by Wade Rathke
New Orleans Speaking as an organizer, be careful what you wish for, if you’re hoping the pandemic means more online work and work from home, because it is easy to see even more obstacles ahead for work-based and union organizations.
The more I read about schools and universities moving increasingly to online teaching, the more I worry about teachers’ unions of every variety being defanged. In the United States in recent years one of the beating heartbeats of hope for a resurgence of labor has rested on the shoulders of teachers. Red state teachers’ organizations in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona, brought conservative legislatures and governors to their knees with lengthy job actions and strikes to win raises, smaller classroom size, and better in-classroom support. By taking collective action, they also won huge public support by linking militant action with community and student-oriented demands in addition to wage increases. One of the themes of these strikes was the way that rank-and-file teachers used social media to mobilize strength, sometimes pressuring their unions to follow where they were demanding that they lead.
Nonetheless, on-line classrooms and more online learning in the future will also decrease solidarity and relationships between teachers that come from daily contact, lunch and breaks in the ubiquitous teachers’ lounges, collaborative teaching and field trips, and even the mentorship of transferring both skills and union values to new potential teachers during their practice teaching requirements for licensure. Having the districts provide computers and higher speed internet for online work from a teacher’s home, also allows employer monitoring of that work and those communications to move to another level.
This is all true in public schools, but will be no different at the college and university level once contact is decreased. Organization in higher education will also be impacted. A high point for some unions has been the recent unionization of adjuncts. Not having the adjuncts teach from physical locations will make hard work even harder. Having big tech companies adopt remote work also raises unionization, already rare, to yet another level of difficulty.
ACORN UK’s head organizer was telling me about what may be a record size for a Zoom meeting when one-third of the membership of the teachers’ union in Britain signed on to make plans and protest school reopening in England for the next couple of months. I can’t see how any of these changes make unionization easier. Zoom and other systems are great organizing tools, but they don’t substitute for direct relationships.
We always believed that our success in organizing home health care aides and home day care workers without centralized workplaces was because the union had as much, if not more, access to the workers as the employers did. At the same time, we forged those relationships between workers and between workers and the union in direct meetings and visits.
Using Zoom and other tools to facilitate mass communications is great for our organizations, but believing that people are going to risk their jobs and security for a Zoom buddy, as opposed to someone that they have met, know, and have joined in struggle is a stretch. Atomizing workplaces creates huge obstacles for organization in most situations where those wanting to build collective organization and action are already at a huge disadvantage. As organizers equally skilled and comfortable organizing in the community as the workplace, we’ll have some advantage adapting, but we won’t pretend that finding more workers at home makes anything easier.
Wade Rathke is founder and chief organizer of ACORN and ACORN International. You can find Wade’s recent past posts here Chief Organizer Reports. And you can link to his website here Chief Organizer ACORN/ACORN International