Teacher Unionism, Civil Rights, and the Desegregation of the Boston Public Schools, 1963-1981
Harrison, Jennifer Pish
Court-ordered school desegregation in Boston in the 1970s is but one component of a larger movement to desegregate the schools that officially began in 1963. This dissertation places court-ordered desegregation in the context of the larger movement and links that story to one that has been mostly overlooked by those who have written about racial strife in Boston: the story of the teachers, the rise of their union, and the relationship between the civil rights and union rights struggles in the city. When the NAACP formally challenged the Boston School Committee over the issue of de facto segregation in 1963, teachers were mounting a campaign for collective bargaining rights. Over the ensuing years, teacher unionism developed alongside the movement to desegregate the public schools, and both movements ran along parallel tracks through much of the 1960s. During these years, both the civil rights movement and proponents of teacher unionism found a common adversary in the Boston School Committee. In the1970s, the trajectory of the two movements intersected in the complicated arena of court-ordered school desegregation. The Boston Teachers Union took a neutral stance on student busing, but its defense of the traditional tenets of trade unionism, and seniority in particular, caused internal divisions, especially between older, white teachers and newer black hires. The layoffs of 710 white teachers in 1981, a consequence of shrinking enrollments due to "white flight," aggressively challenged the teachers' collective bargaining agreement and prompted the union to fight to protect the seniority rights of its members, even if it meant a disproportionate loss of jobs for black teachers recently hired under court order. The fight over the senior teachers' jobs in 1981, and the BTU's failed campaign to have these teachers rehired, marked an important and defining clash between the union, court-ordered desegregation mandates, and race. Ultimately, the failure of the civil rights and union rights struggles to fully align their interests and strike an enduring alliance in the battle over the future of Boston schools in the 1960s and 1970s contributed to a legacy of missed opportunities for true reform.
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