Rethinking Teacher Unions

A lot has changed in the 20 years since Rethinking Schools was born

By Bob Peterson

Illustrator: Susan Ruggles

Photo: Susan Ruggles

Twenty years ago, when we printed the first issue of Rethinking Schools, Milwaukee teacher union leaders didn’t seem thrilled.

We distributed the issue to thousands of teachers as they entered the annual November convention of the then-independent Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA).

Perhaps it’s because we encouraged teachers to stand up against the de-skilling and straitjacketing effects of scripted curriculum, something most teacher unions were silent about 20 years ago.

Or perhaps it was because we asked for volunteers in each school to distribute our then-free newspaper. We encouraged teachers to define teaching as extending beyond the classroom into the realm of activism and politics. This, too, was something not strongly encouraged by teacher unions back then.

Or maybe the sheer act of publishing a newspaper was an implicit criticism of the union’s own publications. We believed then and now that classroom teachers should be respected as intellectuals, capable of debating and determining the policies of unions and joining parents, students, and communities to shape schools and districts.

In the subsequent 20 years, a lot has changed. Rethinking Schools transformed from a local newsprint publication to a national magazine, taking on national issues and building relations with local teacher unions, state affiliates, leaders in the national American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA), and several teacher union leaders in other countries. Some of our editors and supporters became leaders in teacher unions and brought insights from that activism to our magazine.

Our reporting and analysis of teacher union issues drew both criticism and praise from different teacher union leaders. Ironically, at the time some “old guard” union leaders criticized our perspectives on teacher unionism, private school voucher supporters tried to discredit our anti-voucher stance by claiming Rethinking Schools was nothing but a front for teacher unions.

People who were drawn to our perspective, and many of our editors and supporters, organized in various ways: union caucuses, committees against testing, coalitions for school funding, teachers against the war, and so on. Individuals associated with Rethinking Schools organized on both local and national levels — the National Coalition of Education Activists (NCEA) being the largest project we helped to initiate and sustain.

Stormy Relations

In 1992, we ran an article that described the peer evaluation program of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers. This article caused consternation among some Milwaukee union leaders. When someRethinking Schools’ editors and supporters ran for union office, some of our opponents photocopied the peer evaluation article and warned that if we won, these kinds of policies would be promoted in Milwaukee. Ironically, while the Rethinking Schools-associated slate lost by a narrow margin, within a couple of years the MTEA developed a peer assistance and review program that had striking similarities to Cincinnati’s.

We also had differences on how to respond to right-wing attacks on public schools. As early as March 1988, Rethinking Schools criticized private school vouchers, arguing that while schools needed to be radically reformed, we needed to staunchly defend free public education. Unfortunately, teacher unions on local and national levels failed to grasp the immediacy and significance of the voucher and privatization threats. When unions reacted, we felt they defended the status quo too uncritically. In contrast, we argued that the best defense against the privatization and voucher forces was to strongly advocate and organize for transforming the existing public schools.

We called for a transformation that would include adequate and equal funding of schooling; an attack on institutionalized racism as reflected in tracking policies and Eurocentric curriculum; smaller class sizes; more authentic forms of assessment; and engaging, critical teaching. We felt that it was important to resist downplaying or ignoring criticism from oppressed communities about the unequal education poor students and students of color received. To do so served the aims of the right wing and built support for their proposals in communities historically underserved by public schools.

Another issue that touched a nerve with some union leaders was our strong emphasis on anti-racist, multicultural education. Like much of labor in the United States, the record on race by teacher unions is less than stellar. For example, it took the NEA a full seven years to endorse the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision, and it tolerated segregated locals through the late 1960s. The AFT sparked controversy among civil rights activists during a 1968 AFT-led strike in New York City that pitted mainly white teachers against parents and community activists who advocated for the rights of poor children and children of color.

Since our founding we have argued strongly that anti-racist policies and teaching should be a centerpiece in school reform efforts. In 1991 we published Rethinking Columbus, a book that explicitly criticized traditional Euro-centric approaches to teaching history and offered multicultural alternatives. Some AFT leaders found our criticism of Columbus one-sided and declined to publicize the book. Nonetheless, a number of teacher union locals around the country, both NEA and AFT, used Rethinking Columbus as a way to promote more critical, multicultural teaching with their members.

Transforming Unions

In fall 1993, Rethinking Schools published my article “Which Side Are You On? A Look at Teacher Unions.” I wanted to spark discussion about the need to push teacher unionism in more progressive directions. I criticized some union positions on controversial matters such as seniority, accountability, school governance, and relations with communities. I called for unions to develop programs that promote quality education for their students and to adopt a perspective of “social justice teacher unionism” to fight for equality and justice throughout schools and society. I also suggested that teacher unions needed to undergo some internal changes to promote more democratic participation.

