The ‘Hire-And-Fire’ Fantasy Of The Libertarian

A central plank of libertarian (and neoliberal and conservative) opposition to organized labor, to collective bargaining, to workers acting collectively is something I term the ‘hire-and-fire fantasy’: that employers should be able to initiate and terminate their employees’ employment at will. (This power would presumably be written into the contracts they sign with their workers.) Let bosses hire and fire as they please; they know best how to run the company. At this stage, a few anecdotes about the onerous bureaucratic delays involved in getting rid of a spectacularly incompetent worker are introduced: terrible tales of how disgruntled employers were made to run from pillar to post, all in effort to take the most obvious of decisions, the taking out of the trash. Unionized workers it seems, are complacent and lazy; they know they cannot be fired; they do not work as hard as those who know the boss can, you guessed it, hire and fire them at will. The union, the workers’ collective, then stands exposed as sand in the wheel; it appears as a burden, a terrible economic and performative inefficiency getting in the way of the smooth deployment of ‘human resources.’

The problem with this argument–and it is a familiar one–is that it compares the worst of the unionized workplace with the best of the non-unionized workplace. In the former, the incompetent worker is protected by a venal union, even as an exasperated boss, who only wants to get the job done as expeditiously as possible, tears out his hair; in the latter, the same virtuous boss is able to summon the incompetent worker to his office, summarily dismiss him or her, and then get back to work. All virtue resides in the employer; the union and the worker are only imbued with sloth and insufficient motivation. This argument does not, of course, bother to examine the situation created by an incompetent boss who decides to peremptorily dismiss a blameless worker, perhaps one with a long and distinguished service record, on arbitrary and trivial grounds (perhaps a secretary did not smile broadly enough, perhaps a junior pointed out an embarrassing blunder in the boss’ presentation, pricking a thin patina of pride; the list goes on.) There is no court of appeal; there is no redressal possible; here is a paycheck for two weeks; clean your desk, and then the security guard will escort you to the elevators. Here is arbitrary and opaque power indeed; the boss can act, but the worker may not. (On the many occasions that I’ve discussed this argument with my students, there are those who will enthusiastically back the ‘hire-and-fire’ claim till I point out to them just how arbitrarily that power may be exercised by employers; then, expressions of dismay set in; I suspect the situation they had in mind was the one I described first above.)

The union’s contracts for its members seek to put in place a procedure for investigation of complaints, for workers to be granted the privilege of answering charges laid against them; they seek to shield the worker from the most arbitrary exercises of the boss’ undoubted power. The stakes are high; the worker’s livelihood is at stake. The power of the employer (sometimes a corporation) is always greater than that of the worker; collective bargaining and action and worker-protective contracts aim to address this imbalance. Those who criticize the worker’s collective body, accuse it of wielding too much power, both recognize and fail to recognize power: they notice that the workers united, cannot be defeated, but they fail to acknowledge the power the boss may wield over his employee. This blindness is not accidental; it is ideological, for its true motive is not the protection of the economic efficiency of the workplace–arbitrarily firing competent workers can very often be economically counterproductive–but the power of the boss, the maintenance of a very particular hierarchy, one that allows for certain pleasures only to be found in subjugation and the exercise of one’s will over another.

Nicholas Kristof is Gullible, Very Gullible

Nicholas Kristof thinks conservatives are–like a broken clock–right at least some of the time. Kristof, unfortunately, is just wrong throughout his latest limp Op-Ed. To borrow a line from Steven Soderbergh‘s plainspoken Limey they are right precisely the ‘square root of sweet FA‘ number of times – a vanishingly small number.

What are the conservatives right about? Or at least, what ‘ideas’ are they supposed to be credited with?

First:

STRONG FAMILIES Conservatives highlight the primacy of family and argue that family breakdown exacerbates poverty, and they’re right.

Except that they don’t care about family. War–a favorite preoccupation of conservatives–is not family-friendly, and neither is unrelenting hostility to family-planning, maternity leave, paternity leave, and flexible work-schedules. Heck, hostility to women doesn’t seem particularly family-friendly.

Second:

JOB CREATION President Reagan was right when he said that the best social program is a job. Good jobs also strengthen families.

But conservatives don’t care about  job creation. Their interest in exacerbating income inequality doesn’t show an interest in job creation; their enthrallment by corporate ideals doesn’t either. Come to think of it, the wholesale enthusiasm for trade treaties that result in a net loss of jobs doesn’t seem to indicate an interest in job creation either.

Third,

SCHOOL REFORM Republicans were right to blow the whistle on broken school systems, for education in inner-city schools is the civil rights issue of the 21st century. Democrats, in cahoots with teachers’ unions and protective of a dysfunctional system, were long part of the problem.

