An Invaluable Book for Teachers

The past twelve years in British Columbia, as in the rest of the world, have seen devastating attacks on teachers’ unions and on public education. With the defeat of the provincial NDP in the May 2013 BC election came a lot of soul searching by people on the left in this province.

In my union local, it even prompted one teacher to post this comment on our union discussion site: “And so we have learned, hopefully, to come down from our BCTF/NDP  pie in the sky goals to have tiny classes, no world poverty… the best free health care in the world …, and all by only raising taxes on the rich! Oh for a 10 year agreement with a cost of living increase each year! What would the BCTF have to angst about then? Let’s get real folks, or it’ll only get far worse!” I can’t think of a better example of a teacher drawing the wrong conclusions from recent events.

It is in this climate that Lois Weiner’s book The Future of Our Schools is invaluable. Lois Weiner is a professor of education at New Jersey City University, and a specialist in urban teacher education and teacher unionism. She is also a lifelong teacher activist and unionist herself. In her book, Weiner outlines the nature of the assault by the 1% on public education, and describes how teachers’ unions can best resist these attacks.

Although Weiner’s book focuses almost exclusively on US teachers’ unions, it has much to contribute to the discussion of the way forward for teachers’ unions here in Canada.  Without political analysis, teachers can very easily draw the wrong conclusions from setbacks here in Canada, and end up making exactly the same mistakes as our US neighbours.

The Future of Our Schools is divided into two sections. In the first, Weiner outlines the nature of the assault on public education in the US, and explains how social movement unionism has been successful in building opposition to that assault in certain pockets of the US. The second part of the book reprints six articles about teacher unionism written for the magazine New Politics over the last thirty-five years.

In the first half of The Future of Our Schools, Weiner’s main argument is that teachers’ unions must resist the temptation to become business unions focussed only on improving the wages and benefits of their members, and should instead focus on becoming social justice unions. She argues very convincingly that a move towards social justice unionism, or as she calls it “social movement unionism,” is the only strategy that can win against neoliberal attacks. Social movement unionism works to unite a broad coalition of working people with democratically-organized unionized teachers, in opposition to the right-wing anti-education agenda.

Weiner makes it clear that the reason for the attack on US teachers’ unions is that they are the last strongly-unionized part of the public sector, and therefore they are seen as a threat by neoliberals.

The “reform” agenda in the US, exemplified by Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” and Obama’s nearly identical “Reach for the Top” legislation, has emphasized standardized testing and opened the door to using scarce resources to pay private companies to help “fix the problem” of “failing” schools. This has also had the effect of narrowing curriculum, and has punished already resource-poor failing schools by cutting their funding even further, not to mention blaming teachers for any failures of students to meet “the standards.”

Unfortunately, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association have accepted most of the “reform” agenda, with devastating consequences for US public education. The AFT has even accepted linking teachers’ merit pay to students’ test scores!

However, Weiner points out that where teachers’ unions have a social activism focus, as in Chicago, they have been much more effective in mobilizing against the “deform” agenda. As Weiner explains, “the elites that are orchestrating school ‘deform’ understand (unfortunately more than do teachers) that despite their problems, teachers’ unions are the main impediment to the neo-liberal project.”

When I saw the format of the second part of Weiner’s book, I was surprised that it was composed of older articles, not expecting the advice and insight that they offered to directly address today’s situation. Sadly, I realized that the issues raised in articles from as long ago as 1975 are still very relevant. Weiner describes the 1970’s US teachers’ unions as experiencing a “brutal financial assault” and describes how the undemocratic nature of the union leadership stifled true rank-and-file control of the unions — both issues today as much as they were in 1975.

At several points in her book, Weiner praises my union, the BC Teachers’ Federation (BCTF), as an example of social movement unionism. However, as with any union, there is always a tension between those who want to pursue the path of social justice and those who want to focus only on monetary issues.

While the BCTF is miles ahead of many of its US counterparts in fighting the neoliberal agenda in our schools, like any union it has its faults. As the attacks on teachers have continued, some teachers have withdrawn from union activity and turned inward. This means there is a risk that the social movement element in our union might be reduced to the meetings of tiny groups of activists who are only talking to themselves rather than building a true fightback.

The solution is, of course, to work to engage more members of the union in activity, and Weiner’s book is useful in suggesting both how we can best do that, and why it is so valuable.

Lisa Descary is a secondary school classroom teacher, school union rep and activist. She has been teaching in the Greater Vancouver area for more than 20 years.