Why Teachers?

March 15, 2019

In the piece I wrote about free time for The Outline a few weeks ago, I very briefly discussed the outsized—or at least particularly visible—role that teacher strikes have played in the labor movement over the past few years. But that issue deserves more serious attention. I’m not sure I’m qualified to provide it, but I have been thinking about it, so I figured I’d lay out some of those thoughts.

In particular, and in large part because I also just read Melinda Cooper’s stunning book Family Values, I’ve been wondering whether there is a material explanation for why teachers have more structural leverage in the modern economy. This is something like the role Jane McAlevey says logistics workers have, or that Timothy Mitchell argued energy workers had while we were dependent on coal (and crucially lost once we moved to oil.)

Cooper shows that, in the era of human capital, debt is used to privatize various functions that were once public goods, turning them into familial obligations. That, in turn, makes education a central node in our society. Student loans bind children to parents for longer, school zoning policies help shape gentrification, and so on. Education is at the center.

That’s directly true with primary and secondary schools, since they also provide food and childcare that parents depend on while they work. Especially given the costs an practical stresses of securing private childcare, striking teachers have the power to shut down all parts of a community. Parents must scramble to make other arrangements, extending the impact of a teacher strike into other workplaces. The middle class long ago stopped living in large extended families, so they don’t often have a back-up option at the ready. When teachers strike, the whole community feels the impact—something teachers have explicitly addressed by organizing food for students during strikes, proving to the broader community that its teachers who provide for their children, not administrators.

The direct material question isn’t the same higher education, but the fact that parents are on the hook for the debt does mean adjunct and TA strikes impact them, too. I think that’s one way of making sense of the visceral reactions so many well-to-do letter-to-the-editor writers had about the grading strike TAs organized at the University of North Carolina in response to administration’s actions around Silent Sam. The wealthy were funding their children’s class ambitions, and watching their investments get disrupted by the fight against white supremacy was too much.

The upshot of all of this is that teachers are the leading light of the labor movement because they have strategic leverage in this education-centric economy. That’s something that can be (and is being!) used to further the labor movement more generally.

But two caveats from my piece still hold, I think.

First, much of the rhetoric around teacher strikes has been: “teachers deserve better.” They do, of course—but so do fast food workers and care workers and truck drivers and sex workers and every other human being. The leverage teachers enjoy can’t just be a matter of convincing the public that teachers are important in particular. That won’t lead to a broader working class victory anymore than craft and skilled workers gaining sympathy in the nineteenth century did.

Second, there’s still an open question about whether or not teachers’ leverage is strong enough to make a broader victory possible. Education workers have repeatedly tried to expand their movement to others: TAs and adjuncts across the country are organizing in conjunction with groundskeepers and cleaning crews, and public teachers have consistently made demands that benefit students, especially low-income students. But making the demand is one thing; winning it is another.

It may be that teachers have the power to improve their own working conditions, but not enough to do much more. The sheer volume of grad students being locked out of academic jobs, teachers working second jobs, and adjuncts living month to month, combined with the deep status fears among the upper classes (see: the college admissions scandal) means the resegregation of schools and neighborhoods is well underway. As that happens, teachers’ leverage could shrink: the only ones impacted by a teacher strike would be the lower classes; the rich would be increasingly insulated in their gated communities and desirable school districts and private schools, their educators paid well enough to stem any labor unrest.

I know the folks in the teachers unions and grad student and adjunct unions are already working on these questions, so this isn’t adding anything knew. It’s just an attempt to clarify some of the contours of the fights to come. I’m not sure how optimistic I am about winning those fights, either, but I am optimistic that the attempt will teach us a great deal about what unions must do to adapt to today’s conditions.

Photo by Shutter Stutter is licensed under CC BY 2.0.