The rise and fall of the United Teachers of New Orleans
This dissertation tells the story of the United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO) from 1965, when they first launched their collective bargaining campaign, until 2008, three years after the storm. I argue that UTNO was initially successful by drawing on the legacy and tactics of the civil rights movement and explicitly combining struggles for racial and economic justice. Throughout their history, UTNO remained committed to civil rights tactics, such as strong internal democracy, prioritizing disruptive action, developing Black and working class leadership, and aligning themselves with community-driven calls for equity. These were the keys to their success. By the early 1990s, as city demographics shifted, the public schools were serving a majority working class Black population. Though UTNO remained committed to some of their earlier civil rights-era strategies, the union became less radical and more bureaucratic. They also faced external threats from the business community with growing efforts to privatize schools, implement standardized testing regimes, and loosen union regulations. I argue that despite the real challenges UTNO faced, they continued to anchor a Black middle class political agenda, demand more for the public schools, and push the statewide labor movement to the left. Finally, the post-Katrina destruction of UTNO demonstrates the limits of union power and the real, human costs of school privatizations. In the wake of the storm, the district fired over 7,500 educators, the largest dismissal of Black educators since Brown v. Board. I argue that these dismissals were intended not only to set the stage for the remaking of the New Orleans school district but also to discipline organized labor in the city and the state. With their members dispersed throughout the country and their homes destroyed, it was impossible for UTNO to mobilize any significant resistance. Though the vacuum created by Katrina helped speed up reforms, the same processes of school closures and privatizations are occurring in urban areas throughout the country. Examining the results of UTNO’s destruction on educators, unions, and city politics helps elucidate the cost of neoliberal reforms and specifically their devastating impact on communities of color.