Tag Archives: union

Review of Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity by Micah Uetricht

8 Mar

Strike_for_AmericaThis is a book review submitted by my friend Dennis Gravey from Portland.  It is especially timely considering that the group Social Equality Educators in Seattle is currently running a slate of candidates for office in the Seattle Education Association, our local teachers’ union. As far as I can tell, they are inspired by the strategy pursued by CORE in Chicago.   Gravey assesses the strengths and weaknesses of that strategy.   I have some disagreements with his assessments and am skeptical of focusing on building union caucuses, as I had laid out here.  If I have time I’ll write a response to Gravey and Uetricht and post it on this blog.

Micah Uetricht’s new book on the Chicago Teachers Union and their historic 2012 strike, Strike for America, out from Verso Press with a Jacobin Press imprint, offers a useful and intelligent reflection on an event that has become a cornerstone of labor activists’ sense of recent history. It offers a number of useful analyses and accounts, and will hopefully become a tool both for activists within education and the left movement more broadly.  In addition, it poses some interesting and current theoretical and strategic questions that help us think through some of the toughest intellectual tasks of our time.


The book is organized around two essays first about the rise of CORE (the Caucus of Rank and File Educators), of which the CTU strike leadership were members, and one on the strike itself.  These two are then followed by an extended reflection on the future, both of the CTU and the labor movement more broadly. On the rise and model of CORE the book offers a number of thoughts about strategies for rank and file renewal of existing unions and in particular the role of radicals in that project including strategies both once in leadership and for gaining power.


Uetricht counterposes two models for an organized radical force, boring-from-within, where radical elements attempt to influence existing leadership (pg. 30) and seizing control, where an organized faction takes power and makes unified decisions. Uetricht account of CORE’s model describes a subtly different path of an organization whose members assumed leadership, but maintained an autonomous ideological and organizational pole not only where strategy can be developed, but where dissent and education can take place. He explains that, “the caucus brought an insurgent leadership into power, but has acted independently of it” (pg. 42). This allowed the caucus to hold its leadership accountable, remain rooted in the rank and file, and become a pole for dissident rank-and-filers to gather organically and develop their insurgent potential. Without taking power, this pole would have been drastically less impactful, but without its independence and flexibility it is unlikely the result would have been as dynamic and exciting.


Uetricht acknowledges this model is not new, and is very similar to many experiments in rank-and-file organizing by American Left organizations in the 1970s, but it is an inspiring idea as more members of the activist left become engaged in workplace centered political work (the current IWW being a prime example of this). The rewards in this case are obvious, but the challenge will be figuring out how to continue the work of building a left pole outside of specific, if significant, institutions.

CTU organizer Brandon Johnson passes out leaflets and petitions to canvassers at Lewis Elementary.  Photo from http://www.substancenews.net/articles.php?page=3899

CTU organizer Brandon Johnson passes out leaflets and petitions to canvassers at Lewis Elementary. Photo from http://www.substancenews.net/articles.php?page=3899

Beyond the basic terms of strategy, CORE also offers an interesting example of a path to power. Rather than forming explicitly as rank-and-filers, and basing their organizing around the bread and butter interests of union membership, they formed around the more diffuse struggle regarding public education in Chicago. The roots of CORE lie not in previous union reform efforts, but in the struggle around school closings where leaders like Jackson Potter and Jesse Sharkey became recognized a leaders of a struggle largely driven by parents and students. Their identities as teachers was strategically useful in this context, but was not the main driving force for their involvement. Uetricht’s description shows an organization that initially had more focus on broader issues and ideological development, like reading Shock Doctrine together, and only subsequently moved to take union leadership after it became clear this was the only way to further the struggle for public education.


Discourse around union democracy and the political struggle in unions often centers on whether or not leadership serves the rank-and-files interests as workers, and imagines the project of union renewal as a project of forming better unions. CORE poses a serious challenge to this model in that it demonstrates that union renewal can, and maybe can only happen through a broader activation of workers’ sentiments for a better world and by forming organizations around ideological affinity, uniting around political vision and critiques, rather than bread-and-butter economism, i.e. following narrowly defined lines of economic interests as the foundation of union building. Of course there’s an argument to be made that teachers are more open to these more abstract forms than other workers, but there’s also an argument that economistic mobilizations actually tail more class-wide projects.  Indeed history casts severe doubt on the idea that one moves linearly from concrete, practical economic demands like wages to the more abstract, lofty demands for a radically transformed world.  We have to start seeing a more dynamic relationship between utopian dreaming, explicitly revolutionary activity, and the everyday bread and butter concerns that structure so much social tension and struggle, and this is what Uetricht’s account helps us do.


