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PORTSIDE  October 2012, Week 1

PORTSIDE October 2012, Week 1

Subject:

From Ocean Hill-Brownsville to Chicago: Learning from History

From:

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Date:

Thu, 4 Oct 2012 20:15:09 -0400

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From Ocean Hill-Brownsville to Chicago: Learning from History

by  Stephanie Luce 

September 27, 2012
Organizing Upgrade

http://www.organizingupgrade.com/index.php/template/labor/item/704-from-ocean-hill-brownville-to-chicago-learning-from-history

In 1968, New York teachers went on strike in the Ocean Hill-
Brownsville School District in Brooklyn after a dozen teachers
and six administrators were unilaterally dismissed. The school
district was established by the New York City Department of
Education as an experiment in community control in the mostly
African American neighborhood.

The locally elected school board dismissed the teachers, who
were white, for their hostility to community control. The
teachers union (United Federation of Teachers, or UFT), struck
schools across Ocean Hill-Brownsville, demanding the teachers
be rehired. The strike spread across the entire city and
lasted about two months until the New York State Education
Commission trusteed the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school
district, rehired the teachers, and took control over the
school.

The strike created enormous tension in New York, some of which
lingers today. Many saw this as a historic fight between
mostly white and Jewish teachers and their union, against
black students and parents. Some longtime progressives crossed
the picket lines to support the community controlled school;
others did not. To this day, there are those who feel that
support for the demands of teachers unions often comes at the
expense of quality education and learning conditions for
students of color.

Last week, members of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) went on
strike. Mainstream media outlets quickly picked up on the
historic tension, claiming that the Chicago Teachers were once
again putting their own needs above those of the black and
Latino students in the city. Charles Lane writes in the
Washington Post: "I cannot describe the moral repugnance of
this strike by aggrieved middle-class "professionals" against
the aspiring poor," noting that 85 percent of Chicago students
are African American or Latino.

This perspective has been voiced before. Due to real
conflicts, such as in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, as well as the
gap, real and perceived, between African American parents and
children on one side, and public school teachers on the other,
supporters of vouchers and Charter schools have highlighted
the ways in which public schools fail children of color, and
used these failures as a pretext to curb teacher union rights.

Critics are right to question the power dynamic between
teachers and students, and they are right to raise concerns
about the priorities of many teachers unions. I have been a
member of the American Federation of Teachers and the National
Education Association in three states, and have seen firsthand
how these unions can be narrowly self-interested, prioritizing
wage or pension issues to the exclusion of educational content
and student concerns. I've seen my union give millions of
dollars to politicians, lobbyists and consultants, while
paying lip service to the needs of other unions, community
allies and student groups.

But it would be a mistake to draw the conclusion that the
situation in Chicago is the same as it was in 1968 New York.

First, the composition of the teacher workforce has itself
changed, particularly in large urban school districts. In
Chicago, 45 percent of CTU members are African American, and
about 15 percent are Latino. Arguing that teacher unions only
represent the interests of white workers is a pat answer that
misses the mark on many levels.

Second, many teachers have themselves worked to build stronger
alliances between the union, parents and students. Indeed,
over the last fifteen years building parent and community
connections has become a common strategy for teachers working
to build rank-and-file networks inside their unions. These
reform-minded teachers have built momentum in a number of
cities.

In Chicago, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) began
as a study group among a small number of teachers, who read
about the politics of school closings together with broader
analysis like Naomi Klein's Shock Doctrine.

According to current CTU president Karen Lewis, the group
learned that school closings were about real estate and
gentrification so they decided they had to do something about
it. They pushed their union to get involved but had no luck.
They organized themselves into a larger group and got active
fighting school closures and privatization. The activists saw
that politicians and education reformers wanted to talk about
an achievement gap, but not the poverty gap, and the union
seemed unwilling to enter the debate. They decided they had to
run for office and take control of their union.

In Los Angeles, teachers built a left-leaning caucus,
Progressive Educators for Action (PEAC), to push their union
to be more responsive and active. At the same time, some of
the teachers built the Coalition for Educational Justice,
which was an independent coalition of parents, teachers and
students working on student-centered issues such as access to
bilingual education or dealing with ROTC in the schools.

