Equity & Diversity Opinion

Democracy, Schools, and Teachers’ Unions

By Leo Casey — December 18, 2014 8 min read
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Today marks Leo Casey’s final post on Bridging Differences—at least for the near term. Bridging Differences now starts a short holiday publishing break. Deborah Meier will return to the blog with a new co-blogger in January.

Dear Deb:

Over the course of the last 12 weeks, I have been thinking about our conversations here on democracy, schools, and teachers’ unions. We write under the banner of “bridging differences,” and notwithstanding our broad agreement on most important questions we have discussed, there are “differences” that could be teased out of the dialogue.

At the outset, I must confess that I am deeply suspicious of efforts to identify “differences” with those who share most of our view of the world. The impulse to draw “lines of demarcation” around ourselves takes an almost pathological form among many on the American left, a “narcissism of small differences” in which the main political fire is invariably aimed at those who are politically nearest. It creates a political culture where vanguard politics fades into Puritanism: The moral purity of the self-anointed elect is preserved, but at the price of complete political marginality and irrelevance. I have no taste for such political fare.

But let us see if we can arrive at a more productive discussion of our political differences. You ask “Do teachers’ unions truly practice democracy?” I could point to the literature on union democracy and to the organizational features that it identifies as crucial for union democracy, and demonstrate how teachers’ unions not only possess those features, but possess them in greater measure than other unions.[1]

But there is a more fundamental disagreement at work here: I think your query is the wrong question. When I think about such matters, I ask myself different questions. “At a time that teachers’ unions face existential threats, how do we defend the democratic voice that they provide teachers?” “How can we strengthen the voice that unions provide teachers, making teachers’ unions more democratic?”

These questions are informed by my view of what politics should do. I came of political age in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The defining political questions of my “new left” generation—the civil rights struggle and the opposition to the Vietnam War—were issues of a profoundly moral nature. The old labor anthem “Which Side Are You On?” captured for us the seeming moral clarity of our age. Our politics were guided by moral visions of a radically different society free of racial oppression and imperial war, captured in the ideals of “participatory democracy” and the “beloved community” of Martin Luther King Jr..

But a dedication to a pure moral vision, untethered to respect for the demos with all of its flaws and existing democratic forms with all of their imperfections, can degenerate into contempt for those unwilling to risk everything for the ideal society.

The great mass of society and democratic life is judged complicit in oppression and exploitation, and a politics that would circumvent the people and existing democracy in the name of a higher morality begins to emerge. This was what happened with the “new left.” In a matter of a few years, its moral disdain for ordinary Americans and existing American democracy squandered its great promise in political self-marginalization. In spasms of self-destructive violence, it devolved into nihilistic and authoritarian sects. The original visions of “participatory democracy” and the " beloved community’ became faded memories, replaced with Stalinist and Maoist dystopias. While the ‘new left’ fancied itself “new” in all matters, this was an old story of what happens when a pure moral vision sets out to cleanse the imperfect demos and democracy, harkening back as far as the French Revolution and its descent into the Terror.

For those of us of the “new left” generation who saw respect for the demos and existing democratic forms as fundamental values, there was no choice but to reject the nihilistic and authoritarian politics of its final days. Less obvious was the need to rethink our understanding of the relationship between morality and politics that had contributed to this tragic end, as this is a complex issue. It wasn’t that “participatory democracy” or the “beloved community” had not provided generally compelling moral visions of a different and better, a more democratic way to live. One might quarrel with some of the particulars of those visions and question the feasibility of some of their prescriptions, but in the main they were undeniably humane and democratic. Politics without a vision of a better world such as these is trapped on the moral terrain of the status quo, and is incapable of making real progress against social and economic evils such as racism. In the field of education, we would be lost without an alternative democratic vision of how to do schooling.

The problem lay in thinking that morality is absolute, and that politics is simply a vehicle for realizing the ideal type of a perfect moral order. While the vision of a better world is essential for opening up our moral horizons, it becomes problematic when it is taken as a blueprint for the actualization of utopian impulse, a measuring rod against which the imperfect existing demos and democratic forms are sized up and invariably found wanting.