The idea that the project of reviving unions is centered outside the bread and butter, is deepened by Uetricht’s account of the strike itself and particularly the everyday solidarity present throughout Chicago during the strike. Not only did polls consistently show strong support for the teachers, Uetricht includes personal accounts that are difficult to fathom, receiving a free pastry and words of support from non-union baristas and even a free bus ride, all for merely wearing his union t-shirt. He implies that the real meaning of the CTU strike was not the struggle of workers against their employers, or even material effects of effective industrial action, but the work that the strike did on the class consciousness and collective sense of workers in Chicago.


Building off of CORE’s more ideological roots, the strike did more than create an effective union, it created an effective example of class struggle and helped build a sense of solidarity throughout the city and even activate sectors of the class seemingly far from their rank-and-file membership (though one of the unique aspects of public teachers are their embeddedness in the lives of working class families). Today it’s rare to see a union strategy so explicitly aimed at developing class consciousness and changing the collective sense of workers. Even more rare is this strategy being paired with effective, well organized, and dramatic action rather than the abortive or weak efforts at fomenting mass struggle like SEIU’s fast food organizing, UFCW’s Our Walmart campaign, or numerous IWW efforts.


Uetricht highlights that the overall result of this process was a destabilization of the ruling coalition of the Democratic Party. This offers an important question for Lefitsts: what is the relationship between this coalition and our revolutionary project? In some ways this is a fancy way of asking how relevant electoral politics are, but I want to highlight the lesson that Uetricht gestures at, which is that substance of this coalition is not which organizations do what and who gets in office, but how these movements affect the ideas, sentiments and activity of masses of people. The problem for the Democratic coalition posed by the CTU is not that it loses a funding source, which can easily be made up for from Wall Street, but that it loses the legitimacy among Chicagoans and poses a serious challenge to the possibility of an Emmanuel machine. The question is, what do we do with that lost legitimacy, do we run candidates, or do we build alternative power, and if we do run and win candidates, what will they be capable of? Uetricht cites the Teamster rebellion of 1934 in Minneapolis, which was helped along by the relatively sympathetic Farm Labor Party regime in Minnesota, but it was ultimately not those elected officials, but the strikers in the street that made one of the most important events of the American working class struggle.


Uetricht interlaces this account of union strategy with political and historical framing of the efforts to dismantle public education in Chicago. He identifies a “neoliberal” project of “privatizing” or “corporatizing” public education, through charters, philanthropic investment, school closing, and most centrally to the CTU, the attempts to break the teachers union. These strategies are in place throughout the country and have a great deal of unified coordination nationally through DC policy makers, ideologues, and monied foundations. The materialist core the analysis seems to be that Capital is using the financial crisis of 2008 to motivate a cycle of primitive accumulation over the public sector and use privatization of public enterprises as a new source of profit.


This analysis seems plausible, but I think falls short, just as the idea of the Prison-Industrial-Complex as a source of cheap labor fails to understand the real dynamics of social control as well as numerically not being substantiated (See the work by Loic Wacquant for a more developed account of this). It’s unclear if the potential profits garnered through this strategy are a viable way out of the accumulation crisis faced by Capital, and what’s more it tends to falls into a false narrative that counterposes privately held capital as “capitalist” and publicly held enterprises are more “socialist,” and ones that therefore might work to undermine capitalist hegemony. More than seeking profit, Leftists must ask why Capital sees it as advantageous to restructure public education when the system in place over the last three decades has been roughly successful at maintaining mass docility and a relatively easily exploitable labor supply. Austerity likely has more to do with shifting strategies of white supremacy, so called “surplus populations,” which are no longer useful to capital accumulations as either workers or consumers, and changing needs of the labor market due to automation than with a direct effort by Capital to use a formerly public sector as new grounds for profits.


As a final thought I want to discuss one of Uetricht’s boldest claims, that the CTU strike was a qualitative leap forward from previous movements like Occupy and the occupation of the Wisconsin State Capitol building. He writes that, “it was the CTU strike that first identified that rising tide in the form of an angry union membership and channeled it into an effective, militant political form, winning real gains and building power both for education workers and the communities they serve” (12). This will likely ruffle some feathers and I have sympathy with both the claim and the ruffle. I think it’s an idea that must be handled with care.


