Reform Rooted In Unions: Then & Now

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"I am a teacher, hear me roar."

The term ‘union’ refers to legally recognized assemblies of workers of specified industries. In terms of educators and those in the education ‘industry’, teachers unions can be one of the most powerful voices in terms of educational politics when operated efficiently. Today however, teachers unions are receiving a huge part of the blame in the failure of America’s past educational reformation attempts, attempting to tackle the same issues that once resonated in educational politics 100 years prior. This essay seeks to explore how one woman’s vision ties with the modern idea of what a teacher union is to stand for. It will explore the way teachers unions of the late 1990’s have accepted or rejected the view Margaret Haley and the Chicago Teacher’s Federation set forth of in 1904. Though there are social issues of race and class being dealt with by contemporary leaders that she could not have foreseen over a century ago, it will move beyond that to also accentuate the similarities in the goals of each time period’s vision of what makes a teachers union, to ultimately show that if Margaret Haley were to live a century longer, she would most closely identify with the social justice unionists of the 1990’s than industrial or professional unions.

To understand what Haley stood for, one may look at her upbringing for a preface. An average farmer from Illinois, Haley grew up with a sense of security and comfort, but not luxury. Like many other children from her town, she spent her time playing in multiplayer games, not in the sense that we know, but those that required open air and a handful of children. These two prerequisites were not hard to meet, as the family’s farm provided ample open space, and being one of six children made finding playmates easy. I-Spy, pom-pom-pull-away, and farmer-in-the-dell were all part of her childhood. “Except for a greater number of books, we lived after the fashion of most farm families at that time and place” (Rousmaniere, 5). Haley claimed that the books are what made her house different, but furthermore, her exposure to books at such a young age made her stand out from her peers.

Margaret Haley's autobiography "Battleground"

The trend continued, as Margaret Haley was a woman unlike many of her time, backing down to no one and rejecting traditional “ladylike qualities” of her era. “Described as an anathema to her opponents, Margaret Haley was portrayed as a militant, a radical, a lady labor slugger, a character assassin, and an advocate of the mob rule” (“Battlegrounds”, xxxi). Her personality even rang through the way she titled her autobiography “Battleground”, in which she opens with the line “I never wanted to fight” (3). This would seem ironic to anyone who knew her legacy, for most of it was a fight, an ongoing struggle for educational reform beginning with the institution of teachers unions in her home state. In fact, mostly all the woman did was fight once she entered the education system as a 16-year-old sixth grade teacher in 1884, and never looked back as Haley “fought to correct tax inequalities, increase the salaries of teachers, expose unfair land leasing by the Chicago Board of Education, and among all things, develop teachers’ consciousness about citizenship and responsibility” (Rousmaniere, 212).  This is what Margaret Haley believed was the real meaning of ‘educational freedom’.

To achieve this so called ‘educational freedom’, Haley wanted to try a different, unprecedented way of educating children, all rooting from the creation of what she believed was the most effective teachers union. She longed for a teachers union that had the luxury of increased budgets, but also one that shifted its focus from “factory-izing” education to the instincts of individual teachers, as well as the assistance of communities surrounding the schools. From Haley, we are given three main themes of what she believed were essential in behind the implementation of teachers unions in the interest of reforming education to better serve society, rather than simply to perpetuate what already goes on.

The first theme behind her vision of unions is her advocacy of incorporating school reform from a financial standpoint into the agenda of teachers unions, urging the public to become aware that it is the public’s support that is needed in our schools. Haley expanded on this in her 1904 address titled “Why Teachers Should Organize”,

“Nowhere in the United States today does the public school, as a branch of the public service, receive from the public either the moral or financial support needed to enable it properly to perform its important moral function in the social organism” (“Why Teachers”, 148).

Haley realized that education was more than sitting in a classroom, education is an epiphenomenon of some sorts. When it does not work as it should, it goes beyond the miseducation of a child to education failing as an institution for ultimately not pulling its weight in efforts to shape society. Like the cliche that states a chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link, when education fails, economic and social injustices can be traced back to that weak link, a truth that Haley and reformers around the turn of the 21st century both agree on. “If the American people cannot be made to realize and meet their responsibility to the public school, no self-appointed custodians of the public intelligence and conscience can do it for them” (145). Haley insisted that teachers unions would have to strive for the public’s financial and moral support, for without both she feared the continuance of the treacherous hegemonic structure our country has been known to operate on.

