[To understand the insurgency, we need to look at economics, and
at political economy specifically. But we especially need a
labor-movement analysis.] [https://portside.org/] 

 PORTSIDE LABOR 

 WHAT’S BEHIND THE TEACHERS’ STRIKES  
[https://portside.org/2018-05-21/whats-behind-teachers-strikes] 

 

 Ellen David Friedman 
 May 16, 2018
Dollars and Sense
[http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2018/0518edfriedman.html] 

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 _ To understand the insurgency, we need to look at economics, and at
political economy specifically. But we especially need a
labor-movement analysis. _ 

 Arizona teachers and education advocates march at the Arizona Capitol
protesting low teacher pay and school funding in Phoenix., Ross D.
Franklin/AP 

 

As we watch—rapt—the unexpected teacher insurgencies in West
Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, and Colorado, we’re also
grasping for understanding: Why is this stunning revolt occurring
where unions are weak, where labor rights are thin, and where popular
politics are considered to be on the right? To understand the
insurgency, we need to look at economics, and at political economy
specifically. But we especially need a labor-movement analysis. 

A labor-movement analysis starts by understanding the political and
economic conditions that shape the objective conditions of a
particular group of workers (or labor market) at a given
moment—prevailing wages, benefits, work processes, structures of
employment, stability of work, market forces in the sector, etc. Then
we look at how workers respond to those material factors and
conditions: how they understand their interests, how they see their
own power (or lack of it), how they understand the interests of the
employers and what influences them, and how they develop tactics,
strategies, and institutions to bring their power to bear against the
power of employers. Finally, the self-directed activity of workers
(including their ideas, ideologies, methods of organization,
decision-making, and what actions they take) can be embedded in the
larger context of other sectors of workers, other social movements,
and historical labor movements. Such an analysis can help us interpret
the teacher strike wave and, perhaps, gain insights that can help us
rebuild capable, fighting unions.

Economics and Politics

The economic motivations of these insurgencies are clear: protracted
and relentless constriction of wages and benefits have driven teachers
to a condition of precarity normally reserved for workers who lack
college degrees. Financial insecurity is matched by erosion of job
security, as statutory probation periods are lengthened (three years
of probation is now standard) and tenure is watered down. Facing
severe job vacancies, many states lower—or eliminate—hiring
standards and issue “emergency” waivers freely. In Arizona right
now, there are more than 5,000 classrooms without a certified teacher.
No wonder, then, that teachers feel they are being undervalued; they
are. 

The political economics of these insurgencies are also becoming more
obvious. As tens of thousands of teachers—many of them newly
politicized—rush to understand their states’ tax structures, they
discover a fiscal system engineered to starve public services and feed
corporate portfolios. This transforms their sense of being undervalued
into a comprehension that they have been betrayed by big business and
the state itself.

Through years of frozen wages, cuts to student services, deteriorating
buildings, and the hysterical drumbeat that public schools are failing
and must be replaced with private charters, teachers have hunkered
down and “made do.” That is, they have accommodated themselves to
a widely promoted “common sense” that argued that tax cuts serve
the general good by creating jobs, and increasing individual’s
buying power. Starting with the infamous Prop 13 in California in
1978, which severely capped property taxes, and coincides with the
rise of neoliberal ideology, the redistribution of wealth away from
publicly held resources (notably, public schools) and into private
hands has been relentless. But modern U.S. history reminds us that
when inequalities become chronically damaging—as in the 1930s or the
1970s—the dominant narrative can crack and resistance can be
kindled. This is when the paralysis of feeling disrespected and duped
can transform into conviction and action.

A Labor-Movement Analysis

Challenging economic and political circumstances have certainly begun
to foster a growing sense of commonality among teachers. But awareness
alone does not automatically translate into action, much less the
collective action we can legitimately call a labor movement. It’s
therefore helpful to build up a more nuanced analysis of teachers in
their intertwined roles as workers, as unionists, and as members of
civil society, to assess whether these insurgencies signal that
teachers could emerge as leaders in a broader class movement.