There’s a danger in thinking that the ultimate success of a cycle of struggle lies in the way it transforms the leadership and activity of specific institutions, and Uetricht comes dangerously close to implying that the upsurges of 2011 are significant only insofar as they impact the halls of power. In contrast to this, the reading I’m trying to pull out from this book, albeit a bit against the grain, is that the ultimate arbiter of the significance of both the less coherently organized formations in 2011, and the more coherently organized CTU strike, is the relationship they have to the broader and more diffuse sentiments, ideas and activity of masses of people throughout society, within and without protest movements or the specific organizations. What matters is not the specific organized acts but the way these acts reconfigure the balance of social forces through changing the apparently unorganized activity of millions of people.


In this light the CTU strike offers and important lesson on the relationship between spontaneity and organization. The debate is not: organization good v. spontaneity good; or: material impact more important v. material impact less important. Rather, it must be about how specific forms of organization express and transform the activity of millions of people in such a way that it advances a revolutionary process. What’s important about the CTU strike is not that it made more material headway in combatting neoliberalism, and could have only done so by being an organized, institutional force. But rather, that as an organized, institutional force that was able to make material headway against neoliberalism, it had unique power and potential to transform mass activity outside of institutions and specific organizational wills, activity that in a conventional sense appears as unorganized. This dynamic played itself out again in Portland where the potential (though unactualized) teachers strike allowed the students and other sectors of the activist left to become activated in ways they were apparently incapable of doing outside the context of the organized institutional movement of the teachers. Many leftists are rightfully skeptical of the radical potential of the existing institutions, but then throw the baby out with the bathwater when they use this as an reason to refuse to actively engage in shaping the activity of these institutions. While their ultimate potential is highly limited, their actions may open many unique opportunities for things to appear, even if sideways and behind the back of their movement. The Unions, non-profits, and the like will be the first to be left behind by the masses, but this leaving behind might only be possible after these institutions themselves move. In this context CORE’s independence from the union leadership is a powerful positive example, and the last minute deal calling off the Portland strike is a powerful negative one.


At this point is should be clear what the true test is of Uetricht’s book: How will it relate to the broader sentiments, ideas and actions of thousands (maybe indirectly millions) and help develop the left as a pole within society. In the week leading up to the potential Portland teachers strike I saw my roommate, a young teacher relatively new to politics read Uetricht’s book with relish and become more engaged afterwards, the husband of a striking teacher mention CLASS Action (another Jacobin project Uetricht also contributed to) at a solidarity campaign meeting, and teachers, parents and students discuss how the dynamics playing out in Portland are part of a national attack on public education. All of these are small, but bode well for the daunting project of rebuilding a left in the U.S. that is mass, popular and actually capable of ending capitalism. This book is a small tool in that project, and hopefully folks can figure out how to use it.


Bill Gates’ Pipelines to Hell: Reflections on the 2012 Education Policy Throwdown

10 Feb

On March 1, 2012, uplifted by the spirit of Occupy, a group of us picked a fight with the largest private foundation on the planet.   

Two years later, we are now facing the very real possibility that in addition to reproducing the education pipelines that lead to prison, precarious labor, or privilege, Bill Gates is encouraging his fellow billionaires to railroad highly explosive Bakken shale oil and Tar Sands bitumen through the middle of our city.

“The 99% Challenges the Gates Foundation to an Education Policy Throwdown”

Back in 2012, we challenged the education policy experts at the Gates Foundation to a street-style debate as part of a coordinated National Day of Action for Public Education.  (We even delivered a fancy engraved invitation .)

We joined together to protest the outsized influence that the Gates Foundation wields to push its neoliberal education model.  To our amazement, their staff actually came out to debate with us when about 300 or so of us descended on their palatial headquarters in Seattle.


Frankly, considering that this was their full time job, the Gates Foundation policy experts were woefully unimpressive in this General Assembly style interaction.  The parents and teachers in our crowd gave them quite a drubbing over some key issues that these “experts” are clearly getting wrong:

  • Standardized Testing and Teacher Pay – the Gates Foundation was (and still is) one of the major players in the push to tie teacher pay to standardized test results.  A member of the crowd (an editor at Rethinking Schools magazine) nailed them over the numerous studies that showed the volatility of test scores from year to year.  Teachers with stellar scores one year are painted as failures the next.  Gates Foundation experts sheepishly agreed.

