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When “Teachers Want What Children Need”

Reconciling Tensions in Teachers’ Work and Teacher Unionism

Lois Weiner is a member of the New Politics editorial board and is Professor of Education at New Jersey City University, where she coordinates a graduate program for experienced teachers. Her newest book, The Future of our Schools: Teachers Unions and Social Justice, explains why and how teachers need to transform their unions to save public education.

“Teachers want what children need—or do they?” Questioning—and rejecting—the slogan used by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) to fight for collective bargaining in the 1960s, David K. Cohen, a contributor to Socialist Revolution, in 1969 dismissed the progressive potential of teachers’ unions.1 This article revisits the AFT’s slogan and Cohen’s question, examining tensions between “what teachers want” and “what children need.” The history of U.S. teacher unionism supports the argument that when teachers’ unions adopt a “social movement” orientation and press against the confines of the scope of bargaining embedded in collective-bargaining agreements, the unions minimize tensions between teachers’ rights to organize as workers in defense of their material interests and the unique political and social responsibilities of their work.

Though not apparent from either the capitalist mass media or many critiques of what has come to be called “corporate school reform,” the fate of the world’s children depends in great part on resistance from teachers and their unions. We in the United States are experiencing a version of a global project that financial and political elites began forty years ago when they imposed school reform on Latin America, Africa, and Asia, first under brutal military dictatorships supported by U.S. imperialism and then as a quid pro quo for economic aid. Though well-documented by scholars and activists in the global South, the project (and resistance to it) is still not well-known in this country.2 Specifics differ from one country to another, yet its program has the same footprint and purpose of making schools fit neoliberalism’s vision of what the world needs: vocationalization of schooling, privatization of the educational sector, and deprofessionalization of teaching. All of this is tied to reliance on standardized tests as the exclusive measure of students, teachers, and schools.3

The powerful elites who share information and policies across international borders understand (unfortunately, better than do most teachers) that despite their all-too-glaring problems, teachers’ unions are the main impediment to the full realization of the neoliberal project. As is true for labor unions generally, teacher unionism’s principles of collective action and solidarity contradict neoliberalism’s key premises—individual initiative and competition. Neoliberalism pushes a “survival of the fittest” mentality. Labor unions presume people have to work together to protect their common interests. Another reason unions are a threat is that they can exercise institutional power: as organizations they have legal rights; because of their institutional roots, they are a stable force; and they are able to draw on membership dues, giving them a regular source of income. These characteristics give teachers’ unions an organizational capacity seldom acquired by advocacy groups or parents, who generally graduate from activity in schools along with their children. Yet, the very factors that make unions stable and potentially powerful also induce hierarchy and conservatism. Neither unions as organizations nor union members as individuals are immune to prejudices that infect a society, even when these prejudices contradict the union’s premises of equality in the workplace.

Though the popular media cast teachers’ unions as powerful, the unions are more often than not weak where it counts most, at the school site. Union officials and staff are often disoriented and confused. The well-orchestrated, extravagantly financed anti-teacher and anti-teachers’ union propaganda campaign has greatly undercut the credibility of unions and even the idea of teacher unionism, even among teachers. Unfortunately, teachers’ unions have disarmed themselves in combating their delegitimation because of their embrace of the “business” or “service” model of union organization. This model, dominant for decades in U.S. unions, configures them as a business that exists to provide services to members, including lower rates for auto insurance, benefits from a welfare fund, pension advice, negotiating a contract, and perhaps filing a grievance. Officers and staff make decisions on the members’ behalf. Other than voting on a contract and electing officers every few years, members are passive. They are obliged only to pay dues and accept the leadership’s expertise. Because the service model is predicated on the members relying on officials, participation is minimal, and so leaders easily evolve into a clique—often one that is defensive and insular.

