A Union’s Wake and Resistance

Louisiana Unions

            Pearl River      I hardly remembered talking to Jesse Chanin years ago, back in the pre-Covid times, about the role of the teachers’ union, UTNO, the United Teachers of New Orleans, in the labor movement and the community.  Hearing from her that all of her work had finally come to fruition in a book, Building Power, Breaking Power:  The United Teachers of New Orleans, 1965-2008, was worth special attention.  I looked forward to talking to her on the radio and was glad to mark the calendar for the book launch in New Orleans.  We spread the word and mi companera and I were in the crowd, which filled up quickly to standing room only.

            The book largely documents the rise and fall of UTNO as one of the first and largest teachers’ union in the South.  They initiated the first teachers’ strike in the South in 1966, won recognition in 1974, when Louisiana still remained a bastion of union support and at the time the only non-right-to-work state in the region.  Other strikes, including the one in 1990 that won benefits and recognition for clericals and paraprofessionals, established a membership of 5000 under the solid and innovative leadership of Nat LaCour.  Nat, UTNO, and other leaders were staunch allies of our local union and ACORN throughout these years.  My three terms as Secretary-Treasurer of the Greater New Orleans AFL-CIO in the 1990s depended on their support.

            A panel with the author was slated to explore Chanin’s work and the book, but it quickly became clear that what most of the panelists wanted to do, and the teachers and UTNO veterans in the crowd wanted, was to reminisce about UTNO and the good times and work that the union did.  Chanin’s book ends in 2008 after it looks at some impacts of the devastating firing of 7000 school workers by the school board after Katrina in 2005, the charter school coup facilitated by the state of the school system, and the systematic destruction of everything the union had built.  Slowly, but surely, this event became a celebratory wake for a funeral none of us had ever been able to attend.  A colleague reminded me that this same thing had happened in Philadelphia at a similar event I had done for Nuts and Bolts, which turned into an “I remember ACORN” nostalgia tour as well, just as much of the panel and many in the crowd mourned for their memories of UTNO.

            At times a former and current president tried to bring the conversation back to the present tense, the need for solidarity, and UTNO’s rebirth and continued rebuilding.  All the books had been sold before the panel began.  The veteran teachers and board members of UTNO who were there filled the time with their memories and stories.  The book had taken a back seat.  There were no wreaths or flowers, but there was also no question this was a celebration of a union’s accomplishments back in the day and what many would call a “healing” experience.  The vacuum for workers and the community remains.  Luckily, for teachers today, the final obit has not yet been written.