A Teacher's Labor Day Plea to School Reformers

Even an oil field rookie, "a worm," knows that his life is in the hands of his tool pusher. So, in my first day as a roughneck in the oil patch, it was unnerving to hear Dwayne shout into the radio, "Frack after dark! Frack after dark! Call Western! Eddy Chiles (subsequently the owner of the Texas Rangers) loves to frack after dark!"

By today's terminology, we actually were being told to perforate a well after dark, but it still placed everyone's lives at risk. It meant we would be working with explosives that could be unknowingly detonated by a trucker 100 miles away as he spoke on his CB radio. That winter, had such an explosion occurred a few seconds earlier, our entire crew would have died; even so one roughneck was pronounced dead at the scene.

My tool pusher told me, "John, I'm a high school dropout so I'll do what I'm told. But, you have a future." If we have to frack after dark, Dwight told me to quit this job and hitchhike home.

This may be the single most unnerving of my experiences in the blue collar world, but it's hard to believe how many times the bosses, in so many different workplaces, gambled with our lives. Whether it was being required to handle explosives or radioactive materials without following procedures, unloading trucks full of toxic fumes, hefting too much weight around machinery without the legally-required security protectors, or just taking the risks required to deal up with a sped-up assembly line, our health, safety, and survival was unimportant to the big boys.

As a teacher, our real danger was stress. Gangbangers threated their classmates but not authority figures. The stress from counseling traumatized students, visiting them in the hospital, attending their funerals, and worrying over unconscious teens could threaten our health, but it was nothing compared to what our kids had to handle. My last couple of years in the regular classroom, I started to get sick at my stomach when drenched in a student's blood. Twice, after breaking up fights, I had a morbid fixation on the only drop of blood that landed on my shirt (once on the sleeve and once on the collar) even though my face and arms were covered in red. Of course, the persons who really suffered were the students whose blood was spraying everywhere.

I was reminded of these working conditions in the blue collar world and inner city schools while reading Dan Kaufman's "Labor's Last Stand," in the New York Times Magazine. Kaufman warns that only 11% of American workers and 7% of private sector workers belong to unions. The NEA is the nation's largest union, and teachers unions are the largest defender of working people and the poor that is still standing. Reactionaries like Scott Walker, the Koch brothers, and ALEC understand the stakes. If they can destroy public sector unions, the last chance to reunite working people may be gone permanently.

In union there is strength. That was why it is so sad that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, i.e. Scott Walker lite, and the Obama administration help pave the way for his union-bashing and did little to help working people in the Wisconsin recall campaigns.

That is also why Walker pretended to not be an existential threat to private sector unions and claimed that his fight to the death with public sector unions did not foreshadow an all-out assault on public and higher education. Only after he had picked off one opponent after another did Walker cut education spending by $2 billion and ram through Right to Work. When pushing a $300 million cut to higher education, he promised universities freedom from "shared governance," which "kept the university from directly running things" and told professors to work harder.

Unions have always been some of the most loyal members of the civil rights coalition, as well as crusaders for economic justice. And, we have usually had the same opponents. As Kaufman recalls, a founder of the Right to Work movement, Vance Muse, explained the need for its banning of otherwise legal, negotiated agreements, "White women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes, whom they will have to call 'brother' or lose their jobs."

Kaufman also notes that roads in the Right to Work state of Texas don't cost half as much to build, even though workers get paid that much less. "So," as a union leader says, "it is only a question of who makes the money -- the workers or the owners."

It is one thing for a right-winger to oppose the rights of working people, but there is no intellectually honest way for a liberal to be an ally of Right to Work and to still pose as pro-civil rights. On the other hand, the neo-liberal corporate reformers who opened the door for Walker are nothing if they aren't inconsistent. They will say anything, do almost anything, and ally themselves with virtually any true believer in uncontrolled competition to clear the way for top-down, market-driven school reforms.

Sadly, one reason why elite education reformers don't understand the essential role of labor in working for justice is that too many of them have no experience in the blue collar working world. If the rank-in-file of the corporate reform movement had more experience in the industrial world, they would have seen how little the lives of workers are worth. Kaufman explains, for instance, that the fatality rate for construction workers is 40% higher in Right to Work states.

Virtually every remnant of the social safety net is now at risk. Middle and working class families are just one medical crisis away from poverty. Now more than ever, test-driven, competition-driven reformers should reconsider their neo-liberalism and rethink their contempt for organized labor. They should face up to the single biggest question. Even if they can't get over their distaste for teachers and unions, and even if they don't have any personal contact with blue collar workers, how can they continue to sow discord among the ranks of progressives? If they help destroy organized labor, who will replace us in the fight for civil rights and economic justice?

Being a teacher, I must also add a footnote. Kaufman makes another point that especially should speak to educators. The Wisconsin unions that Walker targeted take care of the professional development of its high-skilled workers. Without unions, safety and the quality of construction will decline. And that raises a question. Who would teachers and patrons trust more to provide staff training to educators -- the AFT and the NEA or the non-educators TNTP and, the Gates Foundation? Who should guide the professional development of those who teach our students -- professional educators or the elites who are so disconnected from working and poor people?