Educators in the Freedom Struggle

Rick Ayers
7 min readApr 20, 2021

A review of Teacher Unions and Social Justice: Organizing for the Schools and Communities our Students Deserve

When the history of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic is written, one of the most searing stories will be the transformative accomplishments of millions of teachers across the country. With no warning, teachers were thrown into a crisis in which they had to improvise new ways of reaching children, to devise activities to give coherence to student learning, and to bridge the isolation and crisis faced by many families with social and financial support.

It will also be remembered as a time of unprecedented attacks on teachers, who were once again made responsible for every problem facing society and blamed for slowing the reopening of schools. Politicians, media, and reactionaries jumped on the teacher-hating bandwagon, spinning that narrative to new heights.

The only thing that allowed teachers, and the communities they serve, to wield limited power and to push back, was the existence of sturdy and rising teacher unions in some areas. One of the main goals of the right wing has been to destroy teacher unions and put this workforce and this institution under the dictatorial control of mayors and state managers. So it is an important moment to understand the inside story and the lessons learned in order to further the massive social movement that these education organizers have built. And it is just the right time for the arrival of the new book from Rethinking Schools, Teacher unions and social justice: Organizing for the schools and communities our children deserve. Edited by Michael Charney, Jesse Hagopian and Bob Peterson, it is an important update to the 1999 book, Transforming Teacher Unions, Fight for Better Schools and Social Justice.

It is a broad anthology of over 60 articles, stories, and historical documents designed to assist rank and file activists and progressive union leaders in advancing liberatory possibilities in our classrooms, school districts, and communities, battling neoliberal privatization schemes and fighting to dismantle structural white supremacy. These three teachers (from Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Seattle) have been in the battles over the years and have brought together the very best of the teacher activists to offer a new kind of book.

As a former classroom teacher and now professor (still a teacher, preparing the next generation), I read far too many academic books and articles. The problem with academia (one of the many) is that we kid ourselves that knowledge is made in the universities and then dispersed down from on high (sort of an intellectual trickle-down theory). In reality, knowledge comes from social practice — from mass movements, in the streets, in the communities. The best academics can do is pay attention and synthesize, systematize, and give back the insights gained in social practice. The book I co-wrote “You can’t fire the bad ones” and 18 other myths about teachers, teachers unions, and public education (with Bill Ayers and Crystal Laura) challenges the toxic anti-teacher narrative of the neo-liberals. But this book digs into the nuts and bolts, the concrete work, of fighting the power and broadening democratic space for communities.

In that context, this project (it transcends our typical experience of “a book”) allows us to see, to participate, in the process of knowledge-making through action, in what Freire would call the praxis (reflection and action) of education activism. Teacher unions and social justice reminds us of the crucial role of teacher unions historically and of the important advances of the last ten years as many unions became tied to community struggles, to anti-racism movements, and to youth justice activism.

The Chicago teacher strike of 2012 was a watershed moment as a group of radical activists in the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) took leadership of the union and built a powerful movement for change. Besides the important issue of pay, the union went further — fighting for libraries and arts for the youth, for nurses and counselors, for a robust classified and support staff. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel attempted traditional tactics of turning community members against the union but the Chicago Teachers Union, led by the inspiring and formidable Karen Lewis, defined a new era of community-teacher unity.

The labor movement has not had a sterling history in the fight against white supremacy — as one can see from the racist anti-Chinese organizing of white unions in California to the exclusionary policies of industrial and craft unions. In New York, a serious breach between the teacher union and the Black community came to a head during the fight for “community control of schools” in 1968. The many ways structural racism is baked into school culture and practices demands that any social justice project center the interests and the leadership of the oppressed communities. And the dynamic of the new wave of radical teacher unions is not unconnected to the Black Lives Matter and Undocumented and Unafraid struggles in the US. Indeed, these critical struggles have pushed teachers to examine our classroom practices as well as our relationship to power. One of the key demands today is to bring more Black and Latinx and Asian Pacific Islander and queer and trans teachers — in other words, teachers who represent the communities — into the profession.

We have come a long way in recent decades as new generations of teachers have been inspired by other social struggles and embraced the popular education principles of Paolo Freire and the Freedom Schools of Mississippi over half a century ago, emphasizing the role of education in advancing social justice and community empowerment. The Chicago strike exemplifies the new, robust, and radical organizing that teacher unions have advanced. Under attack by wealthy neoliberal foundations and entrepreneurs hoping to make a killing by privatizing education, maligned by politicians and media in thrall to the narrative of corporate “reform,” teachers and communities have resisted and fought back, developing a creative vision of schools as community centers.

Teacher unions and social justice helps the reader develop a deep appreciation of the 2018 wave of teacher insurgencies, adopting the slogan “Red for Ed,” that spread through Republican controlled states, from West Virginia to Oklahoma, Arizona, North Carolina, Colorado and Kentucky — strikes that often broke with old line union leaders and were even illegal. The book provides not just accounts of these uprisings but analysis by core organizers who were in the middle of the fight. The book also follows powerful strikes later in Denver, Seattle, Los Angeles, and Oakland, again with key lessons learned and strategies to forward the movement.

Here we learn the difference between industrial, professional, and social justice unionism. The authors explain how social justice unions must address job issues, teacher voice in policy, and racial equity struggles in strong alliance with parents and community. Crucial elements of social justice oriented unions are that they must be

• Democratic (breaking from the top-down business unionism of the past)

• In solidarity with students, families, and community;

• Centered on anti-racist and anti-oppression values;

• Against privatization

• Anti-imperialist, for climate justice and human rights

Here we learn about strategies such as “bargaining for the common good” (BCG) in Los Angeles and St. Paul, the development of new models such as teacher led schools in Cincinnati and the development of community schools with wrap-around services, a process of peer assistance and review in Seattle, a practice of home visits in St. Paul, countering anti-union governments such as Wisconsin’s Scott Walker in Milwaukee, and fighting racist school practices throughout the country.

There are so many powerful and informative entries in this book to explore. One example is Eleni Schirmer’s clarifying analysis of various approaches to social transformation. She describes three theories of action, strategies for change that drive different efforts. She explains that simple advocacy is generally an elite approach, seeking to persuade those in power to create narrow policy changes, using litigation and media approaches. Another approach is mobilizing, which is again often elites or paid staff who set low to medium expectations, often using grassroots activists as foot soldiers but not leaders. And finally there is the organizing approach, which is more inclusive and collective and more focused on mass action. This approach prioritizes sustained and strategic action and expanding the base while developing local leaders. This and other articles allowed me to learn many lessons from the concrete, successful work of teacher and community organizing campaigns.

This is not a book you read cover to cover but rather a resource you can return to again and again. You might learn about the art work that is part of organizing, the youth marches that support teacher strikes, the struggle to bring more teachers of color into the classroom, the battles over privatization and school closures, the fallacy of a regime of standards and testing that has metastasized in our educational system. Going beyond the narrow framing of the “achievement gap,” the authors develop concrete analysis of the education debt that the government owes to our students and communities. Organizing and fighting for change is the response that is needed and the only way to realize meaningful democracy in schools. As you work to realize this goal, you need Charney, Hagopian, and Peterson at your side to remind you of the powerful lessons of these years of struggle.



Rick Ayers

Rick Ayers is professor emeritus of education at the University of San Francisco.