general prosperity.’” (Geismer 107)
In a 1991 speech, Presidential candidate, Bill Clinton called for “public school choice.” (Geismer 127)
Clinton’s confidant and the founding architect of the DLC, Al From, created the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI) as a counter balance to the Heritage foundation. PPI supported what it called the “third-way” which included Clinton’s free trade agenda and hostility toward labor unions. At the time, unions calculated that George H. W. Bush was a bigger threat and supported Clinton. The new DLC led administration “attempted to put a nail in the coffin of New Deal liberalism.” (Geismer 170)
Then Vice President Al Gore was convinced public schools were failing and needed a new direction. During a monthly “Gore-Tech session”, the Vice President asked venture capitalist John Doerr, “If you Silicon Valley types are so smart, why can’t you do something to create new schools?” Doerr who had scored big with investments in Netscape, Amazon and Google, like Gore, was certain public schools required radical change. He wanted “better schools based on Silicon Valley’s principles of accountability, choice and competition.”(Geismer 233-234)
Gore’s question and a Stanford business student’s ideas led to founding The NewSchools Venture Fund. The article “Organized to Disrupt” shows the staggering amounts of money Doerr and his friends put into this fund which is still selling privatization and education technology. NewSchools was at the forefront of venture philanthropy also known as “philanthrocapitalism.”
Some Ending Quotes from Dr. Benson
“Similar to what we witnessed in America over the past twenty years, Latin American educators are cast by their respective governments as hindrances to the educational and economic progress of their students and, by extension, their respective nations’ economy as well (Lobo, 2019a).” (Benson 224)
“Over the past three decades, Latin American teacher unions played a major role in policy making positively impacting education at the schoolhouse primarily through professionalization of the field, and policy advocacy through informing law makers about education, contributing to research, and push against neoliberal influence (Gindin & Finger, 2014).” (Benson 225)
“Australian teachers cautioned that the corporatization of schooling was, as noted in other global contexts, diverting governmental and social responsibility to provide education as a societal good and a collective responsibility. Where schools should, in their view, stress social justice, democracy, and the common good as the aspirational ideal, instead, Australian schools are witnessing increased influence of corporate think tanks and consultancies that shape the delivery of public education to suit corporations’ economic needs (Reid, 2019).” (Benson 226)
Dr. Benson’s paper ended on this sour note:
“Adding to the difficulties educators worldwide are experiencing at present, a global pandemic that claimed over 5.75M lives worldwide (Our World in Data, 2022) will undoubtedly contribute to a further radical remaking of the profession as the presence of Big Tech appears to be less of an emergency stopgap to deliver educative services to students barred from attending school in person, but likely here to stay. Indeed, after witnessing how ‘well’ virtual classrooms ‘worked’ for NYC students, newly elected mayor Eric Adams, commented that now New York City teachers can lead virtual classrooms of up to ‘three or four hundred students year-round (Stieb, 2021).’ Sigh.” (Benson 228)
Our American public education system is an amazing legacy which is foundational to that other great American legacy, democracy. It is not a coincidence that democracy’s future is now viewed as uncertain after the past 40-years of scurrilous attack on public education. Humanism should be the guiding principle of public institutions and democratic governance; not neoliberalism.