University of Wisconsin - Green Bay

Research Council


Jon Shelton

Fall 2013

"Against the Public: Teacher Strikes and the Decline of Labor-Liberalism, 1968-1981"

Grant in Aid of Research

Final Report: "My project helps to explain a major shift in American politics by looking closely at public discussions during teacher strikes. As unionized teachers became increasingly visible in American political culture in the 1960s, lengthy strikes in major metropolitan areas in the 1970s caused many Americans to question their assumptions about the robust role of the state and the importance of labor unions. Because of teachers’ traditional cultural importance as providers of economic opportunity as well as inculcators of moral values, their refusal to work short of their contract demands (often violating the law in the process) caused many white working- and middle-class Americans to blame the excesses of the liberal state for moral decline and to re-think their views about what had made America so prosperous in the years following World War II. Further, the state’s failure to solve the thorny problem of teachers shutting down the school system also caused many of these future “Reagan Democrats” to question the efficacy of the liberal state. With labor-liberalism discredited, free-market conservatives began, by the end of the decade, to argue persuasively for a shift to a more austere state, less government regulation of business, and for the privatization of social goods like education. Against the Public charts these larger developments by putting close examinations of teacher strikes in Newark, New York City, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and St. Louis. One major part of the analysis that I needed to make clearer is whether unionized private sector workers—a central piece of the New Deal coalition—believed that the labor movement, in organizing public sector workers, turned away from their interests. My intention was to use this grant to visit the AFL-CIO Archives, newly opened at the University of Maryland’s Hornbake Library, over winter break. I was able to spend three days in the archive (one day the archive was closed due to inclement weather), and I found much important context regarding the role of the AFL-CIO in the early history of teacher unionization, as well as the role that the AFL-CIO took in several teacher strikes during the 1970s. Also of value was the tension that had developed between public- and private-sector workers during the 1960s and 70s, as evidenced in documents related to the effort to develop a Department of Public Employees in the AFL-CIO in 1974. I have already included much of this material in my newest draft of the manuscript, which will be sent out shortly for external review to the University of Illinois Press. (Since applying for this grant, I learned that my dissertation won the Labor and Working-Class History Association’s Best Dissertation Prize of 2013. This award comes with an advance contract with U of I Press). Additional material from the archive will be used in an additional piece I am currently working on relating to the failure of a labor law reform bill in 1978."