Caucuses like CORE and PEAC developed in a number of cities,
many with roots in the workplace activism of an earlier
generation of leftists. In the 1970s, many young left
activists entered workplaces to get active in union politics,
foster more internal democracy, and push unions into a more
social movement direction. The practice, often referred to as
"industrialization," frequently targeted blue-collar
industries like auto, telecom, transit, and steel. But
teaching, along with various other public sector occupations,
were also popular among left-wing activists in the 1970s. By
the 1990s teaching became an even more frequent avenue for
radicals to get involved in union activism, as manufacturing
and other industrial jobs were harder and harder to find. The
opposite was true in teaching, and it appealed to many young
activists as a place to be active in their union and bring
radical ideas into the classroom.

Others were drawn to reform work inside teacher unions because
of their own experiences as a student, or because of exposure
to community organizing or racial justice campaigns. Still
others saw reforming teacher unions as a way to challenge
educational reforms that they saw as detrimental to learning.

These caucuses had their limitations, but one common current
was the idea that teachers unions needed to organize based on
the deep interconnection between teachers working conditions
with student learning conditions. These activists pushed
teachers unions to intersect their demands with those of
parents and students - both because it was necessary to win,
but also because they saw addressing the problems in the
schools as a political priority.

Progressive caucuses eventually won leadership of the teachers
unions in Los Angeles and Chicago, although in Los Angeles
more conservative members have won some key offices in the
union. Elsewhere, they continue to meet and work on ways to
build stronger alliances between teachers, students and
parents. It is challenging work, and raises lots of questions.

For example, how do you balance democratic voice in these
coalitions when the teachers start with a clear institutional
structure (the union), but parents may not have any
organization of their own? And how can you build democratic
and transparent alliances between teachers and students, given
the wide gaps in power, age, authority, and status? What
options do you have to win improvements in a financially
strapped school district, or when parents themselves face
incredible challenges getting by? How do you fight the forces
that attempt to co-opt real reform efforts or real community
control?

These are hard questions, and no one has easy answers. But the
experience in Chicago shows that teachers unions can evolve
into social movement unions, and that the historic tension of
race versus class, students and parents of color versus white
teachers, need not hold true today.

There are a few key lessons to learn from this:

 *  Teacher union supporters should remember Ocean Hill-
 Brownsville, and many other examples, of when unions were
 pitted against people of color. The US labor movement has an
 ugly history of racism inside of unions and that impacted
 communities of color as well. Many students of color have
 suffered, and continue to suffer, in school systems that
 don't have enough resources, don't have enough teachers of
 color, have poor teaching practices, and seem to be more
 intent on training an obedient workforce than fostering
 creative and critical thinking. There is a lot of work to be
 done improving schools, and teachers unions need to play a
 central role alongside parents and students.

 *  Teacher unions have had problems, but there are thousands
 of teachers working to reform their unions for the better.
 The days of Ocean Hill-Brownsville, when big-city teachers
 unions were overwhelmingly white, are gone. Teaching is quite
 racially diverse, although the rise of high-stakes testing,
 vouchers, and charter schools have disproportionately pushed
 teachers of color out of the profession. Teachers are also
 connected to the school system, as parents and also as
 taxpayers. Many students of color want to grow up to be
 teachers, and teaching remains one of the few living wage job
 options for many students. We can't let ourselves fall into
 false dichotomies (teachers versus taxpayers; teachers versus
 parents).

 *  Teacher union reform work and educational justice
 coalitions have proven to be a fruitful arena for
 collaboration among left activists. At a time when the left
 is very weak, and when a number of experiments to unite the
 left have failed or fizzled, teacher union reform projects
 are often a bright spot. In fact, many activists have found a
 way to collaborate even if the left organizations they belong
 to do not This offers hope for a different kind of left based
 on common work.

[Stephanie Luce is Associate Professor of Labor Studies and
has gained national and international recognition for her
research on living-wage campaigns and on the impact of
globalization on jobs and workers.  She serves on the
editorial board of New Labor Forum and is a moderator for
Portside Labor.]

==========

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on the left that will help them to interpret the world
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