United Teachers of New Orleans, AFT Local 527
Education, Democracy, Justice: A Brief History
1937: AFT Local 527 Forms to Demand Equal Pay for Black Teachers
American Federation of Teachers (AFT) Local 527 chartered in 1937 with the explicit and noble mission of securing for black teachers equal pay to white teachers working in the same school system.
As with most major movements, however, there were important antecedents to AFT Local 527. The most direct of these was the Louisiana Colored Teachers Association (LCTA), formed in 1901 both statewide and with a chapter in New Orleans. For black citizens of New Orleans, particularly with the tightening grip of Jim Crow laws, the labor union movement was an important avenue for fighting for rights and democracy. Waterfront workers of both races had earned significant wage increases through their labor unions, which were almost entirely segregated by race by the time LCTA formed. The greatest victories for both black and white workers, however, occurred when they joined together, as in the General Strike of 1892 (the same year Homer Plessy was arrested on behalf of the Citizens’ Committees’ challenge to the Separate Car Act). The leadership of this strike was comprised of five members, two from black unions and three from white unions.
And of course black laborers in New Orleans had been fighting for freedom and rights from the founding of European colonies in the early 18th Century and the first slave ship arrivals in the 1720’s through the maroon colonies that formed in the swamps upriver, downriver, and within New Orleans—a network that supported in New Orleans the largest slave revolt in U. S. history in 1811.
UTNO claims and celebrates all of this history. But the immediate formation of AFT Local 527 occurred in the 1930’s in the middle of the Depression. Differential pay for black and white teachers was a common practice in New Orleans in the early 20th Century. In 1920, starting pay for white teachers was $80 a month; black teachers earned $10 less per month. In 1938 pay for first-year white teachers was $1,000 per year; first year black teachers were paid $909 per year. In that same year, white teachers with 10 years of experience earned $2,200 per year, while black teachers with the same college degree and years of experience earned only $1,440 per year. And this differential mirrored funding for black as opposed to white schools. In the 1930’s for instance, black schoolchildren received only 17 percent of the funding that white schools and schoolchildren received.
The climactic event that led black teachers to form AFT Local 527 occurred in direct response to this differential pay for black teachers and the differential funding for black schoolchildren. In the early 1930’s the Orleans Parish School Board had reduced the salaries for all teachers in New Orleans, regardless of race. At the start of the 1937 school year, the school board announced that it would restore teacher salaries to the level they were at prior to the Depression cuts. But this restoration to pre-cut salary levels applied only to white teacher salaries. In response black teachers were joined by the leadership of AFT Local 353 (the all-white, segregation-era teachers union in New Orleans) in a struggle to restore black teacher pay to the pre-cut levels also. Teachers of both races signed a petition to the school board demanding the restoration of black teacher pay. The school board would not allow teachers to attend its meeting, so Sarah T. Reed, Edna Cormier, Veronica Hill, and other teacher union leaders snuck their petition into the school board meeting.
As was the case with earlier integrated labor struggles in New Orleans, the petition to restore black teacher pay was granted two weeks later by the school board. But also as with other rights issues of the era, the restored black teacher pay was still (depending on years of experience) between 10 and 50% less than white teacher pay. This disparity in pay convinced the black teachers to join fully with the national labor movement and to charter AFT Local 527 to fight for equal pay for black teachers.
1950’s and 1960’s: Civil Rights and State-Wide Movements
The issue of equal pay for black teachers became part of a broader movement for civil rights in New Orleans, Louisiana, and the nation. In 1941 teacher Joseph McKelpin became lead plaintiff in a court case against Orleans Parish School Board, led by attorneys A. P. Tureaud and Thurgood Marshall, to demand equal pay for black teachers. This legal team filed 16 similar suits in other parishes across Louisiana, culminating in 1948 legislation passed in Louisiana requiring equal pay for all teachers regardless of race.
Indicative of the civil rights activism of AFT Local 527 during this period is the work and testimony of Ed Roberts, a Korean War veteran and elementary school teacher who has been named one of the pioneers of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers and was a long-time member of the executive council of AFT Local 527. Roberts recalls a regular program of elementary teachers during the 1950’s teaching parents to read as part of voter registration and citizenship drives. Not satisfied with gaining equal pay to white teachers, members of AFT Local 527 also participated in wider efforts to gain equal funding for black schools.
This civil rights activism corresponded with the strong stands against segregation taken by the national AFT, which in 1953 refused to charter any more segregated local unions and in 1957 revoked the charters of any local that refused to admit black members. This action resulted in the loss of thousands of members in the southern U.S. and left AFT Local 527 as the only local affiliate of the AFT in New Orleans.
