In 2019, my children’s teachers went on strike for higher pay, and I supported it, which was a bit of a surprise. I’d always thought public-sector unions a mockery of the idea of organised labour — not workers bargaining for a larger share of the value they create, but bureaucrats extracting rents from taxpayers, via politicians. On top of this, I’d trained to be an English teacher. I saw up close the pathetic scholarship and inane doctrines that inform teacher education in American universities. To me, unionised teachers were a convergence of these two unhealthy forces.
But then my wife and I had kids in the expensive California city of Oakland, and we sent them to our local government school (“public” school, in the US). I saw that, rather than applying dubious theories from their training — “child-centred” teaching inspired by John Dewey, Paulo Freire’s “pedagogy of the oppressed” — teachers were mainly using age-old methods to convey mandated curriculum to restless children. And I learned that many of them, especially younger teachers without spouses, or divorced teachers raising children of their own, were sharing bedrooms in group houses to cut down on living expenses, commuting huge distances from more affordable cities, or even working second jobs.
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I was also seeing research showing that the skill of individual teachers was a key variable in both the subject learning and life outcomes of students. I decided to think of our local teachers’ unions as a sort of guild, securing a measure of agency and public dignity and better pay for members of a maligned profession, which might help schools attract talented people to their classrooms, and keep them there. In any case, we were part of the same community now, working together to see our kids through their school years. Some of us — the teachers — needed better pay to have decent lives. Their 2019 strike thus seemed pretty defensible. Despite the learning it interrupted and the inconvenience it caused us, no one in my world of school parents opposed it.
We parents aren’t feeling so communal about the Oakland teachers’ strike of 2023. The strike, which ran from 5 May to 15 May, wasn’t about the thing we were used to feeling invested in and guilty about — teachers’ pay. The parties (the teachers’ union and the Oakland school district) were close to agreement on a pay increase when the strike was called. What they continued to disagree on was a set of broad demands that, the union said, it was making on behalf of the “common good”.
These demands sounded like an odd fit within a contract negotiation. Our kids had been kept home from school not because teachers were being ill-paid or disrespectfully treated, but because the leaders of their union had some theories about homelessness, social welfare, climate change and, of course, racism, along with some conspicuously swollen ambitions about how much policymaking power they might wrest from elected officials.
The two most newsworthy of the union’s demands, and the most noteworthy to parents wondering how long their kids would be out of school, concerned racial reparations and environmental justice. From what we were hearing, the teachers wouldn’t return to work until our schools were remade into places where racial reparations are paid out and environmental justice is finally done.
The “reparations” demand is, at once, confusing and revealing. It’s confusing because, in its details, it doesn’t mean what Americans think of when they think of racial reparations. It’s revealing because it shows the teachers’ union going the way of other progressive organisations in recent years. Instead of protecting the material and professional interests of our beloved teachers, the activist leaders of their union have taken up a new mission — impressing each other with radical gestures.
What the term “reparations” signifies in the United States is a tough national reckoning with the moral, material, legal and political injustice of slavery, in the form of generous payouts to black Americans. As a political issue, it is profoundly unresolved. But what the teachers’ union calls racial reparations is, along with a proposal to let homeless students live in empty school buildings, the most palatable part of its common-good vision. What the union means by reparations — according to a detailed description of its common-good demands, which it published in December — is that the school district would turn schools with large black populations into “Black thriving community schools”, where food, healthcare and other social services are provided to needy families.
Now, the idea of community schools is an old one in education circles. If it turned out that such schools were an effective way to educate poor children and deliver social services to their families, Oakland parents would probably support them, even given the racially specific framing of “Black thriving” (though we’d still object to using them as a reason to hold a teacher strike). We recognise that the overlap between black and poor populations in our city is large. And the fact that politics in Oakland — birthplace of the Black Panthers — is always also racial politics, is a shock to no one who lives here. Indeed, the vernacular rawness and bluntness of Oakland’s racial politics is one of the many things I found refreshing about the city when I moved here in 2004. Feeling all my arguments from “colour blindness” fall away was both a settling-in and a liberation. I lived in Oakland now.
