Educational institutions are sites of struggle. Sometimes openly, sometimes hidden under layers of bureaucracy, but always consequential. Last week, lecturers at 64 UK universities walked off the job to prevent their pensions being gutted. On the other side of the Atlantic, public school teachers in every one of the 55 counties in West Virginia have also gone on strike. It is illegal in the state for public employees to strike at all, and yet the teachers have already appear to have wrenched concessions from the putrid opportunist of a governor, Jim Justice.
Graduate employees across the University of Illinois system have struck to prevent the elimination of their tuition deferment. In Toronto, contract (adjunct) faculty, teaching assistants and graduate assistants at York University look ready to strike as early as Monday. It will be their fourth strike in fewer than twenty years. At the time of writing, the lecturers in the UK are headed into arbitration, while teachers in West Virginia have refused to be mollified; all 55 counties’ schools remain closed. Public school teachers in Jersey City, New Jersey and across the Canadian province of Nova Scotia have voted to authorize strikes.
All of these labor conflicts come down to different unique issues. Pensions in some places, healthcare in others, the scope and reach of the union in still others. What all have at stake is the ability of scholars and educators to determine their ability to research and educate on their own terms, and not those of a neoliberal order that sees education as a commodity. It’s for this reason that Red Wedge extends its enthusiastic solidarity to all of these struggles, as well those of educators everywhere.
Our solidarity is, admittedly, a bit personal. Most of our editors have some connection to academia, and some of us are members of the unions currently hitting the picket line. We have published work from members of the Graduate Employees Organization in Illinois and of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, Local 3903, who represent the educators at York. We reject the idea that academics are mere denizens of the ivory tower, cut off from what it means to work for a living. Likewise we reject the idea that public school teachers are apathetic or overpaid, playing fast and loose with children’s futures. And we think people who have adopted either of these ideas come dangerously close to ceding the ground of intellectual inquiry and creativity to those who see young people – indeed all people – as little more than a number.
Because of the role that education plays in human development, these institutions have the potential to transform everything around them into sites of struggle too. From the Maple Spring in Quebec to the open-air workshops of the Occupy movement. From the Highlander Folk School to the radical experiments in redesigning schools that occurred in revolutionary Russia and Cuba, the shape of education mimics the shape of the world around it. When the world's future is contested, education suddenly becomes central, having its parameters shaken.
The whole tradition of radical pedagogy puts creativity, the essential right to experience and make art, close to its center. During the general strikes and uprisings that shook France in 1968, high schools and universities were for a short time transformed. They were pulled away from the petty machinations of government bureaucrats and found themselves under the democratic control of teachers and students. Students called for teachers to elect principals. Learning became a cooperative act. The role of education itself was debated, not just as an act to be carried out in a classroom but as a fact of daily life. Students participated in the demonstrations and were a point of the struggle’s spear, a proverbial vanguard.
Little wonder then that France's cities were also transformed into sites of creativity and re-imagination. Streets and workplaces were altered by barricades. Blank walls became chalkboards urging people to “Never work,” reminding them that “The boss needs you, you do not need the boss,” that “Man is not stupid or intelligent, he is free or he is not,” that “Boredom is counterrevolutionary,” and that “Beauty is on the street.” Everything was questioned, up for rethinking and relearning, toward the end that it might be creatively remade.
We can see a kernel of this logic in these struggles, where the brains and verve and sincerity of educators themselves are poured into the challenges, passions, and expressions of the strike. It is telling that, in their strike of 2008, CUPE 3903 (who were one of many on the picket line) used the slogan “Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible.”
As artists and intellectuals, we see the struggle of educators and academic workers as our struggle. They deserve victory. To all of them, we say: Strike to win! No concessions!