For May Day, contributing editors Beau Driver and Graeme Pente survey the recent history of teachers’ strikes and the revival of the US labor movement in the face of obscene wealth inequality.
In early April, The Atlantic’s coverage of history instructor Thea Hunter’s tragic death circulated widely. Hunter’s early death highlights the growing lack of job security for many academics, as universities increasingly replace tenure positions with undervalued adjunct labor on a class-to-class basis. By most counts, three-quarters of teachers at American universities now hold such precarious, part-time positions. What was once a sure ticket to the comforts of the middle, or even upper-middle, class is now only possible for a dwindling few. This phenomenon is part of a larger trend of widening wealth inequality in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, what some historians have dubbed a “Second Gilded Age.” Yet growing resistance in the realm of education, from unionization efforts among graduate and adjunct laborers to the highly visible waves of public school teachers’ strikes across the United States, is contributing to a promising revival of the broader American labor movement after some forty-five years of decline.
This new militancy among educators owes a good deal to frustration over rising wealth gaps. In the time directly following the Great Recession in 2008, renewed focus on the labels “Second Gilded Age” or “New Gilded Age” began to highlight the realities of this growing inequality in the United States and across the globe. The sudden loss of wealth that accompanied the collapse of the US housing market affected Americans across the class spectrum—affecting people of color, in particular-—and brought about new social and political movements, such as Occupy, which sought to use protest and the lessons of the Labor and Civil Rights Movements to bring about change.
The label “Second Gilded Age,” as used to describe the post-2008 economic landscape, is in some ways misleading. In his 2015 book The Age of Acquiescence, historian Steve Fraser compares the conditions of the First and Second Gilded Ages to ask why there has been so little organized resistance in the last forty years to renewed concentrations of wealth and power. The extreme and widening wealth inequalities of the late nineteenth century were built on the industrialization of the country, the spread of market capitalism, and—despite the growing inequality—an overall improvement in the material circumstances of most Americans, even industrial workers. By contrast, the increases in wealth inequality in our current age are taking place amidst a backdrop of deindustrialization and widespread declines in material circumstances. Under such conditions, the response of most people is to cling desperately to the benefits they still have and yet are continuing to lose. As Jefferson Cowie points out in Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class (2010), being on the defensive sapped the industrial labor movement of its strength. Indeed, the very name of movement points precisely to the dangers of inertia.
Another critical difference between the two periods is the absence of alternative visions for organizing society. In what Fraser calls the Long Nineteenth Century (from about 1815 to the 1930s), there abounded alternatives to the emerging industrial capitalist order and the concentration of wealth in fewer and fewer hands. All manner of communal experiments, religious colonies, utopian visions, and political movements articulated potential solutions to the social misery and obscene wealth that accompanied industrialization. The seeming inability in the early twenty-first century to imagine life without or beyond the cutthroat competition of deregulated capitalism suggests acquiescence to Margaret Thatcher’s depressing proclamation that “There Is No Alternative.”
Signs of life in the realm of imagination, however, may be the clearest indication that we are moving beyond the lack of resistance Fraser identified a mere four years ago. The notion of a “Green New Deal” is itself a vision of an alternative future. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of its chief proponents in Congress, even recently teamed up with documentary filmmaker Avi Lewis and others to create a short video entitled “A Message from the Future.” In it, the member of Congress delivers a history of our present from an alternate future that “explains” how humanity recovered after the passage of climate efforts like the Green New Deal. The video joins a 2018 piece at The Intercept by Kate Aronoff that imagined how the Green New Deal’s potential ripple effects could transform an individual woman’s life by 2043. This willingness to envision an alternate future—indeed, this hopefulness—may well be a symptom of the revival of the labor movement and the resistance to glaring wealth inequalities.
Teachers have been at the forefront of this labor revival in the United States. In the last two years, American educators have grabbed headlines with their strikes and protests against pay and working conditions in their districts. Neoliberal, austerity measures have continued to create environments in which teachers see shrinking paychecks countered by growing class sizes and increased responsibility. Along with all other American workers, educators have experienced the stagnation of their wages; however, reductions in state and local funding of public schools and universities have created a situation in which these workers feel the pinch of tightening belts more acutely. For the last several decades, public-school teachers have continued to labor even as Americans became aware of the problems of low wages, the lack of supplies, and the stresses put on educators. In a period when at least 17 percent of teachers entering the profession are not teaching after five years and in which looming teacher shortages mean increased class sizes and more work for the same or less pay, more educators have taken to striking in protest of their working conditions.
The educator strikes have garnered a great deal of attention for several reasons, chief among them is the sheer impact that these strikes have on state or county populations. When school districts must close due to strikes, parents of thousands of students must find alternatives to having their children in school. The frustration of having a parent take off work—often with the associated loss of income—or of finding a caregiver—and in many cases, paying for that care—have made sure that these strikes have a broad, population-wide impact. Student enrollments are also on the rise, even as many school districts are facing looming teacher shortages. Additionally, the comparative successes of teachers’ strikes have captured the imagination of other workers, as the strikes’ gains highlight the power of organized labor in a way that American have not seen in a generation.
Since the 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike, educators have been in rebellion in Arizona, Oklahoma, North Carolina, and West Virginia as well as in Denver, Los Angeles, and Oakland. Today, May Day—the labor movement’s traditional day of action and celebration—teachers in the Palmetto State are adding South Carolina to the list. And public school teachers in Ontario, Canada, are facing cuts and class-size increases from the Conservative provincial government under bumbling business crony Doug Ford. By the end of the year, they may join the ranks of strikers across the border. This (re)new(ed) willingness of educators to stand up for themselves, their students, and their communities points in promising directions: among people who provide forms of care work, against austerity and privatization, and across national borders.
While American educators are discovering their power, the broader labor movement has been taking on a decidedly transnational form of late. Annelise Orleck provides an account of the growing importance of the labor movement on a global scale in “We Are All Fast Food Workers Now”: The Global Uprising Against Poverty Wages (2018). Orleck’s study is based on her travels across the globe and her observations of the labor movement both in the United States and in countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Cambodia, the Philippines, Brazil, and Mexico. In all of these countries, the rise of industrial manufacturing and the growing presence of American companies, such as McDonald’s, in these regions has brought about the rise of new labor movements. The exportation of American manufacturing and the excesses of capitalist consumption have ensured that the exploited workers in the countries have begun to rebel against the often-inhumane conditions of employment. Much like their American antecedents in the 19th and 20th centuries, these workers are finding themselves subject to increasing demands from their employers, instances of sexual assault and harassment, and the health issues that accompany unsafe working environments. To combat these exploitative conditions they utilize the tactics of the American labor movement and continue to make incremental progress, even as American workers are beginning to reassert themselves. The common ground that workers from across the globe and in a wide swath of occupations are finding is that they are all exploited, that they are “all fast food workers now.”
With this flattening of the opportunities of the working landscape, formerly middle-class professions are facing the same economic insecurity and erosion of prosperity as those in positions traditionally associated with the working classes. As they increasingly face precarity, the middle classes are finally recognizing the ways in which their interests align with other workers, and that, in the mobilizing language of Occupy, “we are the 99%.” After decades of decline, the labor movement may well have momentum again.