Civil Rights Unionism and Democracy for TeachersRoundup
tags: unions, teachers, education, African American history, labor history
Jesse Chanin is a doctoral student in the interdisciplinary City, Culture and Community program at Tulane University. Her research investigates the intersections between organized labor and education, attending particularly to power and racism in the South.
The United Teachers of New Orleans (UTNO) defy assumptions about anti-union right-to-work Louisiana. As a small, mostly segregated Black local, in 1966, they held the first teachers strike in the South. In 1974, they won one of the first collective bargaining agreements for teachers in the region. And, by the mid-1980s, with paraprofessionals (school aides) and clerical workers joining their ranks, they became the largest local in Louisiana. Why was UTNO successful when so many other southern teachers unions remained mired in racial strife, unsupported by local communities, and unable to win collective bargaining?
Certainly, part of the answer is the brilliance of union president Nat LaCour, who passed away on October 10th in New Orleans. LaCour won the union presidency in 1971 and went on to lead the local for 27 years, until he was promoted to a position with the national American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in 1998. Though LaCour was a beloved figure, the union’s success came not from his charisma but from his firm grounding in civil rights unionism and his deep commitment to building union democracy.
LaCOUR’S EARLY DAYS
LaCour was born in New Orleans in 1938. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s from Southern University, an HBCU in Baton Rouge, and was attending the school in spring 1960 when Southern students held desegregation sit-ins at department stores and lunch counters in Baton Rouge. Governor Earl K. Long was unsympathetic to the protesters: “I don’t think the colored people of this state have anything fundamentally to complain about,” he told a reporter. “I would suggest those who are not satisfied—like the seven at the lunch counter—return to their native Africa,” and the Southern administration decided to suspend or expel 18 students who were involved in the sit-ins.
LaCour participated in campus protests that emerged in response to the administration’s actions, which became known colloquially as “The Cause.” After earning his degree, he returned to teach in Orleans Parish in fall 1960. However, he could not secure a permanent position because, in an attempt to obstruct federal desegregation orders, the Louisiana state legislature had stripped the Orleans Parish School Board of its authority. He worked as a substitute until he was hired full-time the following semester. As soon as he was hired, LaCour joined the union, then known as AFT Local 527.
The local had a long civil rights history of its own, most famously winning a battle for racial salary equalization in 1943. Throughout the 1960s, Local 527 combined their economic justice demands—primarily for the school board to hold an election for collective bargaining—with explicit calls for racial justice. They demanded desegregation throughout the district, including the hiring of more Black maintenance, custodial and supervisory staff, and aligned themselves with Black students and parents who experienced discrimination when they desegregated formerly white schools. In these tactics, the local positioned itself in the tradition of other civil rights unions, such as the famous Memphis sanitation workers or, closer to home, the International Longshoremen’s Association, who used workplace activism to push for racial equity.
THE COLLECTIVE BARGAINING CAMPAIGN AND THE FORMATION OF UTNO
When union membership elected LaCour president in 1971, he had participated in two unsuccessful strikes for collective bargaining and understood that the union needed to build its membership in order to win tangible gains. The following year, threatened with the loss of federal funds, the district administered a top-down program of faculty desegregation intended to create a Black/white balance in every school. Amidst this backdrop, LaCour helped orchestrate a merger between the mostly-white NEA (National Education Association) local and Local 527, which formed UTNO. LaCour continued as president of the new organization, with a white woman from the NEA local, Cheryl Epling, serving as vice president:
“I think UTNO was really the first institution in New Orleans to merge where whites joined a majority Black organization,” explained LaCour. “That had not happened. Integration in the South had been a movement where Blacks integrated into white situations. Blacks went to white churches, Blacks moved into white neighborhoods, Blacks went into white restaurants, but it was never whites moving into a majority Black setting. I think UTNO was the first institution I know where that happened, and that was because people understood that race was not the big factor in our progress, that we needed to be together. So, we didn’t have to love each other, socialize with each other, but we could come together and campaign for our mutual interests. And that’s what happened.”