Generally, Democrats agree that the anti–“critical race theory” bills represent a “rebranding” of old fights. The Republican Party is using them to push reliable “cultural buttons”: labeling those who seek racial justice as dangerous communists and generating fear and anxiety around the supposed loss of white patriarchal dominance.
However, while many on the left agree that something should be done about these bills, it is not always clear what.
Students and teachers are caught in the cross fire of these anti-CRT laws. Punishments for violating these laws include fines or funding cuts, other forms of disciplinary action (such as revocation of certifications, reprimands, or suspension without pay), and termination of a teacher’s employment. As such, recent reports of teachers leaving schools ahead of the new year come as no surprise: They are underpaid, overworked, on the front lines of the pandemic, and dealing with the increasing politicization of their profession. And if they raise concerns, teachers are rebuked and told to continue selflessly performing their work out of a commitment to their students. So while it is impossible to say whether there is an actual teacher shortage, as the United States does not collect timely data on teacher employment, what is certain is that teachers are unhappy.
Teachers’ unions have the power to rally around teachers and advocate solutions that center the needs of students and truly eliminate private influence on public education. These policies include better teacher pay, increased funding, and safer schools. Unfortunately, not just Republicans but also Democrats have been responsible for undermining the strength of teachers’ unions. It is time that Democrats commit to strengthening teachers’ unions, and labor unions generally, to combat the rising tide of divisive, far-right politics.
A Need for Strong Teachers’ Unions
Since January 2021, state lawmakers have introduced 191 bills that purport to ban instruction of “critical race theory” in primary, secondary, or higher education, according to PEN America’s tracking index. Nineteen so-called anti-CRT bills have already been signed into law in states including Arizona, Iowa, and Texas.
The majority of these bills mirror language from a Trump-era executive order, which banned what he labeled “divisive” diversity and inclusion training in the federal workforce or military. This executive order was immediately revoked by President Biden upon entering office. However, he has yet to speak on or take action to prevent the flurry of anti-CRT bills inspired by Trump’s executive order.
Nevertheless, these bills are already instilling fear in teachers, who are uncertain about how to teach race and racism in light of these laws, leading some to avoid the subject altogether.
The effect of these laws is being felt as much in states where these laws have passed as where they haven’t, as teachers fear backlash from conservative parents. Indeed, these bills effectively arm parents with the legal tools to go after teachers.
The increasing politicization of their profession is just one of a number of growing frustrations teachers are experiencing today. A recent survey by the American Federation of Teachers, one of the largest teachers’ unions in the country, shows that an overwhelming 88 percent of teachers felt that education was becoming too politicized.
These growing attacks on teachers are exactly why there is a need for strong teachers’ unions that can advocate for solutions that center the needs of students—starting with better teacher pay and increased funding for schools.
Teachers’ unions have long been effective advocates for education spending. A study in Education Policy showed that while the 2008–09 recession led all states to reduce education spending, states with strong teachers’ unions cut less, and those that prohibited collective bargaining by teachers cut disproportionately more. However, collective bargaining may only be able to effectively raise education expenditures and teacher pay when teachers also have the ability to strike. Indeed, teachers’ strikes in 2018 led to increased education spending and teacher salaries around the country. What’s more, improved working conditions attract and retain high-quality teachers, who are essential to positive student outcomes.
The Rise of Far-Right Politics in the US
The anti-CRT bills are an embodiment of a strengthening far-right politics in the United States—one that has been identified by scholars like Jason Stanley as employing tactics typical of fascist regimes. The bills attempt to construct a mythical, utopian American past, using the language of freedom and equality to undermine actual freedom and equality; and they simultaneously destroy trust in intellectuals who study racism in the United States by painting them as a radical communist threat. Indeed, the rhetoric of anti-CRT bills matches that of classic and contemporary fascist regimes, making the anti-CRT movement (and not CRT itself) the real threat to democratic ideals.
To this end, strengthening teachers’ unions—and labor unions generally—is not just a method of combating anti-CRT bills’ effects, but one of eroding structural racism itself. Stanley makes clear in his book How Fascism Works that labor unions have historically been an antidote to “us versus them” politics because they create sites of “cooperation and community” around shared interests. In particular, unions are key to building cross-racial working-class solidarity and collective power, which can foster fair wages and working conditions.
