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A Tool to Rebuild Our Teachers Unions

A new book documents the assault on public education--and the struggle of teachers to resist it.

Photo Credit: JeanPaulHolmes | Creative Commons


"It's important to say, loudly, that the potential of teachers' unions is not being realized and that they need to be transformed."

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten must have missed that line when she tweeted: "Gr8 review of gr8 book."@AnthonyCody: Lois Weiner's new book: The Future of Our Schools; Teacher Unions & Social Justice." Weingarten is the inheritor and enthusiastic promoter of the model of top-down business unionism that has made teachers' unions into willing collaborators with their enemies.

But Weingarten was right about Lois Weiner's The Future of Our Schools: Teachers Unions and Social Justice . It's a fantastic book and an indispensable tool for anyone who wants to fight against the corporate-led attack on our public schools. Every group of teachers' union and public education activists should study and discuss this book.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part is essentially a overview for activists, describing the lay of the land in public education in the era of Barack Obama's Race to the Top law. The second part is comprised of articles Weiner wrote for the journal New Politics over the past four decades, each one illuminating a key point made in the first part of the book.

Weiner begins with an analysis of the roots of the current assault on public education--an economic and political model shared by the elites of the world, including privatization schemes, attacks on unions and the reduction of wages globally, summed up in the term "neoliberalism." As she puts it:

Minimally educated workers need only minimally educated teachers. Oversight of lowered expectations for educational outcomes can be achieved through the use of standardized testing. Therefore, a well-educated (and well-paid) teaching force, it is argued by elites establishing educational policy, is a waste of scarce public money.

The fight is not simply economic, but also ideological, Weiner writes: "By insisting that education is the key to ending poverty, politicians avoid taking on the fight for economic policies the country desperately needs." Conclusion: the fight for public education is a fight for all the priorities of the working class against the 1 percent. This is precisely how the corporate "reform" agenda--and resistance to it--can galvanize a broader movement for the transformation of the whole of our society:

As Weiner explains:

Teachers have the potential to affect social arrangements, challenging the authority of elites who have an interest in maintaining their own power and privilege. While all labor unions--all citizens!--have a stake in promoting and protecting teachers' ability to educate students who can think for themselves, a union of teachers has a particular responsibility to safeguard teachers' rights to help students think critically.

Weiner then turns her attention to the main vehicle through which teachers can change the system: their unions. This may be counterintuitive to many readers. Aren't the teachers' unions selfish and greedy? Aren't they concerned with their members' rights, as against those of students and parents? From another angle, critics will ask: Isn't it the teachers' unions that have agreed to such major attacks on teachers as Race to the Top?

The root of these concerns is the business union model that has been the modus operandi of both major teachers' unions for decades. In this model, the focus is narrowly on "bread and butter" issues. The union sees itself as insular, fighting for its members, often against the interests of parents and students. The fundamental problem here is that it pits teachers against their natural allies--parents, students and the community--to the benefit of the wealthy, who now pay less in taxes for the schools than ever.