In response to what was, in retrospect, the first iteration of the neoliberal education project in 1992, liberal academics, progressives, education activists, and some union officials argued that teachers’ unions should respond to the calls for “excellence” and “accountability” in education by spurning stances that made them resemble “industrial unions.” Teachers’ unions, they argued, needed to be more conciliatory about changes to schools that would benefit students. One camp, advocates of “professional unionism,” advocated eliminating collective bargaining agreements, replacing them with “trust agreements,” in order to jettison the contentiousness of labor-management struggle. Teachers should be professionals who assumed responsibility for educational outcomes.4 Another segment of teacher activists argued for “social justice teacher unionism” to replace the model of industrial unionism that had dominated the education sector.5

Unfortunately, progressives who endorsed the “new teacher unionism” forfeited their credibility among rank-and-file teachers who looked to their union to protect their interests on the job—in the schools. Moreover, advocates of social justice teacher unionism were often unclear about how their vision differed from that of the new teacher unionism and thought the unions had to jettison hard-fought contract protections to improve educational outcomes. While many U.S. education activists who advocated social justice teacher unionism hoped to build support for their unions among parents and community, they underestimated the peril of inviting into education the kind of management-labor collaboration being heralded in private industry.6 In contracts and trust agreements, unions ceded vital job protections, like seniority, for salary increases. Peer-evaluation schemes and new salary schedules that created status inequalities among teachers by creating “master teachers” gave teachers responsibility for school outcomes without authority for deciding the most fundamental aspects of school life. Ironically, the reforms progressive activists pressed the union to accept in the name of improving school outcomes opened the door to a work culture that assumes teachers would be on-call seven days a week, fourteen hours a day. Neoliberalism now insists on this school culture, which is lauded as essential to boosting students’ achievement.

Another limitation of social justice teacher unionism in the United States was its unwillingness to address how the diminution of teacher union power related to the atrophy of union internal life, in particular the absence of vibrant democracy. This limitation was illustrated by TURN (Teacher Union Reform Network), an alliance of teacher union officers in both the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) who presented themselves as advocates of progressive education reform.7 Canadian researcher Stephanie Ross observes that while a union that states a commitment to social justice “may mobilize members, they can do so in conditions largely defined by leaders[that] can be easily accommodated within and could even reinforce top-down practices.” She notes that writers like Sam Gindin, Kim Moody, Michael Eisenscher, and Christopher Schenk “all make a distinction between mobilizational and democratizing approaches to union renewal, and in particular, how tactics are framed and utilized. They all suggest a variant of social unionism—most often referred to as social movement unionism—which combines an anti-economistic, anti-sectionalist, and transformative vision with new mobilizing repertoires and organizational forms. Here workers don’t just ‘participate’: they ‘actively lead’ and have democratic control over ‘the fight for everything that affects working people’ in their union, their communities and their country.”8

Ross indicates that in categorizing unions, it is essential to look at both a union’s stated purposes and the way it operationalizes those goals—looking beyond labels to actions. So, for example, we can see that while the British Colombia Teachers Federation calls itself a social justice union, it resembles much more closely the social movement teachers’ union that Ross describes.

Social Movement Teacher Unionism

Using the distinction Ross makes, I suggest that the term social movement unionism clarifies how the organizational form of the union (as a social movement) relates to the positions it takes (defense of social justice). Social movement unionism casts the union’s strength as a function of its ability to mobilize its members to struggle on their own behalf and to join, as an ally, with other social movements that aim to make our society more just and equal. Union power comes from the bottom-up, as it does in social movements. Members’ self-interest is defined broadly, as much more than immediate economic and contractual concerns. The union struggles for its members’ stake in creating a more democratic, equitable society, and the union allies itself with other movements that are working for social justice, peace, and equality.

Though elements of the social movement unionism I propose are new, many were present in teacher unionism’s birth in Chicago in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The movement’s most prominent spokesperson was Margaret Haley, an elementary school teacher and socialist, who had strong ties to socialists in the AFL, activists in the suffrage movement, and progressive educational reformers, most notably John Dewey and school superintendent Ella Flagg Young.9 The movement she was instrumental in organizing fought for the economic interests of teachers, embedding these demands for higher salary, pensions, and professional authority in a political and social program that aimed to democratize the schools and win economic and political emancipation for working people. With John Dewey, Haley advocated the centrality of public education and a professional teaching force in schooling citizens for a democracy.10 The Chicago union, Local 1 of the AFT, initiated militant campaigns to restore funding for public schools by taxing the corporations.