Building off the previous theme comes her firm assertion that schools are a driving force behind our democratic society, and for that the teachers should be active citizens. Haley said, “The methods as well as the object of teachers’ organizations must be in harmony with the fundamental object of the public school in a democracy, to preserve and develop the democratic ideal” (145). Expanding on her previous concern, a worry of Haley’s was that those associated with the public school are not fully aware of how much of an epiphenomenon school actually is. She wrote,

“We teachers are responsible for existing conditions to the extent that the schools have not inspired true ideals of democracy, or that we have not made the necessary effort toward removing the conditions which make the realization of these ideals impossible” (147).

Margaret Haley believed that teachers should take the brunt of the blame for this, and in order to prevent the ongoing failure, they should aim to produce a democratic society in which free intelligence is the starting point. The only way to achieve this freed intelligence, and ultimately build a society inspired by the original ideals of democracy would be to have teachers become aware that behind their power to educate children, there lies a much larger investment in our democratic society.

The third theme is coherent through her address her insistence upon teachers having the right to control their own working environment. Haley firmly believed in the fact that regulated classroom environments by those not a part of the teacher-student population were not the answer.

“The atmosphere in which it is easiest to teach is the atmosphere in which it is easiest to learn. The same things that are a burden to the teacher are a burden also to the child. The same things which restrict her powers restrict his powers also” ( 146)

She explained that because students’ primary goal of attending school is to become educated, and teachers attend school to primarily teach said students, there is no explanation for a conflict of interest amongst teachers and students. Haley insisted that a valuable education comes through freed intelligence, a result of this free activity of the teachers that she speaks of. She wondered how someone could justify someone other than a student or teacher being responsible for their own learning environment and conditions. It would be unfathomable that a learning environment be created without the input of these two parties, with the interests of these two parties at the forefront of any agenda having to do with education.

Margaret Haley fought hard for justice inside and out of the classroom and wished the best for any who followed in her footsteps, evident in the way she closed her own autobiography. “It is only in the hope that my experiences may be a field map that I have marked them down. For men and women die, but the old, old war of might against right goes on” (“Battlegrounds”, 271).


The modern teachers union movement began in Chicago in 1897, but fast forward almost an entire century to the 1990’s and the old, old war of might against right Haley spoke of lives on. Many of the issues faced by Margaret Haley and the Chicago Teachers Federation back then, from undermining of education via insufficient budgets to testing to debates over the factory-ization of schools, remain pressing topics of education reform today.

Peterson's compilation of contemporary unionist theory

With the collaboration of the minds of reformers Bob Peterson, Michael Charney, and other contemporary unionists, three ideotypes of unions have been created in industrial, professional, and social justice unions. The first is industrial unionism, which focuses primarily on defending teachers’ rights and working conditions. Margaret Haley demanded more than that. Professional unionism embraces the idea of teachers as professionals, and that their responsibility lies within providing a child with a quality education. Again, Haley wanted this, but more. The third type of union is a is a hybrid sort of union referred to as a social justice union. Although her beliefs were not entirely the same, Margaret Haley would best fit amongst modern social justice unionists. This type of union goes beyond the sole interests of the teacher or student, and recognizes that in order to make progress it must be a team effort, including teachers, parents, and friends, for education is much more than merely the institution sociologists classify it as.

During a three-day institute in 1994 sanctioned by the National Coalition of Education Activists, a Bob Peterson and Michael Cheney led a group of 27 fellow teacher union activists in creating a draft of a social justice union to better govern public education.  The draft states,

“Too many have been quick to blame children and their communities for school failure, and slow to identify educational policies and classroom practices that, in the long run, serve those who want to see public schools die out or be sold off to the highest bidder” (Peterson, 128).

Set out to seek justice for education workers and to better schooling in the interest of public education, these unionists wanted to, at the very least, see schools no longer be run as capitalist enterprises. To counter, the institute produced a list of goals or objectives an ideal social justice union would have in mind whilst serving the community. They can best be broken down into four main themes behind their view of a complete social justice union.

The first of their ideas is an urge for all to become aware that parents and neighbors of our students are key allies to the army of students and teachers in the struggle for social justice, and that by building strategic alliances with all parties (parents, labor unions, and community groups), equality will inevitably follow. Social justice unionists believe that,

“Because parents play a central role in the education of their children and are our strongest political allies, education unions should work to insure that parents are full partners in our school” (129).

