Class, Gender, and Race in The Newark Teacher Strikes

Lois Weiner

[from New Politics, vol. 9, no. 2 (new series),
whole no. 34, Winter 2003]

LOIS WEINER teaches education at New Jersey City University. She was previously a public school teacher and teachers union activist and is the author of Urban Teaching: The Essentials (TC Press, 1999).


DRAWING ON PRIMARY AND SECONDARY sources as well as extensive oral interviews with participants in the events, Steve Golin's fine book* describes the formation of the Newark Teachers Union and its heart- breaking confrontation with black nationalism and African American parents. He tells an engrossing story that is simultaneously respectful to the activists whose struggle he documents, supportive of their aspirations to be treated with dignity as workers, and critical of the ideological limitations that led to the violent strike and battle with black parents. This story of the Newark teachers crosses boundaries of many fields of history. As Golin correctly comments, it is "urban history as the history of education, it is labor history brought up to date as the unionization of public sector workers, and it is a study of ethnicity, gender, and race in class formation" as well as "a book about the 1960s, one of a growing number of local studies." (p. 6) Although I am not a historian and cannot evaluate the book as a historian might, I can advise readers of New Politics who are interested in education, unions, gender politics, race, and social justice to put Golin's book high on their reading lists.

The Newark Teacher Strikes is a narrative about teachers who built the union and led it through two strikes, facing mass arrest, jail and loss of their jobs. The story begins with an insightful analysis of the motivations of people like Hannah Litzky and Bob Lowenstein, who started the union, Local 481, in 1937. Most of the union's founders were Jewish high school teachers from families with radical and socialist leanings who saw the struggle for teacher unionism as a vehicle for advancing social justice. These pioneers were joined in the 1960s by a group of Italian American activists, like Tony Ficcio, who pushed the union to focus on collective bargaining and more immediate economic concerns of teachers. Two of the Italian American male activists were elementary school teachers who expressed resentment felt by elementary teachers towards teachers in higher grades: "The lower you go in school, the harder you work." (p. 18)

Golin notes that activists were aware of a tension between "the new strand of bread-and-butter unionism and the older strand of socially committed unionism," (p. 29) and comments that not all of the teachers active in the union during this time experienced the conflict in the ethnic terms he has used in the book to configure the difference. Typical of the way Golin allows the voices of Newark teachers whom he interviewed to come through in this narrative is his description of two teachers' critique of his analysis: "Doesn't ethnicity hide class? Weren't Jews really more middle class, and Italians more working class?" (p. 29) Golin's response is that the Italians and Jews made different sense of their working-class identity. Italian teachers tended to define class "in terms of relations on the job: employees versus management. Jewish teachers were more likely to define the working class politically, in terms of what it had already accomplished in transforming American society and might yet accomplish." (p. 29) Golin concludes that ethnicity and class identity mutually reinforced each other and influenced but did not determine how individuals might regard themselves and the issues the union confronted.

Golin looks at race as well, explaining that although the union "aggressively courted African American teachers" (p. 30) during the collective bargaining campaigns in the 1960s, seeking to sign up teachers like Janice Adams, a Newark native who eventually joined and became an activist, black teachers rarely signed-up immediately. Because of their exclusion from many unions, few African American teachers grew up with the pro-union sentiments Italian and Jewish teachers brought to teaching, along with a proclivity to join the union in its early years, before collective bargaining was possible. When black teachers did join, their explanation and reasoning related to the history of slavery, or as teacher Charles Nolley said when told to remain after school to work with no pay, "That's bondage." (p. 31)

Golin does a strong job of explaining how gender, especially a sense of what it meant to be a man, influenced the way teachers understood their identity as teachers and unionists. For instance he observes that when Bob

Lowenstein talked about his dignity as a worker, he "spoke from a long tradition of masculine independence." Also, he observes that the organizing in the 60s was done by men who were not especially sensitive to the nuances of gender," (p.20) a point not often understood by historians. Though Golin is alert to gender as an influence on identity formation he misses the gendered aspects of the tension between elementary and high school teachers, perhaps because in Newark two male elementary school teachers were leaders of the union. Another reason the book misses the gendered division between elementary and high school teachers is a factor I return to later in the review, the ways in which the definition of work is itself a gendered construct.

