Are Teacher Strikes Antiquated? How Should Teachers/Teacher Unions Respond to the Current Attacks on Teachers and Public Education?

At the monthly UFT Delegate Meeting a motion commemorating the creation of the union on Mach 16, 1960 was introduced. A delegate introduced an amendment, urging the union to work to change the state constitution and the Taylor Law to allow teacher strikes without penalties. A union officer responded; if a situation is urgent, the union will take any actions to respond, including strikes. The amending motion failed. (See continuing discussion here)

Are teacher strikes a viable tool to force resolution of conflicts?

A little history: the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) was created 63 years ago with the merger of two of over 100 teacher organizations. Teachers in New York have always been contentious, teacher organizations based on geography, religion, division and politics. The Teacher Guild akin to today’s Democratic Socialists and the Teacher Union, much further to the left, and the High School Teachers Association were bitter enemies.

As McCarthyism grew in the late forties teacher unions came under attack; considering the attacks on freedom of speech today, a little about the antecedents.

In 1949 the New York State legislature passed what became known as the Feinberg Law,

“a person employed as superintendent of schools, teacher or employee in the public schools, in any city or school district of the state, shall be removed from such position for the utterances of any treasonable or seditious word or words or the doing of any treasonable or seditious act or acts while holding such position.”

See a contemporary essay in the Harvard Crimson here

The challenge to the law moved through the courts and in 1952 the Supreme Court (6-3) sustained the law. (Read the decision, and dissents here)

In 1967, the Supreme Court reversed the decision (5-4) Read here and the NY Times wrote,

“In addition to those who were merely silenced nearly 400 teachers in New York City’s schools and college system lost their jobs directly or indirectly as a result of restrictive measures during the nearly fifteen years following the Court’s original decision.

But the impact was much more far-reaching than specific punishment meted out to a relatively few teachers. The real and last damage lay in the atmosphere of implied guilt, the mandated spying, and the straitjacket of uniformity that continued to a greater or less decree throughout the period. In the more enlightened climate of recent years, there has been some relaxation; but the threat was always present.”

Whether the Teacher Union was an arm of the Soviet State or fighting for the rights of teachers and students has been subject of debate for decades.

Clarence Taylor, Reds at the Blackboard: Communism, Civil Rights, and the New York City Teachers Union, 2013, wrote a sympathetic history, Read a review here.

The Gotham Center blog writes an excellent account of the Feinberg Law years (Read here); in 1973 a lawsuit was resolved with payments and pension service forsome of the dismissed teachers..

Are we seeing the revival of the Feinberg Law era across the nation?

After decades of internecine bickering the Teacher Guild and a faction in the High School Teachers Association merged to form the United Federation of Teachers (Read the story here)

In its first fifteen years the UFT went on strike fivet imes, one day strikes in 1960 and 1961, a thirteen day strike in 1967, the forty day Ocean Hill Brownsville strike in 1968 and a five day strike in 1975.  Strikes were tools to resolve disputes, and effective tools, two of the strikes were not about contract disputes, 1968 about school district firing teachers and 1975 the layoff of thousands of teachers.

You may agree, or not, “Change makes fools of us all, and we are living through an era of change.”

Public education is under attack, from Florida to Texas, unlimited vouchers, attacks on teacher unions and teachers; banning books in libraries, banning books in classrooms, from the New York State Governor, perhaps to the New York City Mayor.

Teachers and their unions need allies, Alliance for Quality Education, Class Size Matters, Diane Ravitch, elected officials at every level, school boards, parent associations, the public education universe.

The McCarthyite attacks were vicious and destroyed lives of dedicated, caring teachers and we are witnessing the revival today. Fighting for the right to strike will only isolate teacher unions from public school advocates, yes, in rare instances striking may be the only alternatives (1968, 1975); we need all of us, teachers, parents, civil rights organizations to fight back, to turn the tide.

To quote Benjamin Franklin, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, assuredly, we shall all hang separately,”

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