In the wake of the testing boycott: a 10-point proposal for teacher self-organization

28 Feb

The teacher, student, and family boycott of the MAP test  in Seattle is an inspiring event that has the potential to generate a new wave of organizing in and around public schools.  The boycott signals the possibility of a movement for creativity, not control and learning for life, not labor.

However, for these possibilities to come to fruition, teachers need to organize ourselves so that we can continue to take bold direct action.  We need to unite with students, their families, and the rest of the working class to create more actions like this one.  If we simply return to the same old activist patterns of proposing resolutions at union meetings or lobbying politicians then we will miss the historic possibilities this moment opens.  In that spirit, here are a few proposals for how we can move forward.

1) Let’s teach well, break the rules that make that impossible, and get each other’s backs when we face retaliation.

Educational policy is set by bureaucrats and billionaires, not people who have actual experience in the classroom.  To change policy from above, you need millions of dollars in funding to hire lobbyists.  There is no way that teachers, students, and working class public school families will be able to beat the corporate interests at this game they have set up.

Instead, we should assert our own power at the school and community level.  If a state or district policy is oppressing and failing students then we should simply refuse to follow it – the Seattle teachers who are boycotting the MAP test show us that this is entirely possible to pull off, and that this kind of action will earn broad support from working class people.

Likewise, instead of allowing the corporate education deformers to monopolize the political agenda in the name of reforming schools, we should transform our schools ourselves through collective direct action. We should form our own grassroots think tanks to research best practices in education, and then should implement these in our classrooms, without waiting for the district, state, or federal government to approve or promote them.

To put it another way, we should occupy and decolonize our own classrooms, and do “teach-ins” as part of our daily practice – throwing out the oppressive, damaging, boring, racist, and authoritarian curriculum they want us to teach, and creating a liberating curriculum together with each other, our students, and their /our communities.

2) Let’s fight to develop an anti-oppressive, student-centered curriculum

When I say “best practices” and “teaching well”,  I don’t mean using instructional practices that improve test scores according to some corporate driven, pseudo-scientific research studies.  I mean the methods that the best classroom teachers already use in our communities and around the world.   I mean the practices that respect and build upon student and family needs, desires, and expectations, so that trust and community can be built in and around the classroom.

I am thinking of practices like culturally relevant, anti-racist, multicultural curricula,  student-centered cooperative learning, and classroom activities where students and teachers construct knowledge together instead of the teacher depositing knowledge in the students’ brains in an authoritarian/ top down fashion.  I’m thinking of an anti-patriarchal curriculum that helps create a school community where sexual assault, rape culture, and violence against LGBTQ folks is confronted not just by formal “anti-bullying” policies but by students and teachers taking responsibility for checking each other and creating a liberating, safe environment.

To do this we will have to break the rules.  We will have to refuse to use class time for boring standardized test prep and rote memorization.  We will have to reject Eurocentric/ white washed curricula, even if the school or district expects us to teach them.  We will have to challenge academic tracking, which tends to reproduce race and class hierarchies, as well as school social events and dress codes that reproduce rape culture and oppressive gender roles.  We will have to refuse to participate in discriminatory suspension policies, and other aspects of the school-to-prison pipeline.  In short, we will have to come together to critically assess every aspect of how we teach and how our schools are organized, building a grassroots basis to reorganize all of this through collective direct action.

3) Let’s overcome individualism and competition; let’s collaborate with each other

Obviously, one teacher cannot do all of this alone. This is not Freedom Writers or Dangerous Minds.  It is not about individual hot shot teachers trying to patronizingly “save” students by beating the odds through sheer willpower.  Good teaching and learning requires collaboration, camaraderie, and community.    As the Creativity Not Control “about us” statement puts it:

“When the system celebrates [some] teachers as exceptional individuals, it covers up the real lessons here: that the actual  heroes are the students, that they are capable of a lot more than what society has assigned them, and they are only capable of creating this when they cooperate instead of compete with each other.  Focusing on the myth of the exceptional teacher who rises above her colleagues undermines the cooperative spirit that makes this success possible in the first place.  The exceptional teacher is held up as a prop to get other teachers to feel lazy and guilty if they are not working 70 hour weeks and destroying their personal lives and mental health in order to excel in the classroom.   The reality is, for these kinds of successes to become the standard, instead of the exception, we need creativity not control, and we need collective learning that prepares us for life, not labor.”
4) Let’s combine struggles over teaching with labor struggles

If you talk with progressive or radical teachers today, you’ll find that each of us tends to find a different niche in the schools.  Some consider their teaching itself to be their activism, and they focus on doing the best they can within the constraints of the system to make sure that their working class students get a good education.  Others focus on multi-cultural education and critical literacy, seeing themselves as equipping their students with the tools necessary to challenge oppression in their lives.  Still others see teaching as a kind of W.E.B. Duboisian service to their ethnic/ racial/national community, building up young leaders to fight against white supremacy.   Finally, some get involved in union meetings or try to fight union busting, budget cuts, merit pay, etc.

Each of these practices, if taken on its own, is limited.  For example, without  a sense of collective labor struggle, multi-cultural educators will only be able to go so far in implementing an anti-racist curriculum; we will start to compromise with the white supremacist system in order to keep our jobs unless we know that our coworkers are prepared to strike over it.   Conversely, rank and file union activists might fight for a stronger, more active, more democratic teachers’ union, but if they are not also fighting for anti-racist schools, then they are still complicit in reproducing institutionalized white supremacy.

