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Howard Zinn would have turned 90 a couple of days ago. I have to imagine after reading and re-reading most of Zinn's works that if Zinn were alive today, he would remain baffled at how America is a country antagonistic to unions and tenure, especially teachers unions and tenure.

Zinn was a radical historian, activist, and in my opinion, most of all a teacher. And it is at the overlap of Zinn as historian/activist/teacher I find his People's History of the United States an invaluable place to ask, Why tenure and unions [1]?

On Democracy and Equity in the U.S.

The unique and powerful quality Zinn brought to history is that his volume is a people's history. Zinn confronts directly that the truth embedded in any history is shaped by perspective.

Traditionally, the so-called objective history students have been and are fed in formal schooling is from the point of view of the winners, but Zinn chose to examine the rise and growth of the U.S. from the point of view of the common person—what I will characterize as primarily the viewpoint of the worker. I am most concerned about the contrast between the political and public message that the U.S. has somehow left behind the oppressive corporate world of the robber barons (see Zinn's Chapter 11) and have left behind the horrors fictionalized in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. These idealistic beliefs are similar to Americans claiming we have achieved a meritocracy instead of the fact that Americans should still be working toward a meritocracy.

In 2012, Americans appear to be anti-union and anti-tenure, again notably in terms of how that impacts teachers. This sentiment is disturbing to me as it signals an anti-worker sentiment in the U.S.—a country that claims to embrace ideals such as equity, democracy, and hard work.

This contradiction is connected, I believe, to the exact problem confronted by Zinn as a historian: Americans' anti-worker sentiments (expressed in anti-union and anti-tenure sentiments) can be traced to who controls the public narrative—the CEO elite.

If the American public considers for a moment why unions and tenure exist (as well as what tenure means), most Americans would reject the CEO-skewed messages about both.

The American worker (unlike many workers in other comparable countries throughout the world) remains shackled to working in ways that dictate any worker's essential humanity; work in the U.S. is not a matter of just pay, but of health insurance and retirement—essential for basic human dignity. The dramatic abuses of the meat packing industry in The Jungle may appear more extreme than working conditions in 2012, but bosses and management hold a powerful upper-hand over the American worker still.

Unionization as a concept, then, came out of and remains an act against the inherent inequity and tyranny in the workplace when the powerful few control the working many. Unionization is an act of democracy, an act of equity.

To reject unions is to reject democracy and equity.

These foundational facts of why unions do not reject that specific union policies have failed. It is certainly legitimate to confront individual union policies and outcomes (I have and continue to do that myself), but this discussion is about the broad anti-union sentiment in the U.S. that reveals anti-worker sentiments.

Tenure is more complicated, but certainly grows out of the same commitment to democracy and equity—especially for teachers.

The tenure argument is often distorted because the term itself, "tenure," is misrepresented as "a job for life" and rarely distinguished between tenure at the K-12 level and the college/university level.

Tenure is an act of democracy and equity, as well, because it creates power for workers as a guarantee of due process and, for teachers, it secures a promise of academic freedom.

Are there failures in how unions and tenure have been and are implemented in America today? Yes.

Should those failures be addressed? Yes.

But the broad anti-union and anti-tenure agenda being promoted by the CEO elite and embraced by the American public is a corrosive rejection of equity and democracy.

When unions and tenure are not fulfilling their obligations to equity and democracy, they both must be confronted.

But unions and tenure remain needed and even necessary mechanisms in America's search for equity and democracy—both of which are being eroded by the American elite indebted to and dependent on the inequity that drives American capitalism.

Although speaking directly about Americans' embracing war, Zinn makes an important point for this discussion:

We are penned in by the arrogant idea that this country is the center of the universe, exceptionally virtuous, admirable, superior.

If we don’t know history, then we are ready meat for carnivorous politicians and the intellectuals and journalists who supply the carving knives. I am not speaking of the history we learned in school, a history subservient to our political leaders, from the much-admired Founding Fathers to the Presidents of recent years. I mean a history which is honest about the past. If we don’t know that history, then any President can stand up to the battery of microphones, declare that we must go to war, and we will have no basis for challenging him. He will say that the nation is in danger, that democracy and liberty are at stake, and that we must therefore send ships and planes to destroy our new enemy, and we will have no reason to disbelieve him.

Without, then, the democratic and equity-based purposes for unions and tenure, the American public remains "ready meat for carnivorous politicians and the intellectuals and journalists who supply the carving knives."

Zinn also personified a message of rejecting neutrality, of democracy as activism. Writing about Sacco and Vanzetti, Zinn shares questions raised by Vanzetti, questions still relevant today against the knee-jerk and self-defeating anti-union and anti-tenure sentiments rising in the U.S.:

Yes, it was their anarchism, their love for humanity, which doomed them. When Vanzetti was arrested, he had a leaflet in his pocket advertising a meeting to take place in five days. It is a leaflet that could be distributed today, all over the world, as appropriate now as it was the day of their arrest. It read:

"You have fought all the wars. You have worked for all the capitalists. You have wandered over all the countries. Have you harvested the fruits of your labors, the price of your victories? Does the past comfort you? Does the present smile on you? Does the future promise you anything? Have you found a piece of land where you can live like a human being and die like a human being? On these questions, on this argument, and on this theme, the struggle for existence, Bartolomeo Vanzetti will speak."

[1] As a life-long resident and worker in South Carolina, a right-to-work state, I want to clarify here that I am not now and have never been a member of a union, I never had my pay or any sort of public school tenure negotiated for me by a union, but I have been awarded tenure by my private university during my most recent decade as a professor.

Originally posted to plthomasEdD on Sun Aug 26, 2012 at 07:59 AM PDT.