In the first strike, a three-week stoppage in 1970, black and white teachers fought for the union to have a say in decision-making. Golin traces the evolution of the demands, demonstrating that the monetary demands were part of a social movement to maker teachers' voices heard in decisions about their work. In the second, eleven-week strike in 1971 that erupted over a union provision to eliminate "non-professional" duties as well as the board's attempt to revoke binding arbitration, many black teachers crossed the lines, siding with the board and parents. The strikes led to mass arrests and eventually to teachers serving jail terms of up to 3 months, also described in the book. The second strike became violent and polarized Newark racially, pitting the union and its supporters, among them Anthony Imperiale and his Italian American white supremacists, against black activists and the black mayor, Kenneth Gibson.

The story of the second strike is one that continues today, a destructive conflict between two forces that should and could be allies: teacher unions battling for better wages and a voice for city teachers in school policy are pitted (and pit themselves) against poor, minority parents and activists organizing to improve schools that have failed to educate children. In Newark the alliance was undercut because "the protagonists denied each other's legitimacy." (p. 112) Golin is careful to show that the denial on the part of both sides in Newark was mutual and symbiotic. "Striking teachers saw their struggle as one of working people against management. Their opponents saw Black parents and citizens against white teachers. There was tremendous pressure to choose between these two competing views, rather than to seek what was true in each . . . Either the strike was seen through the lens of class, or it was seen through the lens of race." (p. 140)

Black teachers were under the most pressure and ultimately many who were union members identified "community" with race and crossed picket lines. Even when the strike ended the strife did not, and many striking teachers returned to schools at which parents physically barred them from entering. Golin notes, correctly I think, that an alternative possibility was for a teacher-parent alliance, which occurred in a few schools, ones in which teachers had been proactive in reaching across the border of race and class -- and as I will explain, gender -- to parents.

Defining "Work"

THE FULL EXPLANATION of why the union failed to reach out to parents, to regard them as partners and allies, includes not only the issues Golin analyzes, but also one he misses, the way that teaching as work is affected by a definition of "work" that is gendered. As Sari Biklen explains in her book Schoolwork, "work" is defined in traditional sociology as what we do outside the home, so "family" or "home" and "work" or "career" are opposites. If one accepts this dichotomy as natural, immutable, or given, what should we make of paid labor, "work," done outside the home that consists of functions mothers traditionally do in the home, like caring for children? Taking into account the gendered construct of work explains the perception of teaching as "women's work" and other things that are germane to Golin's analysis, for instance why teaching has low status and why it is not well-paid or well-regarded in the dominant society -- or considered "work" at all by many academics whom one might expect to be interested in the subject of teacher unions and teaching, including labor historians, feminists, and educational researchers. A full explanation of why teaching and teachers have been unpalatable topics for leftist academics in the U.S. is not possible in this review, but a brief examination is important to understand why the gendered construction of work and teaching is central to teaching's low status in the society and the academy.

First we should understand the circumstances that make the absence of attention to teachers noteworthy. Overall, more than two-thirds of all teachers are female, and as students' ages rise, the proportion of female teachers in the school declines steeply. Public school teaching is one of the largest occupational groups in the nation, with more than two million workers organized into unions in almost every community. Even in states that do not have automatic dues payment or mandatory union fees, social norms within schools prompt a majority of teachers to join their local affiliate of the National Education Association or American Federation of Teachers. (The exception is in states that have not yet legalized collective bargaining for teacher public employees.)

