Thursday, July 28, 2011

Carnegie, Steel and the Busting of Teacher Unions (Part I)

Note: A shorter version of this article was published today in Labor Notes.
Education bloggers have done a good job of covering how wealthy philanthropists like Bill Gates, Eli Broad and the Walton family (see here, here, here and here) have sought to privatize and corporatize public education (see here, here, here and here). Their objectives, however, are not limited solely to increasing capital’s access to this huge and relatively untapped market, though this is certainly a major goal (See No Capitalist Left Behind). They also want to crush teachers unions because they reduce profits by defending wages and benefits and by resisting privatization schemes. Additionally, Republicans and Tea Party activists want to eliminate unions because of their financial support for Democratic candidates.

Education Reform: A Union Busting Trojan Horse
While attempts to crush the unions legislatively (e.g., Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan) have had only limited success, they have been much more effective at weakening the teachers unions discreetly through education reform. Reforms that limit tenure, due process or seniority protections also squelch dissent, union participation and even student advocacy by making it easier to fire teachers for any reason, regardless of their skill in the classroom. Charter schools weaken union power because they are exempt from districts’ closed shop policies and are almost always nonunion. 

However, education reform has also been undermining union strength in a much more subtle way by deskilling teachers. This has received scant coverage, probably because it is Trojan horse that does not directly attack unions, but weakens them from the inside out.

Andrew Carnegie—The Original Ed Deformer
History shows how deskilling workers weakens their unions. Prior to the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892, the steelworkers were highly skilled, with very specialized training (much like teachers and nurses today). When the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers (AAISW) made a demand and backed it with the threat of a strike, Homestead’s chairman, Henry Clay Frick, and its owner, Andrew Carnegie, had little choice but to concede, since they could not lock out the workers and replace them with strikebreakers who lacked this training. AAISW virtually ran the mill, using this power to control the speed of production and the safety of the plant, in addition to more traditional wage and benefits demands.

In 1889, Carnegie attempted to crush the union by imposing a wage cut of 25% and abolishing collective bargaining. The workers fought off strikebreakers and Pinkertons (private police hired to protect the scabs), while sympathetic strikes broke out at other Carnegie mills, forcing Carnegie to back down, accept collective bargaining, and sign a three-year contract. (From Strike! by Jeremy Brecher, South End Press, Boston, 1972).
Pinkertons Surrender to Authorities
The workers won an important battle, but the war was not over. In January, 1892, Carnegie tried another large wage cut. Frick imposed speedups and hired 300 Pinkertons. On July 2, Frick laid off the entire Homestead workforce, effectively ending collective bargaining. The workers organized themselves and essentially took over the town’s political authority and ran its infrastructure. 10,000 strikers temporarily held off the Pinkertons and scabs with sticks and a few guns. However, 40 strikers were shot and nine killed, while 120 Pinkertons were shot and seven killed. Meanwhile, Carnegie continued to bring in scabs, this time under the protection of militias, and those who didn't quit to join the strikers were able to keep production going. (From Brecher, op. cit.)

The strike lasted four months, until winter cold and hunger set in. Many workers’ families were literally starving. Furthermore, they were now up against Pinkertons and government militias. Perhaps most significant, though, was the fact that in a few short years, Carnegie had been able automate much of production, allowing untrained and semi-skilled scabs to do the work that had previously only been possible by highly skilled laborers. (From Brecher, op. cit.) If the strikers had continued to hold out, they likely would have been permanently replaced. Indeed, many of the strike’s leaders were blacklisted, which would have been much more difficult if the mills still required highly skilled workers. According to Brecher, mechanization at the Carnegie mills led to a 25% overall decline in employees, with a doubling of productivity for steelworkers and a tripling of productivity for the furnace workers.

Andrew Carnegie, The Original Ed Deformer
The lesson Carnegie taught capitalists then and education reformers today (Scott Walker, notwithstanding) was that instead of going immediately for overt and confrontational tactics like slashing wages or collective bargaining, they could weaken workers’ power by attacking their working conditions and making them superfluous through automation. Speeding up production, for example, leads to higher profits without increasing wages, yet it is still a de facto wage cut. It also forces workers to toil harder and faster, increasing their exhaustion and decreasing their time and energy for organizing or commiserating with their peers.

Through mechanization, the bosses not only decrease the cost of production by decreasing the number of employees; worker skill and expertise become less important and workers become interchangeable, thus making it easier to replace them with scabs should they decide to strike. Furthermore, workers are much less likely to go on strike in the first place over an attack on their working conditions if they believe their job security and take home pay will be unaffected.

