A Tale of Two Unions

By David Banerjee | January 15, 2007


Walking through the main square of Oaxaca City, Mexico,
it is impossible not to feel the restless energy. Makeshift barricades and
rocks litter the streets. Local
residents wearing bandanas to conceal their identities form roadblocks, slowing
traffic and demanding tourists show their passports. The radical political groups have stalls
mingled with street vendors, and banners with revolutionary slogans are hung
every ten meters. Since mid-June, there
have been no police in the city, expelled with considerable force by… teachers?

In May of this year, tens of thousands of
teachers in the state of Oaxaca formed a tent city in the state capital’s main
square in order to force the local governor to spend more money on rural
education and increased wages for all workers (including themselves), not
political campaigning. The public
response was divided; many were annoyed that their children were not going to
school, but many saw it as a direct attack on a blatantly corrupt
government. Governor Ruiz Ortiz,
increasingly conscious of the upcoming election, refused to negotiate and
attempted to force the teachers back to work.
3 a.m. on June 14, a police helicopter flew low over the city and dropped
tear gas among the tents of thousands of sleeping teachers and their
families. What followed was a savage police
riot, with hundreds of teachers wounded by truncheons and tear gas.

Over the next days, however, the governor
experienced a massive reversal of political fortune when an outpouring of
popular support drove the police out of the city. The public rallied behind the teachers, who
had fought back against the police and had retaken the main square. Within two days, there were
marches of 400, 000
people from all over the state, showing their outrage at the attack and
supporting the teachers’ demands. Support
for the governor’s party plummeted with the progressive party moving into the
lead. The teachers’ union and other
groups went on to form the ‘Popular Assembly of the People of Oaxaca’, which
declared itself the provisional government.

Now as a thought experiment: try to picture
Queen’s Park being overtaken for months with thousands of teachers, with tens
of thousands of parents and community members supporting their demands. Perhaps we would be pitching rocks at the
police, or your school’s Kindergarten teacher mixing Molotov Cocktails. Then imagine a giant meeting where we declare
ourselves to be the government and proceed to barricade
University Avenue. Fortunately for us, this is
one experience that we will be forced to forego; we are generally lucky enough
to enjoy high standards of both education and living, and can focus our efforts
on our classrooms.

Back in Mexico,
Governor Ruiz Ortiz had dutifully maintained the Oaxacan government’s tradition
of marked indifference to the state’s students, the vast majority of whom are
poor, rural, and indigenous. Likewise,
the teachers who witness this poverty everyday in their classrooms are rural,
indigenous, although they are ‘middle class’.
Nevertheless, teachers can count on the public to rally behind them
because the teachers’ mission is to help transform their communities, in the
classroom and as community organizers.

For the majority of teachers in Oaxaca, the reason
for teaching is neither education for its own sake, nor is it to prepare students
for the world of work. According to
Fernando Estrada, a high school social sciences teacher, the goal of their
classroom work is to teach for social change.
But teachers have another, equally important, role. After their classes are done, they are community
organizers that work with communities to help themselves demand greater rights
and better living conditions. To many,
this form of class warfare through popular education is simply part of a
teacher’s way of life. Besides building
links with the community, this organizing builds into the local social
movements, and is an important reason for the public support for teachers. Says Estrada, “We are community leaders. That is why we have community support. That is why they can’t beat us.”

This approach to unionism, known as
‘political’ or ‘social justice’ unionism, demands that union members approach
union activity, including bargaining, as a means of broad social
transformation, not merely as a means to get more pay or longer prep time. It means identifying strongly with the
students that you teach in order to help them and their families transform
their living conditions so that they can alleviate their poverty. It means being active in a progressive social
movement. Teachers that don’t identify
with this sentiment are encouraged to seek employment in another field.