Like Haley, social justice unionists would like to urge the public to become aware of the role education has for them, their children, their children’s children, and so on. Instead of blindly supporting the first policy that one is prompted with, that usually has only the interests of a select few in mind, that often does nothing to counter injustices and even reproduces the ones already in place, people need to take an interest, if not for themselves for their neighbors. In their draft, contemporary unionists even suggest things like paid workdays for when parents chaperone students to further get their point across (130). In 1904, and modern times, unionists agree that the best education system is one that encompasses not only students and teachers, but all members of society, for that is exactly who education serves.

The second of their themes builds off of their first, and claims that in order for true democracy to make a comeback, organizations that claim to be democratically driven must not function with a bureaucratic philosophy. The 29 leaders write,

“Members often feel that their union is as distant from them as school administration. Communication is too often one-way, with union newspapers and newsletters arely seeking opinions or input. Some local and state apparatuses are dominated by cliques of individuals, making entry into union activities difficult for new members or rank-and-file activists” (129-130).

If things remain the way they are, and if hegemony continues to be the harsh norm, democracy will drift even further from the public’s hand. Unionists assert that by operating with a mobilized membership mentality, in which decisions are made only after widespread discussion amongst all members, change can finally be seen in education, and society as a whole. Haley spoke of the responsibility of the school in her 1904 address,

“That the public school does not feel its responsibility in the matter of political corruption, for instance, nor realize the effect upon the schools of this corruption and the misdirected activity of which it is a symptom, is proof that the public school is not yet conscious of its own vital function in society” (“Why Teachers”, 147).

Furthermore, they, like Haley, claim that to place the blame on the school for the lowered democratic ideal is not the answer either, for the public school is not aware of its power, but with the implementation of education as unionists lay it out, both past and present, it will not be long before progress towards truthful democracy is made.

Their third idea calls for the social justice union prototype to not only define and defend the rights its members are entitled to, but to also coincidentally fight for the rights of students and improvement of the broader community as a whole. The draft states,

“The interests of education workers are best served by defending public education while simultaneously working to transform it. Unions of education workers need to accept some responsibility in for the problems of public schools. We need to use our resources, membership, and power at the bargaining table and in the legislative arena to help resolve these problems” (Peterson, 129).

Similar to Margaret Haley’s third belief, contemporary unionists believe thatthe best education occurs when the decisions are made with the interests of both parties, those working in public education and those benefitting from it, ranking of the highest importance in the minds of those in charge of deciding. This is often referred to as the ‘factory-ization’ of education, defined in Haley’s address as

“…making the teacher an automaton, a mere factory hand, whose duty it is to carry out mechanically and unquestioningly the ideas and orders of those clothed with the authority of position, and who may or may not know the needs of the children or how to minister to them” (“Why Teachers”, 148).

In the past, traditional teacher accountability has gotten dumbed down in a sense, as those in power dance around the actual issues while instead focus on simply getting by and meeting brainless standards set by someone so far removed from the whole process that it almost resembles tyranny. Instead, Haley and contemporary unionists both agree that is the teachers that need to be not atop the system, but instead right in the middle of it, collaborating with all parties involved to design the most effective curriculum for a specific institution. The draft insists that social justice unions, “Put teachers and others who work in classrooms at the center of school reform agendas, ensuring that they take ownership of reform initiatives” (Peterson, 130). Contemporary unionists go as far as to suggest mechanisms such as peer mentoring, peer evaluation, and career ladders to constantly improve those in charge of educating society (Peterson, 17).

The fourth of contemporary leaders views is what sets their vision of teachers unions apart from Margaret Haley’s back in 1904. Essential to successful schooling today is an awareness of the internal structure of society in terms of the injustices having to do with race and glass. Rewind a century however, and this was not yet the mindset. In the early 1900’s, a man by the name of Booker T. Washington was advocating for African American’s right to an education, but he had not yet built a following large enough to counter the white supremacy apparent in America at the beginning of the 20th century (“From Slavery”). Because of this, it can be argued that Margaret Haley in 1904 was blinded in a sense, not aware of the reality that schools have a dual, contradictory role in which they “reinforce and reproduce class, racial, and gender divisions and inequality…[and] they provide an opportunity to break down those same divisions and inequalities” (Peterson, 16). Haley therefore did not include any specific way to combat these issues of race and class, but were she alive today, she would definitely argue against funding through property taxes, one proven way to lengthen the gap between classes and education.