Despite the size of these organizations and their predominantly female membership, teacher unionism was not taken up by academics interested in labor, women's rights, or educational reform until the late 70s, when History of Education carried an article about Margaret Haley, a socialist elementary teacher in Chicago who organized the first local of the American Federation of Teachers. Labor History carried an article (and cover photo) about women miners almost a decade before it mentioned teacher unionism, in an interview with Dave Selden, the one- time president of the American Federation of Teachers who was ousted by Albert Shanker. Certainly the romanticization of the "real" working class, the industrial proletariat, is a factor that partly explains the lack of interest in teachers, despite the fact that during the 60s and early 70s almost every major city in the U.S. saw the emergence of militant teacher unions, as Newark did. I argue, however, that one cannot fully understand the construction of the "real" working class without acknowledging the gendered construction of work that makes some occupations "real work" and the workers "real working class."

For feminist academics writing in Signs, examining challenges faced by female professionals, like school administrators, was of much more interest than scrutinizing teachers or their unions. Their disinclination to examine the subject of teaching as work, an occupation that has been identified as "women's true profession" since the Civil War, was probably nurtured by the anti-working class bias that was prevalent in the New Left and the student movement, the breeding ground for the women's liberation movement, or second-wave feminism as it is now called. And as feminism became lodged in the university, the class stratification of higher education certainly made intellectual work about teachers, who are primarily working class and lower middle class in their social class origins, less inviting. Even now among educational researchers there is not much interest in teachers' work and teacher unionism. Although the American Educational Research Association, the professional organization to which most educational researchers belong, has a small "special interest group" for researchers interested in teachers' work and teacher unionism, a majority of its members reside outside the U.S. Although they maintain research departments, neither the NEA nor the AFT has much interest in the scholarly examination of class or gender issues in teaching, nor of teacher unionism itself. Their lack of concern mirrors the stance of much of organized labor in the U.S.

The Gendered Construction of Work

ONE EXPLANATION FOR THE ABSENCE of much intellectually serious study of teachers' work in the U.S. is the class biases embedded in and supported by our stratified system of higher education, coupled with the ideological blinders that have traditionally kept class as an object of study off the radar screen of academics and unions. However, the gendered construction of work and teaching's low status due to this construction is a factor as well, seen simultaneously in the research university's notorious disregard for the quality of instruction in its own classrooms and in the lack of resources devoted to teaching and education as subjects and objects of study. A little known fact about university finances is that because of the practice of having students do practice teaching in schools while paying hefty tuition to the university, teacher education is a "cash cow" for higher education. Yet the money that teacher education brings in is almost never returned to its source. Teacher education's low status even within schools of education themselves is demonstrated by another phenomenon that is rarely acknowledged: The closer faculty members' work takes them to schools and young children, the lower their salaries, the higher their teaching loads, and the greater the proportion of females and minorities.

The Newark Teacher Strikes demonstrates not only that teaching and teacher unionism provide rich territory that should be mined for insights about the formation of class-consciousness, but also that one cannot make sense of what occurs in teaching or schools or teacher unions without reference to gender. One of the arguments that has bedeviled teacher unionism is how to deal with the issue of professionalism. If we want to elevate the regard in which teaching is held because we think it is socially useful work that is difficult and deserving of recognition and remuneration, how should we proceed? Should we try to make teaching like the other professions that have high status, such as law and medicine? Or should we propose that teachers act like other workers who want to improve their income by forming a union? But is teaching a working class occupation? In his rumination about "Who is working class?" (p. 23) Golin writes: "Of course teachers are working class. Of course they are not working class. That's what it means to be working class: to be defined by your role as worker, and to struggle to be more than your role." (p. 24)

Understanding that the "role" of teacher is gendered allows us to understand in a different way the reluctance of elementary school teachers to join the union and their identification with a sense of "professional obligation to serve students," as was true of Edith Counts, an African American teacher who did not join the union. Golin's account makes clear that the Newark Teachers Union defined "professionalism" in a way that did not encourage teachers, especially elementary school teachers, who understood their work as serving children and families, not a school system or an institution, to join -- unless they agreed that the well-being of the particular children they were dedicated to serve could not be advanced without a commitment to social progress and social justice generally. Or as Vic Cascella described this definition of being professional, "you had to be concerned with civil rights, you had to be concerned with the learning of the kids." (p. 23) I explain below why one reason that race and class became constructed in opposition to one another in the second strike was that the union never allowed for a definition of professionalism that took into account the gendered nature of teachers' work, the importance of teaching's "mothering" functions.