This current of political unionism
practised by Mexican teachers went out of fashion in the West after the Second
World War, when the new Keynesian economic strategies led to an increase in
purchasing power among our working and middle classes. Unions in the industrial nations could focus
on making gains in their collective agreements, and leave social questions to
other social movements that were gaining strength at the time. The strategy of ‘business’ unionism replaced
the tradition of the ‘political’ unionism that produced the Winnipeg General
Strike and the Regina Manifesto, which made significant demands for the benefit
of average Canadians.

Yet the economic conditions that produced a
relatively high standard of living for a great mass of Canadians have changed
significantly since the Mulroney government and continue to change. The downward redistribution of wealth of the
postwar era has been reversed by a series of conservative administrations that
have realized how the power of ideas can be used to convince Canadians that
privatization works, that low taxes are good for the middle class, and that
unions generally make people lazy. Public
sector unions, especially teacher unions, can no longer rely solely on tough
negotiations to guarantee decent wages and working conditions.

Conservatives in Canada
and teachers in
Mexico, polar opposites on the political spectrum, share a common
successful political strategy. Oaxacan teachers hosting radio programmes and
the National Post front-page op-eds share a desire to articulate their ideas to
the public consciousness. The classic
notion that political power is something exercised during an election campaign
or a strike is grossly limited because power resides in the everyday ideas of
everyday people. The Mexican teachers
and the Post editors understand the group that communicates most effectively
and persuasively wields the most political power. On the other hand, our current labour
strategy generally involves using brute force to secure our needs. Our only bargaining chip is labour action,
something that erodes public support instead of reinforcing it, making it even
harder for us to bargain aggressively in the next round. There is no question that the strike or
work-to-rule is an important tool, but it can’t be our default tactic.

Although the Days of Action during the
Harris days were a powerful – if abortivedisplay of labour strength,
it did not receive the sustained support of the community. Popular support, initial or sustained, has
been a problem that has plagued teacher bargaining tactics since then. One possible reason is that as teachers and
as unionists we have been guilty of failing to convince Canadians of the importance
of education. Occasional editorials by
indignant union executives do not constitute a campaign to convince Canadians
that good schools and good teachers are among the roots of a functioning
society, and this negligence on part has left teachers – and the education
system in general – extremely vulnerable to cost-cutting conservatives.

But this lack of ideological engagement is
perhaps a symptom of a deeper problem.
Perhaps we have forgotten why we teach, as have the technocrats
who run the Ministry. Our collective
inability to identify and articulate a purpose for schooling has left us
without a foundation to campaign on. Our
lack of vision leaves us with no motivation to promote education other than
professional self-preservation. While
educational academies have concerned themselves with management questions (e.g.
technology, outcomes, expectations) and teachers have been dealing with the
day-to-day realities of teaching, conservatives have promoted the idea that
education’s primary goal is to prepare children for the world of work. Conservatives
have clear ideas and are acutely aware of the power they contain, while we have
forgotten our ideas and their potential for change.

Within this context, and in comparison to
that of our Oaxacan colleagues, the recent elementary union executive election
takes on an interesting new meaning. The
key word of the election campaign was leadership, which just about every
candidate professed to have, if not in spades, than at least more than their competitors. But it was difficult to determine – through
the debates, discussions, and leaflets – exactly what leadership
consisted of.

According to Mr. Estrada in Oaxaca, leadership
“is the guts to say: support your community”.
Perhaps there is a lesson here.
Perhaps real leadership for our teacher unions means articulating a
purpose and vision for education and articulating that vision to the membership
and to society at large. Perhaps it
means fighting for a vision that inspires educators towards a revitalized
education movement, one that goes beyond mere funding complaints. Perhaps part of leadership is to start an
ideological movement against those in society who would see public schools
reduced to knowledge factories, where children are taught only the basic skills
to make them marketable.

Again, we return to the notion of ideas,
specifically the “war of ideas”. As
educators, our role is to prepare students for democratic citizenship, as per
the TDSB mission statement. But if our
individual and collective consciousnesses are formed by competing ideas, how is
it possible not to be sucker the most articulate and convincing ideologue. It seems that democracy is subverted at every
step. The goal, however, is to educate
against indoctrination. According to
John Dewey: “The very idea of democracy, the
meaning of democracy, must be continually explored afresh; it has to be
constantly discovered and rediscovered, remade and reorganized.”

