Friday, September 21, 2012

Inspiring a new teacher union movement – Thank you Chicago teachers

The seven-day Chicago teacher strike was historic. 

It showed the nation that despite months of bullying by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and others, educators will not remain silent. It also signaled that a new teacher union movement is in the making.

In the spring of 2011, tens of thousands of Wisconsin teachers surprised the nation with weeks of massive protests at the state capital. A year and a half later, the Chicago teachers built on this momentum when they raised picket signs and struck in favor of their students, their profession, and public education.

In both struggles, teachers and their allies defended public education. They stood against pro-corporate, pro-privatization educational “reform” agendas. A key feature of those agendas is to scapegoat teachers and vilify their unions.

As the teacher union president in Milwaukee just 90 miles north, I was proud to go to Chicago last Saturday with two busloads of teachers and supporters to stand with Chicago teachers. We received a warm welcome and a chorus of thank-yous. The feeling of gratitude is mutual.

Thank you, CTU, for standing up to corporate education reformers who are attempting to privatize the public schools of our large cities.

Thank you for demanding that children not suffer from an apartheid-like educational system. Whether in Wisconsin or Chicago – Little Rock or Los Angeles – students deserve the same resources as their affluent counter parts. Our students deserve an education that is rich in the arts, strong in physical education and rigorous in study. They do not deserve a dumbed-down, data drenched, test driven curriculum.

And thank you, Chicago teachers, for providing an example of an activist, democratic union that works closely with parents and community, fights for equal, quality public education, and is part of the larger movement for social justice.

I believe that the Chicago teacher strike of 2012 will be looked back on as a turning point in a new kind of teacher unionism, something that rank and file union activists have been advocating for years. Some people describe this new unionism as an “organizing” model, rather than a service/business model. Others have called it “social justice unionism” or “social movement unionism.” Regardless, the Chicago teachers demonstrated its main features:

  • Unapologetically defending wages and working conditions of public school educators
  • Standing up for students, the teaching profession, and an equal and humane education that educates the whole child
  • Defending public education – the only educational institutions in our communities that has the capacity, commitment, and legal obligation to serve all children
  • Forging alliances with parents and community organizations to work for better schools and for social justice in the entire community.
  • Building a democratic union structure that encourages members to be organizers and active participants in their union.

Teachers from Chicago stood with the teachers of Wisconsin in the spring of 2011. Wisconsin teachers stood with the Chicago teachers this fall. 

It's time to use the energy and lessons from Wisconsin and Chicago to transform the national narrative on education, strengthen our union organizing work, and broaden the fight for quality education for all.

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Bob Peterson's short solidarity speech that he gave at the Chicago solidarity rally on September 15 can be downloaded for listening or for reading.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Stand in Solidarity with the Chicago Teachers Union

On Monday I am wearing red in solidarity with the Chicago Teachers Union. I hope thousands of other teachers across the country do so as well.

I support the Chicago teachers because their union, under the leadership of CTU President Karen Lewis, is standing up and saying what teachers throughout this country would like to say:

Enough is enough!

Enough scape-goating and bullying of teachers and their unions.

Enough of legislators and policy makers who know so little about classroom realities, but have so much power to determine what goes on in the classroom.

Enough of business and government leaders refusing to adequately address the social and economic factors that weigh so heavily on our students.

Enough of laws and policies that reduce student success to scores on questionable standardized tests, while limiting rigor and deep learning, and ignoring art, physical education, social studies, character-building, and social skills.

Enough of over-crowded classes.

Enough of private charter and voucher schools that siphon money from public school systems – the only community institutions that have the capacity, commitment, and legal obligation to serve ALL students.

Regardless of whether the CTU actually strikes tomorrow, I will be wearing red in solidarity with my colleagues to the south.

Their actions remind all educators that we must use multiple forms of collective action to win what is best for our students, our communities, and our profession.

We have been too quiet for too long.

On Monday, stand with the Chicago Teachers Union.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Honor Labor Day – On Teaching Who Really Built This Country?

Chanting “We built it,” thousands of delegates to the Republican National Convention provided a distorted bumper-sticker summary of U.S. history. 

Like the chorus in a Greek tragedy, the overwhelmingly white crowd embraced unrestrained free-market ideology and cheered the inaccuracies of keynote speakers.

The crowd was particularly fired up by vice presidential candidate Paul “Pinocchio” Ryan’s speech. One Fox News commentator described the speech as an attempt “to set the world record for the greatest number of blatant lies and misrepresentations slipped into a single political speech.”

The Republican Party’s “We Built It” mantra inevitably leads to two key questions: Who is “we?” What is “it?” These are important questions for children and teachers to examine together.

As these questions are studied, the “we” should not be limited to famous business people. Equally important, the “it” should go beyond railroads and factories and include our country’s all-important democratic institutions.

Stepping beyond the textbook
Teachers have a responsibility to teach the story of our nation in all its complexity and contradictions. That’s not easy, considering that most social studies text books at best obfuscate and at worst lie about the role enslaved Africans, immigrants, and working men, women and children of all races have played in building this nation.

As a teacher, I try to teach my students to not automatically believe everything they read or hear. I have them consider multiple points of view, investigate a variety of sources, and ask questions such as: “In whose self interest is one version of history versus another?” “What assumptions underlie a particular point of view?”

If I were in my fifth grade classroom this year, on the first day of school I’d probably show photos of the “We Built It” manifestations at the Republican National Convention. After explaining the context, I’d pose the questions: Who is the “we”? What is the “it?”

In hopes of whetting my students’ appetite for a year-long study of U.S. history – a requirement in most 5th grades – I’d lay out questions we would likely cover in the coming year, tying the questions to that day’s issue of “Who built it?” Some of questions I might ask:

  • Who were the first ones to cultivate the land in North America?
  • Who continues to harvest the vegetables and fruit of our nation?
  • Who built the plantations in the South?
  • Who built the skyscrapers of New York?
  • Who built the U.S. Capitol Building? (FYI, for teachers who might want to pursue this topic: the United States Capitol was built by enslaved Africans. See PBS, VOA and Politifact.)
  • Who fought for the rights of women to vote?
  • Who fought for Voting Rights and Civil Rights?
  • Who fought for the right of workers to organize unions at their workplace? For the eight-hour day? The right to collectively bargain?

As I tell my students as we study U.S. history, there have been great movements for social justice in the past, they exist now in the present, and they’ll exist in the future. Each of us must decide whether to participate in such movements to help make our nation and our world a more just place.

As we celebrate this Labor Day, I encourage teachers to be a part of our country’s strong tradition of social movements for justice. A first step is to teach about such movements — and about who really built “it.”

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A few sites for resources and ideas on teaching labor history:

For teaching about social justice movements see

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In case you missed it. According to the New York Times, the platform of the 1980 Republic Party supported the right to collectively bargain, while the current one does not. Other rightward shifts were made this year as well.
1980: We reaffirm our commitment to the fundamental principle of fairness in labor relations, including the legal right of unions to organize workers and to represent them through collective bargaining ...

Current: We salute the Republican governors and state legislators who have saved their states from fiscal disaster by reforming their laws governing public employee unions.

A question teachers might ask: Whose interests are served by the change in that particular platform?