This makes me want to throw up. In fact, I think I just did. Remember war and its budgets? Or taxes on the rich? Or, income inequality and attendant poverty in the  inner city? Or racism? A lack of interest in ameliorating the effects of these doesn’t seem to indicate an interest in school reform. Kristof, bizarrely enough, seems ignorant enough to believe that conservative ‘concern’ about school systems has nothing to do with hostility to the idea of organized labor.

When conservatives espouse the ideas that Kristof so misguidedly praises them for, they are merely using them as stepping-stones to reach other targets. Concern for the family seeks to demonize working women, to restrict sexual and reproductive choice;concern for job creation is a ploy to secure tax breaks, to further protect the economic privileges of their class; concern for schools is a ruse to push through their anti-union agenda (and now, increasingly to reward their fat-cat friends in the testing and charter school industry).

Kristof imagines that somehow, in each case, he can separate out the holding of an ‘idea’ or ‘belief’ and the prescriptions that are intended to achieve its aims. But you can’t do that. Your prescriptions for the ‘problem’ reveal, quite clearly, whether you actually hold that belief or not. We reveal our beliefs by our actions; Kristof should know that much.

Kristof’s biggest problem is quite simple and represents an acute intellectual failure: he confuses mere lip-service with an actual intellectual standpoint. He does not want to look past the posturing; he is content with sound bites and insincerity. This is gullibility of the highest order.

Michelle Rhee Shoulda Gotten An Education

Late last night, I stumbled across an ‘interview’ with Michelle Rhee (linked to by John Protevi on Facebook). (‘Michelle Rhee Gets an Education,’ New York Times Magazine, 2 February 2013). The comments section is absolutely priceless, and well worth a read. Here, I want to address a couple of her responses, because they offer us excellent insights into an extremely alarming person’s mind, one that has been appointed ‘reformer’ of ‘America’s schools’ but who instead, comes across as more of a destroyer than anything else.

Exhibit Numero Uno:

You write that you were offended by a sign in a Washington public school that read, “Teachers cannot make up for what parents and students will not do.” That didn’t make sense to you? 

As educators, we have to approach our job believing that anything is possible. It is incredibly important that we constantly communicate to kids that they can accomplish anything when they put their minds to it.

Translation: To me, that sign looked like an excuse made by lazy teachers.

Rhee does not like teachers, that much is clear. What she also revealed by her taking offense at the sign is that she lacks an understanding of the circumstances that may impinge on a student’s education. She forgets that schools are placed in very particular social and economic circumstances, as are their classrooms, and what takes place in them is not impervious to what happens outside. Her ‘anything is possible’ affirmation isn’t one; it’s an ostrich-like responses to material factors that affect school success. Unsurprisingly, she is fixated on test scores.

Exhibit Numero Dos:

You offered thousands of dollars to teachers and principals who brought up their schools’ test scores. Did you ever consider that it would encourage some to cheat? 

Teachers have integrity. And if money was the motivating factor, they wouldn’t be in education.

But money is enough of a motivating factor to get them to work toward your objectives? There is something more insidious at play here: Rhee wants to insist that teachers should work for the ‘love of it’ and shut up and put up about wages and working conditions. All those unions, asking for raises and better working hours. Shouldn’t you guys be working instead? As I’ve noted here before, the only Americans allowed to do the best for themselves are CEOs. The rest of us have to work for the love of it.

Exhibit Numero Tres:

Your reputation has been partly informed by the fact that you allowed a PBS news crew to film you firing a principal. Was that a terrible idea in retrospect? 

When I became chancellor, for the first two years of the job I was incredibly naïve about the press. I thought that my job was to run the school district, and that was what I was focused on. Now in retrospect I know how naïve it was.

At least Rhee is unapologetic. What she really wanted to say: ‘I quite enjoyed firing a principal on television; it let me show the teachers who’s boss.’

My sniping at Rhee here is inadequate; the real treat for the reader lies in the comments section of the interview. And in reading the always-wonderful Diane Ravitch on her.

The CTU Strike: Facile Reliance on Evaluation Won’t Work

Reading responses to the CTU strike has dismayed me: that there is so much hostility directed at teachers and their unions in a country where the path to middle-class success used to be understood as a good public education, but which is now directly under attack from a shrieking horde of carpetbaggers and rent-seekers. (Thankfully, the good folks of Chicago seem to be squarely behind the CTU.)

I’m stunned too by the  unquestioning reliance on the notion that teacher evaluation is the key to resolving the supposed crisis of public education.  When so much remains to be done for school students how can evaluation, a poorly understood notion at the best of times, become the centerpiece of reform? And indeed, given the pedagogical controversies that surround testing as a means of evaluating students, how can those scores be turned into a vehicle for evaluating their teachers? If someone had suggested to me that my 8th grade teachers be fired because of my scores in tests that year, I’d have been shocked; their teaching had nothing to do with my poor performance. And the idea that Aziz Akhtar, my high school chemistry teacher–a maestro whose explanation of the structure of benzene rings attained an almost poetic quality–should have been blamed for my slacking off and scoring poorly in the 11th grade chemistry exam fills me with horror.

