Teacher Activism Across the Americas: Union Politics and Educational Change in Brazil, Mexico, and the United States
Rebecca Tarlau

About the research


NAEd/Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship

Award Year



Pennsylvania State University

Primary Discipline

Comparative Education
Under what conditions do unions start acting beyond their economic interest and become broader actors for social change? In this study, I answer this question by analyzing instances of “oppositional unionism” within teachers’ unions in Brazil, Mexico, and the United States. Oppositional unionism occurs when union members come together to contest the leadership of their union and transform the union’s daily practices, priorities, and demands. By examining the diversity of internal groups and theories of social change within unions, I contest the assumption that teachers’ unions are unitary actors simply “blocking” education reform efforts. Instead, drawing on the labor studies and social movement literature, I argue that unions are complex organizations that reflect their political-institutional contexts, which shape their forms of political engagement. This research is comparative and ethnographic, focusing on the internal politics of teachers’ unions in three countries. Through participant observation, interviews, and archival research, I examine the relationship between teachers’ unions, the state, and political parties; internal union divisions; the moments when teachers organize for broader demands; and how union disputes influence education. This project will shift our understanding of teachers’ unions as simply “self-interested” or “selfless,” to a more nuanced assessment of the role teachers play in politics, the diversity of political groups within unions, and the ways that teachers’ unions in diverse contexts go beyond self-interest and become social movement actors.
About Rebecca Tarlau
Rebecca Tarlau is an Assistant Professor of Education and Labor and Employment Relations at the Pennsylvania State University, affiliated with the Lifelong Learning and Adult Education program, the Comparative and International Education program, and the Center for Global Workers’ Rights. Her ethnographic research agenda has three broad areas of focus: (1) Theories of the state and state-society relations; (2) Social movements, critical pedagogy, and learning; (3) Latin American education and development. Her forthcoming book, Occupying Schools, Occupying Land: How the Landless Workers Movement Transformed Brazilian Education (Oxford University Press) examines the educational initiatives of the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement (MST), a national social movement of rural workers struggling for agrarian reform. This research explores the movement’s attempt to transform education across the country, focusing on the micro-politics of grassroots educational reform: the strategies activists use to convince state actors to adopt their initiatives and the political and economic conditions that affect state-society interactions concerning schools. Her scholarship engages in debates in the fields of political sociology, international and comparative education, adult education, critical pedagogy, global and transnational sociology, and social theory.

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