5) Let’s fight for the time to think, care, and collaborate

I know that many teachers will think I am setting an unreasonable standard here – most of us barely have enough time to finish our grading and lesson plans, let alone to do all of this organizing.  That’s why a major part of all of our struggles needs to be a fight over time – a fight against the excessive bureaucratic paperwork we are increasingly asked to complete, a fight for smaller class sizes, and a fight for paid time in the workday to collaborate with our coworkers and students to create liberating curricula and learning experiences.

However, the proposal I am making builds off of what good teachers already do: we  communicate with our students, their families, and our coworkers, and we plan our classroom activities with their needs and interests in mind.  This proposal would simply take it to the next level, building the kind of solidarity necessary to do this as consistently as we all want to.

6) Let’s fight against corporate union busting

Across the country, teachers’ unions are under attack by corporate educational reformers and the attacks don’t show any sign of letting up.  There are several reasons why we should mobilize to prevent corporate union busting.  First of all, it is very expensive to become a teacher, and many of us will be paying off student loans for a long time.  Union contracts keep our pay just high enough for teachers from working class backgrounds to be able to barely pay off the education necessary to enter the field in the first place.  If unions are busted then many of us will be working second jobs and sleeping even less than we are now just to pay our student loan bills.

Teaching as a field is already not nearly accessible enough to working class youth, especially folks from communities of color.  Teacher training programs act like gatekeepers, creating many hoops that students have to jump through.  If unions are busted and teacher pay goes down, many youth of color who are interested in becoming teachers might choose other careers in order to pay back their student loans.  This will help keep the profession white, middle class dominated.

In some cases, we can use teachers’ unions to help prevent arbitrary firing.  For example, we may be able to use the union contract as a shield to protect ourselves if they try to fire us for engaging in  the kind of organizing described in points 1-6.  However, as I argue below, it is not enough of a shield, and we need to build our own protection.  And the union is not an effective tool for going on the kind of offensive struggles we need to wage against  against the  white supremacy, patriarchy  and capitalist competitiveness our schools currently reproduce each generation.

Like unions in general, teachers unions are set up to make sure that we as workers get the full value of our wages under capitalism -wages that can make it possible for us to pay for the education, housing, clothing, etc. necessary for us to keep coming to work.  However, no worker under a capitalist system ever gets paid the full value of the work we put in because the wealthy pocket the difference as their profits.  Also, many exclusionary unions have  been complicit  in maintaining privileges for white workers or male workers at the expense of the rest of the working class.   Moreover, in a sexist/ patriarchal system, wages are also lower than they should be because the system is built on the assumption that someone – usually women – will be doing unpaid labor at home washing dishes and doing laundry and taking care of our kids so that we can make it into work: the system does not account for this labor when it measures the value of our wages.  Teachers who do this unpaid labor at home are essentially working two shifts a day – two shifts of difficult caring labor. US unions as a whole do not have a good track record when it comes to struggling against these deeper injustices.

7) Let’s organize independently from the union

Also, most  teachers’ unions across the country have not been effective at fighting the corporate education deformers’ agenda.  This is because the corporate interests are appealing to parents and students who are fed up with the problems in the public education system.  Instead of overcoming these problems through the kid of direct action organizing I’m proposing here, the unions have simply rallied around the slogan “defend public education”.    Think about it for a second – how many of you have passed out flyers saying “defend public education”, and gotten a response from working class folks – especially youth – who ask you “what is there to defend?”

Again, this is the brilliance of the Seattle testing strike: it wasn’t just another union contract  struggle in which union leaders pay lip service to parent and student interests.  It was an example of teachers actually taking collective direct action to make sure that students can learn instead of waste time.

If the Garfield High teachers in Seattle had waited to propose to the union to initiate this action, they would have been waiting forever.  This is because the currently existing unions are simply not set up to do these kinds of actions.  As stated above, they are set up to make sure the capitalists don’t drive our wages below a set value.  But in return for the right to collectively bargain around wages and benefits, the unions sign contracts that actually limit our creativity, giving the administration legalized control over us on the job.  We forfeit our ability to self-organize.

Many collective bargaining agreements state that matters of school organization, classroom placement, and curriculum are the administration’s prerogatives.   For example, Seattle Superintendent Jose Banda invoked the union contract when he threatened to discipline teachers for insubordination because they were refusing to give the MAP test.

The Seattle Educator’s Association did vote to support the boycotting teachers, which is great.  However, what does this support mean in practice?  Did the union organize to expand the boycott to all schools in the district?  Did they call mass public meetings of teachers, family members, and students to widen the boycott?  Did they use their connections to the national union structures to try to expand the boycott outside of Seattle?  Did they try to link up the struggle with the struggles of warehouse workers,  longshore workers, or striking NYC school bus drivers going on at the same time? Did they open up discussions about the possibility of striking if teachers face discipline for the boycott?   All of these moves would have been powerful.  Most of them would have also violated either a) union contracts, b) US labor law , c) the union’s own rules and bureaucracy or d) the union’s claim to defend teachers only, not the entire working class.    Union leaders naturalize all four of these limits and confine strategizing within them; often they outright attack teachers who try to go beyond them.

