Rethinking Teacher Unions

A film on Mexican teachers presents an activist, hopeful vision of unionism

By Lois Weiner

Illustrator: Jorge Acevedo

Photo: Jorge Acevedo

What good are teacher unions?

I joined the teachers union when I was a student teacher, though the union didn’t make it easy. Hardly anyone knew that student teachers could join — albeit not as voting members — and in acquiring my first union membership card I got into the first of many conflicts I’ve had over the years with union leaders. I’ve always had a strong commitment to harness the power of teacher unionism to make schools and society better, and to help unions live up to their potential as defenders of teachers’ rights, wages, professional commitments, and working conditions. But since I switched careers and became a teacher educator, I’ve struggled to find a way to help my students understand that they should “own” their unions, that the unions will be only as good as they make them.

It’s an uphill battle to prompt a thoughtful discussion about teacher unions. One reason is that powerful interests in our society are opposed to the most basic premise of unions, the need for collective action. As a society we tend to stress individual effort and competition, explaining poverty or social inequality as results of individual effort or ability — or lack of them. Unions are based on a contradictory idea: To make progress, people must band together. At the workplace, that means we need to bargain with our employers collectively, rather than going in one by one to negotiate a salary or class size or sick days.

For my students, many of whom are the first in their families to attend college and are struggling financially to get their degrees, it may be disheartening to analyze the barriers society has placed in their path. They have a fierce desire to succeed, and it appears to me that they often find my criticisms of individualism discouraging. So in discussing teacher unions, I battle against an ideological tide that covers the media and popular opinion, as well as my students’ beliefs that as individuals they can “make it.” I’m the first to acknowledge that the unions themselves make it hard to persuade anyone that they are good for education. As I explain in my book, Urban Teaching, the unions have to be democratized, transformed to live up to their promise. But even though I am espousing in person the argument I make in my book, I can see that my claim that a teachers union should be assertive in protecting its members, as well as leading battles for social justice, just doesn’t cut it with my students. I’ve tried readings about and by Margaret Haley, the Chicago elementary school teacher who was the prime organizer of the first teacher union — one of women. My mostly female students still weren’t persuaded that unions today could be different.

But this year, when I showed my class the film Granito de Arena about the struggles of Mexican teachers to make their union democratic and to protect public education, my class couldn’t stop talking about what teacher unions should do. (“Granito de arena” means “grain of sand,” the comment one teacher union activist makes about the way he views his participation in the struggle for economic and social justice.) The film shows how the World Bank and the United States promote economic policies — embraced and enforced by Mexico’s rich, powerful elite — that are destroying Mexico’s system of public education, and how teachers have forced their union to defend their livelihood, their political rights, and school funding. My class was awestruck by scenes of teachers camping out in Mexico City, in front of their union’s headquarters for months, dancing at night, singing about their passion for equality and justice. They cheered — the teachers who confronted armed guards at the governor’s offices during a struggle for wages. They sat silent at footage of teacher union members who chanted and marched at a lively demonstration against NAFTA and U.S.-sponsored free trade policies that are wrecking public education in Mexico.

Our discussion following the film could have gone on for longer than the film. When I asked students their reactions to what they had seen, many said they were ashamed and angry that they did not know the destructive effects of U.S. government policies in forcing Mexico to restructure its economy. They debated why they — we — in this country are so blind, so ignorant about what is happening in other countries as a result of our government’s actions. Several older students commented that they had not understood before why the trade treaties and economic polices the U.S. government has pushed are doing so much harm.

Certainly some of the film’s impact was due to the fact that many of my students are offspring of immigrants or immigrants themselves, from the Dominican Republic, Central America, or Cuba, and didn’t need the English subtitles I and other students less proficient in Spanish relied on. Spanish speakers in class enjoyed explaining to the rest of us how the subtitles sometimes told only part of the story, and this aspect of the film came as an unanticipated bonus. As an instructor, I welcomed the opportunity to use materials in Spanish to model for my class that bilingualism is an asset, not a problem.

So why was Granito de Arena so effective in making the case for teacher unions? First, it is a wonderful film, gripping and informative. The story it tells is powerful, even if the viewer is not an educator. Second, the film’s story taps a deep need of prospective teachers today for respect and support for their idealism. My students often say that they are becoming teachers because they want to do good for and with kids, yet they feel these values are not respected by society — or schools. Society judges success by money; schools by test scores. Their passion to help kids doesn’t seem to count for much. They know they will not get rich from teaching, though they want jobs that will allow them to live without the worry of how they will pay for housing and food, or what will happen to them if they become ill.

In Granito de Arena’s depiction of Mexican teachers’ struggles to make their union democratic and to defend their pay and working conditions and the quality of education kids receive, my students saw what could happen in the United States. The film opened up a world of possibility. In seeing a contemporary, real, live struggle, my students saw teachers acting on hopes they share.

I think Granito de Arena began to persuade my students that as members of teacher unions they can be part of a global movement to give teaching and teachers the respect kids and teachers deserve everywhere.

Lois Weiner ( teaches education at New Jersey City University and is the author of Urban Teaching: The Essentials (Teachers College Press, 2006). With Mary Compton, she is co-editing a book on the global assault on teachers, teaching, and teacher unions. Granito de Arena is available from the Teaching for Change catalog,