Point of View

On tenure, labor rights are civil rights for women, minorities

August 14, 2013 

As the dust settles on North Carolina’s 2013 legislative session, it remains striking what has not received much critical attention: the civil rights implications of ending teacher tenure.

While North Carolina’s public school teachers are not unionized in the same way that their counterparts are in other parts of the country, tenure offered some modicum of protection from political pressure and personality conflicts by providing due process before termination. Now that Gov. Pat McCrory has signed this reform into law as part of the budget, teachers will be hired on short-term contracts and ultimately are far more vulnerable to the whims of principals, parents and politics.

Perhaps it is not so surprising that tenure ranked relatively low among critics, given the onslaught the schools – and most other public institutions – faced this session. The rapid expansion of less-accountable and unproven charter schools, the funding for school vouchers (added as a budget amendment and never debated on the legislative floor) and deep cuts to education topped critics’ concerns. Such cuts will lead to a sizable reduction in early childhood programs, a hefty increase to class sizes and an average teacher pay rank of 48th in the nation by next year. Poor children of color, of course, will bear the brunt of these changes.

In the meantime, the passage of a massive voter suppression bill has received the most criticism by civil rights activists because of the undue burdens it places on the poor and elderly to cast their ballot.

But the loss of teacher tenure represents something just as sinister: a more general and well-orchestrated attack on public sector workers, especially given the professional gains made by African-Americans and women, who make up a disproportionate percentage of public employees.

It was the 1970s when, even with deindustrialization and the decline of industrial unions, public-sector employment and unionization swelled. Fueled by increased antipoverty programming and the opening of the American workplace by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, women and racial minorities found greater opportunities to enter the middle class through stable government employment. As a result, 21 percent of African-American workers held public positions in 2010, compared with 16 percent of whites, according to the UC-Berkeley Labor Center. Numbers for black women are comparable, with 23.6 percent working for the government compared with 19 percent of white women.

That wellspring of good employment is now threatened. In North Carolina, approximately 16 percent of public school teachers are black and 80 percent are women. The end of teacher tenure – along with overall budget cuts – makes these already underpaid workers that much more vulnerable economically. Ultimately, this has been what salon.com has called the “dirty secret” of public-sector union-busting in recent years.

Whether it is the elimination of most public worker collective bargaining in Wisconsin, the use of bankruptcy to abrogate union contracts and abandon pension obligations in Detroit or the end of teacher tenure and thus employee due process here, the persistent undermining of public-sector unions and employment has tremendous long-term consequences racially. Limiting government in this particular way also limits the economic and political power of the nation’s minorities, even as their simple purchasing power has become that much more important to a rebounding yet fragile economy.

As the public tries to make sense of this legislative session and the consequences of its policies, North Carolinians should reconsider the value of teacher tenure and productive, stable government employment more generally. This is particularly important for African-Americans and women, who have suffered the most during the economic crisis since 2008. As has been stated in other places, labor rights are indeed civil rights. That is certainly the case in North Carolina.

Gordon Mantler is a civil rights historian and lecturing fellow in the Thompson Writing Program at Duke University.

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