If we continue to accept these rules and limits, we will never have the power to actually transform the racist, boring, oppressive, controlling conditions in so many schools.  Whether we like it or not, if we don’t act we will be blamed for these conditions, not only by the corporate education deformers, but by fellow working class folks from our own communities, as I discuss below.   Good teachers encourage their students to think outside of the box, to take risks in the name of conscience, and never to use the constraints of the system as an excuse to refuse responsibility for our own lives.  Our students can easily say the same thing back to us: “instead of telling us what you can’t do, when are you going to actually take responsibility for changing your situation?”

Given all of this, I’d like to propose the following:

a) That we start building formal and informal committees that can operate independently of both the union and the anti-union organizations.   These committees can choose to defend the union when it’s under attack from the right wing; for example, we should intervene if city governments use contract negotiations as excuses to attack teachers, increase class sizes, etc.  However, we should not wait for the union to defend us, our students, or their families.

b) These committees should include teachers, students, and their families.  They should include education workers of all job classifications, whether unionized or nonunionized: after school workers, custodians, teachers at charter schools, etc.   As we saw during the Chicago teachers’ strike this fall, during union contract negotiations only the specific group of teachers who are bargaining actually have a say at the bargaining table.  While they might mobilize in solidarity with students and families, only the teachers – and usually only their union reps – actually have a say in strategizing or bargaining meetings.  We need  to overcome these divisions by creating broader working class-wide committees where we can struggle and strategize together.

c) These committees should focus on taking collective direct action to transform our schools, as proposed above.

d) These committees should work in coalition with union reform caucuses like Social Equality Educators to accomplish specific tasks together.  However, they should maintain their autonomy and should not get sucked into efforts to run for union office.  With limited time and energy, we should focus our attention on uniting teacher, family, and student struggles against oppression in the schools.  If union reform activists want to collaborate around this, we should work with them but should brainstorm and propose strategies that go beyond the limits set by the union structure.  We should set our goals based on what our communities need, not what is legal or contractually protected.

I see Creativity Not Control and groups like Classroom Struggle as seeds of  possible committees along these lines.

8) Let’s be accountable to the rest of the working class – not to corporate bureaucrats. 

Our schools educate  youth from the entire working class; therefore, what happens in them is the concern of the entire class. Instead of acting like middle class professionals who aim to defend our historic privileges,  teachers should unite with the rest of the working class as the class starts to move and rise up against this failing system.  As any teacher who works in a large urban district should know, the future of this working class is global, majority non-white, and composed of many complex genders.  It is people who are employed, unemployed, working at home, hustling, and in prison.    Teachers need to act like these are our people, or get out of the way.

It is not about sensitivity trainings and diversity window dressing; it is about basic solidarity.  We should stop acting like another constituency  who aim to get a better deal for ourselves alone, under this system.  In fact, we carry the honor and responsibility of educating and learning with our class’s children, the very human beings who are most likely to create a new society to replace this broken one.  This honor and responsibility should not be taken lightly; if we neglect to do it well, we are essentially scabbing on the rest of the class by participating in the reproduction of the race and gender divisions that keep folks chained.

When my friends and I organized the Dec. 12th port shutdown as part of the Decolonize/ Occupy movement, some port union officials argued that it was none of our business to mobilize at the ports without their permission.  We replied by saying that the port is public property and what happens there affects the whole working class; we were there to shut down Wall St. on the Waterfront, particularly terminal 18 which is partially owned by Goldman Sachs, a bank responsible for countless misery here and around the world.  They cut short the lives of people in our community, and we retaliated by cutting the flow of their goods – and their profits.  We were also mobilizing in solidarity with immigrant port truckers at that terminal who face so much racism on the job that they are not even allowed to use the port bathrooms; a few months later, they went on strike. ( I am a member of a group called the Black Orchid Collective, and we wrote a controversial piece about all of this here.)

During these controversies,  I told longshore workers at the union hall that if they were to mobilize in the schools around what is happening to their children, I would welcome them with open arms and would not ever ask them to get permission from the teachers’ union before showing up.  I mean that, and I think all of us teachers should have that attitude of respect toward working class folks from any industry or walk of life – whether employed or unemployed.

 When it comes to education, no one is an outside agitator – except for the corporate scumbags trying to ruin our schools.

9) Let’s stop trying to act like  professionals, but let’s not let them turn us into  prison guards either.

Fellow teachers might respond to my last proposal by reminding me that part of the attack on teachers unions is an effort to deprofessionalize our jobs.  Isn’t all my rhetoric about not acting like a special constituency of professionals just playing into the hands of the right wing?

It is true that they are trying to deprofessionalize us, which means taking away some of our historic privileges, including a few privileges once secured in our union contracts.   But we need to go deeper into understanding why this is happening, instead of promoting nostalgia for the good old days, which were not really that good  for most people.

Our deprofessionalization is the result of  the ever-widening divide between the thinking classes and the working classes.   Some students are tracked into the thinking classes, where they learn the skills necessary to manage and administer the increasingly high-tech, automated economy where robots are replacing factory workers.  Other students are tracked into the working classes where they prepare to flip burgers or sweep floors as part of the service industries that have replaced those factory jobs. Still others are tracked into unemployment and prison, what some call the school to prison pipeline.  The thinking classes need highly-skilled, merit-paid teachers who use the latest techniques and technologies to prepare a new generation of managers.  Meanwhile, they are assigning everyone else to the working classes and the school to prison pipeline, which will be fed by teachers who only need to know how to instill discipline in their students like pseudo-prison guards.

