"Against the Public": Teacher Strikes and the Decline of Liberalism, 1968-1981

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In the 1930s, the Democratic Party became the party of working people largely through its support of legislation encouraging the formation of labor unions. As the nation moved leftward, a liberal consensus emerged that placed support--in the name of both economic growth and greater social equality--for labor unions at it center. Support for this labor-liberalism declined considerably during the 1970s, paving the way for the neoliberal conservatism that has emerged in the last quarter century of American politics. This dissertation explains this shift by looking at the intersection between culture and the public sector labor movement in the postwar era. As unionized teachers became increasingly visible in American political culture in the 1960s, lengthy strikes by teachers in major metropolitan areas in the 1970s caused many Americans to question their assumptions about the role of the state and the importance of labor unions. Because of teachers' long-time cultural importance as providers of economic opportunity as well as inculcators of moral values, their labor stoppages (which were often violations of the law) caused many white working- and middle-class Americans to blame the excesses of the liberal state for moral decline and to re-think their views about what had made America so prosperous in the years following World War II. Further, the state's failure to solve the thorny problem of teachers shutting down the school system also caused many of these future "Reagan Democrats" to question the efficacy of the liberal state. With labor-liberalism discredited, free-market conservatives began, by the end of the decade, to argue persuasively for a shift to a more austere state, less government regulation of business, and for the privatization of social goods like education. This dissertation charts these larger developments by putting close examinations of teacher strikes in Newark, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, and St. Louis in dialogue with the national trajectory of neoliberal conservatism.