Instead, an emancipatory and democratic politics needs to start from the existing, imperfect demos and democratic forms, and base itself on the struggles to defend and to extend the democratic character of those forms. It roots itself in actual democratic struggles, rather than in an ideal conception of democracy. Thus, rather than asking how teachers’ unions measure up against some ideal form that is “truly democratic,” I ask myself: How do we defend the democratic voice that teachers’ unions provide teachers in an age when it is under existential attack? How do we strengthen that democratic voice, making teachers’ unions more democratic?

The different questions we ask ourselves help explain, Deb, the different emphases you and I place on representative democracy and direct democracy in our schools and our unions. Your vision of democracy is one that relies overwhelmingly upon direct democracy, on the ability of ordinary people to make the important decisions that impact their lives. While you acknowledge that it is impossible for all decisions to be made in this way, you don’t articulate a positive concept of representative democracy that such an acknowledgement requires. Instead, you turn to direct democracy alone as your model of what democracy in our schools and unions should be. You demand of representative democracy that it provide the sense of citizen investment in and ownership over decisions that only a direct democracy, where the citizens make the decisions themselves, can supply. From my vantage point, this one-sided focus on direct democracy skirts uncomfortably close to positing an ideal type of “true democracy” in schools and in unions.

There is an extraordinary power in direct democracy, and, where we can build it into our institutions, such as in small schools, we should do so. Direct democracies can be the schools of democracy as a whole, in which citizens develop the skills and knowledge of democratic self-rule. Yet after decades of work in field of education, I have concluded that like all real change, building sustainable direct democracies in schools is hard and difficult work. When it comes to building democratic schools, there will be no storming of the Bastille; progress on this front is incremental, school by school. The same can be said about building democratic unions.

Today, only a small minority of schools are direct democracies. If all we have for advancing democracy in education is a theory and practice of schools as direct democracies, we will have put ourselves in a political cul-de-sac without any means of escape. Direct democracies in schools are also fragile ecological systems, and can be all too easily undermined by decisions from above. Without robust representative democracies—and most especially, without teachers’ unions—to protect them, direct democracies in schools face very long odds for survival. We need a theory and practice of teachers’ unions as representative democracies if we are to protect direct democracies in schools.

The radical pacifist A. J. Muste, who was a militant union leader in the 1920s and 1930s before he went on to play a pivotal role in the peace and civil rights movements, once wrote that unions combine two different and incompatible social structures, a democratic town meeting and an army.

With respect to its own members, a union must be a democracy, but with respect to the powerful political and economic forces that would strip its members of voice and dignity and reduce them to the cheapest, most servile form of labor, it must be an army. Muste describes unions as armies which elect their own generals and vote on declarations of war and the terms of peace.

There is an element of hyperbole in the use of the military metaphor here, but Muste is onto something important: For teachers’ unions to provide an effective political counterforce to the wealthy power elite that dominates American society and are pushing a destructive agenda of corporate education reform in our schools, they need to be large and powerful, a form of organization that can only be a representative democracy. The more representative and democratic unions are, and the more their members are active and mobilized, the better we will be able to fight and win this historic battle.


[1] The classic work on the subject is the 1956 text Union Democracy, by Seymour Martin Lipset, Martin Trow, and James Coleman. (The last author in this troika later wrote the famous Coleman Report on the effects of poverty on educational achievement.) The 2009 Politics and Society article by Margaret Levi, David Olson, Jon Agnone, and Devin Kelly, “Union Democracy Reexamined,” provides a thoughtful and thorough analysis of the Lipset, Trow, and Coleman study and the subject more generally. And the body of work produced by the Association for Union Democracy in its publications would have to be included in any serious analysis of the matter.

Leo Casey is the executive director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a policy and research think tank affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. For 27 years, he worked in the New York City public high schools, where he taught high school social studies. For six years, he served as the vice president for academic high schools for New York City’s teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers.

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