David Selden’s The Teacher Rebellion is a memoir of his experiences first as a union organizer, and later as the embattled president of the AFT. The chapters in this book will span the late 1940s to the early 1980s. Along the way he recounts the struggles of the factions that became the UFT before collective bargaining, through a heyday of dramatic teacher strikes and then into a subsequent period of financial austerity and union givebacks.
In the preface we become familiar with Selden’s passion for labor organizing in the schools. By the style of the book Selden seems to be striving to recover a lost era and make it vivid and immediate again. The Memory Tape segments of the chapters are reminiscent of the Camera Eye feature in the fictional USA trilogy by John Dos Passos which brought the first three decades of the 20th century to life a decade later.
In a brief account of his role as a leader of a small AFT local in Dearborn, Michigan, Selden contrasts the enormous growth of the United Auto Workers in just a few years with the modest size of the AFT after more than two decades. He attributes the slow unionization of teachers to a tendency on the part of members to view their colleagues as too conservative to be expected to join a union. He says these members expected the locals to remain “small agitation groups” (p. 5).
This was not Selden’s view. He opposed the preference of the local’s founders to restrict membership to those with a similar outlook on social and economic issues. He instead advocated recruiting all teachers, insisting that “half-hearted members” (he mentions gym coaches as an example) if they were left out, might end up working against the union cause (p. 6).
Selden had settled down in Peekskill, N.Y. as a Junior High School teacher but readily welcomed an opportunity to become a full-time AFT organizer for the Eastern U.S. His first foray into cross-country organizing took place in Kentucky where teachers were in the throes of dissatisfaction over their low pay and working conditions. He was able to organize thirteen new chapters in just one school year. However, when he revisited the newly formed locals in the new school year, after the state had enacted a pay raise and teachers were facing intense anti-union pressures from school administrations he found that many of the chapters were no longer functioning.
Among his observations on this period he notes that “young unions are highly perishable” and required constant attention and support not only due to changing economic conditions but also because they could defeat themselves with infighting (p. 9).
Selden resolves to form a plan to make the organizing more sustainable and achieves this by convincing the AFT state affiliates to fund organizers through raising union dues. He puts together a three state territory for himself for what he calls “circuit riding.” This involves a long week of driving district to district, meeting with small groups of teachers who could form a nucleus that other staff would rally around “when the time was ripe.” In response to his efforts he saw AFT membership in the region he covered increase and chartered dozens of new locals.
Selden remarks that he still hadn’t seen the kind of growth that he had experienced in Dearborn. Then in 1953 there is a political shift in the AFT leadership and he comes under the supervision of a new president who he anticipates will not regard he work so favorably. He obtains an offer to become an organizer in New York City.