Thankfully, contemporary leaders do realize this and have since picked up where Haley left off, and have added a fourth underlying theme of teachers union to counter injustices relating to race and class. At the tail end of the draft, Peterson and his crew state that an additional theme for unions to operate on.

“Encourage those who work with children to use methods of instruction and curricula that will promote racial and gender equity, combat racism and prejudice, encourage critical thinking about our society’s problems, and nurture an active, reflective citizenry that is committed to real democracy and social and economic justice” (Peterson, 130).

The case of schools failing to challenge students academically, dulling them down to the same level as the assessments that they are judged by, and ultimately remove from within them the ability, as well as the desire, to learn. The contemporary crew suggested changes that would increase respect for all cultures, as well as practices that will help break down stereotypes that society has created for those that are not white and heterogeneous (130).  Social justice unionists call for more attention being paid to school-related practices, and to implicate within them a curriculum that promotes not only a better education, but also equality amongst all.

After thorough analysis of both the beliefs of Margaret Haley and those of contemporary unionists like Bob Peterson, although separated by over a 100 years, it can be concluded that Margaret Haley, were she alive today, would without a doubt stand alongside (or at least close by) Peterson and identify herself a social justice unionist. Despite the lack of detail paid to the concepts of race and class and their relation to education, both parties clearly envision a better society starting with the implementation of an unprecedented style of unionism, one that treats education as more than a place where kids go to school, and where teachers go to work. The ultimate goal would be to eventually, through this new style of unions and education, achieve a world in which we are all seen for who we are, different but all in the same, for since when has being human become not enough to be entitled to all our world has to offer. When the system is designed for the people, by the people, the true definition of democracy, there is no possible conflict between the good of society and the members of society being served.

Richmond, VA already has an implemented 'social justice union'

Margaret Haley’s insistence on educational reform rooting from the implementation of a union that was financially and morally supported by the same public that it is serving, a union that operates with real democracy in mind, and a union that is operated by teachers, students, parents, and all those directly in the middle of it all coincide with the first three characteristics contemporary unionists drafted. They envisioned a union in which members of the community become allies in the fight for social justice, a union that truly operated on democracy rather than simply claiming it did, and exactly like Haley saw that the most efficient union would operate with both the interests of students and teachers in mind. Similar even in the way they would implement their respective ‘ideal’ unions, Haley and contemporary leaders agree that a passive approach will result in little to no progress being made. Haley wrote how the current system is a hindrance to real leadership, as “no man or woman dares lift a hand against a board of education if he wants to hold his job” (“Battleground”, 274). Peterson and company build on this, as they find that for something radical to get done, it would require firm action. Social justice unions should “aggressively educate and mobilize its membership to fight for social justice in all areas of society” (Peterson, 130). In the U.S., there already exists a Richmond teachers union committed to social justice. This differs vastly from the former way of reforming, the ‘compartmentalizing’ of education, as Haley defines it. “One of the troubles of reform is that reformers all put their own isms into airtight compartments. Educators will have to be the engineers to relate and balance the issues” (“Battleground”, 271). ‘Justice for all’ needs to be more than just recited at the beginning of each school day, and with the implementation of teachers unions constructed around the aforementioned ideals of Margaret Haley along with those of prominent contemporary unionists, change is certain to be on the horizon.

Primary Sources

“Advice from Margaret Haley, Leader of Teacher Unionism.” Diane Ravitchs Blog. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 May 2013. <>.

Besieged: School Boards and the Future of Education Politics. Washington, D.C: Brookings Institution Press, 2005. Print.

“From Slavery to Freedom: The African-American Pamphlet Collection, 1822-1909 History.” History. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 May 2013.<>.

Haley, Margaret. Battleground: The Autobiography of Margaret A. Haley. Urbana:University of Illinois Press, 1982. Print.

Haley, Margaret. The Gardener Mind. New Haven: Yale university press, 1937. Print.The Yale Series of Younger Poets.

Haley, Margaret. “Why Teachers Should Organize.” In National Association of Education. Journal of Addresses and Proceedings of the 43rd Annual Meeting (St. Louis), 145–152. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1904.