However, as was true of the union’s allies in organized labor, even among socialists, teacher unionism was blind to the injustice of racial segregation and inequality within both education and the society at large.11 Rereading Haley’s speech, “Why Teachers Should Organize,” with our understanding of the union’s acceptance of racial inequality complicates the claims she makes for the absolute correspondence between the needs of the teacher and the child. Haley first explains, “There is no possible conflict between the interest of the child and the interest of the teacher. For both the child and the teacher freedom is the condition of development. The atmosphere in which it is easiest to teach is the atmosphere in which it is easiest to learn. The same things that are a burden to the teacher are a burden also to the child. The same things which restrict her powers restrict his powers also.” But then she follows with a cautionary note: “The element of danger in organization for self-protection is the predominance of the selfish motive. In the case of teachers a natural check is placed upon this motive by the necessity for professional organization. The closer the union between these two kinds of organization, the fuller and more effective is the activity possible to each.”12

Haley acknowledges the conservative influence of teachers organizing for their own self-interest, “the selfish motive.” She assumes that the existence of a professional organization—in her day, the NEA—serves as a “natural check.” But in teacher unionism’s reemergence in the 1960s, there was no mass socialist movement as there had been in Haley’s time to spur engagement in a militant confrontation with capitalism. In addition, the NEA had morphed into a rival teachers’ union. Hence the “natural check” on the “selfish motive” no longer existed for either the AFT or the NEA.

Teacher unionism was reborn as a political force in the 1960s, in the wake of the civil rights movement’s challenge to U.S. society. Political battles between white teachers in city schools and black parents and community activists made teacher unionism, which came to be personified by Albert Shanker, seem to many left activists and academics an inevitable opponent of challenges to existing (racist) power relations. By 1975, Shanker had jettisoned any pretense that teachers and children had identical interests, arguing instead that public and union interests converged “occasionally,” making these instances the “happiest of times.”13

Cohen’s critique, not unusual in the New Left, boiled down to this argument: the left could not justify white teachers in city schools fighting for better wages and pensions in school systems that were failing minority children. As had been true of the movement Haley helped organize, teacher unionism in its rebirth was blind to systemic racism. Teachers’ unions accepted the circumscribed limits of contract unionism, fighting for more voice for teachers within undemocratic schools and an undemocratic society. In doing so, the unions limited their capacity to develop respectful alliances with communities of color who viewed school reform as an extension of the civil rights struggle. Community activists intent on “owning” the schools had a similar blindspot, failing to see teacher unionism’s claims for teachers’ dignity as workers.14 While Haley pushed the union and movement she headed to struggle for a “democracy in education” that excluded people of color, Shanker shaped the apparatus and movement he headed to the “business union” approach, defining members’ interests as improved pay and benefits within a status quo defined by U.S. capitalism’s global desires.15 The political and financial stability of the union apparatus, expressed in the union leadership’s pursuit of legislation that gave the union’s agency fee (the right to charge non-members for costs in negotiating and enforcing the contract) and dues checkoff (having membership and agency fee deducted from paychecks automatically), was cast as synonymous with the health of the union and of public education itself.

The embrace by the teachers’ unions of business unionism’s narrow definition of teachers’ self-interest as workers and teachers has been self-destructive. It has paved the way for neoliberalism’s ideological victory in configuring teachers and their unions as a “special interest,” no different from the corporations entering the education “market.” Especially in schools serving students who are marginalized in our society, school organization and regulations can be inhumane. Partly because contracts severely limit the scope of bargaining and partly because of the embrace of “business union” thinking, teachers’ unions have pretty much accepted the school’s structure and organization as a given. The mis-fit between teaching as a personal, nurturing activity and schools’ hierarchical structures, culture, and organization (whether due to paternalism, bureaucracy, or a corporate ethos), has a corrosive impact on teachers’ morale and subsequently students’ learning. Teachers’ unions have a unique role in assuming leadership in working with parents, community, and labor—in coalitions, as respectful equals—to take on the way schools are organized. In this we have much to learn from Haley.