In other words, they are trying to split our f0rmer “profession” into a cadre of elite, overworked hyperteachers and masses of lower paid education service workers/ disciplinarians who will run the penitentiary prep classes.    Ironically,  as we loose pay, professional status, and control of our own work process, our managerial role over students actually increases.  So either way, we are pushed out of the working class: we either become elite professionals looking down on the class from an ivory tower, or we become tough managers keeping the class in check like street-level bureaucrats.

We need to fight both of these outcomes.  But we can’t fight them simply in defence of our own former professional prestige and pay.   We need to fight them in solidarity with our working class students who are getting pushed further down every day.  If we keep publicly asserting our right to be treated as “professionals” then we will isolate ourselves further from the rest of the working class who will come to see our role as ivory tower elites; without the backing of the rest of the class, our struggles will fail and our jobs will become more and more stressful.  At the same time, if we keep accepting concessions and the system’s vision of deprofessionalization, then most of us will be commanded to assert more and more prison-like control over our students, and our unions will become something akin to the notoriously hated prison guard and police unions – if they continue to exist at all.

10 ) Let’s think globally and act locally

To prevent these outcomes, we should learn from teacher struggles around the world, where teachers have shown a little more backbone and have fought militantly for themselves,  their students, and their communities.  From the Oaxaca uprising of 2006 (which started as a teacher strike), through the anti-austerity demonstrations across Europe today, we can take inspiration from the fact that teachers are on the move.   Movements like Decolonize/ Occupy, the Wisconsin labor upsurge, or the militant actions of port workers in Longview show that this kind of energy has started to erupt here as well, though at a smaller scale.

During the Occupy movement,  there were small but spirited high school student walkouts here in Seattle, especially during the Dec. 12th Port Shutdown and later during May Day.  Occupy in particular brought new energy into classrooms across the city, with youth helping build and defend the camp, and activists from the movement regularly speaking at schools.

There is a real possibility of students initiating new waves of movements that go beyond the limitations of these recent upsurges, and in the process they could agitate and radicalize their teachers.

Instead of simply fighting for our own narrow interests, teachers should realize that our own freedom, creativity, and well-being is linked with everyone else’s, and our best option is to join these movements, making our classrooms and schools hot beds of creative struggle.

We welcome discussion about these proposals in the comments section, as well as response pieces and counter-proposals.


End notes:

1. The ideas in this article were formed in conversation with folks from Creativity Not Control, Classroom Struggle Advance the Struggle, Insurgent Notes, Black Orchid Collective, and Fire Next Time. Thank you everyone for the vibrant collaboration.

2. If you reproduce or quote this article, please include an attribution and  link back to the original posting.    Thanks!


25 Responses to “In the wake of the testing boycott: a 10-point proposal for teacher self-organization”

  1. Janine Sopp February 28, 2013 at 3:20 pm #

    Parents and Teachers in NYC support you and agree with you completely!

    • mamos206 March 1, 2013 at 5:10 am #

      Great, thanks! I’d love to hear about some of your organizing projects out there. Maybe we can compare notes…

  2. Noel Ignatiev March 2, 2013 at 2:45 pm #

    I appreciate that Mamos has framed his proposal for teacher self-organization as the outgrowth of an actual struggle, the movement to boycott the MAP test. I wish to continue the process, by reflecting on my own and others’ experience with schools.

    When my son John Henry was little we would walk around the neighborhood and when he saw someone doing something that caught his interest he would greet the person and ask, Hi, whatcha doing? If the person could spare the time and was so inclined, he would stop what he was doing and explain it – planting seeds in a garden, repairing a broken railing, whatever. Sometimes the person performing the task would invite John Henry to help. Those moments represented for me a model of education in a communist society. Of course that Mister Rogers experience was not accessible to everyone, and in any case could not last: even John Henry eventually had to go to school, where, he once informed me, he could absorb everything they taught in one hour. For the rest of the day, his main sensation, like everyone else’s, was repression and b-o-re-d-o-m. Of course there were compensations – he got to see his friends. John Henry’s experience was typical; it was certainly mine. I think it was Mark Twain who said that he quit school because it was interfering with his education.

    Human societies have always had ways of transmitting their accumulated knowledge and skills to the young. The school as an institution is less than two hundred years old. Not coincidentally it appeared at the same time as the prison, the orphanage, the asylum for the insane and of course the factory. Reforming schools will no more solve the fundamental problem of alienation and the compartmentalization of human life-activity into “work,” “play,” and “learning” than efforts to make workplaces tolerable by introducing coffee breaks, air conditioning, good lighting, flexible schedules, cafeterias, recreation centers, varied work assignments, etc. The communist society will abolish the school as an institution and along with it the teacher, and make all of society a place of teaching and learning and everyone a teacher and learner as well as a producer. In my opinion, a revolutionary program for teacher self-organization must start from this understanding.

    While a great deal can be learned from home-schooling and other alternative models of education. under present conditions these measures are out of the question for most families (another institution that must be abolished); for the time being most children will find themselves spending most of their waking hours in places called “schools” being “taught” by people called “teachers” who are there, for the most part, out of their need to “earn” something they call a “living.”

