We have seen historic progressive backlash at the polls and on the streets, beginning with the Women’s March, the day after Trump’s inauguration. And since conservatives are only concerned with giving teachers guns, not raises, come the fall, there might be teachers in states to join those in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona in exiting the classroom to teach their students from the barricades.
As Thomas Frank chronicled in What’s the Matter with Kansas, the Republican Party has succeeded in getting working class conservatives to think that hating gays and interfering with reproductive rights is more important than having access to a living wage and affordable health care.
“I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other half,” quipped Jay Gould, the 19th century railroad developer, a statement that is no less true today.
In addition to distracting and appealing to nativism and racism, the Right has also been highly successful at co-opting school boards and targeting curriculum. Long defended despite his mixed record on slavery, even Thomas Jefferson has been expelled.
The recent wave of teacher strikes and activism are certainly a reason to be optimistic, even if no relief is expected from the legislative branch or the Supreme Court. In fact, workers are positioned to do more for themselves — and not only because they have no alternative. For many, this means running for office. For others, this could mean a blend of teaching and activism.
It is a great trick of neoliberalism to reduce communities to individuals and to reduce individual interests and happiness to short-term material gain. If progressivism is to have any kind of impactful future, it must focus on telling compelling stories about the flaws related to looking at the world through capital-colored glasses. Education, especially K-12 education, will be essential in realizing that future.
In his landmark 1968 treatise Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Brazilian educator Paulo Freire argues that education is too much about simple narrative and the banking system, where knowledge is expected to accumulate. In that sense, “Education is suffering from narration sickness,” he writes, in that it does not expect nor prepare students to enter the world critically. It is a world not to be affected or changed, but merely observed.
Freire also writes of the solidarity that must occur in the classroom insofar as teachers and students must act in full recognition of their common aims and common enemies. It did not hurt the striking teachers’ case that they were arguing not just for increased pay for better facilities and to improve the learning conditions and for the compensation for other school staff.
It is not shareholder activism, as Boston University law professor David Webber calls it in his new book The Rise of the Working-Class Shareholder: Labor’s Last Best Weapon, in which labor can use the levers of capital against itself.
Instead, this combination of workers and the greater community could engage in stakeholder activism, whereby the interests of any given profession or set of workers is understood as component of a social project. As one sign from a North Carolina teacher read, “Teachers Want What Children Need.” Teachers and the educational system is simply the clearest and most obvious example of what could be a larger trend in other areas, including health care, the service industry, and a post-carbon economy.
Freire recognizes how dominants classes eschew any talk of class consciousness, much less class conflict. “Class conflict is another concept which upsets the oppressors, since they do not wish to consider themselves an oppressive class.” They seek to divide as an essential part of their oppression. That’s why Obama was mocked as a community organizer in the 2008 presidential election.
Like Karl Marx, Freire is suspicious of labor unions as instruments of appeasement. But that is not an argument against unions as much as it is an argument about a particular kind of union and a particular kind of union leader. Indeed, we have seen union leadership lagging behind the rank and file in terms of its positions and its tactics.
A few weeks after its 5-4 decision in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis, which permitted mandatory mitigation, the United States Supreme Court is set to deliver another blow to workers’ rights and organized labor. This will prohibit workers from joining in class action suits and other forms of litigation.
Janus v. AFSCME could potentially overturn thirty years of precedent relating to the collection of union dues, set by Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977).
The case involves Mark Janus, an employee at the Department of Healthcare and Family Services in Illinois, who believes that the fees he pays as a non-union member to AFSCME Local 2600 violates his First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Janus believes that the compulsory payment taken from his paycheck to support the union’s broader political activities forces him to endorse views that he does not support.
A ruling for Janus would effectively make every state a “right to work” state for public sector workers and deny recognized unions the authority and the influence that comes with exclusive representation. It would also turn Janus from a full-time child support specialist to a part-time free rider.
Since the other eight justices voted to a 4-4 tie in the trial run that was the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association (2016) case, the key will be Neil Gorsuch. Gorsuch, who is typically rather chatty for someone sitting in a stolen seat, remained silent during the oral arguments in Janus. Like Antonin Scalia, Gorsuch is a proponent of “textualism,” which means he has a knack for the selective reading documents and creative interpretations of the Constitution. To put it mildly, there is little reason to be hopeful.
The Janus decision may or may not affect the bargaining position a union has with employers, but insofar members opt out of voluntary payments, the real damage will be done to the ability of unions to advance public policies and support candidates for office that represent the interests of workers and their families.
On the other hand, Janus could mean more worker mobilization and more frequent strikes, especially if employers see the ruling as an invitation to run rough shod over employees. Indeed, pensions will continue to be a major target, as states move to make up budget gaps, which often result from their reflexive argument for lop-sided tax cuts as a solution to every economic and social problem.
Power in a Union
The most recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics has some sobering data about the decline of unions. The percent of union workers remained at a steady 10.7 percent for the last two years, but there are real differences not only among the public and private sector, but also among states, which could potentially lead to increased polarization.
In a strange but typical display of priorities, major league athletes seem to be the most powerful and protected set of organized employees — except if they are black and kneeling during the national anthem.
Public approval of unions is nowhere near its historic high — it reached 75 percent in 1957 — but has slipped somewhat since the early 70s but for the most part has remained fairly constant, in the low-60s to upper 50 percent. Given that decline in union participation has coincided with wage inequality, it should be trending in the opposite direction.
Labor activism is part of the American economic and social landscape, and respect for the position of labor is deeply rooted in our political culture, even among Republicans.
Theodore Roosevelt’s 1910 “New Nationalism” speech remains a strong statement of progressivism in practice. In it, he quotes Lincoln: “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.” Although Lincoln reminds labor of the importance of capital, his ultimate aim is the equality of opportunity and the protection of rights. This was when “the party of Lincoln” label could be used in a way that was not ironic.
Corey Robin, author of The Reactionary Mind argues that conservatism is actually weak, despite its strong showing in elected offices at all levels. Apart from being on the wrong side of nearly every issue, demographics are simply not on its side. In that sense, the Republican agenda is simply one last gasp smash and grab on the way of being kicked to the curb.
Labor unions have existed in one form or another since its founding. The first successful strike for increased wages occurred was held by Philadelphia printers in 1786, the year before the Constitution was ratified. International Workers’ Day (or May Day) was chosen to corresponded the 1886 Haymarket riot in Chicago.
The United States has a long and storied history of labor activism. When future generations read books about the 21st century labor movement, they will be reading about teachers.