  • Racist Origins of Standardized Testing  – Another participant stumped them completely by asking about the origin of standardized testing.  The Gates Foundation experts were not aware that the tools they promote were originally designed by the Eugenics movement to apply assembly line models to classrooms in attempt to prove the ‘genetic superiority’ of whites.   Standardized tests continue to do what they were designed to do — maintain a system of racially segregated education.

  • Charter Schools – the Gates Foundation was (and still is) one of the major players in the push to advance charter schools.  As we have pointed out repeatedly in words and actions, the public schools are failing youth of color and working class youth.  It is understandable that many parents, communities, and progressive teachers will want to build alternative schools that have some degree of autonomy – ability to develop their own curriculum, to set their own schedules, etc.  Many people start charter schools thinking that they will offer such freedom; Bill Gates, on the other hand, wants charters in order to help take capitalism to a whole new level.

The charter movement may have started with good intentions but it has rapidly become a tool of corporate privatization rather than a viable laboratory where new forms of teaching can blossom and spread throughout the public system.   Charter schools become just as bureaucratic and authoritarian as public schools – some even more so, because charter-ization often paves the way for military academies or militaristic, heavily disciplined forms of teaching.   Many charter schools have admissions requirements, which makes it easier for elitist schools to maintain class and race segregation; this can also lead to discrimination against students with disabilities, which federal public education legislation was designed to prevent (whether it actually does that effectively is another whole conversation, but charters can make it worse).

Many charters are non-union, which means their teachers are more stressed out due to longer hours and lower pay. This can make it harder for them to focus on building relationships with students.  It can also mean the teachers have less academic freedom and can be fired more easily for teaching something that the administration doesn’t like.

When Bill Gates and his foundation push for charter schools they are not pushing for the dream of parents and teachers who want to opt out of an oppressive public school system.  They are pushing for their own dream – a corporate controlled education system with fewer public roadblocks in the way of billionaires who want to fashion education to suit their own goals.

The crowd made these criticisms of charter schools perfectly clear to the Gates Foundation.

People over Experts

At the “Education Policy Throwdown” we learned firsthand that what these “experts” are doing is not driven by observation or science.  They are paid pseudo-scientists who are paid to go find facts that support the preconceived ideology of Bill Gates.   They manipulate public policy behind the scenes by selective funding of research and by creating an atmosphere where everyone in academia is afraid to point out that the 800-pound gorilla has no clothes.

We also learned that they are vulnerable.  When called out into the streets to actually explain themselves to the public that they foist these policies upon, the Gates Foundation is simply defenseless.  

Gates’ Policies Are Still a Train Wreck

So, what else have they gotten wrong regarding education?

  • Small Schools Initiative:  The Gates Foundation spent over $2B convincing school districts to break their large schools into smaller “academies”.  Gates later admitted that the results were “disappointing” AFTER districts spent their OWN capital dollars physically re-architecting their campuses around a rich guy’s baseless hunch.  (BTW, ask the folks at Seattle’s Cleveland High School about this one.)

  • Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) project:  The Gates Foundation spent years trying to validate their preconceived belief that teacher effectiveness can be scientifically measured.   They were wrong.  According to the National Education Policy Center, their “…results do not settle disagreements about what makes an effective teacher and offer little guidance about how to design real-world teacher evaluation systems”.  (This study even won the NEPC’s 2013 Bunkum Awards, recognizing lowlights in educational research).

Bill Gates and his foundation get it wrong because their policies are based on the neoliberal belief that the most important dimension of a human being is their contribution to the economy.   This ingrained belief expresses itself in systems that make the role of education to simply prepare workers for the labor market.  

In fact, this is the explicitly stated goal of their post-secondary education program:  “Our goal — to ensure that all low-income young adults have affordable access to a quality postsecondary education that is tailored to their individual needs and educational goals and leads to timely completion of a degree or certificate with labor-market value.”

Bill Gates is also wrong because he is a hypocrite.  He brags about the quality of his own relevant and relationship-based education at Lakeside, yet funnels everyone else into the pipeline that creates worker bots.
Preach One Thing, Invest in Another

Hypocrisy, or something darker, must motivate the investment portfolio of the Gates Foundation.  According to an analysis of their 2012 tax returns by Mother Jones Magazine:

  • They preach nutrition, but invest billions in MacDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Burger King, etc.

  • They preach support for the working poor, but invest billions in Walmart

  • They preach about fighting climate change, but invest billions in fossil fuels like Exxon Mobile, Arch Coal, Peabody Coal, Baker Hughes, etc.