Also republished by Education Alternatives.

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Comment Preferences

  •  I enjoyed your post (5+ / 0-)

    There has been a long antipathy toward workers utilizing their right to association since the earliest days of the republic when Jeffersonian judges prosecuted shoemakers on conspiracy charges.  In his highly informative and entertaining blog Corey Robin, borrowing from Karen Orren's Belated Feudalism, has been arguing about the existence of the medieval master-servant doctrine still animating employer-employee relations.  He makes several points in various posts about how people accept wokplace tyranny as a matter of course.  I cannot strongly enough recommend that readers check him out especially his labor and workplace tags.  See  for more, and I highly recommend his book, The Reactionary Mind which was published last year.

    As for teacher's unions, the prevailing political paradigm is the neoliberal project which is concerned with removing impediments to capital and is concerned with "efficiency."  This paradigm replaced the New Deal with the election of Jimmy Carter who started deregulation and union busting with his Motor Carrier Act of 1980 which busted trucker's unions.  Since this time we've had Carter, Clinton, and now Obama who have all governed to the right of Richard Nixon.

    Obama is just as enamored with the "Washington Consensus" as George W. Bush.  Candidate Obama, may have toured South Caroilina's "corridor of shame" and promised to fix thing, but when the cameras were off, he shot some hoops with Arne Duncan.

    Unfortunately we live in a world in which the master narrative concerning education has been set by a pamphlet with no footnotes which would have gotten any undergraduate a letter grade of "D."  I speak of "A Nation at Risk" published during the Reagan administration.

    The Right has invested decades in reinforcing their anti-union message, and unfortunately the Democratic party and the "New Democrats" or DLC often don't step up to the plate and defend workers.  See Obama and his handling of the referendums in Ohio and Wisconsin.

    I'll end my rant with a comment on how Obama leans on Arne Duncan and the general populace relies on Michelle Rhee.  I wish that those in power and those in the public would read the works of the late Gerald Bracey,  David Berliner and Bruce Biddle's The Manufacturer Crisis, Henry Giroux, Alfie Kohn, and Linda Darling-Hammond instead of relying on some network talking head.

    You wrote an excellent piece and I hope this gets WIDELY read.

    Best Wishes,

  •  Your point concerning CEO control of narrative (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    palantir, costello7

    Here is a Pew Poll showing the public's abrupt switch from 58% support of unions in 2007 to only 41% in 2010.

    I am sure that the election of numerous Tea Bag Republicans, the bias of the Sunday shows toward G.O.P. guests, and all those billionaires funding anti union think tank studies had much to do with this switch.

  •  Unions and tenure (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    palantir, costello7, Illinibeatle

      In my state we call tenure "professional status" and comes with certain procedural protections. Those young teachers, or teachers new to the system have no protection at all for the first three years of their employment (professional status is not portable, if that can be believed).
       I watched one young teacher who had come into our system with some good experience and who had become a leader in a short time get railroaded out of school by his boss (and evaluator) for reasons unknown to everyone. My union could do nothing to help him out. He got a new job in a very short time because of his talent, work ethic and obvious competence.
       The lack of portability of status makes my state a very static place. I once interviewed for a position in a neighboring town and was offered the job (I had 20 years experience at the time). I asked for professional status to be conferred the day I showed up for work. After a little hemming and hawing on the part of the administrator I declined the offer. The administrator said "Why would I bring you here if I didn't want to keep you around?"
       I told him he may not be around for the three years it would take me to regain professional status. He was gone a year later.

  •  It's amazing the extent to which the right (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Chi, joemac53

    has controlled the message and defined all of the terms.

    For example, this dust up over "you didn't build that" is crazy.  Even putting aside the fact that Obama's comments were taken way way waaayyyy out of context, the fact is that, in today's America, the rich didn't build shit--they inherited it.  The best you could say about Romney or the Kochs and others like them is that they were smart enough not to lose what they inherited.  But then, as they control the entirety of the system, that doesn't really take a rocket scientist either.

    Same thing with "tenure" or "just cause".  The idea that you shouldn't be fired on a whim--that, given the impact of such an action, the employer should be required to have a legitimate, reasonable, and stated reason for terminating someone--how can anyone think that a bad thing?  Instead, the message that voters have gotten is that "it's impossible to fire a bad teacher".  No it isn't.  It is perfectly simple, if the administrator isn't too lazy or arrogant to do their job properly.  What experience has taught me, though, is that virtually everyone who reaches such a position of authority either is or very quickly becomes too lazy and arrogant to do their job properly.  That is certainly not the fault of the union.

    Part of it is that Americans have been spoon fed this crap that they are special.  They have been trained to think, "it would never be me.  Nothing bad or unjust could ever happen to me.  I work hard, I pay my bills on time, I abide by the laws."  Hey, buddy, it's always you, or someone exactly like you.  Bad things happen to good people--especially when you put the bad people in charge and offer no protection of any kind to the good people.  It's just a matter of time.

    "Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will."—Frederick Douglass

    by costello7 on Sun Aug 26, 2012 at 11:06:42 AM PDT

  •  Great piece (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    costello7, Illinibeatle

    ...that is until you made your disclaimer. Whether or not you are a union member or live in a union state is immaterial to this discussion. Because you feel the need to separate your thoughts from union members is emblematic of our larger disdain for union members. If a union member were to pen such a piece, should not matter.

    Just my 2 cents.

    Often, when I am reading a good book, I stop and thank my teacher. That is, I used to, until she got an unlisted number. ~Author Unknown

    by iTeachQ on Sun Aug 26, 2012 at 02:11:17 PM PDT

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