There’s an old joke — dating back at least to the 1980s, when Polish labor leader Lech Walesa helped to defeat the Soviet Union — that the definition of an American neoconservative is someone who loves labor unions, just so long as the unions are in enemy countries.
I’ve heard it told for years in at least two distinct tones. There’s a version with an edge, as an exasperated accusation made by American labor leaders who wish they’d get more support at home from Republicans. And there’s a self-deprecating version, as told by people on the center-right to deflect criticism that they are union-busters or otherwise opposed to the working man or woman.
Perhaps it’s time for third version of the joke, one focused on education reform. A neoconservative is someone who likes teacher strikes, so long as they are in Iran.
After all, what better place? That was my thought upon reading the news, on the website of a small Washington-based organization called the Islamic State of Iran Crime Research Center, that teachers in Iran “have been sitting down in protest across various Iranian provinces, both inside classrooms, and outside their schools.”
Radio Farda, the Iran channel of the American government’s Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, has more details: “A third round of nationwide teachers’ strikes in Iran entered its third day March 5, with teachers across the country holding sit-ins in their school principals’ offices to demand better pay, the right to form unions, and the freeing of all jailed teachers’ rights activists. The three-day strike was organized by the Coordinating Council of Teachers Syndicates in Iran (CCTSI), which reported that teachers at more than 1,000 primary and secondary schools in 100 cities participated.”
The Radio Farda report goes on: “Iranian teachers are also demanding the removal of all legal hurdles for the establishment of independent trade unions and the immediate release of their jailed colleagues. Several teachers, including Esmaeil Abdi, Mahmoud Beheshti Langarudi, Mohammad Habibi, Rouhollah Mardani, and Abdul Reza Qanbari are behind bars. They are accused of various ‘security crimes,’ but labor rights activists say they were jailed for their participation in teachers’ union activities.”
According to Radio Farda, Habibi “has been sentenced to lashes.”
Hashem Khastar, the head of the teachers union in Mashad, Iran’s second-largest city, “was recently abducted by plainclothesmen. Days later his family discovered that he was shackled to a bed at a psychiatric hospital,” Radio Farda reports.
In the past, American teachers unions have spoken out in support of their Iranian colleagues. The National Education Association issued a statement in 2010 condemning Iran’s execution of an Iranian teacher named Farzad Kamangar, whose trial lasted five minutes. The president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, issued a January 2, 2018, statement “supporting the protesters in Iran” saying, “the AFT supports all people fighting for basic dignity and rights.”
The March 2019 Iran teacher strikes don’t appear to have prompted formal public statements by the American union leaders, who have lately been preoccupied with contract negotiations in Oakland, Calif., and by teacher walkouts in Los Angeles and Denver.
Teachers unions here in America have plenty of harsh critics. But I’ve never heard one of those critics suggest that union leaders should be punished with lashes, execution, or being shackled to the bed of a psychiatric hospital.
I can hear the history teachers now getting ready to point out that plenty of union organizers and activists here in the U.S. have been brutally beat up, too. But one needn’t airbrush American labor history or minimize the real challenges faced by American union organizers to understand the difference between contemporary America and Iran on these issues. In fact, the distinction between free and unfree societies is something you’d hope American students might learn in school.
The U.S. labor leaders of the 1980s, after all, were able to criticize Reagan’s handling of the air traffic controllers while also working with him to support Walesa’s Solidarity movement against the Communists in Poland, where so-called union leaders were appointed by the government rather than freely elected by members.
Richard Kahlenberg tells some of this story in his biography of longtime American Federation of Teachers president Albert Shanker. As Kahlenberg tells it, on Poland, “if anything, Shanker was more hard-line than Ronald Reagan.” The book recounts how Solidarity’s managing director of press and information, Zygmunt Przetakiewicz, established a U.S. office at the headquarters of the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, an AFT affiliate. Radio Moscow accused Shanker of being a CIA stooge. Shanker, in a newspaper column quoted by Kahlenberg, faulted Reagan for responding initially to martial law in Poland with “silence, then mushiness and evasion.”
The threats posed by Iran’s nuclear ambitions, regional adventurism, Islamist terrorism, and human rights abuses are different from those that were posed by Soviet Communism. And today’s American teacher union leaders are different from those of the 1980s. Maybe, though, there are similarities, too. It could be an opportunity not only to revise and retell an old joke, but also to recover some elements of the unlikely political alliance that helped contribute to Cold War victory and to an expansion of human freedom.
Ira Stoll is managing editor of Education Next.