What a student ‘gets’ from a teacher is not the kind of thing that is easily measured in quantifiable scores; more often than not, if a teacher is to be evaluated, it is best done by another teacher, by a process of observation, peer mentoring, and consistent, constructive feedback and criticism. Teaching is part science, part art; we are still a long way from understanding how learning proceeds and how teaching succeeds. To shoehorn this process into a ready-made quasi-Taylorist template is sheer folly. If school reform is to be carried out, it will be a necessarily slow and expensive process, and not one that can be hurried along with a slap on its rump from Michelle Rhee and her cohort.

Note: I’m often asked, ‘Would you like to teach in schools’? (i.e., high school or lower). My answer has always been, ‘Not on your life.’ It’s too hard: I simply cannot imagine dealing with the kinds of issues school teachers have to deal with on a daily basis. (Disciplinary for instance; I like dealing with students that are a bit more ‘mature’, ‘more adult’). Selfishly, I would like to be able to teach material that sometimes impacts my so-called ‘research.’ Thus, I stand back, and admire those that can take it on. I’ve met plenty of school teachers over the years and I’m impressed by their grace under fire, their careful navigation of the shoals of disciplinary issues, their deep commitment to their wards, their working in poorly equipped and funded school districts. Right from the time I was first offered an opportunity as a substitute teacher in Newark, NJ, I have turned away from school teaching. It’s fundamental to our society, but on this one, I have let others take the bullet.

The New York Times Joins the CTU-Bashing Party

This morning, I posted the following on my Facebook status:

I wouldn’t use today’s NYT Editorial on the CTU strike as a window-cleaning schmatta.

Unfortunately, editorials in influential newspapers cannot be dismissed so easily. So let’s take a closer look.

The editorial begins unpromisingly:

Teachers’ strikes, because they hurt children and their families, are never a good idea.

Notice how it is the ‘idea’ that is problematic, thus indicting the agent of the strike i.e., the union. A more promising start might have been:

City administrations should never let negotiations with teachers get to the point where they feel compelled to strike.

Because, you know, city administration policies can also hurt the ‘children’ that the New York Times is so worried about. Let’s move on. (The next sentence, incidentally, undermines the seriousness of the situation by putting it down to a personality clash between Rahm Emanuel and Karen Lewis.)

The Times is quite sure that the union is opposed to ‘sensible policy changes,’ ones that,

[A]re increasingly popular across the country and are unlikely to be rolled back, no matter how long the union stays out.

Well. I hadn’t realized aping bad policies implemented elsewhere was such a good idea. And perhaps the Times could evaluate these ‘sensible’ changes for us? Thankfully, it does tell us that Mr. Emanuel rescinded a 4-percent pay raise last year, and that he, in keeping with the current fashion of diminishing organized labor in every way possible, by-passed the collective bargaining process to implement a longer school day.

The Times’ ‘why don’t you follow the lemmings’ query is on display again when it comes to noting the union’s resistance to ‘an evaluation system in which a teacher’s total rating depends partly on student test scores’:

Half the states have agreed to create similar teacher evaluation systems that take student achievement into account in exchange for grants under the federal Race to the Top program or for greater flexibility under the No Child Left Behind law. Such systems are already up and running in many places.

The Times does not stop to consider that such evaluations and ratings might be flawed and that the CTU’s stance might make more pedagogical sense. No sir; this is a fait accompli, fall in line!

The primary beef, in any case, over and above everything else, is that the union is ‘holding the city hostage’ by not bringing forward its ‘legitimate suggestions’ (if any) for improving the evaluation system in the right way. I hate to break the news to the New York Times, but the power to strike is organized labor’s weapon of last resort, one only to be used when faced with a recalcitrant and obdurate management. That same management, if not confronted with that threat, can all too easily stonewall its way into a resolution that favors it alone (and not the city’s students).

The editorial continues,

What stands out about this strike, however, is that the differences between the two sides were not particularly vast, which means that this strike was unnecessary.

But it is only the union that is required to make concessions.

Moreover, Ms. Lewis, who seems to be basking in the power of having shut down the school system, seems more inclined toward damaging the mayor politically than in getting this matter resolved.

Pardon me, I thought this was about a ‘personality clash’ between two folks. Why is Ms. Lewis’ personality the only one to be indicted?

If the strike goes on for much longer, the union could pay a dear price in terms of public opinion.

And the editorial page of the nation’s most prominent newspapers is helping that process get started.

