Bernie Sanders recently unveiled legislation aimed at bringing starting teacher salaries to at least $60,000 in every state. This move is a much needed step toward ensuring teachers are compensated adequately enough that our teaching programs can attract top talent that our schools can take advantage of. More importantly though, it represents a stable floor for some of Americas most important and seemingly eager to radicalize working class citizens.
That’s right, I said teachers are working class. In my mind what was once a professional aspiration has now become the frontlines of the working class in the modern global economy. Which makes sense, our economy is one increasingly bent on “knowledge based work” such as content production (traditional journalism, to television, to YouTube and whatever else), academia, professional class pursuits like law, medicine, or others, or many other like pursuits, including even teaching itself. Without teachers and the decades of training they provide our students, none of these pursuits are possible.
At their core, all of these fields and career paths require the ability to synthesize information and actually use it in some tangible and meaningful way. Which at its best is exactly what our schools allow students to do day after day. And again, as the economy becomes more information driven, more professionalized, and functioning within it depends more and more on one’s ability to work with that information, schooling and creating a school system which really emphasizes those skills, becomes even more important.
That push is already underway, initiatives like Common Core, misguided or not, aim to replace the sort of rote 8-hours of memorization a day model our industrial revolution era school structure designed to crank out factory workers, with something better suited for the critical analysis required for the information economy. Leading the charge in that restructuring are teachers all across the country and I think uncoincidentally, those same teachers are leading the charge for America’s working class.
All around the country teacher’s strikes prove time and time again that organized labor can still win. However, emphasis on the word organize. Thankfully, teachers by and large are public sector employees, which means for now, their unions are largely intact. Which makes the hard work of actually organizing teachers, a lot easier. However, the need to organize to begin with, is yet another sign of teachers working class position within our economy. It also shows the potential for similar models of organization to spread to other sectors, a trend that has spread to other sectors of the economy.
For decades, industry by industry, unions have been dismantled and workers left in a precarious position without adequate power to negotiate pensions and better work conditions. Teachers however, have the institutional know-how, and frankly the institutions themselves (unions) necessary to fight back. When teachers in Arizona walk out of the classroom to protest large class sizes, small budget, and even smaller salaries, the government listens.
Frankly, the entire country listens. Because a significant number of teachers walking out on strike is no small thing. That is hugely disruptive, just think of the multi-faceted roles schools play in our society. They provide free daycare services for millions, free or nominally priced lunch and breakfast for millions. All with built in transportation to help accommodate families that might have a hard time otherwise. But built in such an abundance that many families don’t even need to resort to that.
Again, shutting down schools is no small feat, and teachers don’t like doing it. But when they are continually treated poorly, taken for granted, and squeezed for every dollar and standardized test point they are worth, something’s got to give. Which is where the unions come in, because without teachers unions, that show of force is not possible.
Which is why the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Janus is so concerning. Reagan and right to work laws decimated union power in the private sector, but public sector unions have remained strong as they were able to collect mandatory dues for the services they render. Something the Supreme Court declared a violation of free speech in Janus. The potential changes this case could inspire could be disastrous for teachers unions. Only time will tell, but capital’s desire for right to work laws and cases like Janus is a testament to the need to break down the working class.
Teachers have proved it time and time again, an organized working class can win concessions. Which is exactly what teachers in Arizona, West Virginia, California, and many other states, with many more to come, have done time and time again. Teachers are the new working class and their activism must be an example and inspiration to everyone else hoping to organize the working class.