AFT Local 527, understanding from the McKelpin case and other segregationist legislation at the state level the importance of a state-wide movement for quality education and equal rights for all students and teachers, joined with other AFT locals to form the Louisiana Federation of Teachers in 1964, the same year the U. S. legislature passed the Civil Rights Act.
1972: Merger of NEA Local and AFT Local 527 Forms United Teachers of New Orleans
In 1972 members of the predominantly white Orleans Educators Association, the local affiliate of the National Education Association, and AFT Local 527 took the rare step of merging to form United Teachers of New Orleans, electing Nat Lacour (head of local 527) as president and Orleans Educators Association leader Cheryl Epling as Vice President. And in a unique development, the predominantly white organization came under the charter and leadership of the predominantly black AFT local 527. Teachers in New Orleans provided the city and state with a powerful image of what integration should really be about in the Jim Crow South and its aftermath—not black folks petitioning to enter white institutions but white citizens agreeing to join historically and predominantly black organizations and building solidarity and respect in that process.
1974 - 2005: Collective Bargaining Agreement, Expansion of Black Leadership in New Orleans, and Development of Professional Programs and Social Justice Union Movements
The merger of the two unions led to the solidarity necessary to earn collective bargaining for teachers in New Orleans in 1974. This drive followed the successful labor organizing of the Jim Crow era, epitomized by late 19th century work share agreements between the black and white waterfront workers unions to earn higher pay for all workers. Citizens of New Orleans understood labor unions as a key element of civil rights struggles and of elevation to the middle class. The 1974 collective bargaining victory was developed with broad-based community support, including over 20,000 signatures by citizens supporting collective bargaining for teachers.
The 2nd collective bargaining agreement between UTNO and the Orleans Parish School Board included the development of the Health and Welfare Fund. This jointly managed and funded entity provided professional growth and development for teachers, school improvement assistance to schools, and health benefits for bargaining unit members. UTNO also included school support personnel through para-educators and clerical workers in its collective bargaining.
As has been the case throughout the history of AFT Local 527, UTNO has emphasized citizenship of its members and participation in struggles for justice and quality of life for working class residents of New Orleans. Such programs and activities include:
- providing parent training for pre-k and kindergarten parents and a homework help line for students and their parents;
- running extensive get out the vote actions in every election cycle, with special emphasis on increasing working class and black political leadership in the city and on defeating David Duke and electing Sen. Mary Landrieu on the state-wide levels;
- establishing a retiree chapter to sustain and increase civic engagement;
- participating in a range of social justice and anti-racist coalitions including Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO, Community Labor United, A. Phillip Randolph Institute, NAACP, and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists;
- going on a successful strike in 1990 for smaller class sizes for students and pay raises for school support personnel, para-educators, and clerical workers, all of whom had not received pay raises in over seven years;
- encouraging anti-racist training through People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond and similar organizations;
- recognizing students through activities such as scholarship funds, writing workshops, and Art on the Bus program in partnership with Regional Transit Authority;
- providing school improvement staffing assistance and professional training through Center for Professional Growth and Development for schools placed, or on verge of being placed, in the Recovery School District;
- lending full weight in the early 2000’s to the city’s successful living wage campaign and the successful state-wide effort to develop a more progressive tax structure that decreased the disproportional tax burden from low-wage workers to those with higher incomes.
2005-Present: The Struggle for Public Education in the Era of Privatization and Free Market Exclusionary Approaches
Despite efforts to weaken the voice and influence of the black middle class, of working class families, and of professional educators in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, AFT Local 527 has continued to struggle for quality education and social justice for citizens of New Orleans.
In September of 2005, UTNO president Brenda Mitchell and other members of UTNO staff and executive council worked with New Orleans Public Schools superintendent Dr. Ora Watson and her team to develop a plan for opening schools as quickly as possible for families wanting to return to New Orleans, starting in Algiers. Unfortunately, the Orleans Parish School Board in an October 2005 meeting rejected this plan on a 4-2 vote and instead formed the Algiers Charter School Association, with Orleans Parish School Board members themselves as the board of this previously non-existent entity. The charter application for Algiers Charter School Association specifically states that its employees can neither be members of the teachers union nor employees of the Orleans Parish School Board.