    Teachers want more money and should have it. In order to get it they form unions, whose purpose is to negotiate better terms in the sale of labor power. If the unions stray from that aim they betray their members. Their dedication to that aim, and not bad faith, explains why contract negotiations between teachers’ unions and boards of education normally follow a pattern: seeking public support leading up to negotiations the unions pose their demand as improved education represented by more money (= more qualified teachers) and smaller classes (= more attention to students), and when they actually sit down at the table all is forgotten but the money and the workload. (In Chicago, as in other cities, negotiations are limited by law to issues of money and worktime; that restriction is offered as an excuse by “progressives” who conveniently forget that teachers were once forbidden by law to strike at all, and that never stopped them. I recently heard indirectly from a Chicago high-school student that before the strike the teachers used to come to study halls and counsel the students on everything from academics to college admissions, but no longer do so, claiming the new contract prohibits it. As the student – admittedly only one case – said, the strike only made things worse for us.)

    The aim of the union, securing better terms in the sale of labor power, differs from the revolutionary goal, abolishing the wage system (and the school system as well). Mamos knows this, and so do most of those here.

    Mamos’s ten points advance some good ideas and are on the whole unexceptionable. The assumption underlying them is that the union’s goal and the revolutionary goal are compatible, and that the purpose of organizing outside of the union is to accomplish tasks that the union may be unwilling for one reason or another to undertake but are not in conflict with it.

    I contend, however, that the goals of the union and the revolution not merely differ, but are sometimes in tension, and that is where Mamos’s proposal falls short. It provides no guidance for revolutionaries forced to choose between them, and to subordinate, in practice, one to the other. Here I offer three examples, seemingly trivial, but illustrative of the problem:

    The first is the example of the Chicago high-school student I cited above. Does Mamos advocate teachers defying not merely management-imposed rules but union-imposed rules when they conflict with serving the students, and does he regard doing so as a defining task of extra-union organization?

    The second example comes out of Boston. Years ago there was a rule that school buildings could be used for community meetings only if school maintenance people were present, at union (overtime) wages. The rule effectively prohibited community groups from making use of school facilities. (In Boston the issue fell along race lines, as the school maintenance workers were mostly white and the community groups were mostly black, but that need not have been the case.) An Afro-American educator, long involved in education struggles in Boston, told me she thought the most radical thing the city administration had done was to give the parents’ committees the keys to the school. Would Mamos support such a move, in defiance of the school unions?

    My third example comes out of last summer’s discussion around the Chicago teachers’ strike. At that time Mamos argued (correctly, I believe) that the main task was to build class-wide organizations of teachers, students and parents. He also argued that support for the teachers’ union was part of that project. In response to my skepticism, he asked me if I, as a revolutionary, would have been on the union picket lines talking about the broader issues of education. I responded by asking whether, since at that moment those lines were centers of union fever, the time might be more usefully spent where students and parents gathered. He never replied to my question, and I would like to hear now what he thinks.

    My attitude on issues of education are best captured by Pink Floyd’s words, “Teachers, leave them kids alone!” and by the scene in the Ramones’ film Rock and Roll High School where the students, having wired the school with explosives, push the plunger and blow it sky-high. I am only partly kidding; it is a matter of dialectics.

    • mamos206 March 3, 2013 at 8:32 pm #

      This comment is from Johngarv; he submitted it as a reply to Noel’s comment but for some reason the blog software is refusing to post it. Here it is:

      Schooling in the communist society

      I think that what Noel has written is an important corrective to our tendency to take too much for granted about what might be considered permanent aspects of social life. After all, if we can imagine a world without money, why stop there? And I think that his description of learning all but completely embodied in everyday purposeful activities has a great deal to recommend it. It’s really good that children learn to talk before school (otherwise we’d have lots of talking-disabled kids) and that most people learn to cook at home, not in schools (although the results there are uneven)! There are many, perhaps most, things that should be learned as part of what might be broadly considered cultural activities (including work)—such as reading, writing, growing fruits and vegetables, cooking, scientific and mathematical thinking, caring for others, painting, singing, dancing. Some others not so—literature, history, geography, science, math, engineering, medicine, agriculture—these require formal study (excluding the occasional exception of the autodidacts). But those fields of study pay a terrible price when they lose all contact with the wisdom of the everyday—the tellers of tales, the midwives, the witches, the medicine men, the fishermen, the farmers, the assembly line workers.

      But, at a moment when scientific/technical knowledge is so central to the machine production of useful products (thereby creating the possibility of less work for all) and to the possibility of successfully addressing age-old problems of human well-being (such as a livable planet, illness, aging, disabilities), we cannot afford to discount the importance of the acquisition of high-level technical knowledge. Let’s keep in mind, however, that machinery is not so much a tool as it is an embodiment of human cooperation. Every achievement we can imagine is bound deeply to the work of ordinary humans.
      That kind of technical knowledge can seldom be acquired through cultural activities. We need schools of one kind or another—hopefully much more enlightened than the ones we currently have.

      So the question for now and for later is the balance between culturally grounded and formalized learning. I have no prescription to offer but it would be good if we could figure out ways to improve both. Beyond that, we need to keep in mind the need to promote the withering away of the distinction between mental and manual labor. The incorporation of learning into everyday doing is part of that but the opening up of intellectual/technical knowledge to all is also part of it. There may come a time when the overall level of knowledge and cultural sophistication is so high that all of these distinctions can be abolished. I hope to hear the reports of those developments from the after-life.

      • mamos206 March 7, 2013 at 10:39 pm #

        Hi Noel and John,
        Thanks for your comments, this helps clarify some crucial questions.

