Answering the wake-up call for teachers’ unions

May 21, 2014

Teachers and their unions have been the crosshairs of a campaign led by top politicians and corporate figures who claim to stand for education "reform." But the last several years have seen the development of an alternative to the old model for teachers' unions--with the idea of social justice unionism at its heart. John Becker, an English teacher at Berkeley High School and vice president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT), talked to fellow BFT member Dana Blanchard about the challenges ahead.

WHAT DOES social justice unionism mean to you, and why do you think it's important for teachers' unions in particular to adopt this model of organizing?

ANYONE WHO thinks that the notion of class warfare doesn't apply to the United States is obviously either not paying attention or not understanding what they're looking at.

We've been in the midst of a largely one-sided class war for decades now. The wealthy have long since found class solidarity--they see quite clearly that a victory for the wealthy in one place is a victory for the wealthy everywhere. For too long, unions--their activists and their leaders--have failed to articulate a counter-narrative to the tightly built wall of capital.

As a movement, we must realize that we bear a lot of responsibility for the decline of unions and the declining fortunes of the working class in America over the last 40 years. Unions' myopic focus on their wages and benefits, the working conditions of their people, to the exclusion of all other concerns and issues, has allowed the ground to shift under us.

Members of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers
Members of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers

Without a narrative that places our struggles in larger sociopolitical contexts, it's no wonder that union membership has declined; it's no wonder that wages have stagnated, while health care costs climb; it's no wonder that our schools have been resegregated; it's no wonder that the aftermath of the financial crisis has consisted of bigger bonuses, bigger profits and no jail time.

I see social justice unionism as a return to theory--it's the realization that our members' needs exist in larger contexts. For instance, if our benefits costs in Berkeley are going up, that's not a contract campaign struggle, it's a struggle for single-payer health care. If 42 percent of Berkeley students receive free- and reduced-price lunch, and we know that poverty has a huge impact on students' ability to succeed in school, then we need to fight for increasing the minimum wage.

Teachers' unions in particular need to get with social justice unionism because public education, as an institution, is designed to recreate and perpetuate the society in which we live. If we don't like the society we see around us, we have, in large part, ourselves to thank for it. In our classrooms and schools, students are socialized to either accept or challenge the power structures around them. If we want our students to grow up and fight for a better world, then we have to walk that talk.

Furthermore, schools are, in both positive and negative ways, the center of the community in which they exist. Regardless of what some of our students may think, teachers don't simply go to sleep in a coffin at the end of the day--we're all community members. We go to churches, mosques, synagogues and temples; we live in neighborhoods; we ride public transit; we patronize local businesses; we use parks and beaches.

In our classrooms, all are welcomed and valued. Teachers who don't understand themselves as guardians of the community in which they teach are actively contributing to the hollowing out and destruction of that community.

Given all this, I don't actually think the work of teachers' unions has changed as a result of corporate ed reform. Rather, I think that corporate ed reform has served as a wake-up call that teachers unions, by and large, haven't been doing all the work they should have been doing for a long time now. If we'd been fighting on behalf of the community around us like we should've, corporate ed would have never gotten a foothold.

It's outrageous to me that someone like Rahm Emanuel, Arne Duncan or Michelle Rhee can control the narrative about what is or isn't good for public schools and the communities we serve, and it's outrageous that we gave them the space to do it.

It's not just teachers' unions specifically, though--the union movement as a whole has been asleep at a lot of wheels for a long time. That said, there's clearly been a sea change over the last decade and a half that has catalyzed a resurgence of organizing on the part of teachers and their unions. As Marcus Garvey noted, "When all else fails to organize our people, conditions will."

WHAT STRUGGLES today or in the past have inspired you the most as an activist?

I'M A child of the 1990s, so I grew up hearing about struggles like the Zapatistas and the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. They seemed both romantic and grand to a kid from suburban Massachusetts. I've since visited Chiapas and realized that balaclavas, pipes and guns are only a tiny part of the Zapatista movement--the vast majority of their work is humble, on the ground, and will never make the international press.

