In Part I, I described how education reformers, taking a play out of the Andrew Carnegie union-busting playbook, have been working to deskill the teaching profession, thus weakening the power of teachers unions. When teachers become easily replaceable with semi-skilled workers, like Teach For America candidates, substitute teachers and proctors, the unions will find it much more difficult to win strikes, as administrators or politicians will be able to simply fire them all or lock them out. The problem is that the unions have not been using the strike much at all lately, perhaps in part because they believe they are not strong enough to win. This may be a tragic miscalculation, not only for teachers, but for the children who depend on their skill, expertise and passion.
But first, what are the immediate lessons for teachers and their unions?
Lessons for Teachers and Their Unions
Carnegie was able to crush the AAISW through a combination of downsizing, speed ups, deskilling and military force. Teaching has not yet been deskilled to the point where teachers can be fired en masse. However, evidence that management can easily go after less-skilled workers can be seen in what is happening now to their clerical and custodial colleagues, who are being decimated in order to accommodate shrinking budgets.
Teachers unions have largely remained silent during this downsizing. As a result, classrooms and bathrooms are dirtier, repairs are not being made, schools are less safe, and teachers are taking up time to clean, repair, and photocopy that could be used for teaching, lesson planning, and meeting with students. They are doing more work for the same or less pay.
Perhaps the most tragic consequence of this lack of solidarity is that many teachers look down on their colleagues and treat them as second-class citizens on campus, rather than appreciating the necessary contributions they make toward students’ and teachers’ own wellbeing.
One Big Union
As in any workplace, the relative strength of the more highly skilled needs to be used to protect the less skilled—not just as an act in solidarity, but because their own status depends on it. Teachers need the support of their non-teaching colleagues to successfully resist deskilling.
As it stands, this sort of solidarity is undermined by the very structure of most unions, which tend to be organized by trade or craft, rather than by industry, making it easier for bosses to divide and conquer. For example, instead of having teachers in one union and clerical and custodial staff in another (as is generally the case), all education workers should be organized in one big union. Consider how much more quickly an education strike could be won if bus drivers refused to pick up students, cafeteria workers refused to prepare meals, secretaries refused to do the administrators’ paperwork, and custodians refused to clean.
However, even under existing conditions, teachers need to recognize that their lot depends on that of their nonteaching colleagues, that their power grows with their support, and that this support can be won by striking early and often for the “little” things.
Strike Early, Strike Often
Strikes are the most powerful weapon unions have for achieving their demands, whether it is higher wages, an end to NCLB and Race to the Top, or universal healthcare for all. However, when workers are easily replaced it is much more difficult to win, as we saw in the Homestead strike. This will soon be the case for teachers, too, if they do not resist the deskilling of their profession.
Deskilling is causing many teachers to feel alienated and hopeless about their future, leading some to give up on their unions or the profession entirely. Many even start their careers with a disdain for their unions because the unions often provide such little support for temporary and probationary teachers, even though they are dues-paying members.
Deskilling generally accompanies mechanization of a workplace, which in turn often results in downsizing and speedups. When workers are harried, overworked and exhausted, it is harder to get them to do anything after work, like attend organizing meetings and prepare for job actions. We are already seeing this with teachers, who are feeling busier, more stressed, and less able to participate in union meetings, not to mention meet with each other and their students outside of class. Virtually all education reforms are like factory speedups, because they add to teachers’ workloads, generally without any extra compensation or evidence that they will make much of a difference in children’s lives. So education reforms should also be resisted unless there is solid evidence they will improve educational outcomes and teachers will be compensated fairly.
Resisting deskilling, downsizing and speedups means that unions must organize and prepare their members to be ready to strike at any moment. A union that can quickly mobilize its members can often win simply by threatening to strike, without actually striking. However, this threat only works when the bosses are convinced workers have the ability, willingness and discipline to carry it out, something they will likely have to demonstrate initially and, quite possibly, repeatedly.
Therefore, teachers should be preparing now for repeated strikes and job actions, not just to demonstrate their power, but to roll back the reforms that undermine union participation and weaken union power.
Public support can be gained by making it clear that these reforms are not only money grabbing scams by corporate raiders, but devastating to children’s health, safety and educational success. For example, increased class sizes, decreased maintenance and repairs, declining nurses, counselors and support services on campus all contribute to declining student wellbeing, as well as increased teacher workloads. High stakes testing and value-added and merit pay schemes turn schools into testing mills that undermine student curiosity and enthusiasm for learning, as well as deteriorating teachers’ working conditions and weakening their union power.
Solidarity can also be gained by fighting for the “little” things. Resisting the downsizing of custodial and maintenance staffs not only makes schools safer for children and teachers and eases teachers’ workloads, it helps nonteaching staff members maintain their jobs and working conditions. By taking job actions and the risks that accompany them to defend students and coworkers, teachers increase the chances that they will reciprocate.
The deskilling of the teaching profession is accelerating and it is happening largely under the radar of the media and even many teachers, with tragic consequences for students who are subjected to more rote memorization, testing, test preparation and behavior management and a declining emphasis on critical thinking, curiosity and a love of learning. It is terrible for teachers who are losing their academic freedom and creativity at the same time they are being plied with increasing workloads and declining wages. However, it should also be seen as an attack on all working people, not only because it threatens the quality of education for their children, but because it weakens the power of one of the few professions that is still highly unionized. Rather than accepting the lie that public sector unions are responsible for declining employment, wages and working conditions, it is time for all workers to support better conditions for all workers.
An Injury to One is An Injury to All!