        On the issue of abolishing schools:

        I basically agree with John. As the Creativity Not Control mission statement suggest, the classroom is an alienating place which reinforces capitalist labor discipline. That aspect of capitalist control can be better or worse, but it cannot be eliminated with more care from teacher, more interesting curriculum, etc. These things are important and good, but they will not solve the fundamental problem. Capitalist schools will always be boring and authoritarian to some degree because their structure is set up to serve their purpose: education for labor, not life.
        So we need to imagine and work to create something new. What you both described is similar to what I would want to build during a revolution. I agree with Noel about integrating learning throughout life. I also agree with John that there would need to be places and times where people will focus on learning certain subjects in depth, together. Call it a classroom or call it something else, but I do think it will still be there is some form. The key thing is to fight for a world where teaching is not a specialized profession, but where the skills involved in teaching and learning are widely available to all, so we can all teach and learn from each other.

        On unions:

        Noel writes that the assumption underlying my proposal is that “the union’s goal and the revolutionary goal are compatible, and that the purpose of organizing outside of the union is to accomplish tasks that the union may be unwilling for one reason or another to undertake but are not in conflict with it.”

        This is not my assumption. It is true that I am advocating organizing outside of the union to accomplish tasks that the union may be unwilling for one reason or another to undertake. But I do not have the illusion that this organizing will always harmonize with the union. It may come into conflict at certain points.

        I was simply arguing that we should oppose corporate union busting. I was not saying that we should refrain from opposing the union ourselves. We should not assume that our organizing will always come into conflict with the union but if we are doing class-wide organizing that aims to break down divisions like white supremacy, and the union attacks us for it, then we will need to hold our ground and not defer to the union.
        Noel gives several case studies where this might happen and asks where I fall on these points:

        1) Noel asks: “ Does Mamos advocate teachers defying not merely management-imposed rules but union-imposed rules when they conflict with serving the students, and does he regard doing so as a defining task of extra-union organization?”

        Yes I do, and yes this is a defining task of extra-union organization. With the caveat that we should not side with the right wingers who say that everything can be resolved if teachers just work 70 hour work weeks, destroy our own lives, and compete with each other work harder to serve the students. I am for collectively breaking union rules when they conflict with students’ interests, I am not for doing this in an individualistic way. Doing it individualistically can create a situation where management can use your extra work to discipline your coworkers in ways that hurt teachers and over the long term will hurt students (student do not benefit from sleep deprived teachers on the verge of nervous breakdowns from overwork).

        2) Noel writes “Years ago there was a rule that school buildings could be used for community meetings only if school maintenance people were present, at union (overtime) wages. The rule effectively prohibited community groups from making use of school facilities. (In Boston the issue fell along race lines, as the school maintenance workers were mostly white and the community groups were mostly black, but that need not have been the case.) An Afro-American educator, long involved in education struggles in Boston, told me she thought the most radical thing the city administration had done was to give the parents’ committees the keys to the school. Would Mamos support such a move, in defiance of the school unions?”

        Yes I would advocate giving the keys to grassroots community and parent organizations in the Black community even if the union opposed it. I would try to explain this decision to rank and file custodians and try to build their support for it. But I would never advocate that the administrators give the key to astrotruf right wing parents’ control groups– like Michelle Rhee’s group.

        3) Noel writes: “In response to my skepticism [about the Chicago teacher strike, Mamos-MH] asked me if I, as a revolutionary, would have been on the union picket lines talking about the broader issues of education. I responded by asking whether, since at that moment those lines were centers of union fever, the time might be more usefully spent where students and parents gathered. He never replied to my question, and I would like to hear now what he thinks”

        I would argue that many of the most militant parents and students already active in education struggles might have been at the margins of the picket lines looking for teachers who share their perspectives. If there were a militant meeting of teachers and students going on elsewhere that aims to take action against school closures or racism in the schools in ways that go further than the strike then yes, I would leave the picket lines and go join them, then come back to the picket lines later to agitate teachers there to extend the strike to support what the parents and students are doing. But I would not leave the picket lines to sit through a bureaucratic PTA meeting rigidly controlled by reformist parents – just like I would not leave a reformist, but vibrant and large student walkout to go sit through a union meeting.

  3. Noel Ignatiev March 8, 2013 at 3:22 pm #

    Thank, Mamos. What do you mean by corporate union busting? That accusation gets tossed around pretty freely as part of normal bargaining, as does the accusation that unions are “socialistic.” The two are on a par and neither should be taken seriously. I see little anywhere that qualifies as real union busting in the sense that anyone is trying to make it illegal for workers to join unions or for employers to bargain with them. Most often denounced as union busting are efforts to end compulsory union membership and dues checkoff. Those provisions, and the practice of recognizing a union as the sole bargaining agent, are pillars of U.S. unionism, but do not exist in Europe, and the last time I looked neither rightwing nor social-democratic governments there were attempting to do away with unions. In addition there are efforts to make strikes illegal and limit the scope of bargaining in public services. The Massachusetts State College Association, to which I “belong” by virtue of a piece of paper I was compelled to sign as a condition of employment, operates under these rules, but I see no signs of union busting: my dues are still deducted monthly and used to “influence” the Legislature, union meetings are held on school property and the local president is a member ex-oficio of every policy committee.

    For years Massachusetts had a law requiring State construction projects to pay the “prevailing wage,” which in effect meant to hire through the unions. At the time, the construction unions were lily-white, so you know who got the jobs. Some construction contractors sought to repeal the bill, for obvious reasons. I guess that would qualify as corporate union busting. Nevertheless, I sympathized with the repeal effort. Was I wrong?

