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Caring enough to strike: U.S. teachers’ strikes in perspective

Originally published: Rebel News on January 14, 2019 (more by Rebel News)  |

This week, Los Angeles teachers are set to go on strike. This is after a year of teacher revolts—from the strike wave in the Spring of 2018 in West Virginia, Arizona and Oklahoma, to the historic strike of charter school teachers in Chicago. Tithi Bhattacharya discusses why teachers went on strike this past year from a social reproduction framework. [—Rebel News Eds.]

Today more than 30,000 teachers are going on strike in Los Angeles. In several schools, there will be solidarity strike action from teaching assistants, custodians, fod service workers, bus drivers, and other unionized workers who provide essential support services in the school district. The Los Angeles strike comes in the wake of a series of teachers’ strikes in the United States, an extraordinary wave that began with the wildcat action of West Virginia teachers in February, 2018. The West Virginia strike was followed by Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, and North Carolina.

This essay is an effort not so much to understand (a) why the strike has come back again to the US political landscape, but rather about (b) exploring the strike form in a landscape which many had thought only held the ruins of working class power . The answer to the first question has been adequately provided by the brutal regimes of neoliberal work conditions. This is why it is more important to reflect on the second, in order to arrive at that specific kind of agentive understanding that will allow for the strike to spread, all the while nourishing itself with histories of its own past as it charts the course of new futures.

Why teachers and why now?

Oral testimony from teachers shows clearly why they are in revolt. First there are the multiple jobs: teachers are 30% more likely to have multiple jobs than other workers, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Reports came in from Oklahoma, a state with one of the lowest pay for teachers, of teachers holding down six jobs.

Second, the crumbling infrastructure: Arizona teachers took pictures of their classrooms coordinated by the National Education Association. The title of the NEA report should give you a sense of its content: “Mice, Mould and More: A Look Inside Arizona Classrooms.”

The rickety framework that now holds up public education in the US is the result of decades of cost cutting, overseen by Republicans and Democrats alike. A recent study found a slashing of state support by 7 percent or more per student over the last decade in at least 12 states. Seven of those states—Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Oklahoma—cut income tax worth millions of dollars each year, instead of restoring, let alone investing in, education funding. Average national spending per student per year is currently $11,000. But the amount spent per student in the highest poverty districts is $1,200 less. While districts serving the largest number of students of colour receive a full $2,000 less than this annual average.1 The message for young people of colour is clear: the only free, public service you are welcome to is the prison system.

Added to this toxic mix is decades of high-stakes testing, punitive accountability systems, and a curriculum so narrow that it leaves teachers with little pedagogic creativity, and we have a mass exodus of teachers from the profession or extreme burnout of those who remain. Alyssa Dunn’s study of resignation letters by public school teachers provide a fierce indictment of the neoliberal education system. One teacher frames his reason for leaving the profession thus:

I refuse to be led by a top-down hierarchy. I refuse to be an unpaid administrator of field tests that take advantage of children for the sake of profit. I refuse to hear any more about how important it is to differentiate our instruction as we prepare our kids for tests that are anything but differentiated. I refuse to subject students to every ridiculous standardised test that the state and/or district thinks is important. I refuse to have my higher-level and deep-thinking lessons disrupted by meaningless assessments.

And this was why, he concludes in the letter, “I am quitting without remorse and without second thoughts. I quit. I quit. I quit!”

These individual, personal refusals finally coalesced last spring in to a collective refusal: the strike wave.

The Political Context

We must insert the US strike wave in to a global tapestry of teachers’ strikes to make sense of its full import and power. Just this past year, Algerian teachers were on strike in February and early March over public spending cuts caused by falling energy prices. Teachers in Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, went on an indefinite strike in April to protest the austerity measures imposed by the IMF and welcomed by the Tunisian ruling class. Teachers throughout Central and South America struck work during the months of March and April. In Argentina they demanded a 20% wage increase; 16,000 teachers in Chihuahua, Mexico walked out in March, joining teachers’ strikes in Oaxaca, Chiapas, and Michoacán. Similar strikes took place in Carabobo, Venezuela, and in several states in Brazil for increased pay and in defence of pensions. In France, teachers joined their other comrades in the public sector and struck against Macron’s proposed change to labour laws.

This list of revolts is really a GPS tracker for the map of neoliberalism. Every dot on the map arises due to a remarkably identical set of issues: lack of resources due to cuts to public services, lack of social provisioning, escalation and/or proliferation of various means to control and speedup work conditions.

While we can certainly talk about a generalised revolt taking shape against austerity, it is also important to attend to the specificity of a teachers’ revolt. Teachers, like nurses, work in what the International Labour Organisation (ILO) calls the care sector, but what I would call the social reproductive sector of the formal economy. Women’s employment is particularly significant in this sector. According to the ILO, the global care workforce numbers 381 million workers representing 11.5 percent of total global employment, and 19.3 percent of global female employment. Women form two-thirds of global care, the numbers rise to over three-quarters in the Americas and in Europe and Central Asia. The majority of workers doing this work of formal social reproduction are employed in education (123 million) and in health and social work (92 million).

