In 1968, the year before my father’s retirement, my wife, infant daughter and I returned to New York from three years in Mississippi, where I had been pursuing the justice dictated by my Jewish upbringing and perhaps in some small measure by my early immersion in the world of union socialism. Within a few months I was drawn into the maelstrom of the legendary Ocean Hill/Brownsville teachers’ strike, which pitted the teachers’ union, led by Albert Shanker, against Black community activists who had been given control of a small school district in Brooklyn as part of an experiment supported by Mayor John Lindsay and the Ford Foundation. The union saw this venture as a threat to the protections afforded to teachers under the union contract, while the activists saw it as a rare opportunity to control at least this one institution which until now had been controlled from afar by the Kremlin equivalent known in those days as 110 Livingston Street. Here was my Scylla and Charybdis – my union loyalties on the one hand and my support for the Black community and local control on the other. It was an agonizing decision, but with the Mississippi experience fresh in my mind, my sympathies lay strongly with the community.
My first act as strike breaker was to go to school headquarters to apply for a substitute teaching position to authorize me to fill in for a striking teacher, but my Harvard Ph.D. didn’t match the requirements for subbing and I was turned away. Although we didn’t have school age children yet, my wife and I decided that the most concrete way to oppose what we saw as the union’s efforts to deprive the community of control over its schools was to try to keep our own neighborhood school open. That meant crossing the picket line and spending the night in the school so that we could open the doors in the morning to welcome the neighborhood children. The symbolic act of crossing the picket line was for me the equivalent of burning a torah scroll, a repudiation of what had previously been sacrosanct. I had not just crossed a physical line, but a psychological one as well, into previously uncharted territory where the union was no longer the uncontested arbiter of the right and the just, and, in fact, was sometimes the very source of injustice. Of course, I knew about Jimmy Hoffa and the notorious Teamsters Union, who were not alone among unions as the cynical bases for corruption and the pocket lining of the leadership. But the teachers’ union, while not floating on a bed of corruption, had proved itself in my eyes to be pursuing narrow self- interest rather than the greater good.
Fast forward to 1997. Despite the rejection by 110 Livingston Street of my application for a sub’s license, I had in fact become a teacher, albeit in states like Texas, Vermont and New Hampshire, where the union was not a strong presence. Now I had returned to a strong union town, Chicago, and was offered a chance to lead a new charter school that would be devoted to demonstrating that low income students of color could perform competitively under the right circumstances. Charter schools had only been authorized the previous year by the state of Illinois, but from the start they drew the ire of the unions because the flexibility and freedom they were offered was based largely on their exemption from the terms of the teachers’ union contract. Despite my earlier run-in with the United Federation of Teachers in NY, this decision to be involved with a non-union school collided with deep-rooted loyalties and attachments. I had seen how powerless teachers were to protect themselves or to bargain for decent wages in Houston, which is arguably the epicenter of free market anti-union capitalism and the birthplace of many of the “reform” ills that have bedeviled educators in this century.
Was I now going to acquiesce to being party to that same regression to 19th century methods of dictating workers’ lives? It’s true that our plans called for teacher participation in decision-making, salaries comparable to what they would be making in union-controlled schools, professional treatment (e.g. office space outside their classrooms) unmatched in those union schools. It’s also true that teachers would be working longer hours for those equivalent wages, but there were limits dictated by the school’s contract with the teachers. In the end, it was a system based on my continuing to play the role of benevolent dictator. If I or the school’s board chose to change course, the staff had no recourse. None of the power rested in their hands. I had entered into what felt like a Faustian bargain. The only way, at least as it appeared at that point, to create a school with the kind of instructional program, calendar, and hiring policies that conformed to our vision was to be a charter school, liberated from the incredible strait-jacket of the voluminous union contract.
One of my favorite teacher movies, Teacher, starring Nick Nolte, includes a scene in which the union rep enters the teachers’ lounge while teachers are bracing themselves for the challenges of the day ahead. He is excited. He reports that at a bargaining session the previous night, he had won a great victory for teachers. “They” wanted a start time of 7:35, but the union held its ground and won a 7:45 opening. That scene embodies the chokehold that regressive teachers’ union practices have had on most urban school districts, going back to the 60s. It’s the kind of story that makes people who are ambivalent about unions and worse roll their eyes. It does a disservice to progressive teachers’ union advocates who are committed to fighting for the rights of parents, children and communities alongside teacher rights, but that was not the union leadership that was in place in 1997, and I don’t believe that we could have created a school as good as it’s turned out to be more than twenty years later if we hadn’t gone the charter school route.
What seemed like a perfectly justifiable choice at the time looks more complicated in the rear-view mirror. I did not anticipate the explosion of charter schools nationally, particularly those operated by management organizations who were all too comfortable with exploiting their powerless teachers, ready to run up a fresh row of cannon fodder when the front lines fell from exhaustion and disillusionment. I did not have the foresight to see that the large foundations and venture capitalists who were fueling the charter school movement were part of a grander strategy of destroying unions across the board, thereby eliminating a major source of opposition to their desire to promote free market principles in every area of American life. I was proud of the difference our school was making in the lives of the 400+ students in our building, but only later was that pride dimmed by realization that there had been collateral damage, not just to unions, but to communities that lost their cohesive glue in the form of neighborhood schools and to the children who remained on the outside looking in, sitting in schools even more poorly staffed and resourced than they had been before. One of the cardinal rules that promoters of change should strive for is “Do no harm.” We didn’t come close.
So, it’s one more time back across the union divide. In recent years, I’m proud to have been involved in several efforts to unionize charter schools, to provide protections for exploited and voiceless teachers. This is not easy work. It requires crafting agreements that protect teachers, but do not throttle the flexibility that enables charter schools to innovate. In most charter unionization campaigns, the goal of the teachers involved is not just their own protection, but the protection of their children from capricious and ill-equipped administrations to provide the stable and clear direction for their schools they need to thrive. We can hope that the rifts between neighborhood and charter schools, between union advocates and opponents, can begin to heal when they recognize their common goals.
My struggle with teachers’ unions which began in one strike, way back in 1968, made a dramatic turn during another strike here in Chicago in 2012. The heavy-handed efforts by the mayor to destroy the union were foiled by a progressive union leadership, wise enough to ally itself with parents and community, rather than setting itself up in opposition to those groups. I didn’t agree with every position the union took during this period – efforts to divide neighborhood school teachers from those in charters and a blanket resistance to all charter schools; but overall it was inspiring to see the teachers’ growing awareness of the power of their voices to act not only in behalf of their own interests, but in behalf of the communities they serve. I was back on board.
This pandemic year has brought another slight turn in my alignment with the teachers’ unions here in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. On the one hand, I admire the determination they have shown in protecting the safety of their teachers, as well as the children and their families. In the most vulnerable low-income communities, many school buildings cannot be adapted to provide the ventilation necessary to minimize the risk of contagion. So far, the position of the majority of parents of color is aligned with that of the teachers’ union, with only about a third of parents choosing to send their children back for in person learning. But on occasion I’ve been uncomfortable with the unions’ hard line on reopening in situations where it could in fact be workable. Assessing risk is always complicated and I found myself wishing for a bit more flexibility on the part of the unions in examining situations where opening might have been the better option.
In any case, for the first time in a long time we have a pro-union president. It may be that the erosion of union power and influence is not reversible and supporting the union cause will suffer the same fate as Trump’s support of coal. But the stakes are high. We are slipping rapidly toward irreversible oligarchy and unions are one of the few counterforces left to us.