Saturday, June 19, 2021

The Teacher Insurgency

The Teacher Insurgency. By Leo Casey. Harvard Education Press, 2020. 304 pages

Review by Paul Buhle Leo Casey, a former teacher and veteran labor strategist, has a lot to say about the accelerating crisis in American education and what teachers themselves—often without the support of politicians or the public (and sometimes against the advice of their own unions)—have done about it. His new book, The Teacher Insurgency: A Strategic and Organizing Perspective, looks at the wave of teachers’ strikes during 2018-19 that shocked nearly everyone, except perhaps teachers themselves. 

Not only were these strikes militant, but they took place in the Republican enclaves of North Carolina, Arizona, and West Virginia. Casey calls the 2018 events a “Teacher’s Spring,” a provocative phrase that brings us to 2019, because the pattern of strikes had spread to blue states as well. By then, the pattern had become a strategy. 

We met the threat of new legislation taking away fundamental rights to public unionism by a newly elected Republican governor, with a weeks-long occupation of Wisconsin’s state capitol and a more than year-long series of demonstrations. 

Teachers took action not only on the familiar issues of pay and working conditions, but also the excessive use of testing and the social and nutritional needs for chidlren—including the growing number of those that are homeless and undocumented. Teachers’ experience arguably occupied the central status of working lives, in some ways similar to the mass production workers of the 1930s-40s or skilled craftsmen in the decades after the Civil War.

As a longtime resident of Madison, Wisconsin, I cannot resist reflecting on the struggle of teachers and social workers in the Wisconsin Uprising of 2011-2012. So many crises have come (if not necessarily gone) in public life, this experience may now be remembered as life-changing, or a metaphor of our times, only by the participants and supporters. They—or, rather, we—met the threat of new legislation taking away fundamental rights to public unionism by a newly elected Republican governor, with a weeks-long occupation of Wisconsin’s state capitol and a more than year-long series of demonstrations—sometimes with hundreds of thousands of protesters. 

The numbers were stunning. And the spirit was nothing short of festival-like, featuring retired unionists from near and far, a battle of the bands, singers and newly minted songs by the dozens, and above all a raucous sense of humor at our sour reality. That President Barack Obama did not stop by to offer his support—after having promised as a candidate that “when I'm in the White House, I'll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself. I'll walk on that picket line with you”—was a particular disappointment. 

What had once been a famous “house of the people,” setting into motion the dreams of Robert M. La Follette and the nationwide progressive movement had, at that point, become home to an anti-union legislature of racist bigots. No one was demonized as surely and completely as women in the center of the workforce.

Casey points to what the late political economist James O’Connor dubbed the “Fiscal Crisis of the State,” the recession following the boom economy of the 1960s. The decision-makers at the top—made up of neoconservatives along with the standard rightwingers—sought to squeeze out the deficits by making the poor pay. “Draconian cuts” in public education from New York to California punished minority students, just as they were intended to do. 

Casey glosses over the 1970s teacher strikes, which swelled union membership, as often to the National Education Association as the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). And then, with the election of Ronald Reagan, came the reaction.  Decades later, the recession of 2008 struck again, perhaps more cruelly.

In this light, the ongoing privatization of public education has accelerated with the rightwing-funded charter school movement and their inflated claims of voucher systems. Casey lucidly explains that early reform hopes for flexibility and experimentation fell under the spell of market-driven economies. Administrators became autocrats and unionized teachers became scapegoats, with a particularly perverse twist turning the civil rights legacy on its head, supposedly offering the Black community the educational reforms best suited for minority students. 

Charter schools, however, produced no better results for the students (or the parents). Instead, they served the needs of the think tanks and private investors. From Wall Street to Silicon Valley, praises rang out for these so-called reforms, epitomized by Betsy DeVos’s rise to Education Secretary with the vision of driving a stake into the heart of public education. The Manhattan Institute could not have dreamed of a better outcome.

Nonetheless, teachers themselves did not accept this verdict. The “Teacher’s Spring” of 2018 inspired the election of progressive city and state officials in more than a dozen states, setting the stage, according to Casey, for a new phase of educational history. But, in looking to the past movements and events for models, he sometimes skates on thin ice. 

The labor movement, marked in the later 1960s and early 1970s by a failed democratic struggle within unions against aging and recalcitrant male bureaucracies, staggered dramatically downward with de-industrialization. Discussing the rise of teacher unionism, Casey returns to a point made most forcefully by leftwing industrial unions in theSouth during the 1940s, unions raided and purged in the Red Scare: the need for community support and all-out community engagement.  

The AFL and the more conservative CIO unions disdained this kind of involvement and failed at the most important single task: organizing the South. The AFT tried in its own way to engage the community. Great efforts were made and the AFT spearheaded the rise of teacher unionization around the country at a time when public service unionism offered the one bright spot in the labor movement. 

Tragically, the 1968 teachers action in New York, which pitted the union against the Black community and put on display the worst qualities of both sides. A popular Manhattan newspaper columnist at the time quipped that the strike and its effects set back Black/Jewish relationships for a generation.

Randi Weingarten, the current AFT president who succeeded several divisive presidencies, made grand efforts to heal old wounds and move ahead. Casey makes a striking case for the ways in which today’s teachers have challenged themselves and the system to become more skillful and more democratic with each other. 

Schools are the basis of public engagement at crucial times in young people’s lives. Teacher Insurgencies not only drives home the urgency of reform, but the impossibility of complete reform under capitalism’s rigors. The voracious ruling elite’s neoliberal urge to promote a handful of minorities while sending the rest to the reserve army of labor can bring only further harm.

Casey is a well-versed, urgent advocate for teacher unionism and reform. Read this book and learn.


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