Struggles in the care or social reproduction sector are especially explosive today. As neoliberalism demands more hours of waged work per household and less public support for social provisioning, it puts tremendous pressure on families and particularly on women in those families. Struggles over social reproduction and care have thus acquired renewed meaning in the neoliberal era.

In the US in particular, the social reproductive sector has, as Kim Moody has shown, seen significant expansion even in the decade following the great recession. Indeed, Moody has included in his definition of the working class industrial “core”- the “growing number of workers employed to maintain and clean capital’s fixed assets”, the large concentration of workers involved in the “labour of reproduction” such as hospital workers, and although not within the “core” he signposts the militant potential of teachers.2

There remains, however, deep structural challenges to assessing fully the crisis in the social reproduction sector.

It is clear that one could not reproduce a Harry Braverman-esque account of the processes of “reproduction of labour power” the way Braverman or Michael Burawoy have done about the workplace, i.e. the production of commodities. The regimes of discipline, while very present, are very different. So, what does that mean? It certainly does not mean that capital relinquishes control over the processes of reproduction of labour power. But what does that control look like? How does it shape society and those who produce wealth for capital in society?

Discipline and Punish

Neoliberalism’s relentless intervention in public education is related to the crisis of overaccumulation and profitability which the system developed during the late 1960s and that it has yet to overcome. Confronted with crisis, capitalism’s three key strategies has been to: (a) maintain growth through debt financing which resulted in unsustainable credit bubbles such as the one in housing; (b) search for new arenas for investment, such as in previously state-owned enterprises; (c) implement massive structural adjustments in order to cut social spending and impose austerity—the last two moves have direct implications for the teachers’ revolt.

Capitalism’s manoeuvres to resolve its crisis can be most clearly seen in the recent efforts by large corporations to move into the arena of public education, try to marketise the sector and consequently impose market disciplines on it. John Bellamy Foster, among others, has recounted for us the various means by which corporations and their pet politicians are attempting “to establish a commodified school system, bringing education increasingly within the domain of the market.” Enterprises such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation are some of the leading investors in education. They have even invented the grotesque term “venture philanthropy”—following from venture capitalism— to self-define their activities in the social sector.

The result has been what John C. Antush has rightly identified as the Taylorisation of education where teachers are increasingly deskilled, their work broken down into meaningless but discrete, commodifiable parts, and their work conditions put under intense managerial scrutiny while providing little or no support for the teachers themselves. High stakes testing, where students’ performance is closely tied to teachers’ assessments and determine the latter’s job security, has been neoliberalism’s weapon of choice in this battle.

Meanwhile, according to a study by the National Center of Education Statistics, over 95 per cent of public school teachers spend their own money to pay for school supplies. The study reported teachers spending $480 of their wages annually on supplies for their classrooms starved of public funding, and teachers in high poverty districts spending more than their counterparts in better resourced ones.3

This distressing narrative of capitalist control over work conditions of a largely female workforce is darkened further by the fact that speed up and lean production techniques cannot easily be tracked for the social reproduction sector in general and for teachers in particular. Feminist economist Nancy Folbre has pointed out that performance is especially difficult to measure in gendered jobs (e.g. health, education, childcare). Men are more likely to enter jobs with “a clear performance scoreboard, though police and military work (also highly gendered) are exceptions.”

For instance, how can accounting, in the neoliberal sense, be done of teachers performing multiple tasks beyond simply teaching in the classroom? Many L.A. Unified schools, about to go on strike, do not have a full-time nurse or librarian—the union is demanding one full-time librarian for every middle school and high school, and one full-time nurse for each school. Teachers frequently perform these additional tasks for the sake of their students whose welfare is foremost on their minds.

This is a grim landscape, peopled by workers in the care sector, mostly women, whose gender, race and sexuality are brutally operationalised to tighten neoliberal control.

But this is not a complete picture. ‘Lean production’ techniques have very different implications and impact in the social reproduction sector from other sectors of capitalist production.

When speed-up techniques are applied to workers producing, say, auto parts, they have a devastating impact on the worker —her body and her sense of selfhood—but none on the auto parts themselves. Unlike the industrial worker, workers in the care sector labour upon and for other human beings, to meet human needs, assess vulnerabilities and soothe their pain. When managers force Taylorist methods on teachers, nurses or hotel workers, they jeopardise the well-being of both the care provider and of the living, breathing human receiving that care.

Consider the case of the electronic health record (EHR)—introduced in several hospitals for measuring “the duration and standardising the content of patient-doctor interactions”. The EHR forces all patient-doctor encounters to be ‘streamlined’ in a single way such that only specific questions can be asked, and answer boxes ticked. According to two physicians who have had to provide care through the EHR, “…[o]pen-ended interviews, vital for obtaining accurate clinical information and understanding patients’ mindsets, have become almost impossible, given the limited time allotted for visits—often only 15 to 20 minutes.”4

When workers are creating inanimate objects, the welfare of these objects does not shape their work ethic. When it comes to the work of social reproduction of another human being, the care of another human cannot be limited by capital’s ticking clock, so these workers put in their own time, or in the case of teachers, also their own money, to provide the best care they can.

