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Interview with Jonna Perrillo about Chicago teachers' strike and "Uncivil Rights: Teachers, Unions, and Race in the Battle for School Equity"

Schoolhouse Showdown
September 19, 2012

Here’s a case of synchronicity in the public interest: Jonna Perrillo’s study Uncivil Rights: Teachers, Unions, and Race in the Battle for School Equity (University of Chicago Press) is appearing just as the biggest teachers’ strike in a generation is coming to an end.

Despite its title, and its timing, the book is not a polemic but a historical study. Perrillo, an assistant professor of English education at the University of Texas at El Paso, goes through newspapers and union archives to document the clash of values within teachers’ organizations in New York City between the 1930s through the 1980s. The nation’s largest school system was where “two different strands of American liberal thought” emerged with special clarity, and fought it out with lasting consequences. One was “a faith in the power of coalitions of organized individuals to effect change”-- in particular, multiracial coalitions taking on de facto segregation and the unequal distribution of resources throughout the school system. The other was “a belief that institutions were color blind and, therefore, the best medium to promote equality, justice, and social advancement.” The latter perspective was more appealing to educators concerned with defending their status as professionals from demands by administrators or parents.

The conflict came to a head in the New York City teachers’ strike of 1968 (also known as the Ocean Hill-Brownsville crisis) with aftershocks throughout public education that have still not ended. It’s much too soon to assess the impact of the strike now being suspended by the Chicago Teachers Union, but I got in touch with Perrillo to ask about the context of recent events. A transcript of the e-mail interview follows.

Q:  How did you become interested in the history of teacher unionism? Was it your dissertation topic? It’s your first book, so that seems likely, but it doesn’t have that revised-dissertation feel. Either way, why did you stick your head into this particular hornets' nest?

A:  You’re absolutely right. My dissertation was a study of a journal written for and by New York City high school teachers. It was published by the Board of Education from 1917 to 1973. What I wanted to do in my dissertation was to think about how teachers conceived of professionalism over time, and I really wanted to capture it in their own words. Examining the journal allowed me to do that, but it was too narrow of a study to work as a book. 

When I started research for the book, I did so because I wanted to keep examining teachers’ thoughts on professionalism, and teacher unions offered a more expansive archive. I wasn’t just looking at teachers’ published writing — which comes with all sorts of baggage about who gets published and why — but also reports, minutes, correspondence, and all sorts of raw documents like that. I was interested in the union’s response to race and school quality as an organizing theme, more specifically, because I attended urban schools and because I taught in an all-black high school. 

But when I came across some of the pieces I cite about teachers arguing with black mothers in the 1950s over their children’s failure in school, for example, I felt like I had hit a goldmine. Here teachers were talking about professionalism — and race — in ways that felt unedited, to say the least. I thought that I hadn’t just found something that spoke to the most critical issues in public schooling today but that truly captured the thoughts and experiences of many ordinary teachers and the frustrations they felt on the job.

Q: One way to sum up your analysis might be "civil rights and teacher professionalism as zero-sum game," i.e., one side's victory is the other's loss. That's what I jotted down while reading, but it's not quite right. At some point, the interaction between minority communities and teacher unionists became a zero-sum game. Is that closer to your understanding of it?

A:  I think it did become a zero-sum game, and by a particular group of teachers. One thing I often have trouble remembering is that teacher unionists at times obstructed the efforts of black parents and activists, but other unionists — members of the Teachers Union, who would in the 1950s be labeled as communists and forced to resign — did as much to advance civil rights in the schools as anyone. They developed the first multicultural curriculums, they passed on easier job assignments to work in Harlem schools, and they publicly and routinely demonstrated against the racism and abuse that black students encountered in public schools. 

Hundreds of teachers lost their jobs in the Red Scare waves of the 1950s and they did so, they often said, because they weren’t willing to be quiet about institutionalized racism. This doesn’t mean they were great classroom teachers, necessarily, but I want to remember these teachers because even if their politics weren’t mainstream, they offer a model of teachers using unions to fight for the best interests of children.

This is a different group of teachers than those who ultimately made civil rights and teacher professionalism into a zero-sum game.  These teachers belonged to a different union — the Teachers Guild — which in the 1950s grew from a small organization to the basis of the modern United Federation of Teachers (the current teachers union for New York City). My book shows that they did this first by developing campaigns that fought assignments to minority schools for experienced teachers. Later, in the 1968 Ocean Hill-Brownville strikes, they fought black parents more directly over teacher assignments. 

Between these two events, membership rolls exploded — so while one union was being dismantled, the other was growing. Clearly, these teachers came from a different political orientation that the Teachers Union, but the thing that I also try to capture is that on some level, they had a point: assignments in minority schools guaranteed them larger classes, fewer resources, less support staff, and often more classes than teachers in middle-class white schools.  Resisting teacher assignments to struggling schools was ethically problematic, but they made a powerful argument about professionalism and professional agency, one that appealed to thousands of teachers.

This was the beginning of the zero sum game: when they decided that they would not just fight the Board of Education to get what they wanted, but the students’ best interests and the adults who advocated on behalf of their students. The Board of Education often played on this division, antagonizing both unionized teachers and black parents, all the while doing little to improve the schools.

Q: When friends who teach in the public schools vent about their experience, their biggest complaints are about having to “teach to the test,” with overcrowded classrooms and inadequate infrastructure close behind. Evidently the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) did a good job in raising these issues with parents, to judge by interviews and photos in which parents expressed support for the strike. Your book shows similar alliances around quality-of-education problems with Harlem parents in the 1930s. Do you see a parallel between these experiences – or major differences that count more than any similarity?