Idealistic and sappy as it may sound, our
job as teachers is to promote an awareness among students to question the
status quo and to remake it as they see fit.
In other words, our job is to help promote alternative, perhaps even
oppositional, perspectives that enable students to fight for the world they
want. It is what Antonio Gramsci might
have called “counter-hegemonic insurgence training”. We do not want our children to passively
inherit the world from us. We do not
want to simply transmit our current system of values and beliefs to them; at no
time does indoctrination, active or passive, fit the mandate of public
education in a supposedly democratic state.
To prepare students for democratic citizenship, if that is truly our
aim, means helping them critically and empathically question their most basic
assumptions, and giving them the tools they need to create a just and
meaningful world.

Leadership in the teachers’ union,
therefore, cannot afford to lead nowhere. Instead, it means a return to
political unionism on two fronts: re-establishing critical, democratic pedagogy
in our classrooms, and articulating this as the incredibly important reason for
schooling in society at large. Leading
somewhere means reaching beyond the day-to-day operations of the union and next
round of bargaining; rather, it expands into challenging members with bold
initiatives to fight for public education, and to find allies in other
movements by supporting social justice in general. Leadership means helping our students,
colleagues, and the public to rediscover the importance of schooling.

Sound idealistic and unrealistic? Not in Oaxaca, where
every night teachers huddle by barricades, ready to defend their demands for
better schools and better government.

Activists and progressive executives in our
union do engage in these struggles, and often make significant differences to
these campaigns. Unfortunately, however,
teachers are exhausted by their work and are unable to significantly undertake
activist projects. Likewise, executives
are busy enforcing their collective agreement and running the
organization. Both activists and
progressive executives feel constrained by the potential reaction of a
membership that is perceived as conservative and passively hostile to anything
seen as radical (e.g. divesting ETFO’s $3 million of Israel Bonds. If apartheid is wrong in
South Africa, it’s wrong everywhere).

As explained above, teacher unions are not
able to effectively engage in political action because they are, fundamentally,
business unions with mild sentiments of social justice. Due to the constraints of time and
re-election, their leadership is unable or unwilling to move towards a
political or social justice orientation.
Again, however, the vicious irony is that by not engaging in progressive
politics or social justice initiatives, teachers lose the opportunity to
convince the public of the importance of education. The disconnect between the education system
and an unsympathetic electorate allowed Mike Harris to reorganize education in
the worst possible way and still get re-elected.

starting point for any effort to reform teacher unions is a confrontation with
the membership. Social and political
questions are not the daily bread and butter of most teachers; in fact it is
worth asking yourself how often staff room conversation revolves around
questions of educational philosophy or policy.
But a union that seeks to build a collective vision for education needs
to directly engage with its members about why they teach, and how
their practice as teachers and citizens impacts the living and learning
conditions of their students. Popular
education initiatives within our unions, based on the work of Paolo Freire, are
the first step towards such a renaissance.

In order to rediscover leadership within
our unions, we must ask executives exactly where and how they plan to lead
teachers. Those who see value in
democracy and social justice must be educated, encouraged, and pressured to
really lead members towards democratic, critical pedagogy, and to articulate
this as the purpose for education to society at large. A teacher union that has the courage and
capacity to provide leadership towards an inspiring education movement, and not
just the next round of bargaining, is one of our best hopes for democracy and
social justice.

Just ask the members of Section 22, National
Education Workers’
Union, in Oaxaca.


Toronto, January 15th, 2007 – 2,349 w.


A version of this article was published
in Dialogue, published by the members of the Elementary Teachers of
Toronto (ETT).



  • David Banerjee

    David Banerjee is a guy that lives in Toronto, and writes in his apartment. He teaches creative writing courses, but mostly to four year olds who would rather be playing with blocks.

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