For decades we have been told that the way to fix education is to fire people but red-shirted marchers across the country have shown the power of solidarity ... What unions do is more than protest. They change the dynamics of a community. They change the balance of social power. They change the way people think....This article is another find from Fiorillo.
What I like best about the wave of teachers’ strikes that have swept America these last few months is how they punch so brutally and so directly in the face of the number one neoliberal educational fantasy of the last decade: that all we need to do to fix public education is fire people.... Thomas Frank
Striking teachers show that cutting education to fix it is a neoliberal myth
Fire teachers, specifically. They need to learn fear and discipline. That’s what education “reformers” have told us for years. If only, the fantasy goes, we could slay the foot-dragging unions and the red-tape rules that keep mediocre teachers in their jobs, then things would be different. If only some nice “tech millionaires” would step in and help us fire people! If only we could get a thousand clones of Michelle Rhee, the former DC schools chancellor who fired so many people she even once fired someone on TV!
Now just look at what’s happened. We’ve seen enormous teacher protests in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona, with more on the way. Actions that look very much like strikes by people who, in some of these states, are legally forbidden to strike. It was the perfect opportunity for education “reformers” to fire people, and fire them en masse. It was the politicians’ chance to show us what a tough-minded boss could do.
And in most cases, it was state governments that capitulated. It was hard-hearted believers in tax cuts and austerity and discipline who caved, lest they themselves get fired by voters at the next opportunity.
That, folks, is the power of solidarity, and the wave of teacher walkouts is starting to look like our generation’s chance to learn the lesson our grandparents absorbed during the strike wave of the late 1930s: that given the right conditions and the right amount of organization, working people can rally the public and make social change all by themselves. Irresistibly. Organically. From the bottom up.
There are unique circumstances that have made this amazing moment possible, of course. For one thing, parents and school officials and ordinary citizens have grown sick of the constantly worsening educational situation and – thanks to the manifest incompetence in Washington – they can now see that the federal government has no intention of doing anything to help them. Parents and school boards were often willing, out of sheer frustration, to back the walkouts.
There’s the role of inequality: these protests are the result of years of austerity for public services even as state governments promise lavish handouts for certain corporations – anything to land Amazon HQ2, right? Educators in Arizona were grotesquely underpaid and the schools they work in are often crumbling. Teachers in some parts of Oklahoma work four days a week because that’s all the system can afford. Tales of teachers on food stamps or teachers driving for Uber in their spare time are so commonplace now that no one is shocked any more.
Then there’s the tight job market. Unemployment stands at a record low these days, and there are even scattered reports of labor shortages. There has never been a better time for workers to come together and make demands of their bosses, and it is starting to look as though workers know it.
Back in April, the AFL-CIO announced that its affiliated unions had signed up more than 10,000 new members in a single week, including flight attendants at Jet Blue and graduate student teachers at Harvard. Even more remarkable in some ways is the story of a group of workers at a hamburger stand in Portland, Oregon, who successfully organized a local of the IWW.
Only a short while ago it looked as though organized labor was in deep trouble, with Republican governors declaring war on public employees and a supreme court case threatening to defund public-sector unions.
Now, in a beautiful reversal, it is the shibboleths of the conservative era that are shaking. Not because the DC punditburo has changed its mind about things, of course. It’s happening because vast throngs of people in red T-shirts have gone marching through the streets of their red-state towns to let the world know they’ve had enough.
It is with an observation about those red states that I want to conclude. However Republicans might appeal to the resentments and fears of white working-class people, they are still working-class people, dealing every day with the indignity of having to sell their labor in a system determined to bid them down and insult them in a thousand different ways.
Yes, many of them went for Trump in 2016. But just look at them now, as so many rally around … teachers’ unions, a rightwing hate-object bigger than Hillary herself.
When I talked to Noah Karvelis, a 23-year-old music teacher who helped lead the movement in Arizona, he marveled at the “mentality shift” he has seen since the protests began. “We had the first statewide teachers’ strike that Arizona’s seen, ever. That happened in this era, in this political climate right now, in Arizona, which is about as red and as libertarian as they come.”
What unions do is more than protest. They change the dynamics of a community. They change the balance of social power. They change the way people think.