As workers, teachers are in a unique structural position, for several
reasons. Teaching is the only wholly “public profession” in the
United States: a regulated category of work originally created to
perform public service (this is still true, as teachers in private
schools aren’t required to hold teaching licenses). Teachers are
employed and paid by public bodies and are subject to public
governance. Moreover, it’s a highly decentralized form of public
employment, with both funding and governance historically centered in
towns and cities. And it is a uniquely horizontal profession where,
until fairly recently, schools were sites of little hierarchy and
teachers were quite self-directing. These are all structural
conditions reflecting, and reinforcing, radically democratic
principles.

As unionists, teachers have a long history of organization. The
National Education Association (NEA) was founded in 1857. Though it
was not originally a labor union in function, it is now the largest
union in the United States, with 3.2 million members. The American
Federation of Teachers (AFT), founded in 1916, now has 1.7 million
members. Teaching has the highest union density of any job category in
the United States; union representation is essentially universal.
Before collective bargaining was legally sanctioned at the state level
for teachers, which happened first in 1959 in Wisconsin, there were
traditions of consultation between teachers and their school boards.
Even in states where collective bargaining is affirmatively banned,
there are well-established standards—a unified salary schedule based
on years of experience and education level, a comprehensive benefit
package, pensions, specified length of work day and year, prep time,
professional development subsidies, some kind of grievance procedure,
and so on. More than any other sector of workers, teachers experience
a union environment—or at least an associational and consultative
environment—as the norm.

Teachers can be considered, in many ways, central to the project of
U.S. civil society. Public education has been the main channel for
incorporating “future citizens” into economic, social, and
political engagement; and exclusion from adequate public education has
been a device for exclusion from civil society more generally. And as
tectonic upheavals occur—Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, the
build-up of industrial mass production, post-WWII consumer society,
expansion of the liberal welfare state, and its deconstruction—the
shifts and conflicts all play out in schools. Teachers are on the
front line of interpreting every profound societal transformation,
with all the tensions and challenges experienced personally in
individual families. This places teachers in central positions in
their communities. Because of their intimate and vital connections to
parents, taxpayers, voters, providers of social services, higher
education, and the job market into which students emerge, teachers can
speak to, and amplify, the critical central needs of any community.
The combination of these three intertwined roles has radical
potential. The profession of teaching is shaped by public imperatives,
grounded in democratic practices, present everywhere, and universally
organized through job sites, and teachers hold the levers of social
meaning and aspiration for our entire society. All the musculature of
power is present—but, until now, largely unflexed.

Unflexed Musculature of Power

Explanations in traditional “industrial labor relations”
theory—and in the practice of most U.S. unionists over the last half
century—suggest that workers are strongest where there are
comprehensive and enforceable labor laws that institutionalize freedom
of association, protections against anti-union animus and retaliation,
mechanisms to establish recognition of “exclusive bargaining
representation” by a majority union, guarantees of collective
bargaining, and of course the legally sanctioned right to strike. Our
teacher unions have been considered strongest in those states where
these rights existed, and where the most advanced forms of
institutional practice could develop.

In many states where these conditions prevail, starting in the 1960s
and continuing to the present day, the AFT and NEA affiliates often
became known as the best damned service unions around. Teacher locals
typically grew by training up rank-and-file members to bargain
contracts, cost out proposals, and rep grievances—with all the
rule-enforcing, technique-mastering power that these activities
entail. Despite the very uneven quality of state teacher labor laws,
the routine practice of formal labor relations—whether through
“meet and confer,” legislative lobbying, or strict collective
bargaining—became nearly universal in the teaching sector.
Reflecting the radically decentralized, bottom-up character of U.S.
public education itself, every NEA or AFT local started at a school,
or a school district, representing a discrete group of employees hired
by a local school board. During the last half of the 20th century, the
two national federations evolved as umbrellas for thousands and
thousands of essentially autonomous local unions—all figuring out
how to bargain and service their own contracts—reflecting the fact
that no union could possibly afford to hire enough professional staff
to centrally service them.

Under these objective conditions, innumerable rank-and-file teachers
were elected, or drafted, or volunteered to learn the craft labor
relations, and became a dense army of capable technicians. By the
1980s, as the numbers of unionized teachers swelled and dues revenue
soared, the unions began to staff up and professionalize,
precipitating a culture of negotiating instead of fighting, servicing
instead of organizing, and relegating members to client status. As
long as the economic tides were rising—as they generally did in the
1980s, ’90s, and early 2000s—a complacent and increasingly
bureaucratic system for maintaining the status quo seemed to make
sense. This is consistent with the historically recognized tendency,
articulated by Seymour Martin Lipset in 1956, as the “iron rule of
oligarchy” through which bureaucracy supplants democracy. 