Lately, that's the type of work that's been inspiring me: the humble, on-the-ground work that won't make big news. The CTU strike was big news, obviously, but to me, the most inspiring aspect of that struggle was the hard, slow, unglamorous work they did over two years leading up to that strike. The degree to which the community was brought into their organizing was amazing. They're doing a lot of similar work up in the Twin Cities, to the point that they have parent representatives sitting at the bargaining table with them.

WHAT HAS been most inspiring to you about working with teachers in BFT the past couple of years?

HOW AMAZING they are. There are some badass people working in Berkeley--artists, organizers, musicians, scientists, well-experienced troublemakers. Of course, we have our fringe, too--we are Berkeley, after all--but so many of our members get it. They immediately understand what we're trying to do, whether it's fighting for a contract, organizing to raise the minimum wage, or something as seemingly simple as creating forums for teachers to explain their practice to administrators.

Berkeley teachers already care deeply about social, political and economic justice--all we need to do as organizers is create space for them to engage productively, and they put in the work.

WHAT IS the Quality Education Agenda project in the BFT, and what role do you think it can plan in organizing campaigns, both within Berkeley United School District and in the larger community?

BFT'S QUALITY Education Agenda was modeled on CTU's "The Schools Chicago Students Deserve," both in structure and purpose. It represents BFT's articulation of our vision for what we believe public education should look like in Berkeley. Right now, it functions as a conversation tool--we use it as an entry point to dialogue with a wide variety of community groups and individuals, with the goal of building a shared vision for Berkeley schools.

We've so far been privileged in Berkeley in that we haven't felt the point of the spear of corporate ed reform in the way that Chicago, Philly or even Oakland have. But like I noted above, that's no reason to be asleep at the wheel.

Over the next year or two, we see the QEA developing into concrete policy proposals, but that process will ideally happen in collaboration with parent and community groups, especially those representing the poor and working class and Black and Brown communities in Berkeley.

Unsurprisingly, there has been a serious gap in access to policymakers in Berkeley that falls along class and race lines, and we hope that we can use the QEA as a way to begin crossing that divide. BFT has long taken strong stances advocating for more equitable distribution of resources, more culturally relevant curriculum, and recruitment and retention of teachers of color--all of these and more are central tenets of our QEA.

Berkeley has a reputation as a bastion of progressivism or left-wing thinking, and maybe that was more true once than it is now, but there's a lot of work to do in equitable school and economic policy.

Just look at the kinds of arguments being made by Berkeley restaurants against increasing the minimum wage: You have these places that cloak themselves in the rhetoric and imagery of sustainability and food justice that have absolutely no understanding of the way they contribute to class inequity. The same issues play out in schools--you have people who see their left-wing cred as beyond reproach, even as they fight to perpetuate vastly inequitable systems in our schools. Our QEA is an avenue to building consensus against those systems.

WHAT DO you see as key struggles for teachers' unions in the future--locally or nationally or both? How does having a broader, social justice unionism approach to our work as a union relate to these struggles?

KEY STRUGGLES? How much space do I have? I think that all of us in teachers' unions need to keep working to align ourselves with the broader working class struggles popping up--fast-food workers, fighting for single-payer health care, fighting for progressive taxation and fully funded education.

Here in California, we need to attack Prop 13--that's the major economic reason that California education is in the place that it's in. Until we force corporations and the rich to pay more taxes, we'll be fighting each other for scraps.

I think we need to attack the cost of higher education--the student debt crisis is raging way out of control. We need to fight poverty and redistribute resources away from the rich and towards the poor. Even the Pope is down with that!

Like I said, public school is the institution we use to recreate the society in which we live. If we're dissatisfied with the society we have, then schools and teachers should be the cornerstone of our work to build a better one.

I think that all of us on the left, but teachers' unions especially, need to be able to articulate what we want, instead of just what we're against. We have some folks in Berkeley who are totally unable to do that--they know exactly what they hate, what they're afraid of and what they want to not happen, but ask them what they hope for with regards to public education, and they're stumped.

Frankly, I think that stance is bankrupt and is a big part of why we're in the existential fight we're in. I'm not interested in a revolution based on fear and loathing, I'm interested in a revolution based on the kind of world I want to see. We're teachers--if we can't communicate hope, then what are we even doing?

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