Given this totalising nature of the crisis, “solutions” to the crisis in the Social Reproduction sector need to be solutions that are sensitive to the very category of social spending understood in the most expansive, and socialised way possible. Such solutions must include public investment in childcare and eldercare services for all, such that those who provide care for a payment, do not lack for these supports in their own homes. When I first met Rebecca Garelli who would become one of the leaders of the Arizona teachers’ strike, she strained to answer my questions while juggling three small children! In the United States, as in large parts of Global North, losing a job does not just mean the loss of an income, it also indicates loss of access to healthcare, disability insurance and several others social services—services that should never have been made conditional or tied to employment. Thus, social solutions must include non-contributory social transfers, available to anyone in need, as well as a robust system of social insurance through workplaces. Most importantly they must include labourregulations that guarantee decent wages and leave policies for all workers. While it is vital that investments be made in the sphere of social reproduction— more schools, more nurses, more social workers, more librarians— it is crucial that further investments be made in the broader arena of social reproduction to allow teachers, nurses and other care workers to do their job in effective as well as meaningful ways.

Strategic Implications of Social Reproduction Work

In conclusion, I would like to offer a provocation about the question of strategic power. In recent decades much of labour sociology has focused on the logistics sector as one endowed with particular strategic powers to disrupt capitalism. While this may well be true given the importance of organising in companies such as Amazon, an overt analytic reliance on ‘structural’ accounts can obscure the political dimension of rebel consciousness. Structural power is always merely a potential. In order for such power to be wielded, its potential realised, there must exist, amongst such workers a political process by which opportunities are recognised and then seized. Thus, the question of strategic power cannot be either (a) sectionalised in rigid ways to particular segments of working class nor (b) understood in voluntarist ways as always carrying an insurrectionary charge simply due to its structural location.

Understood this way, there is no reason to exclude schools or hospitals as key strategic sectors with the potential to disrupt capitalism. Indeed, recent strikes in the social reproduction sector prove that teachers and healthcare workers have significant power given how crucial schools and hospitals are for the overall reproduction of the system. One public school teacher, Jessie Muldoon, in her interview with me, significantly described schools as “chokepoints” where multiple layers of the working class come together and perform several different kinds of care work, in addition to teaching. In many school districts of the US, a significant number of students get two of their three main meals at the school. In a denuded neoliberal social scape, besides providing food, schools are increasingly a clearinghouse for general social services such as health care and mental health services. In Muldoon’s elementary school in Maine, there is a social worker who is solely “dedicated to coordinating services to homeless and housing insecure families (from direct mental health services, to referrals to other agencies, to support finding housing, to sending groceries home on the weekends, to distributing warm clothes, and on and on—she really does it all).”

If we see schools as containing and expressing these multiple social reproductive functions and as sites where different sections of the working class combine, then we can appreciate why so many different kinds of workers who had collectively experienced the assaults of neoliberalism, came out in support of teachers when they decided to strike. Janitors and bus drivers struck with the West Virginia teachers, while Arizona teachers demanded pay raises for support staff, crossing guards and bus drivers.

Finally, we must always accord special political significance to the fact that the majority of workers in these sectors are women and that sexism is an important tool in the neoliberal tool box to assist in wage and benefit cuts. If denigrating this labour as “women’s work” is one of the strategies of class struggle from their side, schools are, for all the reasons cited above, increasingly becoming sites where our side shares scripts of resistance. Rebecca Garelli, one of the leaders of the Arizona strike, thinks that the labour movement can take an explicitly feminist turn by connecting teachers’ struggles to those of the nurses. In her interview with me she talked about why she thought the stereotype of women having a “compassion and nurturing mindset” was actually a sexist misidentification of a real political approach. Workers in these professions, Garelli pointed out “put people before profit” and were thus compassionate and nurturing in a deeply substantive ways, preparing and repairing lives against capital ravages. “It’s because we do care about our students,” said Garelli, “and nurses do care about her patients that energises us and mobilises us into action.”

Teachers and the schools they teach in should be taken seriously by the student of revolutionary consciousness. Teachers perform the dangerous job of socially reproducing the labour power of a future generation of workers, indispensable for the functioning of capital. They equip students with the skills, habits and competence that will one day run the capitalist labour process. Or perhaps disrupt it.

  1. See Natasha Ushomirsky and David Williams, Funding Gaps 2015: Too Many States Still Spend Less on Educating Students Who Need the Most, See Trust, 2015.
  2. See Kim Moody, On New Terrain: How Capital is Reshaping the Battleground of Class War, 2017, pp. 38-9.
  3. See “Public School Teacher Spending on Classroom Supplies”, National Center for Education Statistics Report, May 2018.
  4. Pamela Hartzband, Jerome Groopman, “Medical Taylorism”, The New England Journal of Medicine 2016; 374:106-108
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