by: S. Koroit
I’m a science teacher at a Title 1 public high school in Phoenix. I come from a working-class Appalachian family and have always been pro-union, but the 2018 RedforEd movement really opened my eyes to the power of large scale ‘direct action’. After the walkout, I started to educate myself on labor history and social movements. I became frustrated as I felt the RedforEd movement slowing down and not going far enough for education workers and our students. I eventually discovered the Phoenix Branch of the IWW through a person I followed on Twitter. I went to a meeting, did some self-education, and joined the IWW shortly after. I’m currently working to push my business union toward more radical action and am looking for ways to organize local educators through the IWW. I originally wrote the piece below for the IWW’s publication SOLIDARIDAD. Any of the abuses mentioned below have multiplied by 1,000 during the pandemic!
Teaching is incredibly meaningful, important work but it is also very difficult. Here in Arizona, teaching is undervalued and education workers are exploited, in part because the teaching field has largely been populated by women. Age-old patterns of sexist thought have asserted that the care and instruction of children is ‘women’s work’ that women should do ‘naturally’ out of the goodness of their hearts. Sexist beliefs about gender roles remain especially powerful in more politically conservative communities that codify and enforce the subservience and devaluing of women.
Especially in anti-union states like Arizona, teachers are expected to work their contract hours and then work extra unpaid hours as a sports coach, club sponsor, tutor, or to complete tasks like grading, curriculum development, and lesson planning that there isn’t time for during the work day. Some teachers are even expected to buy their own paper and pencils for their classroom.
Changes in paradigms for instruction and student discipline mean that teachers are faced with students that they are not trained to teach, large class sizes, and a work environment where some troubled students are increasingly verbally and physically abusive of teachers and staff. I can’t imagine doing anything else but almost every day, at some point, I fantasize about doing anything else.
There is a great need for the business unions like the NEA and the AFT to identify what healthy, acceptable, supportive working conditions for educational workers look like. Then we need to demand, by all means necessary, that those conditions be established and maintained. But in my experience, the business unions are focused solely on the money — the salary and benefits package – if they are focused at all. Appropriate compensation for work is a critical issue in education. But there is so much more wrong with the average teacher’s daily experience in her classroom, and there is comparatively little union attention given to how to name and fix that. All teachers work under a contract that lays out their responsibilities, and yet ‘working the contract’ is seen as an act of defiance or resistance instead of simply what a good worker does.
To a teacher, “working the contract” means that a teacher does exactly and only what her contract says she must do. Obviously, this should be the norm. It’s not. The normal expectation is that a teacher must give countless hours outside of her contract time – late into the night and all weekend long. Teaching, as it exists in Arizona today, is a fundamentally exploitative, even abusive profession. The business unions need to stop cooperating with this exploitation and abuse at all levels and need to take actions that force district, state, and national political bodies to change the way we fund, structure, measure progress, and view education, schools, and teachers.
The 2018 RedforEd strikes and walkouts in Arizona and other states were the very beginning of this work and we have seen a huge regression during the pandemic with untold abuses of teachers and staff for attempting to maintain a safe environment. Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. The entire professional day and education system needs to be redesigned to create healthy working environments for teachers, which will create healthy learning environments for students. Our unions should be at the forefront of this fundamental work of ending the exploitation and abuse of education workers.
Business unions too often work under the model of ‘partnering’ or ‘cooperating’ with district and site administrators in the common interest of “service to students”. Decisions and working conditions exploitative of and harmful to workers/teachers are established and perpetuated supposedly ‘for the kids’. Workers are expected to cheerfully sacrifice and be exploited for the supposed benefit of the children they teach. Any challenge to the ever-present ‘for the kids’ ideal is met with contempt and punishment. Even a claim as simple as ‘something in the best interest of the worker IS in the best interest of the kids’ is met with scorn.
Unlike the business unions, however, the Industrial Workers of the World is in a unique position to help build awareness among education workers of the abusiveness of our school system. Cutting through the incessant propaganda of “we’re all in this together” (doubly cruel during the pandemic) the IWW Constitution’s Preamble states for all to read: “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common.” We in the IWW have always seen the education higher-ups as the exploiters that they are – even before the pandemic made that perfectly clear.
Many teachers and school staff have been gaslit by the employing class (and its school system) and do not see any real alternative to their exploitation. Many also do not have a nuanced understanding of the various ways our current educational system is set up to create and enforce class divisions and to train up, on the one hand, a class of capitalists and, on the other hand, a separate class of workers for the capitalists to exploit. (Though many of us have an intuitive sense that we are doing many wrong things in our schools for reasons that don’t make sense.)
We in the IWW must recruit and organize our fellow teachers and school staff. We must help our co-workers understand how the capitalist machine is exploiting and abusing us. We need to educate each other in the history of the revolutionary labor movement (of which most of us know precious little!) We need to build “solidarity unions” that help envision a school and classroom that reject the exploitation and abuse inherent in capitalism and ensure that these invigorated unions help teachers and school staff continue to fight for a better world.