Last Monday, leaders of the contemporary teacher movement from across the country came together to discuss teacher strikes and the future of teacher unionism.

On November 8, Teachers College hosted a panel of teachers’ union leaders from Chicago, West Virginia, Yonkers, and New York City. The panel tackled directions of the contemporary teacher movement as it struggles to define itself as either a voice for teachers or the greater community. Professor Aaron Pallas of the Department of Education Policy & Social Analysis opened the panel by describing the changing atmosphere related to teacher strikes. With 68% of Americans approving of unions (up from 48% in 2009), the labor movement has found new momentum, culminating in a wave of teacher strikes in 2018 that began in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky, before spreading across the country. Against the backdrop of school shutdowns and unsafe working conditions during the pandemic, the re-energized movement must navigate new directions for activism. 

Dr. Melissa Arnold Lyon moderated the discussion, beginning the discussion by asking panelists about the extent to which teachers’ unions should engage with coalitions of parents, labor groups, and community organizations. Stacy Davis Gates, panelist and Vice President of the Chicago Teachers Union, called coalition work “the only type of unionism I know.” Gates led the monumental 11-day Chicago teacher strike in 2019. The Chicago Teachers Union is intimately tied to community needs; Gates emphasized that the union joined a community coalition already in progress. Their union’s demands highlighted the intersectionality of teachers’ interests with that of the community; the strike resulted in smaller class sizes, increased funding for nurses, social workers, and librarians in schools, sanctuary protections for undocumented immigrants on school grounds, and support for homeless students, as well as wage increases. 

Jay O’Neal, a teacher and strike leader in West Virginia, spoke to the rootedness of teachers within the community, describing how their union held feeding and childcare stations throughout the strike, ensuring that teachers and parents would not be pitted against one another. Gates similarly condemned the notion of parents and teachers acting as enemies, noting her identity as a mother herself; teachers are embedded in the fabric of the community.

The pandemic created new avenues for solidarity amongst teachers and families, contradicting narratives that teachers’ unions pursued their interests at the expense of parents. Jia Lee, an organizer in New York City, described how parent activism was key to shutting down the schools at the start of the pandemic. O’Neal recounted how parents’ concerns over schools reopening in West Virginia aligned with those of teachers. Their union created zoom meetings related to COVID-19 during the summer of 2020, and hundreds of parents signed up to communicate with teachers. Their work is emblematic of the many issues where teachers and students are closely aligned.

The intertwined nature of teachers’ working conditions with students’ learning makes teachers’ unionism a question of social justice. The panelists discussed how union work and racial justice work overlap. Kara Popiel, Executive Vice President of the Yonkers Federation of Teachers, described the ongoing challenges the union faces in achieving racial justice, as the union faces a disproportionate number of white teachers to students of color. The union works to educate teachers about culturally responsive teaching and bias and create hiring programs to increase teacher diversity. Popiel further connected the union’s stance on the pandemic to racial justice, as their district saw that students of color returned to the physical classroom at lower rates than white students. 

Gates described her efforts to explicitly name white supremacy as an impediment to the teacher’s movement, ultimately changing the Chicago teachers’ union’s constitution. The constitution’s proclamation of the union’s purpose to “promote racial, economic and social justice in order to achieve educational justice and build community and labor coalitions to achieve that objective” encapsulates a key message of the discussion. Despite this achievement, Gates found that even saying the terms Black and brown is a radical act. The Chicago teachers’ union works actively to confront white supremacy in Chicago schools, pushing against selective enrollment schools and low budgets while advocating for culturally relevant pedagogy. However, there is work to be done within the structure of the union itself, and not just outside forces, as Gates encounters the prevailing belief the union is only about wages and benefits, with no room to worry about children of color whose conditions are intimately tied to those of teachers. Lee contextualized this fight for social justice unionism in the legacy of white supremacy that serves as a foundation for both unionism and education in the United States. Given this history, Lee advocated for top-down bureaucratic unions to be dismantled, pointing to New York City, where it is illegal for teachers to go on strike. 

However, the work of racial justice activists and labor activists is not always so polarized. O’Neal discredited media-drawn lines between bread and butter unionism, upholding the narrow interests of workers, and fights for social justice; he explained how workers on the ground did not see such a line. 

The discussion closed by turning to tactics, adding urgency to the panelist’s calls for intersectionality. Nancy Lesko, a professor at Teachers College, questioned the emotional states preferred tactics presume; whether that be hope and optimism, or rage and frustration. Lesko described the need to mobilize emotion to move from experiences of injustice to activism.

The discussion took place on the 4th day of the Student Workers of Columbia Strike, an event on the audience’s mind as one audience member asked how teachers’ unions could support other, less established unions, such as that of Columbia. The panelists called for greater worker solidarity, with Popiel underscoring the call to action behind the “brother and sister” rhetoric amongst unions. Lee described moments of solidarity between teachers and other workers, such as taking care of children and providing food during Verison, Spectrum, and nurses’ strikes. However, she also criticized the lack of solidarity in the United Federation of Teachers in New York City even with other teachers’ unions; describing the “we have to get in first” rhetoric of the New York Union when negotiating pensions and other benefits. O’Neal phrased his answer simply: “just ask them what they need.”

2012 Chicago Teacher Strike via Flickr.