Jon Shelton is an assistant professor of democracy and justice studies at University of Wisconsin Green Bay. He recently answered some questions about his book Teacher Strike!: Public Education and the Making of a New American Political Order.
Q: What inspired you to write this book?
Jon Shelton: For some time, I’ve been motivated to explain the political divisions in the United States that have emerged over the past couple of generations. In particular, I wanted to know what has allowed wealth inequality to grow so dramatically since the 1970s and why working people have been less likely to have unions, and, relatedly, to face more economic insecurity and enjoy fewer protections in the workplace. I wanted to understand the divisions between workers in the public sector and the private sector—particularly as politicians, from Ronald Reagan in the late 1970s to Scott Walker today—have exploited those tensions to do damage to both groups.
Q: You mention that there were two major political interventions in the mid-twentieth century: labor unions and government programs. Why did you decide to focus on teacher unions specifically?
Shelton: When I undertook initial research on this project (almost ten years ago now!), I was very interested in how public perceptions of unions have changed over time. I initially focused on the growth of the Major League Baseball Players Association under Marvin Miller in the 1970s, how the union gained free agency, and how the threat to the “American pastime” altered ideas about unions (I’ve actually written recently about some of this story here). But as I was doing newspaper research, I kept coming across stories on teacher strikes. I knew teachers had gone on strike, of course, during this era, but the newspaper coverage underscored how lengthy and dramatic the strikes were, as well as how they caused many Americans to rethink their assumptions about politics. The rest, as they say, is history. I shifted directions, focusing my research on conflicts over teacher unions and education.
Q: Can you summarize what you mean by the term labor liberalism?
Shelton: Labor liberalism is an historical term used to characterize the political coalition that emerged during and after the New Deal. The New Deal initiated a thirty-year period in which the government, at the federal, state, and local levels, expanded its role in the lives of Americans in order to provide more freedoms: access to education, social welfare programs, and workers’ rights to organize. When the Wagner Act (1935) guaranteed the right to a union, working people gained higher wages, more job security, and much improved working conditions. Unions became politically important and pushed liberals to do even more to expand social welfare and to ensure the wealthy paid their fair share of taxes. So liberalism was very much pushed left by labor unions, and it doesn’t make sense to describe it during this era without including that connection.
Q: Women and minorities were most negatively affected by teacher strikes. Can you describe how and why that was the case?
Shelton: Teachers—most of whom were women—fought for years to get the same rights to collectively bargain that workers in the private sector got with the Wagner Act. It took organizing, and sometimes illegal strikes, to force state legislatures to liberalize public employee organizing rights, and to get school boards to collectively bargain. These rights were hard fought, and overturned an era in which many teachers were completely beholden to the whim of administrators, and, especially the female teachers who taught elementary school, were not treated as professionals.
Unfortunately, American cities also have a long history of institutional racism. Federal and local housing and education policies motivated many whites to move to suburbs, while many African Americans after World War II were segregated in the poorest areas of many cities with diminished access to manufacturing jobs, which in many cases, employers had begun to move to the suburbs.
As a consequence of these developments, many cities faced a diminished tax base in the early 1970s and a lot of residents who relied on public services. The students in many of the cities I study in the book disproportionately lived in poverty. Frustration by both African American residents and teaching forces, the former because of structural inequality, and the latter because of pressures by local officials to cut budgets, led to these dramatic teacher strikes. It was mostly black children who lost valuable instruction when teachers went on strike. It was teachers—over two-thirds of whom were female, and many of whom were black, too—who lost income and faced disciplinary measures in many states when they went on strike.
Q: As you mention in your conclusion, though teacher strikes have been on the decline since the 1970s, the support for teacher unions, from both Democrats and Republicans, is also declining. What do you see as the future for teacher unions?
Shelton: Teacher unions may be facing a crisis of existential proportions. In Wisconsin, where I live and teach, Act 10 (2011) stripped teachers of most meaningful collective bargaining rights. This reactionary measure was especially devastating since Wisconsin had been at the forefront of public employee union rights.
Now that Republicans, defying the norms of our democratic process, were able to prevent Merrick Garland’s confirmation and install Neil Gorsuch as Supreme Court justice, it is likely that the Supreme Court will overturn the constitutionality of fair share fees for public employee unions (fair share fees are one of the union protections lost in Wisconsin under Act 10). Such an action would represent a serious blow to public employee unions since it would allow all of those workers covered by a contract to benefit without contributing to the costs of representation (it would be similar to making federal income taxes optional: some would still pay them, but not everyone would even though everyone would still get the same benefits).
In Wisconsin, public employee unions have been undaunted (I’m a member of my American Federation of Teachers local, and I serve on the executive board of AFT-Wisconsin). We’ve lost members, but we are also working on new ways of organizing and engaging members of the community (especially students) to work with us in a common project of protecting and revitalizing public education. Teacher unions across the country are going to have to make sure they are doing similar things, and I think many are. I am very optimistic.
Q: As your book demonstrates, education is vitally important, not only at the national level, but all the way down to the individual. What is your best memory of your own education?
It would be easy for me to highlight one of my own teachers—I went to three different high schools in very different parts of the country (Mississippi, Florida, and Pennsylvania)—and I can think of several teachers who made a major impact on my future intellectual interests.
But my most formative education experience was actually as a teacher. From 2003-2005, I taught the first graduating class of the Mariana Bracetti Academy Charter School in North Philadelphia. The majority of students were African American and Latino, and I worked with students who faced a lot of impediments: unsafe neighborhoods and working parents who could not be as involved in their children’s lives as they would have liked to have been. I learned about the impediments too many hardworking families have to overcome in cities like Philadelphia, but I was also inspired by the perseverance so many of my students showed in graduating high school. Good teaching is so important, particularly now when all but the wealthiest have to struggle so much in a tough employment market, and when historical context and civic engagement are so crucial for our political process. We have to invest in education and to make sure our teachers are empowered and enabled to do their job well. I see professional organizations like teacher unions as vitally important in this process.