But bureaucracy itself isn’t the main problem. The arrival of
neoliberalism—the driving political philosophy of the last 40
years—has also reshaped our unions. While we typically associate
neoliberalism with market fundamentalism—deregulation of financial
structures, regressive tax reform, privatization, weakening of the
state role in labor and environmental protection—it is the rise of
neoliberal organizational principles that proved toxic to union
democracy. By the mid-90s, many unions, and non-profits of every
stripe, took a turn toward corporate management methods. In AFT and
NEA affiliates, leaders adopted key principles such as rule by
experts, inflated executive salaries, limits on internal democracy,
centralization of decision-making, and intolerance of dissent.

As the high-value operational aspects of the union—negotiating
contracts and processing grievances—migrated upward into the hands
of staff and top leaders, so too did power. Members were often treated
paternalistically, with information and decision-making kept opaque,
back-door deals struck between union leaders and politicians, and
privileges accruing at the top. Salaries of top officers soared while
average take-home pay of members stagnated, union halls were renovated
into executive office suites while school buildings crumbled, and
channels of union decision-making went from democratic to despotic,
often reflecting the autocratic leadership of the employing school
boards and administrators.

The demobilizing of millions of teachers within their own unions
should not be understood as a problem of “apathetic members,”
though union staff and elected officers often describe it just this
way. Rather, it is the logical result of unions adopting a corporate
culture over the last few decades that degrades and excludes
rank-and-file members. They were often grateful that someone was doing
the arcane business of the union, but this was an institutional
invitation to dependence and acquiescence. Many a naive newcomer goes
to a union meeting and dares ask a question that is taken by
leadership as a challenge; the newcomer is often patronized, ignored,
disparaged, or actively marginalized. Bargaining teams disappear for
months behind closed doors and then present a fully bargained
tentative agreement to be ratified—take it or leave it. Membership
meetings in many unions are dominated by one-way leadership reports or
gripe sessions, where leaders are expected to take member concerns up
the ladder of administration for them. It doesn’t take too many of
these cues before rank-and-file members stop coming around. 

Concurrent with these trends has been the biggest failed strategy of
all: substituting the power of rank-and-file members with dependence
on the Democratic Party. Union members are not taught to analyze and
fight collectively on issues that matter to them, but instead to
docilely make PAC contributions, join campaign phone-banks, and
support whichever candidate the union leaders endorsed. The results
are pretty clear: Democrats have helped restructure the economy—in
the interest of private wealth, at the expense of public good—as
enthusiastically as Republicans. This has produced not only the
well-documented upward redistribution of wealth, resulting in teacher
poverty and starvation of school budgets, but also the travesty of
“education reform”—where standardized curricula are tied to
high-stakes testing, which produces failed schools, especially in
communities of color, and allows for the entry of private charters,
where the culture of teacher micro-management flourishes and bullying
principals thrive. This set of policy imperatives has been brought to
us by governors and legislatures of every party composition.

Between the financial hardship and professional affronts, the loss of
voice and fear of retaliation by administrators, the degraded
conditions and program losses for students, and the sense of being
abandoned by the Democrats, many teachers have been teetering between
shock, anxiety, and despair for years.

By the time the serious fiscal, political, and social crises really
began bubbling in U.S. public education around the time of the 2008
financial crisis, the vast majority of teacher union members felt
powerless. They were at best distant from, and at worst angrily
resentful of, their unions. Most damningly, they saw the union as
being the top officers and staff, not themselves. Even in states with
relatively strong labor laws and well-resourced union structures, the
norm was a hollowed-out organization, with low levels of knowledge and
participation at the base, and little autonomous power. Rank-and-file
members who did try to turn to their leaders for inspiration or
guidance frequently found neither.

