"We're Trying to Create a Different World": Educator Organizing in Social Justice Caucuses

Stark, Lauren, Education - Curry School of Education, University of Virginia
Alridge, Derrick, CU-Leadshp, Fndns & Pol Studies, University of Virginia

Over the past three decades, the public education system in the United States has been dramatically reshaped by market-based policies at the local, state, and federal levels. These policies have been described as a “global assault” (Compton & Weiner, 2008) on education that has exacerbated existing economic and racial inequalities (Lipman, 2011). While leaders of the nation’s two major teachers’ unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), have failed to adequately respond to this assault (Weiner, 2012), a number of local, national, and international grassroots organizations have developed with the express purpose of combatting neoliberal policies and social inequalities from the ground up (Spreen & Stark, 2014). Among these organizations are social justice caucuses: groups of rank-and-file educators who build their collective power to democratically transform their unions and advance justice in schools and society.

This dissertation explores educator organizing in the United Caucuses of Rank-and-File Educators (UCORE), a growing network of social justice caucuses within teachers’ unions in the United States. The UCORE network was founded in 2014, following two years of informal organizing between member caucuses and over twenty years of policy mobility between union organizers in cities such as Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Seattle. While scholars have published a small number of case studies of social justice caucuses, there is little research documenting the development of educator organizing and policy mobility between caucuses. Likewise, few studies have explored the purpose, principles, and practices of educator organizing within social justice caucuses. With this in mind, the aim of this dissertation is to trace educator organizing and policy mobility within the UCORE network using the methodology of militant ethnography. This project documents the work of member caucuses using participatory observation, document analysis, social media analysis, and interviews.

Over the course of this dissertation, I discuss how organizers conceptualize the purpose of social justice caucus organizing, arguing that individual caucuses adapt their stated purposes over five iterative phases of development. I also identify four ethical principles that educator organizers use to frame, guide, and evaluate their work. Moreover, I identify ten cultural practices of social justice caucuses, noting how these practices enable organizers to advance their caucus’s purpose and principles. Lastly, I discuss how some of these practices enable the spread of social justice unionist policies across the UCORE network, furthering the development of contemporary educator movements. By investigating the work of social justice caucuses, this dissertation will result in a better understanding of recent developments in the history of labor organizing and education policy in the U.S. It will also contribute to research on education activism, social justice unionism, and social movement organizing.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Caucuses, Critical Policy Studies, Education Organizing, Educator Organizing, Ethnography, Labor Studies, Militant Ethnography, Social Justice Education, Social Movement Unionism, Social Movements, Sociology of Education, Teachers Unions, Unions
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