- Teacher Strike: Public Education and the Making of a New American Political Order by Jon Shelton
As a professor in a college of education, I was startled to discover that student teachers are often hostile to teacher unions—the very organizations responsible for higher salaries, better working conditions, and more professional autonomy. Jon Shelton's book, Teacher Strike! Public Education and the Making of a New American Political Order, not only helps explain why so many people today—even future teachers—are skeptical of teacher unions, it also offers a sophisticated analysis of how teacher unions fit into broader trends within American labor relations, gender norms, and neoliberal educational reform.
Much of the scholarship on teacher unions to date has been produced by historians of education focusing on a local union, an individual union activist, or the relationship between teacher unions and broader political trends, especially the civil rights movement and school integration. Shelton takes a different approach, asking how teacher unions illuminate previously unexplored themes in American labor history. He is especially interested in the fact that teacher unions have a set of unique traits as public sector unions that happen to be highly feminized.
Shelton's core argument is that conflict between teacher unions and municipal leaders over urban public education in the 1970s was instrumental in cleaving the vitally important labor-liberal coalition established in the New Deal era. Shelton's claim here is not entirely new, as it echoes what historians of education have discovered in various investigations of school integration and civil rights battles of the 1960s and 1970s. What is original is Shelton's broader analysis that examines teacher union activism in multiple large cities including New York City, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Philadelphia, and St. Louis from the 1960s through the 1980s. He makes a persuasive case that economic and political conditions converged in such a way that many working and middle class white Americans—once sympathetic to labor unions—came to view teacher unions with a scathing derision born of a distrust of a feminized, public sector workforce. Shelton suggests that prolonged conflicts between teacher unions and municipal leaders precipitated the severe break between the longstanding labor-liberal coalition in ways that historians to date have failed to recognize. [End Page 1451]
American cities had been bleeding both industrial jobs and middle-class residents for decades by this time, stripping the municipal tax base and setting the stage for severe austerity measures that would impact public schools. Those schools, in turn, were the subject of increasing scorn due to underpaid staff, crumbling infrastructure, and disturbingly low levels of academic achievement. Whites interpreted the fact that urban public schools served growing percentages of poor, non-white students as further evidence of public education's declining standards and prospects. Teachers, meanwhile, were newly organized into labor unions and fighting to improve dire conditions related to salary, working conditions, and tenure.
What resulted was essentially a public relations catastrophe that depicted teachers in the worst possible light as they asserted their demands at a moment of declining public support. By 1970, the number of unionized public school teachers in the United States had skyrocketed to roughly 72% of all teachers (33). Although most teacher unions were prohibited from striking, teacher unionists nevertheless used strikes to force municipal leaders to negotiate. Indeed, these technically-illegal teacher strikes won many of the concessions that unionists sought at the bargaining table, inspiring other teachers to strike. There were 30 documented teacher strikes in 1966 and 107 the next year (35).
As teacher unions racked up victories, parents and taxpayers recoiled in horror that the gentle souls charged with educating children were using an illegal form of labor activism to win increased salaries in an industry many viewed as failing. By 1969, the press portrayed teacher strikes as a national crisis. "Are teachers now more concerned about money and power than they are about protecting children?" grumbled one journalist. As Shelton points out, teacher strikes fostered resentment among working families...