What we should not repeat is teacher unionism’s complicity in accepting racial oppression as society’s default setting. Tensions with parents are inescapable, especially when parents feel they are not respected by the union, as is often the case with groups who have experienced racial exclusion from labor unions. In cities throughout the United States, teachers’ unions confront the legacy of their failure to build authentic alliances with parents and community activists. Their failure to see beyond “bread and butter”—in particular, their unwillingness to put race and racism on the table as legitimate concerns of parents and students—has made them vulnerable to neoliberalism’s audacious and effective usurpation of the rhetoric of equal educational opportunity historically associated with progressive movements.

Teaching as Transformative Labor

A good teachers’ union has special moral and political responsibilities because of the unique nature of teachers’ work. From the point of view of the capitalist elite, teachers are to be controlled first and foremost because they are “idea workers,” that is, they play an ideological role in transmitting—or disrupting—social values and norms. This is a major reason the neoliberal project intends to remake teaching by destroying teachers’ autonomy and the space this creates in schools for critical thought, for ideas of freedom and social justice.16 Australian sociologist Raewyn Connell captures the special nature of teachers’ work this way: “Teaching is always transformative labour, bringing new social realities into existence; and is also fundamentally interactive, not individual. Teachers’ work is not social reproduction, but is creative and therefore a site of social struggle. In a long historical perspective, the modern teaching workforce is unique, and has the possibility of shaping the learning capacities of the whole society; this may now be uniquely important.”17

Elsewhere Connell explains why the focus on individual teacher quality is misguided. Teaching, she notes, has to be understood as a collective effort of those at the school site: “Much of what happens in the daily life of a school involves the joint labour of the staff, and the staff’s collective relationship to the collective presence of the students. The task of improving teaching, accordingly, cannot be understood only as a matter of motivating or re-skilling individuals.”18 In setting out the collective nature of teachers’ work, Connell explains why good teachers’ unions are essential for good schools. In this respect, teachers’ unions do want what children need, a collective voice for teachers who can defend conditions that support learning and teaching well.

Many teachers do not realize that they need a collective voice, nor that they are “idea workers” who do “transformative labour.” They enter the profession because they love being with children or the subject matter they want to teach. The architects of neoliberalism’s educational reforms know that regardless of conscious intent, teachers have the potential to affect social arrangements, challenging the authority of elites who have an interest in maintaining their power and privilege. For this reason, a union of teachers has a particular responsibility to safeguard teachers’ rights to help students think critically. Protecting teachers’ academic freedom is one of the union’s most essential tasks. That means fighting for tenure and the guarantee of fair, objective hearings when complaints are made about teachers’ professional conduct. What complicates the union’s defense of academic freedom and its members’ performance on the job is that laws requiring children’s compulsory attendance at school make them captive in classrooms. Therefore the union has an allegiance both to its members as workers and to the protection of students’ well-being. To satisfy its responsibility, teachers’ unions need to reject the quid pro quo that gives teachers collective-bargaining rights but limits the scope of bargaining.

Neoliberalism’s ideological success in equating “effective teaching” with improving student test scores has made defense of teaching’s civic and social functions all the more essential—and difficult. The stranglehold of standardized testing, having test scores linked to teachers’ pay and evaluations, has turned many schools that serve children of working and poor families into little more than training grounds for unemployment, low-wage labor, and prison. Both the AFT and NEA have capitulated to neoliberalism’s reduction of schooling’s purposes to its economic value. Yet, we cannot effectively defend teachers, teaching, and public education against neoliberalism without defending teaching’s non-economic functions, its role in educating people to think critically, and its socialization and nurturing responsibilities. Teaching is “women’s work,” and as Sara Freedman noted, presciently, improving the status of teaching is not possible “as long as one of the most important jobs of a teacher—that of understanding, working with, and emotionally supporting children—has little status outside of schools.”19

In its report on what students in Chicago deserve, the Chicago Teachers Union has inherited and improved on Haley’s vision of how teachers’ unions need to discuss teachers’ work and children’s well-being.20 While parents are worried about their children’s ability to compete for jobs, they also look to schools to safeguard their children. It is parents, not bankers or the politicians they bankroll, who are the constituency teachers and their unions need to move to our way of viewing school reform.