  • WORST OF ALL, they preach that they will not invest in companies with “egregious corporate activities”, but invest in private prison companies like GEO Group and G4S Corporation, which operates 19 juvenile prisons in the US.   (GEO Group publicly stated that their profits would suffer from “reductions in crime rates” that “could lead to reductions in arrests, convictions and sentences,” along with immigration reform and the decriminalization of drugs.)

The Gates Foundation directly profits from maintaining the School to Prison Pipeline and from maintaining the dysfunctional economic status quo.

However, as we have written about on this blog before — our struggle is not JUST against the School To Prison Pipeline, but against ALL of the pipelines that systemically strip people of power and possibilities.  The pipelines to prison, to precarious employment, to overworked technology labor, or even to the stressed managerial class* are ALL BAD for the people in them.  (*Note that suicide now kills more 40-60 year old white males than car accidents).

Next Target, Higher Education

Bill Gates and his foundation continue to build the pipelines that perpetuate privilege for some and prison for others. Their latest target is now the university system, which they seek to destroy and rebuild in their own techno-capitalist vision.

The Chronicle of Higher Education released a detailed report that sharply criticized their new approach, which they state is “designed for maximum measurability, delivered increasingly through technology, and…narrowly focused on equipping students for short-term employability.”

One structural change promoted by the Gates Foundation is the channeling of Federal Student Financial Aid toward schools that do not require ‘credit hours’, instead allowing students to demonstrate competency by completing online training.

According to the Chronicle’s report, the tremendous financial power wielded by the Gates Foundation creates an atmosphere of fear and intimidation within the administration of colleges and universities.   Few are willing to speak out against Gates’ vision of education as job preparation.  If schools follow this vision, we all lose the many other critical roles that colleges have played in society.  The university will no longer be a place for reflection on the meaning of human existence (or other such “non-productive” activities).

Automation and Education in the Era of Robots

The Gates Foundation goals are shaped by Gates’ plans for the next era of capitalist accumulation.  As Gates, Jeff Bezos at Amazon.com, and other tech company titans push for increasing automation of the workforce, more and more workers will be replaced by robots.  As this happens, society could be increasingly divided into new classes – those who own the robots, those who manage them, those who serve these two groups, and everyone else who is deemed a “surplus population” and targeted for mass incarceration and other forms of social destruction.

If this stratification proceeds, the corporate owners would need to reproduce it in the schools.  Since charter schools make the  education system more flexible, their presence might help speed up this process.   Gates and his technocrats might push for elite, holistic, creative schools for the future robot owners, heavy STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) schools for the future robot operators, discipline-based job training programs for the future servants, and prison-like schools for everyone else. Some teachers might become highly-paid professionals training the global elite and their programmers and engineers.  Others might become low-paid service industry workers who deploy automated “teacher-proof” online curriculum, punishing students who don’t pay attention to what Bill Gates wants them to see on the screen in front of them.   

The Gates Foundation is already deploying electronic bracelets on students’ arms that measure their arousal levels in the classroom;  they could use this data to help automate teaching, creating online and cybernetic technologies to replace teachers.  This might seem far-fetched, and it is admittedly decades away at least.  But the world we live in today would seem extremely far-fetched to early 20th century auto workers.  Little did they know that the time-study researchers watching them do their jobs would use this data to  replace them with robots.

Bill Gates Might Just  Blow Us All to Hell

Clearly Bill Gates has been wrong about many things before and will be again.

However, one his miscalculations may cause immediate searing and painful death to some and will likely accelerate the death of all of us through climate change.

You see, according to Forbes Magazine, Bill Gates is the person that convinced his friend Warren Buffet and his investment company, Berkshire Hathaway, to invest in Burlington Northern Sante Fe (BNSF) and Canadian Railway (CN).   

Bill is pretty clever, and he saw that all of that Tar Sands and Bakken Shale Oil might not be able to get to market in China, ESPECIALLY if the Keystone XL pipeline was not approved by the Obama administration.  So, Berkshire Hathaway invested heavily to increase the capacity of these rail systems so that they could carry more of these petroleum products.

The cruel irony is that last month, the State Department ruled that Keystone XL will have no impact on CO2 emissions because, even if it not approved, the oil/tar in the ground would get to the market anyways via the newly expanded rail capacity.   The result is that the staggering amounts of Canadian Tar Sands will now be strip-mined and sold overseas, accelerating the pace at which the planet will become a climate-ravaged hellscape.

The Gates Foundation holds more than $10B worth of Berkshire Hathaway.  They took a minimal risk in the railway investment — even though the rail lines may have profited more without Keystone XL, they win.  They can afford to take risks and lose a few.

