Teachers’ unions need to keep close to our social-justice roots

Poverty. Racism. Democracy. Aboriginal rights. Climate change. Many of us explore issues like these in our classrooms. It’s our responsibility as teachers to see that our students become caring, engaged members of society.

Teachers in Burnaby, BC make the connection between social justice and education funding in 2012. (Photo: Burnaby Teachers' Association blog)
Teachers in Burnaby, BC make the connection between social justice and education funding in 2012. (Photo: Burnaby Teachers’ Association blog)

In our unions, we also advocate for progressive change on issues like these. One of the my own union’s core beliefs is that promoting quality public education for all requires working for social justice.

Overall, how are we doing with that? 

It’s not an easy time for unions in Canada. Union density across the country (the percentage of all workers who are unionized) declined (PDF link) from a high of about 38% in the 1980s to 31.5% in 2013.

Across the country we see attacks on unions that are more and more brazen. To list just a few examples, in recent years teachers in Ontario and British Columbia have had important parts of their painstakingly-negotiated contracts stripped away by legislation, with no apparent recourse except expensive, drawn-out court battles. In the private sector, large employers can bust a union altogether by moving operations to less union-friendly jurisdictions, as employees of Caterpillar construction found out in 2012 when their plant in London, Ontario shut down and relocated to Indiana.

In situations like these, public opinion is crucial. Governments (of any stripe) will not be successful in attacks on unions if the unions have broad support.

Unfortunately, it often seems like public support for unionized workers is on the wane. Part of this is due to slick, well-funded public relations campaigns run by some elements of industry, and right-wing think tanks.

But another reason is that while unions unquestionably improve wages and working conditions for their members, people who aren’t represented by unions are sometimes left wondering what the labour movement does for them. While there’s plenty of evidence to show that union contracts put upward pressure on wages for all workers, this connection isn’t always apparent. Resentment towards unions can result, which can be masterfully exploited by union opponents.

In the case of teacher unions, union opponents have also sought to pit teachers against students and parents. In the narrative of corporate-style education reformers, teacher unions are the main impediment to improvements in education. Any job action by teachers is framed as being self-interested, and against the best interests of students (even when teachers are fighting for things like smaller class sizes, which benefit students even more than teachers).

Labour organizations in Canada have historically played a part in broader social movements, with a key role (PDF link) in the fight for social benefits such as old age pensions and unemployment insurance. In many cases, though, especially since the Second World War, unions have followed the “business union” model, which sees the union’s role as primarily one of providing services to its members, as opposed to advancing the issues of all working people.

Those of us in teachers’ unions need to make sure our organizations participate actively in movements for broad, progressive social change in our communities. This is not only the right thing to do, but also important for maintaining public support for our work fighting for quality public education.

As public school educators, fighting for a more equal society is a natural fit – we already think of our institution as the “great equalizer,” striving to give the best education possible to our students so they can succeed in life, no matter their socioeconomic backgrounds. We’re also deeply invested in our communities; we get to know countless families over our time in a school.

Along with what happens in our classrooms, however, social issues we might sometimes see as peripheral to our lives are in fact closely connected to them. Poverty, for example, is perhaps the most significant impediment to student success. As a union we recognize this, and say so publicly (PDF). But we could also concretely support civil-society and grassroots initiatives that fight poverty and inequality, such as campaigns to increase minimum wages. We could do this both with financial and human resources.

Other societal issues such as racism, sexism, environmental degradation, and underfunding/privatization of public services negatively affect our students. As a union, we can facilitate our members’ involvement in pushing for progressive change on these issues.

When teachers’ unions are deeply involved in campaigns for social justice in our communities, we can do great things. In Chicago, the teachers’ union worked closely in recent years with inner-city parents and community members on a range of issues related to their children’s education.

In 2012, the community then supported teachers in their successful strike against education authorities hell-bent on busting the union and charter-izing public schools. We should work to ensure the same thing would happen here.

4 thoughts on “Teachers’ unions need to keep close to our social-justice roots”

  1. Thanks for exposing so clearly the connections between what’s good for teachers, what’s good for students, and what’s good for our entire communities. What could improve teachers’ working conditions more than the elimination of poverty, racism, and other oppressions?

    The fact that my life as a teacher would be better is not the reason why I struggle for social justice — people deserve justice because they do, not because their oppression inconveniences me. But if we’re going to avoid falling into the paternalism of charity-model “help for the disadvantaged”, we’re going to have to acknowledge that we’re not just doing this to “help others.” We need to go beyond “an injustice to one is an injustice to all,” and into “true justice for one makes life better for all.”

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