Carnegie Today: The Deskilling of Teachers
While the Right has not yet succeeded in destroying the public sector unions, it has undermined worker solidarity by convincing nonunionized and private sector workers that public sector workers are somehow responsible for their problems. One reason for the success of this corporate legend is that it exploits differences in social status between these groups of workers. Public sector workers, like teachers, nurses and social workers, are often portrayed as thinkers or caregivers, rather than as workers proper, as if their labor was easier, less dangerous, done entirely out of love, and therefore not worthy of generous compensation or job protections.  More significantly, public sector unions, like the AAISW, tend to represent highly skilled workers such as nurses, teachers, fire fighters, police and social workers, whose jobs require specialized college and/or professional training. As a result, they cannot be easily replaced by unemployed and underemployed workers who lack this training. Thus, if the unions did stand up to the politicians, they would not be able to simply fire them all and find competent replacements to keep the system functioning. This is one reason why the public sector unions are still relatively strong.

However, with the deskilling of teaching, this is rapidly changing. 

Teach For America (TFA), for example, places recent college graduates with virtually no education training, student teaching experience or pedagogical coursework directly into the classroom. Billionaires like Broad have been big financial backers of TFA, but they have also supported the irrational and discredited notion that we must do away with seniority to protect the eager young teachers who are all presumed to be better than their senior colleagues, despite their lack of experience. 

Even the ACLU has jumped on this bandwagon, successfully suing LAUSD to undermine contractually protected seniority rights at low income schools by exempting their novice teachers from layoffs, ostensibly to protect their students from losing their teachers each year. However, this plan will likely backfire due to the high attrition rates of inexperienced teachers (50% of ALL teachers quit within their first five years), a problem that is exacerbated at low income schools where they are expected to make their students transcend the myriad lifetime disadvantages of growing up in poverty. Indeed, attrition at low income schools is 50% higher than at more affluent schools.

Educators are being deskilled in more subtle ways, too, particularly through increasingly rigid and punitive accountability and testing schemes that pressure schools and teachers to teach to the test and engage in “drill and kill” activities at the expense of inquiry-based learning, critical thinking, reading for depth and curiosity. Many districts, as a direct result of NCLB mandates and punishments, have forced teachers to be in lockstep with their curricula or have imposed scripted reading. Common Core Standards are taking away the independence of local school districts and states to determine their own content standards and relinquishing this responsibility more and more to the textbook publishers. Value-added and merit pay schemes use compensation and tenure as carrots and sticks to push teachers ever deeper into the mindset that test scores trump all else. When job security and income are dependent on student test scores, it stands to reason that many will sacrifice good pedagogy for increased test practice, rote memorization and “drill and kill.”

The threat of NCLB punishments has led many schools to implement scripted test preparation that not only undermines teacher creativity and innovative curriculum, but that also drives a stake into children’s curiosity and excitement about learning. Rather than engaging in interesting class discussions, reading enjoyable age-appropriate texts, or doing exciting lab activities, many teachers are finding themselves compelled to participate in school-wide vocabulary activities written by an administrator and broadcast of the schools’ PA or video system. Teachers are also finding more and more of their instructional time being replaced by standardized exams (as many as several weeks each school year), further deskilling the profession, as exam proctoring entails little more than passing out answer sheets, test booklets and reading scripted instructions from a handbook.

A similar dynamic is taking place at the university level, where it is becoming increasingly difficult to obtain a tenure track position. More and more schools are now hiring professors as temporary, part-time lecturers, with few benefits, low pay, no job security and little influence over their curriculum. Without tenure or a commitment by the university to support them, they must spend so much time writing grants to pay their own salaries or fighting to defend their positions that they have little time for original research or designing innovative curriculum. In some cases, professors are being replaced by taped lectures purchased through subscriptions. Others are taking jobs facilitating online courses which inherently limit the creativity and quality of the teaching. Online science classes, for example, have very inadequate options for experimentation, and thus become more like Facebook discussions of textbook passages than opportunities to learn and do real science.

Attacks on Teachers Unions Are Attacks On Children
Education reform is not only harming students directly by killing their enthusiasm and curiosity, turning schools into testing mills, and transferring resources from the classroom to the pockets of corporate education profiteers, but also by deskilling their teachers and driving many out of the profession. The more we turn schools into mills and teachers into factory workers, the more we also destroy their love and passion for teaching and hence their desire to be in education in the first place.

Stay tuned for Carnegie, Steel and the Busting of Teacher Unions  (Part II), in which I discuss the lessons for teachers and unions and ways to fight this madness.


  1. This morning, one of my fellow activists and I were discussing a program that several groups are asking local activists and UTLA to get involved with. However, the program seemed a little fishy and... one of the funders for the program is the Carnegie Corporation.

    No small coincidence that you would publish this today. This should give us cause to pause.

  2. Interesting coincidence and definitely reason to pause.

    The Homestead strike started in July, so maybe it's no coincidence at all, but rather a well-timed attempt by Carnegie to white wash its sordid past (and present) by co-opting teachers unions.