Re-energizing the Rank and File in Blue Cities and States

But out of this paralysis and isolation, a powerful counter-trend is
emerging (not unknown in the history of our labor movement):
Progressive rank-and-file teacher union caucuses—groups of union
members formed to push their unions into action—are coalescing in
cities and states, inspired by the stunning takeover of the Chicago
Teachers Union by the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) in
2010, and their riveting, successful 2012 strike. This movement, an
internal insurgency inside our biggest unions, possesses the authentic
features of a social movement: it is bottom-up, scrappy, unfunded,
rooted in a critical social analysis, and committed to radically
democratic values. Their common program elements show up as union
democracy, dignity of educators and students, and defense of public
education, and often rally under the edict that “we should be the
union we want our union to be.”

These caucuses are now in elected leadership in Los Angeles, Boston,
Chicago, and statewide in Hawai’i and Massachusetts. They are
contending for—or sharing—leadership in Philadelphia, Baltimore,
New York City, Minneapolis, Madison, Albuquerque, Seattle, and
Oakland, and organizing at the state level in North Carolina, New
Jersey, and elsewhere. Through round upon round of trial and error,
the caucuses are building a durable analytic framework and plan of
action to guide them:

	* Simply running to replace “bad union leaders” is rarely a
solution to anything, if you haven’t built a base among members who
are joined by common values, deeply committed to making the union
better and willing to work tirelessly.
 	* Learn how to survive the harsh charges from old guard leaders that
they are divisive and even “anti-union” for daring to provoke
debate.
 	* Fight to open up bargaining, to insist on transparency and
accountability inside the union, to risk raising critical social
issues—around racism, immigration, bullying, gentrification—and
work through the resistance of fellow unionists.
 	* Reach out humbly and helpfully to parents, community groups, other
unions, faith communities, and social issue organizations as a partner
in the fight to rebalance power away from elites and toward the
majority.
 	* Become confident in practices of inclusivity, debate,
collaboration, and horizontal leadership.
 	* Learn how to fight the boss, the financial interests behind
“education reform,” and the state, directly and fearlessly.

Along the way these caucuses convened a national network—United
Caucuses of Rank-and-File Educators (UCORE)—almost organically
through Labor Notes, the project that has held down the
“rank-and-file pole” of U.S. unionism through publications and
conferences for 40 years. 

Rank-and-File Insurgencies in Red States

Insurgents in WV, AZ, KY, OK, and CO thinking about how to consolidate
rank-and-file power inside their unions have found their way onto the
UCORE and Labor Notes platform, too, bringing together teacher
activists from the red states and blue cities, union-weak and
union-strong environments, to discover that they are all after the
same thing: using collective power from the bottom-up to win social
progress for the majority.

It is through this prism of labor-movement analysis that we can now
start to understand the apparently paradoxical eruptions of teachers
in states with the weakest institutional environment—regions with
low union membership, weak infrastructure, no bargaining rights, and
fiercely anti-union legislatures. When there is no effective access to
meaningful channels for change, workers resort naturally to the only
power no one can steal from them—the power to withhold their labor.
This spontaneous chain of wildcat strikes may be the only recourse
left for the teachers when the unions and the politicians fail them,
but they are also facilitated by the very weakness of the union
bureaucratic environment around them. By sharp contrast, the
progressive teacher union caucuses have emerged in generally
“strong” union environments in more progressive cities or regions,
where they have had to spend more time fighting their own union
bureaucracy and much less sparking the spontaneous and unified action
showing up in the “weak” union environments.

But teacher unionists in both environments are moving. They are in a
movement moment. If we keep in mind the immediate affinity felt by the
insurgent teachers and the caucus teachers, their sense of shared
purpose, their common hope for a democratic, activist, bottom-up union
culture, their willingness to risk, and their refusal to be
complacent, we can start to see the potential for teacher convergence.
Coming from very disparate starting points, present in every corner of
the country, connected by their fierce will to protect kids and public
schools, increasingly cornered by the system of manufactured austerity
and therefore ever-more identified with the majority of workers,
teachers could give us a generative moment, a moment to be amplifed. 

_ELLEN DAVID FRIEDMAN is a long-time organizer with the National
Education Association in Vermont, a founding member of Vermont’s
Progressive Party, and a member of the Labor Notes Policy Committee.
She facilitates the United Caucuses of Rank-and-File Educators
(UCORE), the national network of progressive teacher union caucuses._

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