    Another example, this time from education: In 1968, the New York teachers’ union struck in defense of union prerogatives and against efforts by black activists to assert control over schools in the black community. Again, the issue was complicated, as the Ford Foundation and other ruling-class elements hoped to use the community control issue as a way to weaken the teachers’ union. Moreover, community control was problematic at best. At that time, most movement people sided with the community, even to the point of crossing union picket lines to keep the schools open. I think they were right to do so, although from within that position they might have done more than they did to advance their own view.

    A similar question may be coming up now in relation to charter schools, which of course the teachers’ unions oppose in principle. John Garvey has written about this, and I think what he wrote needs to be taken seriously.

    I assume you have seen the article “Our Friends With Benefits: On The Union Question” on another website. The article says: “We must not confuse the contradiction between different poles of the ruling class, or the contradiction between bosses and workers with the contradiction between labor and capital” [italics in original]. One or another fraction of capital may attempt to use antagonisms within the working class to advance its corporate interests. In my opinion, revolutionaries should not allow that to override all other considerations.

    Any thoughts?

    • mamos206 July 7, 2013 at 11:43 pm #

      Hi Noel,
      Sorry it took so long for me to respond. You raised some difficult questions and I didn’t have time to think them through while working and taking night classes this spring. Here is my best shot now that I have a little more time to think.
      When I talk about union busting, I don’t necessarily mean attempts to outlaw unions. I mean attempts to make it harder for teachers to organize on the job, blaming unions for problems that are deeper structural issues in the schools in order to deflect attention away from tackling those issues, lowering teachers wages and taking away benefits, etc. as part of automating and deskilling teaching (e.g. reducing the socially necessary labor time needed to reproduce teachers’ labor power).
      You mention that different fractions of capital may attempt to use antagonisms within the working class to advance corporate interests. I agree. I think one wing of the ruling class is trying to build off the justified discontent that many people have with the bureaucracy, white supremacy, and intellectual mediocrity of many public school classrooms. But instead of supporting working class struggles to change these things, this wing of the bourgeoisie is simply blaming teachers unions and pushing for privatization. It is an attempt to kill two birds with one stone: beat down the unions and coopt community struggles against white supremacy. We need to find a layer of teachers (even if it’s a minority at first) willing to side with broader community demands to transform the schools, and in particular, to fight white supremacy in the schools. But this anti-union, corporate ed. deform agenda seems aimed at driving a wedge in this kind of possible alliance by turning teachers against parents and students, and vice versa.
      I think we should fight this attempt to deflect popular anger against the teachers’ unions. But that fight back should not override the deeper struggle, which is the struggle against white supremacy and all the other aspects of oppression that the schools reproduce. It is not enough to simply say “defend the union” or “defend public education.” In cases where a particular union does support white supremacy, for example, we should oppose that union. In cases where a public school teacher reinforces things like racist disciplinary policies, we should oppose that teacher. I’d be sympathetic to the demands for hiring more folks of color in construction, even if that goes against the construction unions. You know my stance with regards to the ILWU and the truckers on the West Coast ports.
      The 1968 strike sounds very complicated, and I still don’t feel prepared to take a clear stance on it. I do support the goal of working class Black folks having control over the schools where their students go. I do not support Black bourgeois politicians who use nationalist sounding rhetoric to cover up their ties to the white power structure (the folks many Black activists in Seattle would call “neocolonial misleaders”). Black community activists with the Umjoa P.E.A.C.E. center here in Seattle are trying to gain control of Horace Mann, an empty school building that the district wants to turn into a new location for a majority-white district run alternative school. The Umoja folks want to turn it into an Africatown educational and community center. I’ve supported their struggle. But I would not support attempts by pro-corporate Black politicians to push conservative and exclusive privatized charter schools in the name of “community control”.
      I’m against charter schools, but I agree with John about the need to break down the charter school issue into different component parts instead of making blanket condemnations. I am not opposed to the idea of smaller, community run schools with autonomy to develop their own curriculum. But why can’t we fight for these to be public, not charter? My main issue with charter schools is that they can be more exclusive than public schools, which can simply reinforce the existing racial and class hierarchies in the schools. In many cases they can set entrance requirements, etc. There are also less protections against overt attempts by corporations or the military to set up ideologically oriented programs attempting to indoctrinate youth. Finally, they can lead to more stratified funding, with funds getting directed to high-end charters that serve affluent youth, while meanwhile funding is slashed for the public school system that serves working class communities.
      Of course, those “protections” for universal education in the public schools aren’t worth much unless people actually fight for open access, anti-indoctrination curriculum, etc. The fact that Black students are 3x more likely than white students to be suspended from Seattle Public Schools shows you don’t need to charterize to make schools more exclusive and stratified (we don’t have charters here yet, but the districts’ schools are already quite stratified, with exclusive and well-funded AP programs that are majority white inside of schools in historically Black neighborhoods).
      In terms of one fraction of the ruling class class trying to use grassroots politics as cannon fodder in struggles against other fractions of the ruling class… I remember reading something you wrote years back about the popularity of Race Traitor, and how it might have been part of this dynamic of one wing of the capitalists trying to use you against another one. Am I getting that right? If so, can you please clarify what you meant by that? How would that play out today in terms of your stances on education? (these questions are for both Noel and John). How would both of you orient to make sure that you are not played by either side?