A number of readers and activists from around the country responded positively. With the help of these activists and others in the NCEA some of us organized a “Rethinking Our Unions” institute that preceded the national NCEA conference in Portland, Ore., in July 1994. The statement that came out of the institute, “Social Justice Unionism: A Working Draft,” was signed by 29 local and national AFT and NEA activists from around the country. The “Rethinking Our Unions” institute came just as two other important developments were unfolding among teacher unions.

First, newly elected NEA President Bob Chase, made “new unionism” a cornerstone of his six-year tenure. He encouraged NEA locals to collaborate with local boards and engage in programs like mentoring, peer assistance and review — programs that eventually earned the name “professional unionism.” A number of AFT locals had engaged in these kinds of practices for some time, but it was new to most NEA locals. NEA leadership and reform-minded leaders within the AFT promoted professional unionism and widely distributed the book United Mind Workers, by Charles Kerchner, Julia Koppich, and Joseph Weeres (Jossey-Bass, 1997). The book advocated innovative approaches to bargaining and state legislation and encouraged unions to take responsibility for the professional growth of teachers. The book’s shortcomings reflected similar weaknesses of those union leaders who promote a “professional union” approach almost exclusively. In a review of United Mind Workers in Rethinking Schools I voiced support for several examples of professional unionism, but criticized the book’s version of professional unionism as lacking a coherent social analysis and its capitulation to aspects of a conservative, “free-market” approach to education. I noted the authors neglected to mention issues of social justice and, even more troubling, never discussed race and teacher unions. To me, the lesson was that professional unionism was necessary but insufficient; unions needed to pursue a larger vision of social justice for their own survival and for the welfare of children and public schools.

The second major teacher union development in the mid and late 1990s was the enormous effort to try to unite the NEA and AFT. The position of people around Rethinking Schools was that such unification would be positive if it was done in a way that enhanced rank-and-file democracy within a united teachers union and if one of the key principles of the merged union was the promotion of social justice unionism. At the key NEA representative assembly in 1998 we distributed our newspaper and 2000 lapel buttons calling for “social justice unionism” of a merged AFT/ NEA. The merger proposal was decisively defeated when anti-merger states like New Jersey, Illinois, and California were able to capitalize on some delegates’ fear of being tied too directly to the labor movement. The main issues seemed to revolve around the differences in the representative structures used by NEA compared to AFT, and basic fear of change.

About the same time, in an effort to further promote a more progressive view of unionism, I co-edited the book Transforming Teacher Unions: Fighting for Better Schools and Social Justice with Michael Charney, a leader in the Cleveland Teachers’ Union. The book included articles on teacher unionism previously published in Rethinking Schools and other articles that described examples of professional and social justice unionism. Unfortunately, as hard as we tried, we found few examples of teacher unions engaging in social justice practices in a sustained way. The two examples that we examined in detail were that of the New York City Teachers’ Union, which did anti-racist and community organizing in Harlem in the 1930s, and that of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation, which has done anti-racist and international solidarity work for the past several decades. In both cases the unions were led by politically sophisticated, left-leaning groups of people.

In the book we also highlighted the work of various locals engaged in professional practices, several of which are affiliated with the Teacher Union Reform Network (TURN). TURN is a coalition of 21 local union presidents from both NEA and AFT locals, started in 1996 by Adam Urbanski, president of the Rochester Teachers’ Association, and the late Helen Bernstein of Los Angeles. The network, which continues to this day, promotes sharing among union leaders to promote professional unionism.

In 2003, some TURN activists, including Mark Simon, former president of the Montgomery County Education Association of Maryland; Naomi Baden, from MCEA; Tom Mooney, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers; Louise Sundin, president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers; and Michael Charney from Cleveland, formed a new group, the Institute for Teacher Union Leadership (ITUL). The ITUL describes itself as a national professional development initiative for union leaders. It provides support to a small group of AFT and NEA locals and promotes “progressive unionism” — defined as having three “frames” or component parts: industrial, professional, and social justice. The ITUL’s explicit commitment to social justice unionism, as one of three parts of “progressive unionism” is a promising development, and ITUL will be able to draw on years of experience as it moves forward. The fact that Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association is a leading participant in the ITUL effort indicates how a union local can evolve over time and recreate itself to do an even better job to serve its members and the community.

As a Rethinking Schools editor and activist, and someone who continues to be active in my teacher union, I believe that the basic perspective that Rethinking Schools has promoted for the past 20 years is more important than ever. Teacher unions must fight on multiple levels — industrial (bread and butter), professional (teacher and education quality), and social justice. We need to organize on these levels simultaneously. We also need to transform the internal structures of our teacher unions so that they more readily foster active membership participation, promote substantial democratic debate, and provide membership education on socioeconomic, political, and curricular issues.

These are no small tasks for teacher unions. But they are essential if teacher unions are going to help lead the way to improve public education for all students in this country.

Bob Peterson ( is an editor of Rethinking Schools and has been active in teacher union politics his entire teaching career. He is currently a member of the executive board of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association.