In this context, casting the “Black thriving community schools” proposal as reparations is almost perversely divisive, especially for a teacher organisation ostensibly dependent on the support of parents, including non-black, politically moderate parents. In conversations about the strike I had with such parents, the word came up several times as a bemused question: “Reparations?”
To Americans, “reparations” conjures political scenarios of endless accusation and evasion, anger and resentment and guilt chasing each other in a circle, a titanic policy debate that will never end because it never really starts. This total impasse of national deliberation is not what parents want to imagine as a sticking point in the contract negotiation that’s keeping their kids home from school. And it really wasn’t. “Reparations” was just a word they chose.
But why would our embattled teachers’ union package its proposal for community schools — already ambitious, as both power-grab and policy, but not without its moral appeal — in the divisive and discouraging language of reparations? Why would it risk the support of parents by seeming to foist on them a sudden resolution of the great American racial reckoning, from the private setting of a contract negotiation, when what they were really proposing was feeding poor families and letting them see a nurse at their kids’ school?
I wasn’t present when the union forged this document, so I can’t say for sure. But I have a theory. Activists within the teachers’ union chose the language of reparations not for its denotative accuracy, nor for the crucial support it might add to its negotiating position, both of which it subverts, but to impress each other and challenge – and, perhaps even, cow — their less fervent colleagues.
We’ve watched this pattern repeat itself, especially since the George Floyd protests of 2020: organisations dominated in their leadership by a core of activists, or highly sensitive to the sort of problematic publicity that activists can generate for them, having their historic missions erased and rewritten according to the internal dynamics of progressive cadres — pathological status contests in which no one wants to appear less extreme than the most extreme person.
In these settings, terms such as “reparations” work as memes, easily permeating a symbolic system that offers very little friction or resistance to their movement. This is surely why the union’s list of common-good demands includes other terms that are faddish in progressive circles, but entirely outside either the real classroom mission of school teachers or the proper negotiating brief of a teachers’ union, nor particularly accurate as names for what the teachers were actually seeking.
Under the politically exciting term “environmental justice” — another red flag for parents worried their teachers were taking on messy fights that would keep their kids out of school — the union demanded that “all student learning areas […] be independently climate controlled, ventilated and weatherised using safe and green technologies”. So, what our striking teachers meant by the provocative and pragmatically fraught term “environmental justice” was… air conditioning
When we parents learnt that our teachers were in fact striking over massive and intractable societal problems, we were perhaps justified in wondering how such a strike could possibly end. The teachers weren’t willing to budge on their “equity” demands. Rumours circulated that the school year was over. Summer would be starting a month early. Few of us knew what was really at stake. We’d only heard the news stories, which dealt in generalities. We hadn’t read the online documents that said reparations for slavery meant meals and medical checkups at some schools, and environmental justice meant better insulation and stronger fans in classrooms.
Still, the teachers did stage a strike, and the strike was about a set of grievances so novel and abstract it’s hard to understand them as grievances. Now that the strike is over, the union’s ostensible grievances seem more like plans. They certainly have some big ideas about how the schools, indeed the city, ought to be run. And they seem willing to strike again if our actually elected officials don’t do as they wish, or hand them the power to do it themselves.
On their own, in their scale and reach, these novel and ambitious plans violate the implicit agreement that parents make with their unionised teachers, whose work-stoppages they support and even encourage, despite the expense and inconvenience and learning-loss they result in. We parents do this on the grounds that teachers are joined with us in an educational project that is no less urgent or dignified for being confined to the teaching of humble things like reading and maths, which requires good teachers who are paid well, and which the schools find hard enough already.
More alienating is the strong sense that these plans emerged from a hermetic and vaguely unhealthy process, an esoteric set of deliberative pressures peculiar to progressive “spaces”, as these spaces have been rewired in recent years. It will be an ominous feeling for Oakland parents, as the term for the new contract moves toward another crisis of negotiation, to know that the future design of their public schools, and their future ability to send their kids to them, could be determined by a further set of ideological gambits by progressive activists — and by the larger number of people who will go along with them, no matter how crazy they sound.