  4. Happy April 1, 2013 at 10:17 pm #

    We absolutely love your blog and find nearly all of your post’s to be precisely what I’m looking for. Would you offer guest writers to write content available for you? I wouldn’t mind producing a post or elaborating on a few of the subjects you write in relation to here. Again, awesome web site!

    • mamos206 July 7, 2013 at 10:54 pm #

      Hi Happy,
      I know we had responded to you earlier by email, but if you’d like to write something for this blog, please let us know. That goes for other readers as well – if you’d like to contribute a guest post, please let us know. You can reach me at mamosrotnelli AT

  5. Millie June 8, 2013 at 1:12 pm #

    Hi, I’m a teacher in the UK. The whole debate is really interesting, thanks for writing this.

    I just wanted to say something very briefly about the comment about union busting. I do think actually there IS a serious campaign of union busting going on here in education. It is happening most virulently in academy schools, which are schools outside the local authority control, and these schools don’t have to respect national pay agreements etc. But it isn’t only happening there and involves victimisation of militant workers and concerted efforts between the government and employers to break the main teachers union.

    The whole wider point, about teachers’ sectional interests as workers sometimes conflicting with the interests of students and the wider working class community, is critical and I don’t have any clear response at all, it’s a very difficult conflict for me.

    • mamos206 June 8, 2013 at 6:01 pm #

      Thanks for your reply. In terms of teachers’ sectoral interests conflicting with interests of the wider working class community, how is that playing out in the UK? I know there have been several youth revolts there – how have teachers responded to those? Is there an active parents’ movement pushing for greater control of the schools?

      • Millie June 25, 2013 at 10:40 am #

        Hi. First thing I’m in community education for adults not schools, what I’m saying is based on talking to school teachers not experience unfortunately.
        I think school teachers now are expected to be a part of a bigger repressive apparatus aimed at young people in poor communities, and this is heavily enforced on the teachers by management. I think that the teachers who are against this are most likely to be active in the union and be older (as a generalisation) but there is a climate of fear over losing your job that means there hasn’t been much effective resistance to this.
        There are parents trying to have more control over schools but where I live it is a white middle class thing linked to gentrification of the area, and is about having nice schools for their own nice children and has no interest in the well being of black and working class kids. I don’t know if there is a more working class and progressive side to this in other areas but I haven’t heard of it. Taking schools out of local government control is a right wing government project here.
        In adult ed our situation in relation to the wider working class community is much better, one of the young students in my college was arrested in a riot, and the principal put out a press statement saying he would expel any student arrested in a riot. My union went straight to the principal and told him we weren’t having that and we would fight it, and the principal backed down and the student stayed. I remember another college where immigration control came into the college after a student. The teacher locked the classroom to keep them out, but they arrested the student later and the college walked out in protest. However I think sadly these are not typical and this level of solidarity with our community is rare.
        I didn’t hear anything about school teachers showing solidarity with students after the August riots, I’m sure there were some teachers trying to help their pupils on an individual level, but the climate was so hostile people would be terrified of being sacked if they had been public about it.
        This is all a result of thirty years of attacks on the working class, after the Broadwater Farm riots of 85, I went to an event to raise money for people whose homes had been smashed up in police raids, and two of my school teachers were there participating.

        Sorry that was so long!

      • mamos206 June 26, 2013 at 4:45 am #

        Thanks, this is a really fascinating report, I appreciate it. The responses to the repression after the riots and to the immigration raid are inspiring. I hear you about that being the exception, but I’ve never heard anything like that happen here in the US in recent memory. That’s exactly the sort of thing I think we should be doing as teachers, and I hope we can build towards that.

  6. johngarv July 8, 2013 at 5:01 pm #


    I don’t have a completely satisfying answer to the challenge posed by potential ruling class manipulation of positions that we have. Part of my answer is that we should try as much as possible to acknowledge the complexity of the situation. When I published my first long article on education in Insurgent Notes (in March of 2011), I began as follows:

    At the moment, there are bitter struggles going on over continuing school failures, testing policies, budget cuts to schools and colleges, layoffs, school closings, class sizes, and the establishment of charter schools. There is also an increasingly sharp debate emerging between proponents of what I will refer to as the “new education reform” and a growing multitude of opponents. In those contexts, I’ve been worried that it would be way out of synch to be publishing an article that is primarily concerned with long-term trends and their manifestations in the everyday realities of educational institutions (and vice versa—the production of long-term trends by everyday practices)—especially to the extent that some of what I believe reflects rather badly on the routine practices of teachers, schools and unions. I am not interested in providing any ammunition to those forces that obscure every assault against the well-being of teachers with claims to be acting on behalf of the children.

    But I decided to continue down the road I had been travelling on—in the hope that what I have to say might alert some of those involved in various struggles (teachers, parents, community activists) about the profound dangers associated with defending what we might consider to be education as usual. I am aware that an already quite bad situation could be made much worse if forces on the right emerge victorious but, at the same time, I’d like to insist that the bad that we have must be seen by all as indefensible. And furthermore a defense of the existing state of affairs will not get us anywhere that we should want to go.

    What I would add now is something that we said fairly often in Race Traitor and that was what we needed to present was a total vision of a whole new society rather than a repaired version of the society we have–so that people can understand where we’re coming from.


    • mamos206 July 9, 2013 at 5:00 am #

      Thanks John. I agree with that framework. I think that’s the general approach we’re going for with Creativity Not Control.


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