Haley’s warning about the “selfish motive” in organizing for self-protection suggests that teachers’ unions should try to create vehicles independent of the union, as exist in higher education in faculty senates, to protect teachers’ rights as “idea workers,” their ideological function, to develop courses of study, select books, materials, and teaching methods. Haley’s union supported creation of “teachers’ councils” that were organizationally independent of the union. Teachers elected representatives to the councils, which had an advisory role on educational decisions.21 At the same time, teachers’ unions need to respect the diversity of opinion among thoughtful teachers and parents about what works best in classrooms. Teachers who are closer to minority and immigrant communities can bring information and perspectives that are valuable in helping children learn.22 Too often the views of parents who lack formal education, especially when they are members of oppressed groups, are dismissed as being uninformed, when, in fact, these parents bring a much-needed critique of unfair and unequal treatment of minority students.23

Conventional (teacher-union) wisdom has it that collective bargaining improved teachers’ working conditions, and if we define teachers’ work primarily in terms of wages and hours, that is accurate. But in his historical examination of the NEA, Wayne Urban concludes that teachers in NEA affiliates actually had more voice in professional matters before the NEA engaged in collective bargaining.24 Because of the narrow scope of bargaining that unions accepted when they pressed for legislation giving teachers the right to bargain, teachers’ unions are generally precluded from addressing pedagogical concerns, like standardized testing and choice of teaching materials and methods.

Teachers and students are being damaged by union contracts that tie teacher evaluation and pay to standardized test scores—policies now endorsed by the AFT and NEA. The unions need to push back on teacher evaluation but cannot do so successfully unless they learn to build mutually respectful alliances with parents, community, and students. The unions must also engage in direct action, as Sam Gindin notes when he calls for a “complete revolution in everything about public-sector unions—from how they allocate resources, to how they train their staff and relate to their members, other unions, and the community, to (above all) making the level, quality and administration of services a prime bargaining issue.”25 Neoliberalism’s success in painting teachers’ unions as self-interested and selfish and the attack on the right to bargain contracts make this an opportune time to rethink the scope of bargaining—and even collective bargaining. The model of social movement unionism suggests that we need to understand our goal as being building a social movement of teachers who defend their professional and economic interests in a broader social movement to defend public education. The organizational form we adopt then supports the movement’s aims, rather than vice versa.

Do Teachers Want What Children Need?

Both Cohen’s question and the AFT slogan configure the issue as an either/or, but it should be understood as contingent: When do teachers and teachers’ unions want what children need? Like all workers, everywhere, teachers have the right to form unions to bargain collectively. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that teachers’ rights are hard to defend when unions cast their members’ interests as being separate from needs of students, parents, and community. While the union can and should broaden its goals, there is a tension we must learn to live with. Teachers’ unions are almost never strong enough to determine the contours of struggles, and especially now when both the unions and public education are under such sustained, brutal attack, very often union activists and supporters in the community must confront hard choices about how long and how hard to fight—and for what. Unions must be pressed to win parent and community trust and continue to earn it—while we all recognize that unions are subject to limitations (legal and internal) that advocacy groups are not.

Yes, teachers do want what children need, most of the time. However, the vision we should project for our movement—and the slogan we adopt—must embed the needs of teachers within a vision for democratic, quality schools and a society that is just.