As Golin demonstrates, teachers' notions about their relations with parents, children, and the subjects they teach influence not only how they teach but also their conception of what a union should be. Teachers who consider themselves in service to communities often view the school as an extension of the family in socializing and educating children. Because of this definition of their work, they are more likely to experience the tensions that emerge from unionization.

Successful teaching (like parenting) demands attention to children's needs, which are individual, personal, and at times seem to have no limit. Especially in cities, teachers work with children in schools that are hierarchical and bureaucratic, impersonal and anonymous. Teachers are treated as expendable and interchangeable, while to do their jobs well they must take moral responsibility for children's well being. So to represent teachers' interests, a union must take up the conditions that make teaching a job like any other. Albert Shanker, long-time boss of the American Federation of Teachers and the New York affiliate, articulated clearly and well this function of a teachers union. But what his vision of teaching and unionism excluded was acknowledgment of the inevitable contradictions that arise between teachers' personal and individual responsibility for children, the ways their work continues the functions of the family, and the location of these functions in a bureaucracy as paid labor. While this contradiction is exacerbated by conditions of scarce resources it is not eliminated entirely even when financial support for schools is ample.

This tension emerges as a conflict in decisions about how non-classroom duties such as supervising children at lunch or on the playground should be handled. Most teachers loathe these duties because they are so far removed from intellectual aspects of teaching, the responsibilities that make teaching seem more than "babysitting" -- or understood in terms of work's gendered construction, more like "work" and less like "home." However, if we view schools as extensions of the family and home, then another way to view these responsibilities is that they represent the school's role in children's socialization, so functions like supervising children at play are no less essential than attending to their cognitive development.

It is difficult for teachers to see the educative value of activities like lunch and recess because in almost all public schools they are structured in a bureaucratic fashion, constructed more like they are in prisons and factories than the way they are experienced in homes. Children take lunch and recess en masse; the activity and setting are impersonal and the children are anonymous; the activity is robbed of its personal, human element. But what if lunch occurred in the classroom with the teacher, a time for relaxed interchange? What if school resources and organization allowed teachers to have lunch and recess with children as well as time away from the classroom for other responsibilities, planning or socializing with other adults?

As Golin explains, the issue of "non-pedagogical" responsibilities was a critical factor in the second strike in Newark, and the union leadership's insistence on holding onto a victory in arbitration that released teachers from these jobs pitted the union against community activists. The union's most persuasive argument in organizing elementary schoolteachers was that unionism made teacher professionalism possible by improving teachers' salary and working conditions. It would elevate their status and in so doing make teaching more like "work" and less like "home." But this definition of "professionalism" reinforced a conception of teachers' work that led in short order to internecine conflicts with black parents. Some teachers, however, understood teaching's worth in its being of service to families and neighborhoods, and, in other words, wanted teaching to transcend the dichotomy between "work" and "home." As Golin quotes one black parent observing, these "non-professional" chores were "the only human aspect of teaching," (p.116) and in one alternative school Golin describes, a school in which parents and teachers had a strong working relationship, the issue of "non-professional" responsibilities was moot because lunch was a communal activity.

Two High Points

THE BOOK CONTAINS TOO MUCH that is intelligent, informative, and moving to summarize. It must be read, but I will mention two high points for me. One often reads about "white workers" as if they are indistinguishable from one another. Golin's analysis of how the ideologies of the Italian American and Jewish teachers diverged and how the differences influenced the union's formation and demise demonstrates that the categorization "white workers" masks critically important differences as well as similarities. He also gets at how the black teachers who joined the union understood their commitment, how they made sense of being black and being workers. Golin's work is evidence that we can understand people's motivations and thinking as they are influenced by ethnicity, class, gender, and race without recourse to the jargon so often used in academic studies of these topics and without reference to the notion of "culture," which at least in educational research is the primary lens for explaining the phenomena Golin addresses as a historian.

