The following post is my contribution to EDUSolidarity, a net-roots campaign of American teachers on why we support teacher unions. Hundreds of similar testimonials are being published today and can be accessed via the EDUSolidarity homepage.
The great American abolitionist Frederick Douglass once captured an essential truth about our efforts to make the world in which we live and teach a better place. “If there is no struggle,” Douglass wrote, “there is no progress. . . . Power concedes nothing without a demand.”
Teacher unions provide teachers like me with the voice to make demands on power. This is the story of my first years as a teacher, when the need to make demands on power led me to participate in my teacher union.
Like many teachers, I did not originally plan on a career in K to 12 education. I came from a family of teachers—both of my parents taught in New York City public schools, and four of my five siblings are educators—but my passions were politics and the life of the mind. As I approached thirty, I was working on a doctorate in political philosophy at the University of Toronto. Early in the 1980s, I interrupted my dissertation writing and returned to New York to do political organizing on the democratic Left, on the soon-to-be-proven-wrong premise that the radical programs of the Reagan administration would create a massive popular movement of opposition. My political hopes dashed, I needed to find a way to support myself until I could complete my dissertation, and teaching seemed a natural choice. In September 1984, I went to work as a social studies teacher at an inner-city high school in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.
My plan was to complete my dissertation and to find a job in political philosophy at the university level. But somewhere in that first year of teaching, after I had gotten over the shock of just how hard this work was and how much skill it required, I began to fall in love with educating and caring for my students. My students won my heart and gave my life a fuller and deeper purpose; I knew that the work I was doing was meaningful and important, for it could change for the better the lives of young people that had been abandoned by the larger society because they were youth of color, mostly poor, mostly female, and largely recent immigrants. I still worked on my dissertation during the summer vacations, finishing it four years later, but by then the die were cast. Teaching high school students became my life’s vocation: I was now a teacher of kids that others had given up on before they even had a chance to prove themselves.
The year I began teaching, the New York City Board of Education began a renovation of the school building in which I worked. They gave a group of fly-by-night construction companies the free run of the place. The construction workers worked through the school day, when they were not “chatting up” the female students, and disrupted classes without warning with drilling and hammering. (I still remember the “gotcha sequences” of my eighth period American history class that first year: when I prepared a normal lesson, the workers would let loose with jackhammers outside my classroom window; when I prepared a lesson students could do silently in their seats, you could hear the birds chirping in the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens across the street.) The school was constantly filled with dust and debris of a then-unknown nature, and there were days that it was so thick, one could barely see down the first floor hallway. Staff and students began to suffer respiratory problems and allergic and asthmatic attacks.
By the end of my second year of teaching, everyone who worked in the school, from the principal to the stock man, had had enough. Since I had more political experience and organizing skills than others in the school, I ended up leading efforts to get this problem under control. When the school and its classrooms were completely filled with debris on the eve of the start of my third year, we went to the White Lung Association, an occupational health and safety organization founded for workers harmed by exposure to asbestos. With their help, we reached out to a politically connected law firm (former Congressman Herman Badillo was one of the lead partners), and within hours we had a court order (from a soon to be retired judge who could do the right thing without fear of retribution) closing down the school. When the other schools opened for the first day of school the next morning, our doors were closed.
When the court-ordered tests of the school building were done, the results came back positive for high levels of loose (the technical term is friable) asbestos fibers in the dust and debris, in a form in which it could be easily breathed in and ingested. Some combination of the construction companies and the Board’s Division of School Buildings had submitted falsified tests, claiming that there was no asbestos in ceilings and walls that were full of it. Work was then done in those areas without any of the required precautions and procedures. To give you just one example of what that meant for those of us teaching and learning in the school, an entire section of the asbestos containing ceiling in the cafeteria had been removed while students and teachers sat there eating lunch.
(Two years later, a citywide scandal broke the news that the tests for asbestos required by the federal Asbestos Hazard Emergency Response Act had been falsified throughout the city, and a number of officials in the Board’s Division of School Buildings eventually went to jail for the forgeries. Not, unfortunately, the top rogue, who let his underlings take the fall. I remember him well, because in the interval between the initial court order and the actual performance of the court-ordered tests, he brought a group of non-English speaking janitorial workers into the building, without any protective equipment, to “dry sweep up” all the asbestos dust and debris. Court order in hand, I called the police on the Board of Education and had the building emptied and closed, while this official fumed, cursing and threatening me. Few moments in my many years of teaching and union work in New York City schools have provided me more satisfaction.)
For three months of what we called, tongue in cheek, our “diaspora,” our school building was closed down under court order for a complete asbestos abatement cleaning. Our staff and students were temporarily assigned to other sites around the city. In November, we returned to our now clean and safe school building.
My local union, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), had not anticipated this development. Not surprisingly, it had had the idea that issues like occupational health and safety and asbestos were the concerns of miners and assembly-line factory workers, not teachers. But once the problem at our school forced the issue to the fore, the union quickly grasped what was at stake and moved into action. Randi Weingarten, then the UFT’s counsel, negotiated a protocol with the Board of Education to cover the resumption and completion of the renovation work at our school, starting with the novel idea that work should be done when classes were not in session; this protocol became the basis for a set of regulations that govern construction work in any school to this day. The union hired experienced industrial hygienists and developed a Health and Safety Committee in each borough, with staff trained to respond immediately to a whole series of potential health hazards in schools. It negotiated health and safety language into the collective bargaining agreement.
Was this a “cure all” that sent us forth into a health and safety utopia? Not at all. The New York City Department of Education being the New York City Department of Education—the second biggest bureaucracy in the United States after the Pentagon—the UFT’s Health and Safety Program is never short of work. But now we have a set of regulations, and a system of checks and balances, which allows the UFT to act in an expeditious way when a hazard is identified in a school, and to resolve that problem quickly. And both the staff and the students in New York City public schools are far better off for it.
There are some lessons that I drew from this formative experience, lessons that define my understanding of what it means to be a teacher unionist.
First, our interests as teachers are inextricably linked to the interests of the students we teach. It is hard to imagine a tale of such criminal malfeasance taking place in an American school serving a well-to-do student population. Since we urban teachers take on the task of educating and caring for those on whom society has placed very little premium, we find ourselves sharing in some of the conditions of their lives. The story of asbestos is only one of many examples that could be provided here: I tell it because it is my story, and the story of teachers with whom I worked.
I think about this reality often when I read of corporate-style reformers declaring that we public school teachers and teacher unions care only about ourselves, and not about our students. It is easy to make such sweeping moral judgments from a safe distance in comfortable surroundings, when you haven’t stood in the front of an inner-city classroom day after day. From the standpoint of teachers who have given over our adult professional lives to serving the students most in need, such self-righteous moralizing rings awfully hollow. Walk the walk like we walk the walk, and then teachers might be prepared to listen to your talk that you put children first.
Second, this struggle reinforced for me a truth I had always known. If I was going to make teaching and urban education my life’s work, there was a limit to what one teacher could do alone, especially in a place as vast as New York City. Teachers had to be organized, for the good of our students as much as for our own common good, and I needed to be part of that organization. Our hopes for our future lay in collective action. With this episode behind me, I ran for the union chapter leader in my school and began my many years of involvement in the UFT, where I now serve as a leader.
A moral vision of a better world is worth little if we cannot realize it in practice. Teachers bring such a moral vision to our work with the young people we educate, but good intentions are not enough. We must have a means for making the world in which our students learn a better place, a step at a time. Teacher organization and teacher power provided by teacher unions are the means to that better world. Like the old man said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand.”