Attacks on UTNO and the exclusion of veteran educators’ insights and assistance in rebuilding public education continued through a number of measures, some direct and some indirect, in the 2005-06 school year:
- George W. Bush’s Department of Education, in an attempt to bolster privatization of public education and decrease teacher union participation in education, provided an additional $2,000 per pupil for charter schools;
- State Superintendent Cecil Picard amended an already bloated financial management contract to consulting firm Alvarez and Marsal to include the ability to hire and fire teachers, an action tremendously beyond the scope of the original contract;
- State Department of Education and Orleans Parish School Board refused to pay New Orleans teacher salaries from federal emergency funds despite receiving $2.4 billion for this specific purpose and despite fact that every other hurricane-effected school district and university retained their teachers using these federal funds. Louisiana Superintendent of Education Cecil Picard’s letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings included a specific request for “more than $622 million for salaries and more than $155 million for benefits for out-of-work school employees.” The letter specifically cited, as state of Florida did in 2004 hurricane devastation, the need to “pay out-of-work teachers ‘mainly to assist in retaining staff for when the schools reopened.”
- The 7,500 employees of New Orleans Public Schools were placed on disaster leave without pay (an “illegal” designation according to court records and state law) on Sept 15, 2005, (the only hurricane-affected school district to take this action) and then fired all employees later in the school year, despite having contact for all teachers and lists of those who wanted to return to teach;
- The Louisiana legislature passed Act 35 in November 2005, with over 3/4 of New Orleans legislators voting against it. Act 35 changed, for Orleans Parish public schools only, the guidelines that place schools in the state-run Recovery School District. The school performance score that places schools in the Recovery School District changed from 60 to 87.5, the average school performance score for all schools in the state. Prior to Act 35 five New Orleans public schools were in the Recovery School District. After Act 35, 107 of the city’s public schools were placed in the Recovery School District.
- Privatization advocacy groups drain federal funds intended for public education by using federal funds to provide the budget for new and expanding organizations such as New Schools for New Orleans, Teach for America, the New Teacher Project, and numerous charter school boards, all of which expend a large portion of their funds on top-level executives, organizational operating costs, and idea incubation rather than quality instruction for students;
- These same groups spread extensive misinformation about public schools in New Orleans from finances (arguing that millions of dollars were misspent and stolen based on USDE questioning of spending of approximately $69 million in federal funds but ignoring report by legislative auditor Grover Austin in response to these charges and documenting that OPSB properly spent at least $69 million of $69.6 million in Title I funds between 2001 and 2003) and ignoring that New Orleans Public Schools showed perhaps the greatest growth in student scores of any urban school district in the 2004-05 school year (88 of the approximately 120 public schools in New Orleans met growth targets set by state accountability system and 93 of the schools showed growth over the previous year’s school performance scores).
But despite these attacks on public education, teachers, and unions, UTNO has maintained its active role in advocating for high quality education, educator voice in decision-making, social justice for working families in New Orleans, and collaboration across school types. This work has included:
- advocating for schools to open more quickly in spring of 2006 when waiting lists of students returning to New Orleans but unable to enroll in school exceeded 1,000 students;
- hosting back-to-school fairs and parent education workshops;
- supporting a range of social justice issues, including raising the minimum wage, providing better and more extensive mental health treatment for New Orleans residents, paying fire workers and other public employees what they deserve, rebuilding schools in a fair and equitable way for the neighborhoods most devastated by the aftermath of Katrina;
- offering a series of “extreme classroom makeover” contests that led to six educators at six different schools designing their dream classroom and having a team of professionals carry out their vision;
- producing racial justice, racial healing, and educational diversity workshops and working groups through Kellogg Foundation funding of Students at the Center racial healing story circles and through SEED (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity) workshops designed by Peggy McIntosh, her colleagues in women’s studies, and classroom teachers across the country. UTNO serves as the only New Orleans host for SEED and SAC workshops’
- partnering with People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond to host local and regional anti-racist organizing trainings;
- developing a cohort of local educators to deliver American Federation of Teachers’ research-based and nationally-renowned professional development workshops, including the Strategies for Student Success series;
- publishing in collaboration with Students at the Center The Long Ride, a history of social justice and civil rights in New Orleans from maroon colonies to the present—a book that has been used in numerous secondary school classrooms in New Orleans;
- helping to organize first collective bargaining agreement for a charter school in the South at Benjamin Franklin High School—following in the tradition of negotiating in 1978 the first collective bargaining agreement for teachers in the South;
- nurturing New Teachers Roundtable as one of many spaces where educators from a range of background experiences and school types can work together for justice and quality in public education in New Orleans.