 However, folks in the pathway of their rail cars filled with these highly explosive materials are not so lucky.  Perhaps Bill Gates should have educated himself on one of the key themes of Greek literature – Hubris.  His unwarranted self-confidence puts our schools, our communities, and our climate at extreme risk.   

School board treats Black workers like the kid in the back of the class whose question never gets answered

6 Nov
photo from theblacksphere.net

photo from theblacksphere.net

Every day I’m supposed to get up in front of my students and tell them to finish school so they can get a “good job”.   Never mind the fact that they are on the verge of dropping out because they know better than I do how high the youth unemployment rate is, even for people with diplomas.   They know how their friends are competing with college graduates just to get  low-wage, humiliating McJobs.

 Many of them are tired of this system that sees them only as workers to be used up and cast into prison once they are no longer needed.
 Now the school board injects an added layer of irony into this daily charade. Six weeks ago, workers from the African American Longshore Coalition and the A Phillip Randolph Institute had asked the Board basic questions about which contractors are getting the jobs created by the BEX-levy funds for school renovations.   It appears they wanted to publicize this information so that Black youth facing an even higher than average unemployment rate would know where to apply for construction jobs.  As of Halloween (10/31), the Seattle School Board still had not responded to the authors’ basic questions.   So in response, they wrote the open letter that’s posted below. 
How can the board expect teachers to encourage students to get jobs, when they themselves can’t seem to answer basic questions about where these jobs are. 
My students could tell you hundreds of stories of the times when they had their hands raised but their former teachers never answered their questions. I wish I could take a hint from Dan Savage and tell them “it gets better.”  But the problem is, it doesn’t.
 When their parents try to look out for them by making sure they can get access to publicly funded jobs, they are also treated like the kid in the back of the class with dust settling on top of his raised hand.  At least until they take “independent action”, as this letter warns.
Dear Seattle Public School Board,The African American labor leader A. Philip Randolph once said “A community is

democratic only when the humblest and weakest person can enjoy the highest civil, economic, and social rights that the biggest and most powerful possess”.
The white labor leader Eugene V. Debs once said

“While there is a lower class, I am in it; while there is a criminal element, I am of it; and while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.”
Even the conservative labor leader Samuel Gompers once said “We want more schoolhouses and less jails.”
This is why organizations like the A. Philip Randolph Institute and AfricanAmerican Longshore Coalition exist today, to fight racism and discrimination and to stand for justice and equality.
The “official” African American unemployment rate is approximately twice the “national” US unemployment rate, and these figures only include people whose unemployment benefits have NOT yet been exhausted.
The Seattle BEX IV School Levy, approved by the voters this February, is a major municipal project that will infuse of $694.9 million dollars of taxpayer capital into at least 37 Seattle Public School district buildings.
Six weeks ago now, on September 18th, 2013, the AALC submitted the following (and attached) six simple questions to the Seattle Public School Board, both in writing and read aloud to the Board over the public meeting’s microphone :
⦁    Are the BEX IV Levy and its respective projects, including the Horace Mann building, covered by the Project Labor Agreement between the School District and the Seattle Building Trades Council, and/or any other Project Labor Agreements (PLAs)?⦁    If so, does this (or these) PLA(s) contain similar language regarding workforce diversity as is contained in the Sound Transit Project Labor Agreement?

⦁    What is the total projected number of jobs that the BEX IV Levy will create district-wide?

⦁    We are requesting a list of all BEX IV contractors and sub-contractors, with contact info for the person(s) in charge of hiring for each one.

⦁    We are also requesting a list of all hiring halls and job agencies (whether union or non-union) that are or will be involved in supplying personnel to the BEX VI Levy projects, with contact info for the person(s) in charge of enrolling new hires and/or new apprentices for each one.

⦁    What opportunities will there be specifically for working-age youth from the Africatown Community Innovation & Education Center at Horace Mann to be directly involved in the renovation of the Horace Mann building?

