Teacher Strikes and the Rise of Neoliberalism


A Review of Against the Public: Teacher Strikes and the Decline of Liberalism, 1968-1981, by Jon Shelton

In this award-winning dissertation, Jon Shelton recasts the story of postwar America by connecting the emergence of neoliberal conservatism to the public backlashes against increasingly militant teachers’ unions during the 1970s. It is a fitting choice. As both “a fundamental facet of everyday life” and the “the single-most expensive expenditure of local governments” (p. 1), public education offers fertile ground for probing key questions in American political, social, and cultural history.

Scrutinizing the reaction to major stoppages in Illinois, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania by carefully culling through newspapers and magazines, op-eds, letters to the editor, private correspondence, community meetings, public hearings, and television news coverage, Shelton highlights the critical importance of teacher strikes in “the unraveling of what had been the dominant political culture of the nation” (p. 55). Challenging the dichotomy between cultural and economic explanations for working-class conservatism, Shelton argues that teacher strikes played a crucial role in transforming popular conceptions of both the labor movement and liberalism and, in so doing, created the conditions for the successful rise of the political right.

Chapter 1 examines the political and intellectual context of Pennsylvania’s landmark Public Employment Relations Act 195 (1970), “a far reaching experiment in public employee labor relations” (p. 72). In Shelton’s reading, the Pennsylvania law, unique in its conditional sanction of strikes, was wholly consistent with—and the product of—a broader New Deal framework in which public sector collective bargaining formed a “vitally important” component of “the rational administration of urban and suburban services” (p. 57). Shelton notes that the particular framing of the statute’s controversial right-to-strike provisions reflected a broader conviction that such conflicts would and could be avoided through effective administration and governance—a ringing endorsement of a mid-twentieth century faith in the capacity of the state. Yet Shelton also shows that there was a tension embedded in this framework—that strikes, while legally permissible, were never properly recognized as integral to the processes of collective bargaining.

Chapter 2 features a close reading of some one-hundred letters sent from members of the public to American Federation of Teachers president David Selden during a sixty-day stint in an Essex County, New Jersey penitentiary for his leadership of the 1970 Newark teachers strike. Encouraged by the union as part of a broader public relations strategy, the letters offer an important window into the public consciousness of individual Americans, which Shelton employs as markers in how cultural representations of teacher unions were reflected and refracted (p. 49). Shelton uses them well, highlighting the ways in which major strikes like the one in Newark “forced many individuals . . . to consider and re-consider their own political positions with regard to public sector unions.”  The strikes created a political opening that would later be sized upon by conservative groups like the Business Roundtable and Chamber of Commerce to discredit the broader labor movement (p. 131).

In Chapter 3, Shelton uses a series of overlapping strikes in Chicago, Philadelphia, and St. Louis in 1973 to explore the politics of the emerging fiscal crisis. Cataloguing the major discursive threads from editorial reactions, Shelton argues that teacher unions were increasingly portrayed as culpable for both the problems of the urban public school system and the fiscal difficulties of the broader liberal state, a clear shift from the generally (though not universally) positive assessment of teacher unionism of the earlier era. Media treatments became more likely to skirt the causes of teacher militancy and focus on the illegality of teacher strikes, reinforcing the Nixon era’s emphasis on law-and-order politics. The teachers’ refusal to obey judicial injunctions combined with increasingly toxic urban fiscal context to create a crisis that undermined the broader liberal project from both sides—indicting liberalism for failing “to control its labor force from illegal action and provide the necessary resources for citizens of the city” (p. 202).

Chapter 4 examines the fallout from New York City’s 1975 fiscal crisis, a crucial turning point in public sector labor history, through the prism of a two-month strike by the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers. More than any other event, the near-bankruptcy of the nation’s largest city served to focus attention on the wages and benefits of government workers, and in city after city, public sector demands (much less strikes) were increasingly met with dire editorial warnings about the dangers posed by “another New York.” Shelton shows how the Pittsburgh strike galvanized support for an overhaul of the state’s landmark public employment relations law which signaled a broader shift in the landscape of political liberalism.

Chapter 5 pushes the analysis to the national level, highlighting how the discourse born of the backlash against teacher strikes helped anti-union forces undercut private sector labor law reform in 1978. Shelton breaks new ground by effectively mining the papers of Ernest Smith, an African-American teacher and former union organizer who co-led the National Right to Work Committee’s legal challenge to Michigan’s Public Employee Relations Act of 1965, to highlight a critical and oft-neglected step in the extension of anti-union discourse to the working class. Though the legal challenge failed, Shelton argues, the NWRC’s campaign, along with the broader context of crisis and controversy over teacher unions, “helped to erode the notion that a strong labor movement served the American ‘public’” (p. 315). Thus, this campaign played a crucial role in creating “the ideological space” for corporate interests to effectively meet and defeat the 1978 reform effort, a harbinger of a new political era.

Chapter 6 considers the implications of the new political landscape by examining the reaction to teachers strikes in St. Louis and Philadelphia in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Hard-pressed to win even moderate gains from increasingly recalcitrant elected officials, organized teachers suffered from the broader backlash against public sector unions unleashed by President Ronald Reagan’s destruction of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) during the summer of 1981. In the larger scheme, Shelton shows how the crisis of public sector labor relations was absolutely essential in galvanizing support for privatized social services (in this case, school vouchers, effectively explored through Milton Friedman’s 1980 Freedom to Choose series).  Ultimately, the crisis helped delegitimize the liberal state—and the unions that it had birthed.

Building on the pioneering works of Marjorie Murphy (Blackboard Unions: The AFT and the NEA, 1900-1980. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990) and Jerald Podair (The Strike That Changed New York: Blacks, Whites, and the Ocean Hill-Brownsville Crisis. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004), Against the Public illuminates an important component of the history of teacher unionism in the second half of the twentieth century. Shelton joins a growing cadre of labor historians, led by Joseph A. McCartin, committed to challenging the dominant “declension” narrative by redirecting scholarly attention to the previously understudied public sector labor movement. More generally, Shelton unearths important evidence about the erosion of the New Deal-Great Society political regime in the 1970s, increasingly recognized by historians like Judith Stein, Jefferson Cowie, and others as “the critical decade” in postwar American history.

Joseph E. Hower
Institute for Historical Studies
University of Texas at Austin

Primary Sources
American Federation of Teachers Papers, Walter Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan
Home and School Collection, Urban Archives, Temple University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Television News Collection, Television News Archive, Vanderbilt University, Nashville, Tennessee
Pittsburgh Public Schools Collection, Heinz Historical Center Archives, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
St. Louis Schools Collection, Missouri History Museum, St. Louis, Missouri

Dissertation Information
University of Maryland, College Park. 2013. 415 pp. Primary Advisor: Julie Greene.

Image: Photo by Author from the Reuther Archives.

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