Dolores Huerta, today's teacher strikes, and 1960s social movements: an opening for social studies teachers

By Robert Shaffer posted 04-23-2019 04:25:27 PM


            Long-time civil rights activist Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the United Farm Workers of America with Cesar Chavez in the 1960s, has shone a spotlight on the recent wave of teacher strikes in her commentary in Time magazine’s April 29, 2019 issue on “The 100 Most Influential People.”  Huerta, who earned the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012 and who still appears to be going strong at the age of 89, points to Jay O’Neal and Emily Comer of West Virginia as representatives of the “Inspiring Educators” who in the past year “have left an impact well beyond their classrooms, launching a social-justice movement that was impossible to ignore.” 

            These strikes, Huerta adds, “have been a wake-up call about the lack of education funding.”  As if channeling the National Council for the Social Studies recent initiative that calls on teachers to model civic activism for students, she concludes, “It can be hard for teachers to get civically engaged, but if more did, I think we would have an entirely different society.”  Here’s a link to Huerta’s tribute to these teacher-activists:

            O’Neal, in fact, is a middle school social studies teacher, while Comer is a high school Spanish teacher.  Politico, the on-line magazine, had featured them among its 2018 top 50 trendsetters, adding their thoughts on broader current political issues to its analysis of their role as key organizers of the grassroots movement which led to the March 2018 strikes in West Virginia: Today in February 2019 also profiled O’Neal, among others, in its analysis of a two-day follow-up strike this past winter that sought to solidify the gains from last year’s strikes:

            Social studies teachers who wish to discuss with their students the significance of recent teacher strikes could easily use these Time and Politico essays in class, and would do well to consult the USA Today article for background and additional resources.

            That Dolores Huerta, whose UFW galvanized millions of Americans to support exploited California farm workers fifty years ago through grape and lettuce boycotts, chose to salute a new generation of union activists, is entirely fitting, uniting the activism of the 1960s with that of the 2010s.  It is also fitting because Huerta had briefly been a teacher before joining with Chavez to organize farmworkers.

            I would like to suggest, moreover, an even stronger connection, one that is especially significant for social studies teachers.  The UFW has made it into most of our history textbooks, emblematic of one strand in the protest movements which helped change the United States during the 1960s.  Indeed, California and several other states even celebrate Cesar Chavez’s birthday (March 31) as a state holiday.  But the 1960s were also the formative period for modern teacher unionism and other public employee unionism, which I called in a 2011 article in The History Teacher “a neglected social movement of the 1960s,” one that has not yet made it into our social studies textbooks or our social studies curriculum.  The article is available, open source, at:

            As I wrote in that article, in their chapters on the 1960s and 1970s, “not a single one of the textbooks surveyed for this study include any mention of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), the National Education Association (NEA), the American Federation of State, Count, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), or the American Postal Workers Union (APWU)” despite the dramatic increases in membership and collective bargaining in these years and the widely-publicized strikes of the time. 

            Here are just a few examples of the significance of teacher unionism during that decade, drawn from my article.  The AFT tripled its membership to over 200,000 during the 1960s, while the NEA went from being a professional organization to being a union that engaged in collective bargaining and participated in strikes, increasing its own membership by 50% -- to over one million – in the process. 

            The New York Times reported the following on March 7, 1968, almost exactly forty years to the day before the recent wave of teacher strikes erupted in West Virginia: “More than 40 striking Pittsburgh teachers were rounded up and fined yesterday for violating an anti-picketing injunction.  In Oklahoma, Gov. Dewey Bartlett urges the state’s teachers to accept a $37 million education program and call off strike threats…Teachers in Manchester, N.H., voted yesterday to return to their posts today after a one-day walkout forced all but two of the city’s 27 schools to close.”  The same article went on to describe developments in a state-wide Florida teachers strike and the closing of dozens of Washington, D.C., schools “because nearly half the system’s 7,000 teachers had requested leave for the day.”

            The picket sign in front of the photo of Jay O’Neal in this week’s Time magazine – “Teacher Working Conditions Are Student Learning Conditions” – nicely echoes the message of the ubiquitous AFT signs on 1960s picket lines: “Teachers Want What Children Need.”

            As I conclude in that 2011 essay, there were “connections between public employee unions and the other social movements of the 1960s” that teachers should address with students in our classrooms (and that textbook authors should, at long last, recognize).  Dolores Huerta’s tribute to Jay O’Neal and Emily Comer as leaders and representatives of the recent wave of teacher strikes is a timely reminder of such connections.  I hope that her brief statement will stimulate social studies teachers to discuss with students not only these important and inspiring examples of civic engagement by so many teachers today, but also to refashion our units on 1960s activism to include the participation of teacher unions and other public employee unions in our coverage of that pivotal decade in our history.