Apr 24, 2024 - Education

New Orleans used to have a strong teachers union. Then Katrina happened.

Photo illustration collage showing a teacher with chalkboard elements and archival photos from Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans.

Photo illustration: Maura Losch/Axios Visuals. Photos: Mark Wilson/Getty Images, James Nielsen/AFP via Getty Images

Hurricane Katrina spurred the largest firing of Black teachers in America since Brown v. Board of Education, writes Jesse Chanin in a new book chronicling the rise and fall of the New Orleans teachers union.

Why it matters: That storm forever changed public K-12 education in New Orleans, catalyzing the transition to an all-charter school system that hamstrings unionization efforts today. But that just might be changing again.

The big picture: The South has long had a conservative, anti-union standard, but southern labor efforts are gaining traction, like at Amazon in Alabama and Volkswagen in Tennessee.

  • "The lack of successful collective bargaining agreements in the South has a lot to do with oppression and historical and current exploitation of Black people and other workers of color than it does with peoples' desires and efforts to be organized," Chanin says.

Flashback: The United Teachers of New Orleans was once the state's largest local union, Chanin says.

  • Its creation and growth was a rare victory driven primarily by Black, middle-class women, and informed by the Civil Rights Movement.

After Hurricane Katrina swept through, the city fought for a hard reset.

  • Without schools in session, all 7,500 teachers were fired, a decision Chanin says made sense at the time but ultimately destabilized the union.
  • That became even more apparent when, eventually, the school system transitioned to all charter schools.

Zoom in: Many teachers within the new system were young out-of-towners working here temporarily for programs like Teach For America, so the union "had a lot of trouble gaining ground," Chanin says.

  • Plus, the new environment means that teachers have to unionize within each charter individually, as opposed to collectively bargaining throughout the city.
  • The result is that, today, only about a half-dozen schools have teachers unions, Chanin says.

What's next: New Orleans Public Schools hasn't directly and permanently operated a school in nearly two decades.

  • That changes next school year with the creation of the Leah Chase School.
  • It could mark the start of the pendulum swinging in the opposite direction away from charters — and toward a system more conducive to a larger union effort.

If you go: Chanin celebrates the release of "Building Power, Breaking Power" tonight at The Small Center.

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