There are a variety of ways in which teachers engage in activism. Teachers working for social change within their classrooms and teachers who engage in advocacy and organize to influence policy, law, and society are all doing work that falls under the umbrella of teacher activism. While there are numerous catalysts, many teachers become activists when they encounter unjust educational or social structures. There are also considerable obstacles to teachers recognizing their potential power as activists. From the gendered history of teaching to the widespread conception of teaching as a solitary and not a collective enterprise, there is rarely an easy path toward activism. The importance of collective as opposed to individual social action among teachers is increasingly recognized. Many cities now have teacher activist organizations, a group of which have come together and created a national coalition of teacher activist groups. Overall, teacher activism is an underresearched and undertheorized academic area of study. Possibilities for collective action should be fully explored.
Kurt Stemhagen and Tamara Sober
As social organizations, labor unions place special emphasis on the active participation of their members. In this way, labor union leaders expect not only to safeguard their union’s smooth operation but also to increase their negotiating powers, and defend vigorously working employees’ rights as well as put forward demands for new ones. In recent decades, securing rights to permanent employment as well as many other achievements of the union movement have been increasingly challenged. In addition, modern societies like Greece seem apprehensive as regards demands put forward by labor unions. The appeal of economic liberalization and globalization policies could provide an initial explanation for this phenomenon. However, it is not just the global economic situation and policies that have challenged the dynamics of the union movement nowadays. Attention has to be shifted to the internal environment of the labor unions such as Teachers’ Federation of Greece. This might better explain the limited participation of employees like Greek teachers in their union’s actions and proceedings, such as strikes, stoppages, and public demonstrations.
Since the turn of the 20th century, teachers have tried to find a balance between bettering their own career prospects as workers and educating their students as public servants. To reach a workable combination, teachers have utilized methods drawn from union movements, the militant and labor-conscious approach favored by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), as well as to professional organizations, the tradition from which the National Education Association (NEA) arose. Because teachers lacked the federally guaranteed labor rights that private-sector workers enjoyed after Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, teachers’ fortunes—in terms of collective bargaining rights, control over classroom conditions, pay, and benefits—often remained tied to the broader public-sector labor movement and to state rather than federal law. Opponents of teacher unionization consistently charged that as public servants paid by tax revenues, teachers and other public employees should not be allowed to form unions. Further, because women constituted the vast majority of teachers and union organizing often represented a “manly” domain, the opposition’s approach worked quite well, successfully preventing teachers from gaining widespread union recognition. But by the late 1960s and early 1970s, thanks to an improved economic climate and invigoration from the women’s movement, civil rights struggles, and the New Left, both AFT and NEA teacher unionism surged forward, infused with a powerful militancy devoted to strikes and other political action, and appeared poised to capture federal collective bargaining rights. Their newfound assertiveness proved ill-timed, however. After the economic problems of the mid-1970s, opponents of teacher unions once again seized the opportunity to portray teacher unions and other public-sector unions as greedy and privileged interest groups functioning at the public’s expense. President Ronald Reagan accentuated this point when he fired all of the more than 10,000 striking air traffic controllers during the 1981 Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strike. Facing such opposition, teacher unions—and public-sector unions in general—shifted their efforts away from strikes and toward endorsing political candidates and lobbying governments to pass favorable legislation. Given these constraints, public-sector unions enjoyed a large degree of success in the 1990s through the early 2000s, even as private-sector union membership plunged to less than 10 percent of the workforce. After the Great Recession of 2008, however, austerity politics targeted teachers and other public-sector workers and renewed political confrontations surrounding the legitimacy of teacher unions.
Teacher unions (or alternatively “education unions”) are organizations formed to protect and advance the collective interests of teachers and other education workers. What the collective interests of educators entail and how they should be pursued have been and remain active matters for debate within these organizations. Different unions at different times have responded differently to these questions, for example, in relation to the degree to which an industrial versus a professional orientation should be adopted, and the degree to which a wider political and social justice agenda should be embraced. Several ideal-type models of teacher unionism have been identified, as well as various strategic options that these unions might employ. A spirited debate is ongoing about the legitimacy and power of teacher unions. One perspective portrays them as self-interested special interest groups, and another as social movements advocating for public education. The status of teacher unions as stakeholders in educational policymaking is contested, and union–government relations occur across a spectrum of arrangements ranging from those that encourage negotiation to those characterized by confrontation and hostility. Internationally, education unions face significant challenges in the early decades of the 21st century. Neoliberal economic and industrial policies and legislation have eroded the capacity of unions to collectively organize and bargain, and the global education reform movement (GERM) has created a hostile environment for education unions and their members. Despite these challenges, education unions remain among the most important critics of GERM and of global neoliberal social policy generally. The challenges posed and the strategies adopted play out differently across the globe. There is evidence that at least some unions are now prepared to be far more flexible in adopting a “tapestry” of strategies, to examine their internal organization, build alliances, and develop alternative conceptions of the future of education. Researchers, however, have identified certain internal factors in many teacher unions that pose significant obstacles to these tasks. Unions face difficult choices that could lead to marginalization on the one hand or incorporation on the other.
