Always Look for the Union Label

It’s back. The US Supreme Court has agreed to hear another teacher-union case. As SAGLRROILYBYGTH are painfully aware, the conservative sport of teacher-union-bashing has a long history. The current case will likely redefine the landscape of school unionism.


Commies, unions, and teachers, c. 1938

As I explored in my book about educational conservatism, beginning in the 1930s conservative activists attacked teachers’ unions as dangerous fronts for communist subversion. Conservative patriotic groups exposed the connection of unions to leftist academics such as Harold Rugg. They pushed successfully for loyalty laws to sniff out subversive teachers.

In cities like New York, during the 1940s and 1950s, such union-bashing achieved great political success. Fueled by the testimony of former-communist-turned-witness Bella Dodd, the New York City School Board declared war on communist-affiliated teachers’ unions.

In her 1954 book School of Darkness, Dodd explained that communists actively sought influence—secret influence—in teachers’ unions. They fought for innocuous-sounding perks such as teacher tenure. They screened their subversion, Dodd claimed, by using intentionally misleading labels such as the “Friends of the Free Public Schools.”

In reality, Dodd warned, the Communist Party

establishes such authority over its members that it can swing their emotions now for and now against the same person or issue.

Teachers might be well-meaning folks, Dodd wrote, but at best they served as dupes for mind-controlling communist spies and sneaks. Such warnings carried great political weight. As historian Clarence Taylor has pointed out, by 1955 239 teachers and board personnel had been forced out of New York City schools, accused of subversion.


From Hearst’s New York Journal-American, July 7, 1948.

No one these days is going to stand in front of SCOTUS and accuse teacher unions of communist subversion. The issue is still one of left-leaning political influence, though. The most recent case before this one, Friedrichs v. California, hoped to give teachers freedom to refuse to pay union dues. In many states, even if they don’t join the union, teachers have to pay a portion of the union’s dues, since the union bargains collectively for all teachers.

Justice Scalia’s death forced that case into a 4-4 deadlock.

Plaintiffs in the new case, Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, hope the new court will give them a decisive win. The plaintiffs are hoping to be allowed to opt out, since, as Rebecca Friedrichs argued in the previous case, union support is “quintessentially political.” Forcing teachers or other workers to pay for political activism, plaintiffs insist, violates their rights.

With Neil Gorsuch filling Justice Scalia’s seat, it’s likely they’ll win. No one’s saying “communist subversion” anymore, but the long legacy of conservative anxiety about teachers’ unions remains politically potent.

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  1. They might not argue it in court, but complaints about “cultural marxism” and “secular materialism” (or “humanism”) are widespread and identified with teachers and professors in “secular” or “government” schools. The charge is valid if it refers to the post-war program of increasing upward social mobility and overall equality through public education. Combined with racial integration, this attempt to level racial and class distinction has fueled right-wing reaction that appears to have been deeper and more potent than their opposition. “Cultural apartheid” is what the right really seeks with its ideas about education.

    The American right truly sees unions as a mechanism of a false, imposed egalitarianism especially when it comes from public sector unions other than police and fire. Younger people may frame their view of unions in a more libertarian way — they just want all their money. Everything coming off their paycheck looks like a ripoff to Millennials who believe they will never see that money again or get any value from it, whether it’s union dues, government health care or a government pension. Older people know those broken and dying institutions were fought for by the Left and even laid out in the Communist Manifesto as goals, and they have never been persuaded those goalss were good. Far from it.

    There is really nothing like this willful self-destruction in any other country; even Canadian conservatives, especially religious conservatives, understand the “right to work” agenda in the US is the “right to work for less.” The DeVos/Prince families and their friends the Kochs have been enormously successful in propagating the ideology of the old anti-New Deal right as virtuous and liberatory.

    Pretty soon you may be writing about the history of public education as something that has no life in the present at all, except as an urban penitentiary prep program.

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