Education Professor Lois Weiner breaks down what connects tens of thousands of striking teachers in the UK, and why recently American teachers have been absent from forming their own major strikes.
JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.
Tens of thousands of teachers walked off the job in England and Wales on Wednesday as the National Union of Teachers, or NUT, went on strike over a dispute over pay, working conditions, and pensions. Students in thousands of schools were affected, and police estimated 10,000 teachers and supporters took part in a march through London.
Teacher and NUT rep Jake Dodds talked to the Leicestershire news about why the teachers went on strike.
JAKE DODDS, REPRESENTATIVE, NATIONAL UNION OF TEACHERS: I’m out today with the NUT because of our ongoing dispute over pay, pensions, and conditions. The secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, continues to not talk seriously or properly with the teaching unions. And that’s why we continue to take action, ’cause we’re standing up for education.
For me, my main problem at the moment is conditions. Across the country, the kind of cuts we’re having in education are really having a massive impact on student performance, on the level of teaching that you’re able to give, and simply on workload and the stress of the job.
A recent DfE survey that was attempting to be suppressed or was suppressed for some time found that primary school teachers are working on average 60 hours a week. In secondary schools, it’s well in excess of 55 hours a week. And those kind of workloads are unsustainable in terms of doing the kind of quality job that teachers wish to do. Because of the stresses and strains of the job, two out of five newly qualified teachers leave within five years.
NOOR: And we’re also joined by Lois Weiner. Lois is a longtime professor of education, former public school teacher. Her most recent book is The Future of Our Schools: Teachers, Unions, and Social Justice. But she previously edited The Global Assault on Teaching, Teachers, and Their Unions: Stories for Resistance with Mary Compton.
Lois, can you put what’s happening in the U.K. in an international context? We know there was also strikes today in Argentina and Paraguay, and teachers in Iceland were on strike just last week.
LOIS WEINER, PROF. OF EDUCATION, NEW JERSEY CITY UNIV.: Yes. Well, Jaisal, if you look at Mary Compton’s website, TeacherSolidarity.com, which is supported by unions in two continents, what we’re seeing is that this global project of capitalism to destroy systems of public education that were created 100 years ago is really being met by resistance from students and also from teachers globally. There’s—almost every day, you see a strike someplace in the world. And the snapshot today of strikes in the U.K. by the National Union of Teachers and in Paraguay and in Buenos Aires is not unusual. It’s not unusual to see strikes going on by teachers every day. What’s slightly unusual today is that we have three strikes occurring simultaneously.
NOOR: And, Lois, what links the teachers in these different countries—and continents, even? Are they striking about similar issues?
WEINER: Yes, the issues are all the same. The project of capitalism globally has been to deprofessionalize teaching.
And it’s important to understand that the reason there’s this assault on teachers and teachers unions is that teachers unions are impeding the privatization and the defunding of public education—really, the destruction of the system of public education—and turning it into a source of profit for multinational corporations. That’s what we’re seeing globally.
And so the unions are being compelled by the members to defend the profession, to defend the existence of public schools that are run without fees, the professional conditions and the professional autonomy that allow teachers to do their work. They’re striking against the mandates that are telling teachers—micromanaging teachers and measuring them against—measuring, evaluating them on the basis of standardized tests over which parents and students and teachers have no say. These tests are created by private for-profit corporations, evaluated by the for-profit corporations, and the results are being used to drive what goes on in the schools.
NOOR: Now, Lois, one place you don’t really hear about strikes is right here in the U.S. You know, of course, the last major strike that people will have heard of is the Chicago teachers strike back in the fall of 2012. But you’ve been a longtime critic of teachers unions on the left, saying they don’t work with—they don’t do enough social justice unionism, they don’t work closely enough with community groups. And the same problems you described that are happening across the world with these emphases on testing is happening across the U.S. I’ve talked to dozens, maybe hundreds of teachers over the past several years, and they all share that common criticism of the public education system. And, also, there’s hundreds of schools being closed across the U.S. What is your take or critique of teachers unions here? Why aren’t they going on strike the same way we’ve seen teachers going on strike around the world?
WEINER: Well, the unions here are calcified. That’s the best way for me to put it. They’re calcified at the national level. They’re mainly calcified at the state levels. There are two major unions, the National Education Association and the AFT, and they’re bureaucratic and conservative in different ways. They’re not—the problems are not identical, but the results are the same. And the result is that the unions are—number one, they are not democratic. To me that’s a key issue. Another issue is that they’re not militant, they don’t mobilize the members. And the third issue is that if they often—their bargaining demands or the way they’re looking at themselves is they’re fighting for members’ interests as defined very, very narrowly by what’s allowed in union contracts.
And I will say that we’re seeing changes that are not being picked up by the corporate media. For instance, the Portland—Portland is the largest city in Oregon. It has the largest teachers union in Oregon. They waged a campaign for a new contract that put class size first and was not about salary. It was about working conditions of teachers that affected the learning conditions of kids, having what’s called in some places specials, you know, making sure that teachers who teach phys-ed and music and art have jobs, because if we don’t have phys-ed and music and art teachers, we don’t have phys-ed, music, or art.
NOOR: And you see a lot of these programs being cut around the country, because schools have—.
WEINER: They are. They are. They’re cut all over the world. Education is being stripped down to its most watered-down vocationalized essence. And the teachers unions in the United States have been late to addressing that. And I think that a fundamental problem is that—which I explain in my new book, is that they don’t see themselves as leaders of a movement, of a social movement to push back on these terrible changes being made to education.
But we are seeing some really promising changes, sparked in good part by Chicago, mainly by Chicago.
I think that part of this, part of what we should be looking at in the United States, based on what we’re seeing going on globally, is to set out for teachers the idea of a one-day national strike supported by both the AFT and the NEA that would focus attention on what’s happening to education nationally. I really think that we need to shift the emphasis from a purely local level to both the national and global.
NOOR: Lois Weiner, thank you so much for joining us.
WEINER: Thank you, Jaisal, for inviting me.
NOOR: Lois Weiner is a professor of education at New Jersey City University.
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Thank you so much for joining us.