Doris A. Santoro
Teachers often characterize their interest in and commitment to the profession as moral: a desire to support students, serve their communities, or uphold civic ideals embedded in the promise of public education. These initial and sustaining moral impulses are well documented in research on teaching and teacher education. However, moral commitments can also be a source of teachers’ dissatisfaction and resistance, especially in the age of the market-based Global Education Reform Movement. This article explores the phenomenon of conscientious objection in teaching as an enactment of professional ethics. Conscientious objection describes teachers’ actions when they take a stand against job expectations that contradict or compromise their professional ethics. Teachers who refuse to enact policies and practices may be represented by popular media, school leaders, policymakers, and educational researchers as merely recalcitrant or insubordinate. This perspective misses the moral dimensions of resistance. Teachers may refuse to engage in practices or follow mandates from the standpoint of professional conscience. This article also highlights varieties of conscientious objection that are drawn from global examples of teacher resistance. Finally, the article explores the role of teachers unions as potential catalysts for collective forms of conscientious objection.
Marco Estrada Saavedra
The summer and fall of 2006 saw a violent, protracted conflict in Oaxaca, Mexico between the state government and the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca, APPO). What began as a contentious labor negotiation between the local government and the teachers’ union soon developed into a popular protest and mobilization throughout the state, especially in the Valles Centrales region, home to the state capital. The governor’s repressive actions against critics and opponents of his administration led the APPO members to a consensus demanding his removal. The result was a government in paralysis, with none of the three constitutional branches able to exercise their normal authority or carry out their activities. The APPO achieved territorial control by the following means: with the erection of hundreds of barricades throughout the capital to protect it from sneak attacks by irregular units of the state police; with its occupation, operation, and diffusion of public and private media outlets; with a permanent mobilization of its members; and with the construction of a popular government, the Oaxaca Commune, to manage public affairs and services. This experience of popular autonomy involved the dismantling of the local system of domination and also of the authoritarian, clientelist, patrimonialist, and patriarchal relationships within the organizations of the APPO itself. It ended in violent repression.
In the late 19th and 20th centuries, massive numbers of African women, poor and rich, educated and uneducated, were deeply involved in resistance to European colonialism/imperialism and male domination at both the national and local levels of their nations. The 1890 rebellion led by Charwe in present-day Zimbabwe, the 1929 women’s rebellion in eastern Nigeria, the 1940s women’s marches in Senegal as part of the strike of African male railway workers so beautifully chronicled in Ousmane Sembene’s God’s Bits of Wood (1960), the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya, the revolution against the French in Algeria, and women’s roles as troop support and combatants against the Portuguese in Angola and Mozambique and against apartheid in South Africa are among the many examples of women centered in African resistance to colonialism and African nation-building. In all of these struggles women did not isolate their struggles as women from their struggles as oppressed people. Born Frances Olufunmilayo Olufela Abigail Folorunsho Thomas, but best known as Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti (and later Funmilayo Anikulapo -Kuti), is the best-known Nigerian woman anti-imperialist, pan-Africanist, and feminist. She struggled for the independence of Nigeria and the empowerment of Nigerian women to vote, be educated, and be included in the governance structures of their nation. She also identified herself as a human-rights activist who struggled on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised of all nations. She was among a small number of West African women (such as Adelaide Casely-Hayford, Constance Cummings-John, and Mabel Dove Danquah) who traveled widely internationally and who were active in international women’s organizations such as the Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF) and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). At one point, when Amy Ashwood Garvey visited Nigeria, FRK wrote to ask about affiliating with Garvey’s United Negro Improvement Association (UNIA) Women’s Corps. In addition to her travel to many countries on the African continent, FRK traveled to Eastern and Western Europe, the Soviet Union, and China. Though invited to participate in a conference in San Francisco in the 1950s, she never visited the United States because she was unable to secure a visa due to her travel during the Cold War to eastern bloc nations and China, for which she was accused of being a communist. She was never a member of the communist party, but she did embrace the socialist ideal that all people were entitled to their freedom, education, medical care, and housing, and her activism was firmly rooted in grassroots organizing. She is best known for having led the struggle that deposed the Alake (king) of Abeokuta, for leading women in their struggles against taxation by the British colonial government without the vote or representation in government, and for her work with the nationalist party the National Council of Nigeria and the Cameroons (NCNC) and with the Nigerian Union of Teachers (NUT). She founded two women’s organizations within Nigeria, the Abeokuta Women’s Union (AWU) and the Nigerian Women’s Union (NWU-which was the basis for the formation of the Federation of Nigerian Women’s Societies), and a short-lived political party, the Commoners’ People’s Party (CPP). Internationally she worked with the WIDF (of which she was elected a vice president), the WILPF (that listed FRK as president of its Nigeria section), and the West African Students’ Union (WASU) of London. She authored articles on women in Nigeria in the WIDF journal, and one (“We Had Equality ’til Britain Came”) in the Daily Worker published in London. During her lifetime as an activist, she received many honors: the Order of the Niger (1965—from the Nigerian government for her work on behalf of the nation); honorary doctorate from the University of Ibadan, Nigeria (1968); an appearance in the International Women’s Who’s Who (1969); and Lenin Peace Prize (1970). On her death in 1978, FRK was hailed in headlines in major Nigerian newspapers as the “Voice of Women” and “The Defender of Women’s Rights.” She is also considered a pioneer in the articulation and practice of African feminism and an important figure in the rise of Nigerian radical political philosophy. Analyses of 20th-century African and transnational feminism will continue to be informed and complicated by her story.