Unions have also historically been viewed by far-right regimes as a threat. The United States. has a repeated history of using racial division to break unions. For example, W.E.B. Du Bois, in Black Reconstruction, describes fear among the wealthy that newly enfranchised black citizens would join poor whites in a strong labor movement. And Alex Carey’s writing on the Americanization Movement illustrates corporate use of fear of immigrants to undermine unions. Organizers must be cognizant of these tactics while building the solidarity and worker organization that can realize social conditions that undermine structural racism.
Anti-CRT rhetoric is particularly effective because it comes at a time of extreme wealth inequality, when the majority of people are looking for explanations for their miserable conditions, and politicians are looking for scapegoats so they do not become the explanation. The racist and anti-communist fear tactics that anti-CRT rhetoric employs work best under unequal material conditions. Unions can combat these underlying conditions: economic inequality negatively correlates with union membership, so higher union membership may lead to less inequality.
The Political Forces Undermining Teachers
Unfortunately, Democrats as well as Republicans have been undermining teachers’ unions, as both Democrats and Republicans have embraced market-based solutions to education access under the guise of “freedom, choice, and quality.” In the realm of education policy, the Obama administration came to a mutual understanding with the Republican Party, embracing “school choice,” which meant creating market competition for public schools with the thinking that this would incentivize schools to improve—a reform loudly opposed by teachers’ unions.
This reform resulted in an expansion of charter schools, which are publicly funded, privately operated, and overwhelmingly nonunionized. The most recent data publicly available from the National Center for Education Statistics from 2017–18 shows that 72.1 percent of teachers in traditional public schools were members of a union or employee association, while only 24.4 percent of charter school teachers were. Other sources estimate the percentage of unionized charter school teachers to be even lower, with Education Week putting it at 11.3 percent in 2019.
The reason for such low unionization rates in charters is in part the fact that in many states, charter schools do not need to adhere to the collective bargaining agreements of public schools in the same districts, and some charters have even argued that “as ‘political subdivisions,’ they don’t count as employers” under the National Labor Relations Act, which guarantees the right of workers to organize.
Therefore, during the Obama years, the Democrats’ expansion of charter schools in particular, alongside other school reform measures, effectively undermined teachers’ union membership and organizing efforts and as such their ability to fight anti-CRT laws, spending cuts, and the like.
Thankfully, the Biden administration seems to have departed from the educational policy of the Obama administration. On the campaign trail, Biden said he was not a fan of charters and has since proposed new criteria for charter access to federal funding. Nonetheless, damage has been done, and while the Democratic Party has cooled on charters, some in the party continue to join Republicans in rhetorical attacks on teachers’ unions.
After losing the race for Virginia governor, Democrats gave credence to a false narrative that teachers’ unions threaten the party’s electoral prospects. Some Democrats attributed Republican candidate Glenn Youngkin’s win to his denunciation of school closures, blaming unions rather than the failed government response to Covid-19. However, polling showed that three-quarters of Youngkin voters said public schools were focusing too much on racism, and voters who cited “critical race theory” as their important issue overwhelmingly voted for Youngkin.
Overall, teachers’ union membership saw dramatic losses in the 2020–21 school year, aligning with national downward trends of union membership across sectors. While some have predicted that the Covid-19 pandemic might spark a labor movement resurgence, overall trends in union membership numbers don’t seem to support the assertion—at least not yet.
The anti-CRT movement is a step in a far-right agenda that seeks to maintain white supremacy-based hierarchy amid a national anti-racist social movement that threatens their power. With the threats from far-right politics growing by the week, there is ever more urgency for strong political action that will secure and expand democracy. Repudiations of far-right politics in word alone will not cut it.
Stronger teachers’ unions present a real, tangible opportunity for educators to grow their power, and for the United States to bolster an education system that has been neglected for decades.
Unions, throughout American history, have been shown to threaten far-right, divisive politics. Union organizing must be supported and protected from threats coming from either side of the aisle, since unions provide a path forward for building a society that addresses legacies of harm and where far-right hate has no place.