The most dramatic part of the book is the discussion of the second strike and the description of the escalating violence, which threatened to explode in race war. Despite the excitement of this chapter, for me the most moving section of the book was the chapter in which he describes and analyzes the ways that the teacher activists faced their long prison sentences. Golin shows how the worldviews that configured their involvement in the union did the same in prison. For some women this meant organizing to change conditions, forming relationships with the black prisoners, starting classes, understanding the intentional brush of a leg as the expression of human desire for warmth and comfort, rather than as a threatening lesbian advance.

For one teacher, Alice Saltman, an artist, jail was the occasion for meditation and drawing. The sketch of her cell is reproduced. In contrast, for the men jail was a competition, a test of their masculinity and a measure of how they stacked up against their jailer-opponents. As Golin recounts these stories we see how each person struggled to feel human in this most barbaric environment. I think that most readers of New Politics will agree with me that it is close to impossible to read this chapter without identifying with their struggle, along with a feeling of great sadness that their sacrifice followed the defeat of their union and vision.

Golin ends the book with a hopeful look at the Newark Teachers Union today, which underwent eclipse and suffered from corruption in the 70s and 80s. He links the union's decline to the withering of its democratic traditions shortly after it won collective bargaining, which also occurred in New York City. (In fact, the comparison between what occurred in Newark and New York City is suggested but not explored so often in this study that it seems impossible that it will not be undertaken in a subsequent study, by someone else if not by Golin himself.) The Newark Teachers Union has a new president, one of the activists who helped build it, Joe Del Grosso.

Golin is reassured that the union is now heading in the right direction because Del Grosso emphasizes the importance of union democracy and participation of the membership. But I am less confident that the definition of "union democracy" that Del Grosso projects and Golin accepts is sufficient to heal the union's relations with Newark residents. First, there is no explicit mention of race and how this continues to influence the way teachers in Newark view their work and their union. Del Grosso's analysis of how the union should proceed, as Golin presents it, gives no indication that the union has come to grips with the contradictions that arise for teacher unions in the construction of "school" as a workplace that has no connection to home or family. Just as critically, although the generation of teachers who created the union is now starting to retire, the issue of race has not disappeared with the passage of time or the departure of the activists who built the union. Race and the way it influences one's view of schools, teaching and teacher unions is still the "elephant in the closet " for teacher unionism in Newark and in most cities.

I saw an ominous indication of what is in store for the Newark Teachers Union, despite Joe Del Grosso's hopes, in a class I taught last year. Several young Newark teachers, all African American, born long after the story Golin narrates, were taking the course to complete their certification as principals. When we discussed teacher unionism, reading an inspirational speech by Margaret Haley about why teachers should organize, they expressed enthusiasm for her arguments about the need to reduce class size, about the critical importance of education in and for a democracy, about teachers having an alliance with other working people. As I always do when using this speech, I asked my students how their own union compared to Haley's vision. The tenor of the discussion shifted abruptly. Of the five young teachers in the class, only one had ever attended a union meeting, to find out about benefits. She presented the fact of her attendance at a union meeting as almost accidental and indicated that she would not return to another. The business of the union seemed irrelevant to her main concern, the quality of children's education. She made another comment that sent a chill down my back, even before I read Golin's book and learned how savage and bitter the racial divide in Newark had been during the second strike. "You know," she said, "I never knew there were so many white teachers in Newark." All the other African American teachers who worked in Newark nodded in agreement, a young male adding, "Yeah, you only see them at union meetings."


FOR UNION DEMOCRACY TO BE REAL in the Newark Teachers Union and other unions as well, it can't be discussed in a race-free fashion. The union has to understand, as Golin does, that teachers are a varied group who want many different things from their union, some of which are contradictory. One of the main tensions is that the work that teachers do is not esteemed or valued by the dominant society in good part because it is "women's work." As Golin's book demonstrates, if those of us who support the struggles of all workers for dignity don't put race and gender on the table, our enemies will, and they will be joined by people who should be our allies.


*The Newark Teacher Strikes. Hopes on the Line by Steve Golin, Rutgers University Press, 2002. return


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