by Bill Onasch
A Cynical Perversion of Civil Rights
The mostly proud history of the American labor movement has never been immune to the poisonous effects of racism, sexism, and xenophobia peddled by the dark side of the class that rules in order to keep the working class majority divided. For more than a century, many craft unions in the building trades, rail, and transit were clannish white male job trusts.
When the CIO took on the task of organizing the diverse workforce of mass production industries in to industrial unions they had to also confront and neutralize color and gender divisions in order to succeed. Their victories in the auto, steel, rubber, meat packing, and electrical industries brought substantial improvements in living standards in all communities and to this day more African-Americans consider themselves pro-union than whites.
Some of the craft unions resisted such changes right in to the Sixties and Seventies. Their hostility to inclusion led the civil rights and feminist movements to use new laws to sue these self-perpetuating white males only bastions, demanding quotas for color and gender diversity in the skilled trades.
As a general rule, class conscious workers are suspicious of any outside intervention in internal union matters. But the mainstream unions–then directed by George Meany, a plumber’s son who briefly also worked in that trade before his career as a full-time union official– proved incapable of putting their own house in order on this vital question. Justice was on the side of the plaintiffs–and they won some important gains. If we are serious about working class unity we cannot deny victims of discrimination the right to use any means necessary–in the courts or in the streets–to win their fair share.
But the purported “civil rights” victory in a California court decision last week, declaring teacher tenure to be unconstitutional, is a different, and very smelly kettle of fish. The nominal poor, minority student plaintiffs in the suit yielding this shocking ruling were represented by a front group called “Students Matter.” It is bankrolled by a Silicon Valley entrepreneur who sees educational “reforms” leading to enhanced diversion of public funding to the private sector. Their argument was that tenure protects hoards of bad teachers who deny minority students the quality education guaranteed by the Brown versus Topeka Supreme Court ruling that outlawed racial segregation in American public schools.
It is the latest and most ominous yet in a wave of attacks on tenure ranging from Republican state legislatures to the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top.” It slanders teachers and poses a mortal threat to the existence of teacher unionism. A New York Times story predicted,
“The landmark court decision on Tuesday finding California’s teacher tenure laws unconstitutional is likely to lead to a flood of copycat lawsuits in other states, shifting the battleground on the issue from the legislatures to the courts.”
The protection of tenure begins only after successful completion of a probationary period that can sometimes take years. Unlike what many judges enjoy, it is not a lifetime job guarantee. Tenure can be revoked if just cause is proven–and through elimination of the position. Without tenure teachers would become “employees at will,” vulnerable to arbitrary assignments or even dismissal without recourse. Dignity and respect at work would be lost along with job security.
In higher education, not nearly as unionized as K-12, tenure is fast disappearing. As tenured professors retire their load is typically shifted to adjunct instructors, usually hired on temporary contracts a semester/quarter at a time. There is no upward career path. They don’t get vested in any pension plans. Often they don’t even get health insurance. As tuition and student loan debt soars instructional labor costs are squeezed. That is an ultimate union-busting goal of educational “reformers” of both parties for K-12 public education as well.
The problems of education in the USA are many and legion. Most are rooted in social and economic problems outside the class room. Those issues will continue to be ignored if we get lulled by the mantra of “bad teachers.”
There are certainly frustrated teachers. Some may suffer burn out. But by and large, teachers are well qualified, dedicated to the interests of their students, and do the best that can be expected. It makes no more sense to blame teachers for the failure of our education system than to blame highway workers for our deteriorating roads and bridges or bus drivers for overcrowded buses. To sully them in the name of civil rights is particularly despicable by even current deplorable standards of discourse.
We, of course, need a comprehensive program for more a revolution than reform of our troubled schools. Some, such as the Chicago Teachers Union are discussing the broader questions of what can be done.
In the meantime, we should all rally in solidarity to defend tenure, to save teacher unions.
This WIR is a bit late and short. This is because of time sensitive demands on my schedule. I hope to be back to normal by next time.
That’s all for this week.
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