  1. David K. Cohen, “ Teachers Want What Children Need—Or Do They?,” The Urban Review 2 (1968): 25–29.
  2. Our Schools / Our Selves, Breaking the Iron Cage: Resistance to the Schooling of Global Capitalism (Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2008).
  3. Mary Compton and Lois Weiner, eds., The Global Assault on Teaching, Teachers and Their Unions: Stories for Resistance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008).
  4. Charles Kerchner and Julia Koppich, A Union of Professionals: Labor Relations and Educational Reform (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993).
  5. Bob Petersen, “We Need a New Vision of Teacher Unions,” Rethinking Schools 11, no. 4 (Summer 1997), http://
  6. Lois Weiner, “Teacher Unions Not ‘Too Industrial,’” letter to the editor in “Readers Speak Out on Teacher Unions,” Rethinking Schools 13, no. 1 (1998),
  7. Adam Urbanski, “TURNing unions around,” Originally published 1998.
  8. Stephanie Ross, “Varieties of Social Unionism: Towards a Framework for Comparison,” Just Labour: A Canadian Journal of Work and Society 11 (Autumn 2007), 28, The quotes inside Ross’s excerpt are from Sam Gindin, The Canadian Auto Workers: The Birth and Transformation of a Union (Toronto: James Lorimer & Co., 1995), 268.
  9. Lois Weiner, The Future of Our Schools: Teachers Unions and Social Justice (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012).
  10. Lois Weiner, “Teacher Unions and Professional Organization: Re-examining Margaret Haley’s Counsel on Councils,” paper presented at the American Educational Research Association, 1992,
  11. Kate Rousmaniere, “White Silence: A Racial Biography of Margaret Haley,” Equity and Excellence in Education 34, no. 2 (2001): 7–15.
  12. Margaret Haley, “Why Teachers Should Organize,” in the National Education Association of the United States, Journal of Proceedings and Addresses of the Forty-Third Annual Meeting Held at St. Louis, Missouri (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1904), 146,
  13. Weiner, The Future of Our Schools, 104. Originally in “Cracks in Shanker’s Empire,” New Politics 11, no. 4 (1976).
  14. Steve Golin, The Newark Teacher Strikes: Hopes on the Line (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2002).
  15. Weiner, The Future of Our Schools, 104.
  16. Howard Stevenson, “Working In, and Against, the Neo-Liberal State: Global Perspectives on K–12 Teacher Unions,” Workplace 17 (2010): 1–10. This special issue of Workplace: A Journal of Academic Laborcontains other contributions by international group of researchers in the Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association,
  17. Raewyn Connell, “The Work of Teaching,” History of Education Review 38 no. 2 (2009): 9.
  18. Raewyn Connell, “Good Teachers on Dangerous Ground: Towards a New View of Teacher Quality and Professionalism,” Critical Studies in Education 50, no. 3 (2009): 221, 222,
  19. Sara Freedman, “Weeding Women Out of ‘Woman’s True Profession’: The Effects of the Reforms on Teaching and Teachers,” in Joyce Antler and Sari Knopp Biklen, eds., Changing Education: Women as Radicals and Conservators (Albany: SUNY Press, 1990), 256.
  20. Chicago Teachers Union, The Schools Chicago Students Deserve, 2012,
  21. Geoffrey G. Tegnell, Democracy in Education: A Comparative Study of the Teachers’ Council Movement, 1895–1968 (PhD dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Education,1997).
  22. Michele Foster,”The Role of Community and Culture in School Reform Efforts: Examining the Views of African-American Teachers,” Educational Foundations 8 , no. 2 (Spring 1994): 5–26.
  23. Community Asset Development Re-defining Education (CADRE) and Justice Matters Institute (JMI), We Interrupt This Crisis—With Our Side of the Story: Relationships Between South Los Angeles Parents and Schools(Los Angeles, October 2004),
  24. Wayne J. Urban , Gender, Race, and the National Education Association (New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2000).
  25. Sam Gindin, “Marx’s Proletariat: What Can Today’s Labor Movement Learn from Marx?,” New Labor Forum 21, no. 2 (June 2012): 20.
2013, Volume 65, Issue 02 (June)
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