The Global Assault on Teaching, Teachers, and their Unions is an important weapon for arming teachers everywhere for the fight against the attack on public education. The book, a compilation of essays from teachers on every continent who are involved in the fight to defend our schools, has two major strengths.
First, neoliberalism is explained as the context for the cutbacks and attacks that all educators are facing. From Mexico to China, and the United States to Europe and Africa, the deregulators employ similar strategies. Education budgets are being slashed. The teaching profession is being deskilled by cutting requirements for teacher preparation. Editor Lois Weiner presents a convincing case that this is because teachers’ unions are some of the most powerful workers’ organizations left standing. Unlike other jobs, teaching can’t be outsourced (with the possible exception of using the internet and computers to teach older learners). So policymakers push to cut wages and hire less-qualified people. Tenure is scrapped. Curricula are being standardized and scripted by giant education corporations, and the pacing of content is being mandated. Since the art of teaching is being deskilled, there is a great push everywhere toward standardization. And to enforce this, standardized tests have become the driving force behind education almost everywhere—except in areas where children are being groomed to be upper-class decision-makers. The type of education provided for the “haves” and the “have-nots” has become, like wealth, increasingly stratified for the past 30 years. The poor quality of public education has become, then, the justification for the privatization of our schools.
The similarity in the stories told from all continents is striking. Education corporations in China have taken over elementary schools in Hangzhou, and teachers are under such pressure to “teach to the test” that they drill students for an extra day a week when quality-control examinations are approaching; the Labour government in Britain has overseen the contracting-out of the administration of some schools in Britain to corporate sponsors; one hundred schools in Chicago will be shut down by 2010 and reopened with private sector “partners”; in India, South Africa, and other developing countries, school budgets in areas where access to education was already abysmal faced cuts despite growing GDP. The similarities are not coincidental. In 1999 the World Bank published a report, “The Politics of Educational Reform: Increasing Supply and Demand: Overcoming Institutional Blocks,” laying out a neoliberal roadmap for educational systems for the ready use of policymakers of all countries. (The institutions that the World Bank is referring to are, of course, teachers’ unions.) In fact, as a requirement for receiving IMF loans or World Bank funds, countries are often required to “rationalize”—or cut, deregulate, or privatize—their education systems.
With the advent of the economic crisis since the publication of the book, neoliberal orthodoxy is being de-legitimized and challenged. However, the book isn’t out of date; most probably, the same policies will be carried out under a new ideology—that of collective belt-tightening and shared sacrifice. Unless, that is, struggle challenges these policies.
Therein lies the second major strength of the book. It is written for an audience of people who have the potential to push back and need ideas to arm them. The book assumes that teachers’ unions are essential to winning the battle for quality public schools. The fight for better salaries, more academic freedom, and smaller class sizes for teachers are social justice issues. They directly affect the quality of education. Often nothing short of teachers’ job actions, in coordination with organized community demands, will be able to stop the ax of the budget-cutters. Because of its orientation on the centrality of teachers unions and struggle, the book stands above most of even the best and most progressive education literature, much of which concedes too much to the right-wing argument that teachers’ unions block real “progress.”
The book ends with essays by a series of authors who are connected to struggle. For example, some of its authors have helped to coordinate the Trinational Coalition that has met eight times since 1993 to coordinate the actions of teachers’ unions in Mexico, Canada, the United States, Puerto Rico and Central America. Similarly, Thulas Nxesi of the South African teachers’ union SADTU talks about his efforts to coordinate activities through Education International. He says:
The problem is that the project of neoliberalism does not find expression in those big offices at the World Bank—it finds expression concretely on the ground in different countries.… Of course it’s important to raise consciousness at an international level, but the challenge is going to be with national leaders—how do they harness that energy, that support on the ground, in order to focus their organizations?
Teachers from different countries grapple with how to democratize the labor movement in the face of bureaucratized or state-affiliated “unions.” Maria de la Luz Arriaga Lemus gives the example of the teachers of Section 22 of Mexico’s state-affiliated SNTE who were able to push back against the leaders of their own union to help organize the massive fight for justice in the state of Oaxaca in 2006.
It is unfortunate that the book does not describe major teacher strikes, like the one in Oaxaca or the February 2008 Puerto Rican teachers strike, in more detail. But The Global Assault on Teaching, Teachers, and their Unions: Stories for Resistance can help teachers to understand their struggles in a global political context and makes a decisive case that we will have to retool our unions into bodies willing to fight hard for social justice if “education” in the best sense of the word is to be preserved.