Since then, we have followed up by personally handing an extra copy of these six questions to SPS facilities coordinator Mike Skutack at the labor and contractors meeting of October 4th, and with several follow up emails to District administrators.
It is now All-Hallows Eve. If SPS had only responded to these six questions with even one answer per week, all of these questions would have been answered by now. Yet, not one of of our questions has been answered to date.
We do not understand why six seeks is not sufficient time to answer this short list of elementary questions.  Their answers may seem unimportant to people in positions of power and creature-comfort, but they are urgently needed by countless unemployed workers in the African American communities who require access to these valuable jobs.
At the same time that we have received no response to these questions, we are alarmed to hear that this same School Board may now be refusing to recognize and ratify all of the collaborative agreements developed between Superintendent Jose Banda and the heroic African American students and volunteer faculty of the Africatown Education & Innovation Center at the Horace Mann School Building.  Such a complete dismissal of our community on multiple levels would leave theAfrican working classes, both locally, nationally and internationally, with no choice but to consider our independent options of action and response.
We therefore urge this board to fully ratify these ongoing agreements with the appropriate Memorandums Of Understanding, and to avoid any scenario that endangers or interrupts the adequate physical housing of these students and educators.


Gabriel Prawl, AALC Chair/ APRI Vice President

Purnell Mitchell, AALC Executive Board Member

Leith Kahl, AALC Executive Board Member

Mexican teachers disrupt the metropolis; Seattle teachers accept underwhelming contract

4 Sep
Photo of Mexico City teacher protests, from Huffington Post

 Mexico City teacher protests; photo from the Huffington Post

Teachers have brought Mexico City to a halt by strategically blockading key transportation hubs throughout  the metropolis.   According to the Huffington Post,

Some 10,000 educators protesting a government reform program have in the span of a week disrupted international air travel, forced the cancellation of two major soccer matches, rerouted the planned route of the marathon and jammed up already traffic-choked freeways.

Teachers are taking this action in opposition to an education “deform” law that would base their evaluations on student test scores, and would end the union’s control of hiring.  Ironically, as  I mention below, Seattle teachers just voted tonight to accept similar conditions here.  Given the related issues we are facing, we should learn as much as we can from the Mexico City protests.

The blockade tactics the teachers are using there seem to be increasingly popular and effective, part of a global trend in protest methods.  Counterinsurgency theorist John Robb  warns the ruling class that they will face increasingly powerful “systems disruption” from global  insurrectionary forces on both the left and the right; because the contemporary capitalist system is so highly networked, when  actors target key nodes in the system, they can cause cascading ripples of destruction.  Instead of having to spread their labor action into a general strike, the Mexican teachers have used their concentrated power as a militant minority to disrupt the reproduction of daily life across the metropolis; if people can’t commute, they can’t get to work.  All the teachers have to do is go after the system’s weak points: in this case the transportation nodes that were already overwhelmed by heavy traffic before the protests.

Here, the Occupy movement groped toward similar tactics, perhaps a bit too late to overcome its internal contradictions and the effects of state repression.    The clearest example of this kind of move was when the West Coast Occupy general assemblies called for a blockade of the ports in retaliation for the state’s crushing of the occupy camps.

This raised a set of crucial questions:  if a militant minority can  disrupt the contemporary metropolis, should they?  Or, more precisely, when should they?  Should they only do it if they have the support of a majority of  working class, oppressed, and unemployed folks who will be affected by the action?  If so, would they need active or passive support?  Or is it appropriate to act on behalf of a larger class/ group/ community if one’s goals are in the interests of everyone?  It is increasingly easy to disrupt the capitalist system, but what kind of actions simultaneously build our collective capacity to destroy, replace, and supersede it with total freedom / everything for everyone?

Some traditional U.S. labor activists might argue against these tactics of minority disruption; they might say they are desperate moves by teachers outnumbered and isolated from the rest of the working class; that the teachers should try to patiently organize to win over the majority of workers,  like classic U.S labor activists did when they built the unions in the 1930s.   These activists would be forgetting how the Oaxaca uprising began – teachers blockaded and occupied the central plaza, and when they faced repression and fought back,  more and more people began to join them, expanding the blockade into barricades across the city.

In their rush to try to replicate comfortably digested U.S. labor history, these patient folks would also be forgetting a lesson that Beverley Silver documents in her brilliant book Forces of Labor: the 1930s US auto strikes that gave birth to the CIO unions here were themselves militant minority actions that would probably have seemed recklessly insurrectionary the moment before they happened. For example, the Flint sit down strike was initiated by a small number of workers who knew the production process well enough to target crucial parts of the factory; when they shut these down,  cascading disruptions  ended up shutting down the auto companies’ entire production chains, causing massive amounts of economic damage.   And this kind of focused, tactical disruption was not unique to the U.S.; Silver documents how this process of disruptive militant minority action happened over and over again in auto factories located in multiple countries with very different cultural and political situations – from Italy in the 70s to Brazil and South Korea in the 80s.  When it was crushed in one place, it reemerged when a new militant minority of workers took action in the heart of a new, growing area of capitalist development.

