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Building social justice unionism : rank and file teachers' struggle for racial and educational justice in Chicago Gautreaux, Michelle


The purpose of this study was to examine how teachers’ experiences combining their activism for education and racial justice can inform social justice unionism theory in practice. To explore this topic, this study examined the lived experiences of 13 rank and file teachers in the Chicago Teachers Union as they engage in education justice work and the broader Movement for Black Lives in the city. The research questions were: 1.) How do rank and file teachers in a social justice union engage with racial justice movements? 2.) What types of tensions, conflicts, or moments of dissonance emerge in this engagement and how do teachers deal with those? 3.) How can teachers’ lived experiences in this context inform theory around building social justice unionism in practice? This study employed thematic narrative inquiry and utilized ethnographic data collection methods to examine participants’ storied experiences of union activism, racial justice struggle, and personal struggle to balance both. Data collection involved one year of on the ground field work in Chicago where I engaged in participant observation of teachers in their activism. In addition to participant observation, 13 semi-structured interviews were carried out with teachers, all whom identified as active in the work of their union and broader social justice struggles. The results of my data analysis are presented in the form of an ethnographic performance text called ethnodrama. Selected narratives from interviews, participant observation, and document analysis were edited and adapted into a play script which allowed me to engage a plurality of voices and capture multiple aspects of teachers’ experiences in the struggle for racial and educational justice in a dynamic way. Findings suggest that the teachers experience internal union tension and disagreement on the topics of race, police violence, and the definition of social justice unionism itself. Moreover, in addition to struggling with colleagues on the above topics, teachers also struggle personally to maintain their commitment to their activism amidst ongoing attacks on their profession and working conditions. Findings illustrate that social justice unionism is as an ongoing, dynamic process that is continuously unfolding and in the making.

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