Peterson, Bob. Transforming Teachers Unions. Milwaukee, WI: Rethinking Schools, 1999.

Rousmaniere, Kate. Citizen Teacher: The Life and Leadership of Margaret Haley. Albany: State University of New York, 2005. Print.

“The Chicago Strike and the History of American Teachers’ Unions”N.p., n.d. Web. 03 May 2013. <>.

Author’s note: I chose this topic because I’m interested to see how Margaret Haley’s vision of teachers unions in 1904 compare and contrast with the ideas of unionists today, because many of her concerns seem to still resonate. It’s amazing that its veracity transcends a time-span of well over 100 years.


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I chose this topic because I’m interested to see how Margaret Haley's vision of teachers unions in 1904 compare and contrast with the ideas of unionists today, because many of her concerns seem to still resonate. It’s amazing that its veracity transcends a time-span of well over 100 years.

2 thoughts on “Reform Rooted In Unions: Then & Now”

  1. Nice essay and an interesting look at Margaret Haley’s works and beliefs. You did a great job achieving your thesis of comparing Haley some of her contemporaries.

    I’d be really curious about what’s happened even more recently than the 1994, since that’s been almost 20 years. I feel that unions have been under some of the fiercest attacks in recent years, and I think Haley’s beliefs are really relevant to the unions.

    Good job!

  2. This essay seeks to understand whether Margaret Haley’s vision of teachers unions in 1904 was embraced or rejected by union leaders nearly a century later, and argues that her view is closer to that of social justice unionists than other groups. A stronger introduction would have helped unfamiliar readers to grasp some of these key concepts, by telling us why Margaret Haley deserves our attention, and perhaps by breaking up the dense first paragraph into two more readable paragraphs. Also, the last line of the first paragraph tries to tell us too much information in one sentence. Another way to write it might look something like: “Contemporary teacher union leaders deal with issues of race and social class that Margaret Haley could not have foreseen a century ago. Nevertheless, this essay accentuates the similarities between unionists of the past and present, and ultimately argues that if Haley were to be alive in the 1990s, she would have most closely identified with the social justice wing of teacher unions than the proponents of industrial or professional unionism.”

    The body of the essay makes a compelling argument that Haley viewed schools as “a driving force behind our democratic society,” which seems to be the strongest of the three points that can be connected to the social justice unionism. Offering readers more evidence about Haley’s criticism of the “factory-ization” of schools would have been helpful when you raised this claim in the first half of the essay, rather than waiting for Haley’s “automaton” quote that appears in the second half. This section contains the most insightful analysis of similarities between Haley and contemporary unionists. But I’m not persuaded by the claim that Haley was not aware of racial and social class injustice in 1904 because “this was not yet the mindset.” As a leading labor organizer at the turn of the century, Haley certainly recognize socioeconomic injustice (and would later support Socialist party candidates), yet Rousmaniere argues that Haley “made little effort to recruit African-American elementary teachers to the Federation” (2005, p. 170). Elsewhere, Rousmaniere makes a stronger claim: “In her life-long career as a teacher activist, Margaret Haley resolutely ignored the problems faced by African American students and teachers in Chicago’s increasingly racially divided school system” (2001, p. 9,

    Overall, I’m delighted that you chose to delve into this fascinating topic and sought to draw connections between past and present.

    Several small points can easily be revised to strengthen this web-essay, such as:
    – In paragraph two, who was the “average farmer”: Margaret Haley or her father and mother?
    – In that same paragraph, introduce direct quotations by attributing them to their source, perhaps like this:
    As Margaret Haley reflected on her childhood in her autobiography, “Except for a greater number of books, we lived after the fashion of most farm families at that time and place” (Rousmaniere, 5).
    – The second half of the essay begins with a very clear classification of three types of unionism (industrial, professional, and social justice), and this three-part idea should be credited to Peterson, since it appeared in his essay. (If this categorization appeared elsewhere, then cite those sources, too.)
    – Ed 300 guidelines clearly state: “If you include visual elements, be sure to add captions to properly credit each source.” The photo at the top of this essay contains no source information, and others contain minimal information.
    – The end of the essay lists “primary sources,” but some of these are secondary sources, such as historian Kate Rousmaniere’s biography of Haley. Simply list them all as “Works cited:”

    My comments above are based on the Ed 300 research web-essay criteria:

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