This illustrates another one of John Robb’s tactical concepts: the idea of the “plausible promise”.  Once the rest of the auto workers saw in practice that a militant minority could actually deliver on their promise of shutting down the company, they changed their minds about what was possible and what was impossible; the militant minority became a majority after they took action, not before.  A majority of workers gained confidence, and chose to replicate the initial action in new ways across a variety of industries.

To be clear, I’m not arguing for an anti-social insurrectionist logic here (“we’re tired of waiting for The Masses to come around and we’re tried of making demands on the state , so we’re going to take direction action to free ourselves right now, even if it means fighting the masses”).   The Flint strikers  did have demands and they did appeal to a broader sense of class belonging – it was precisely through their ability to win these demands with bold, unexpected direct action, that they were able to generalize the struggle from a minority one to a majority one.  Eventually the autoworkers became a catalyzing force throughout the working class – people said “if they can do it, so can we”.   Of course, later on, this process of making demands through direct action became co-opted into a process  of “responsible unionism”.  Under a new “liberal” labor management regime,  union representatives make demands on behalf of the workers,  refuse to break laws set by the bosses,  confine the struggle to narrow issues of wages and benefits,  marginalize workers  who fight the bosses’ ability to control our creative powers on the job, and confine the struggle within national borders (supporting U.S imperialism instead of allying with the Mexican teachers and other folks who are fighting it around the world.)

The Mexican teachers are also posing demands.  Do their actions have the same potential to generalize from a militant minority into a majority?   Or will that kind of co-opting trade union logic prevent them from generalizing the struggle?  The mainstream media is highlighting the inconveniences the blockades are causing for the rest of the Mexico City working class and the anger against the union that this is causing among some folks.    However, it appears the teachers are uniting with other forces to oppose a range of austerity and privatization measures being pushed by the government (and ultimately by the empire).  They are not simply fighting for themselves.

This is a good step, but I imagine that the teachers will have trouble generalizing the struggle unless their demands also include a transformation of education itself,  not simply a defensive battle against testing and privatization.   Auto workers work on metal, but as caring laborers, teachers work with human beings.  We can’t simply sabotage our jobs without hurting  other oppressed people.  And our demands are inherently linked with the conditions that our students and their communities are facing.  Given that, we need to take direct action to collectively transform the learning process, but this can only happen if our students and their communities also rise up against the oppressive and alienating aspects of capitalist education, with all of its control and its suppression of creativity.

From my narrow vantage point here in the belly of the beast, I have no idea whether or not this is happening in the current Mexico City actions.  But I’ve heard that this sort of thing has  been a significant part of social struggles across Mexico in general, especially in indigenous liberation struggles.   At the end of the film Granito de Arena, some of the Mexican teacher militants discuss how their radical labor tactics are empty unless they also transform the learning process itself.  They talk about the need to collaborate as equals with the indigenous communities where they are teaching, to become part of the community sharing and creating knowledge, instead of imposing state-certified learning standards in a colonial fashion upon the community.

Meanwhile in Seattle… 

Teachers picket in Seattle against testing-based evaluations

Teachers picket in Seattle against testing-based evaluations

Over the past few weeks, Seattle teachers have held a series of pickets regarding the current contract negotiations between the Seattle Education Association and the Seattle Public Schools.  The union threatened to strike if necessary, and tonight many students have been wondering whether school is going to start tomorrow.   The union successfully defeated the district’s proposal to expand class sizes, and pushed the district to set caseload limits for school psychologists and occupational and physical therapists.

However, the district successfully pushed to continue using student test scores to evaluate teachers.  The union had been asking for a moratorium on this, pending changes at the state level in how teachers will be evaluated, including new state tests associated with the adoption of the Common Core standards.  The district didn’t budge, and tonight 1,500 of the union’s 3,000 members met to vote on the district’s final offer.   A majority of those 1,500 voted to accept the district’s offer, so there will be no strike.  Tomorrow, while Mexican teachers continue to fight, we’ll be going to work.

This is a somewhat underwhelming sequel to the vibrant boycott of the MAP test last spring.

What will it take to get to the point where we can fight back like the Mexican teachers are doing?  How can we start building, shoulder to shoulder with our students and their families and communities , starting right now,  so that if we do need to disrupt the metropolis here, we can do it together, creating new forms of learning and growth in the process?





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!