Social Justice Unionism

August 7, 2013 — 3 Comments


By Julie Cavanagh

Teacher/Chapter Leader P.S. 15 Brooklyn

2013 MORE Presidential Candidate for UFT

In the upcoming days, MORE will send a delegation of ten to Chicago for a nationally coordinated and attended Social Justice Unionism Conference.

Social Justice Unionism is a term (and obviously so much more than that) that has been the object of praise, garnered skepticism, and has even been the target of hijacking (note E4E using the language of social justice to promote their policy goals, which are anything but).  There has been struggle and debate within and outside of MORE surrounding our founding as “The Social Justice Caucus of the UFT”.  Discussion has ranged from arguing ‘MORE is not focused on social justice enough’ to ‘MORE is too focused on social justice’.

The conference this month provides an opportunity for our diverse delegation to learn from and with CORE caucus and social justice minded groups and caucuses from around the country as we continue to strive to find the right balance, direction, and next steps here in New York City.  We know one thing for sure, well actually two:  our final destination is Chicago (the transformation of our union) and that in order to achieve this goal we must follow the path Chicago has laid out before us, while also making it our own.

Social Justice Unionism is basically a three legged stool:  first, maintain the best of traditional unionism or professional unionism.  Second, recognize that students, parents, community and other union members are our natural allies and we must stand in solidarity together and fight for systemic change across the lines of social, racial and economic justice.  Third, build rank-and-file led, democratic unions that are member-driven, transparent, and understand that what is good for educators is good for students or as we like to say, “Our Working Conditions are our Students’ Learning Conditions”.

One of the arguments against the social justice union movement is that the UFT and the AFT leadership are social justice minded and that the issue isn’t our union’s lack of advocacy for students and social justice policies, but rather their lack of fight for our members.  The answer to this lies in nuance that both answers the argument and outlines an overarching vision shift that would ultimately protect and improve our profession, our students, and public education.

While it is true that the UFT and AFT will support social justice policy issues such as immigration reform on a national level or an end to stop and frisk on a local level, will occasionally throw out the idea that working conditions and learning conditions are connected, publishes surveys and polls centered on specific policies highlighting the dissatisfaction with, for example, Mayoral Control, the piloting of teacher evaluations based on test scores, the over-emphasis on testing in our schools, and involves itself in political campaigns through endorsements and support, but all of these advocacy points, campaigns, and media blitzes are external.  They by and large are not member-driven and are part of an overarching vision which, at its core, sees the struggle of UFT members as separate from the struggle of our fellow union members and working folks, students, parents, and communities.   Not only this, but often our union supports or capitulates on the very points they publicly criticize and there is a significant lack of alignment when comparing positions taken both publicly and privately.

For example, our union leadership states that Mayoral Control has been a disaster and more than 50% of New Yorkers want it to sunset, but then supports subtle changes to Mayoral Control, rather than eliminating it in favor of greater local control.   Our union leadership has said, and a UFT committee published a report stating, teacher evaluations should not be based on test scores, but they then signed off on Race to The Top which requires teacher evaluations based on test scores.  The leadership of our union states and publishes data that highlights the majority of parents and educators believe children are being over-tested, that there is an over-emphasis on testing, and that this testing craze is hurting children and their teachers, but rather than employ a zero tolerance policy and fight against high stakes testing, our leadership proposes more tests, better tests, and longer trial periods for tests.  The leadership of our union launches costly campaigns to support endorsed candidates, highlighting the importance of elections, but does nothing to address the extremely low voter turnout in our own union elections.  --Listen to what I say, do not watch what I do.

Our union leadership continues to function from a “solutions-driven” unionism vision which results in our union leadership negotiating from the starting point of elected officials and corporate reformers rather than beginning with an agenda that is set by us, the folks on the ground, standing with students, families and communities.  The only “solutions” that are devolved benefit the few and the powerful and the rest of us are told to accept these “solutions” because, “it could have been worse”.

Social Justice Unionism flips the dynamic and changes the conversation.  Rather than being guided by a vision that assumes we must preserve our seat at the table and negotiate the policies that govern our schools, our communities and our lives, at that table; Social Justice Unionists believe sitting down at a table where you and your students are the meal is suicide and instead of cannibalizing and devolving solutions with those who seek to destroy us, we should set our own table with the stakeholders we serve and invite policymakers to join us.  Parents, educators, students and communities have the knowledge, the expertise and the stake in public education and we must fight for the schools our children deserve, the very schools policy-makers and corporate reformers send their children to, but deny ours.

Policy-makers and corporate reformers by and large do not send their children to schools where one public official makes all of the decisions and is accountable to no one.  In fact, parents have strong voice and agency in their schools.  They do not send their children to schools where teachers are judged by test scores, are degraded and told their experience does not matter. In fact, their schools tout their teachers’ experience, do not tie their worth to test scores, and highlight the number of their teachers who are tenured.  They certainly do not send their children to schools that over-test, or for that matter test at all.  In fact, most schools policy-makers and corporate reformers send their children to have small class sizes, well rounded curriculum and shy away from standardized testing.  –Do as I say, not as I do.

Over the last thirty years union membership has declined, the middle-class has shriveled, and the disproportionate distribution of wealth has skyrocketed. This is not coincidence nor casual correlation. Teacher unions stand on the front-lines of the fight for working folks, their -our- families, our children and for the future of our country.  We must not only embrace Social Justice Unionism, but continue to define, refine, and spread it far and wide.  The organization that educators can and must use to stop the tidal wave of education deform destruction is our union.  MORE’s destination this August, and in three years, is Chicago.

*Rethinking Schools outlines the case for social justice unionism in their book, Transforming Teacher Unions (, a founding statement from 1994 can also be found at

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3 responses to Social Justice Unionism


    This is an excellent piece, Julie, I think you really nailed it: it’s not an either/or situation in regards to bread-and-butter issues and more social justice oriented work. The Business Model unions are quickly decaying, and we need to adapt or die.


    Great piece. I have been frustrated with the cooperative, compliant stance of union leadership-making bad education policy as painless as possible instead of fighting for good policy.

Trackbacks and Pingbacks:

  1. Disconnected Union Leadership « Movement of Rank and File Educators - July 17, 2014

    […] urge you to read Julie Cavanagh’s article on her view of social justice unionism, which speaks for many of us. She believes, as do I, that it […]

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