A:  What has struck me as especially noteworthy and important about the strikes is the support that many parents are expressing, either through joining parents in the protests (as you mention) or in testimonies of support that come across in interviews. And of the parents who do register frustration with the union, many are focused, understandably, on the stress and insecurity that comes with suddenly not having childcare means. Again, I completely understand and empathize with this, but I don’t see these parents welcoming any strike over any issue. So, all in all, it really couldn’t be more different from the 1968 New York City teacher strikes, which produced images of teachers and parents visibly angry, heckling each other on the street.

I do think that teachers [in Chicago] made a good case with parents, which begins simply with communicating to parents on the issues, as they had been doing all summer. But as you suggest, this worked because parents were already there. Like in the 1930s, teachers aren’t striking over where to teach but how, and parents and teachers share a lot of wide beliefs here. Small classes are better than large ones. Art, music, and physical education classes are beneficial, not expendable because they aren’t tested. Teachers shouldn’t be encouraged to teach to the test, and they shouldn’t be at greater risk of losing their job because they teach students who face greater economic and social challenges than others. These are easy ideas for parents to get behind because they aren’t just about benefittng teachers, they’re about doing right by children. 

Q.  People still argue about the New York City teachers’ strike of 1968 – fiercely at times. (If they don’t throw chairs at each other about it, that’s only because of age.) Would you say a little more about it, for anyone who doesn’t know what it was about?

A:  The entire nation watched the Ocean Hill-Brownsville strikes, much as we have all noticed what is happening in Chicago, though the 1968 strikes lasted two months. And then to follow that, New York City teachers went on strike again over salary and contract issues in the 1970s as the city was in the midst of a deep fiscal crisis, against [United Federation of Teachers leader] Albert Shanker’s recommendations. 

The two strikes were over very different sets of problems, but they both inspired teachers in other cities to protest more, as well. Because of unionists’ effectiveness in getting what they wanted from these strikes, and with the overwhelmingly majority of teachers in the nation belonging to unions by the 1970s, the American Federation of Teachers [which grew out of the UFT] became one of the most important special interest groups to Democratic politicians. But this didn’t mean that teacher unions became more popular as they became more powerful; in fact the opposite was often true.

I think it’s not coincidental that the decades that followed saw the birth of the school choice movement, which is tied to the CTU’s agenda. Even if parents didn’t feel radically different about the individuals who taught their own children, the profession suffered because the public image of the teacher, via the New York strikes and others, had grown so poor. Public school teachers were seen as isolationist, uncooperative, and more concerned about their professional agency than students’ welfare. School choice advocates argued to parents that they could find a more professional and dedicated group of teachers if they left the system. Some parents, fed up with the resistance unions had posed to their local school reform movements, were ready to leave behind schools that they had spent decades trying to reform.

Elected officials were often drawn to school choice for many of the same reasons, and because union officials were often more powerful than they were. And so I think a lot of what has defined education politics and school reform over the last thirty years can be tied to union activism in the 1960s and 1970s.

For this reason, I think the Chicago strikes have marked a powerful change in the public image of the unionized teacher. Some columnists have argued that the strike is a battle of wills between the mayor (and his appointees) and the union, but I don’t think that’s right. A good amount of the reporting has been focused on the issues rather than each side’s representatives and here, again, parental support of the union — and the union’s attention to children’s welfare — has been critical. The CTU has done a good job of presenting themselves as advocates of students and teachers, not isolationists. This isn’t just what the CTU needed to do to get business done; it is what teacher unions need to do to stay relevant in a political landscape in which the education stakeholders and educational institutions have grown increasingly diversified and in which unions have lost many of their traditional sources of influence and authority.

Q: What is your sense of recent developments in Chicago? How do they look, given the history you've studied? [Note: This interview was completed during the final minutes of Monday, Sept. 17th, before the vote to suspend the strike.]

A: If the strike can’t be resolved quickly enough, the CTU runs the risk of parents feeling like any schooling is better than no schooling. It’s difficult for parents to hold fast to long-term goals — such as the far-reaching gains that would result from better teacher evaluation systems — when the immediate situation represents a real crisis for them. So much of what teachers are striking for amounts to a change in education culture and their role in decision-making, and while these aren’t easy decisions to make quickly, that is what needs to happen. It’s a high-stakes, high-pressure situation, and I imagine there are some very heated discussions and disagreements between union delegates behind closed doors. 

What is equally if not more threatening, though, is the mayor’s attempt on Monday to seek an injunction based on the rationale that teachers are only legally able to strike over economic issues. While strikes should always be the last effort, it seems clear that in many municipalities, unions -- and teachers on the whole - -really have reached the end of the road. They have been largely ineffective in countering a political movement that has been incredibly punitive towards teachers while doing too little to address the systematic economic and social challenges of many urban areas.

This injunction, if upheld, would relegate teacher union activism strictly to the economic realm, and in the process, would be devastating to the CTU and possibly to unions more largely. For one thing it would give teachers no real means to advocate on issues that are most important to their students and the local communities that their schools serve. For another, it would force unions to become the kind of protectionist, self-serving organizations that their critics already, and incorrectly, claim that they already are. If you read the speeches of Chicago Teachers Federation President Margaret Haley [in the early 20th century] or early New York City unionists, for that matter, you see that they were always interested in much more than bread and butter issues. They fought for improved and more inclusive curriculums, for school integration policies, and for a place at the education-policy making table. 

As member of the civic body, we have the right to support or oppose any given strike. But I don’t believe we have the right to tell teacher unions what they should stand for, or that they aren’t allowed to care about education issues with the same passion as salary gains, or that they can’t use the most effective tool at their disposal to fight for what they see as ethical injustices towards the children they serve. To do so would be profoundly undemocratic, not to mention bad for schools. 

 

 

 

 

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