Blaming Unions: The Easiest Game in Town

And so, here we go. A teacher’s union is on strike–more specifically the Chicago Teacher’s Union–and the bewailing begins: the strike is hurting students; the teachers should put their selfish interests last; get back to work, don’t you know you are hurting the students? As I pointed out a few days ago, if there is one thing that unites our political parties and leads to a great, Kumbaya, sea-to-shining-sea holding of hands across party divides it is this: teachers are to blame for the supposed educational crisis in public education, and they, and their unions alone, should reform if our schools are to get back to work and get on with the business of making our students into the finest, able to compete globally with all those busy eating their lunches.

I have no doubt students are being hurt by the strike. I was the ‘victim’ of two teachers’ strikes myself: once in my first undergraduate  year when faculty at Delhi University went on strike for two months, and then again, in my second undergraduate year, when they went on strike for three months. By the end of the second one, I had lost interest in going back to attend classes, and skipped the rest of the year to study on my own for final exams. I did the same thing in the third year (there were no strikes, but I skipped most classes anyway). Needless to say, I did terribly in my undergraduate degree. (I wasn’t a terribly diligent student in any case, but I’m going to blow past that for now.)

Back then, like most around me, I blamed the teacher’s union. I knew little about the university administration and the prolonged crisis in negotiations between teachers and them, about governmental funding for higher education. My view of the world was narrow, immature and restricted: the teachers were the ones not reporting to work, they must be lazy, they must be selfish, they must, surely, bear all the blame.  I knew little about the poor salaries paid to my faculty (though I had an inkling of the poor conditions they labored under).  The teachers were visible; the university administration was not. There was a bull’s-eye painted on their union banner, and I aimed for it.

My memories of this reaction to the 1984-1985 strikes colored my responses to any mention of the possibility of a strike during union chapter meetings here at Brooklyn College. (A strike at CUNY has always, always, been a very distant possibility.) I remembered, all too well, the visceral, angry, poorly-directed backlash against them. But by then, I was a teacher myself, and had found out just what hard work it was (and the work of schoolteachers is orders of magnitude harder than that of university faculty), I had grown up, and understood a little more of the ecology of the university, its embedding in broader socio-economic-political realities. I had come to understand that if a teacher’s union went on strike, it represented a desperate, backs-to-the-wall measure of last resort.  Teachers would always find a way to keep coming to work, somehow, precisely because we knew students depended on us.   What they hoped for, more than anything else, was that those that paid their salaries, and controlled the destiny of students just as much, would participate in some, even if not all, of that concern. The burden of caring for the students rested on them too.

The reaction to the Chicago Teachers’ Union strike will be revealing: those that lazily trot out the ‘teachers need to get back to work’ line in preference to mounting any critique of the Chicago city administration will show, to me at least,  that facile scapegoating is still the easiest game in town.

United Against Teachers on Teacher’s Day

The Facebook statuses of some friends of mine who live in India acknowledge September 5 as the date for the observance of an Indian holiday, not, I think, ‘observed’ with any particular enthusiasm in the United States: Teacher’s Day. (A confession: I did not realize there was a Teacher Day in the US till I looked up Wikipedia and found, in the entry for that topic, the following note for the US: ‘National Teacher Day is on Tuesday during Teacher Appreciation Week, which takes place in the first full week of May.’ I apologize for this oversight, but the occasion does not seem to have figured on my university-based radar at all.)

Back in India, if memory remains functional, the observance of Teacher’s Day was occasion for some rather interesting role-reversal: our schoolteachers took the day off, twelfth-graders took on their role as keepers of the peace, and the rest of us dissolved into giggles. (Or whatever it is that young boys do to indicate suppressed hilarity.)

But if an American ‘Teacher’s Day’ were observed during this year’s election season, it would have a decidedly somber air to it. For if there is an issue that unites our two political parties, bringing them together in a frenzy of bipartisan agreement, it is that teachers are to blame: for the ills of the educational system and the trials and travails of public schools, for the seemingly never-ending tales of low student reading and math scores in the face of international competition, and if the spectacularly misinformed Waiting for Superman is to be believed, for poverty, crime and social collapse in inner-city neighborhoods as well.

There isn’t much, it seems, that cannot be solved by simply busting teacher unions, getting rid of tenure and making it easier to fire teachers. Everything would magically become better, negating the effects of broken families, poverty, inner-city crime, declining social services and the like. (The mysterious business of how, Finland, that over-achiever in the world of primary and secondary education, manages to maintain its head honcho position despite a completely unionized teaching force should be sidelined for a bit while we indulge in this pleasant fantasy.)

In this regard our political parties are united, with nary a hint of obstructionism. As Diane Ravitch noted in her critical review of Mitt Romney’s school plan (‘The Miseducation of Mitt Romney’, New York Review of Books, July 12, 2012, Volume LIX, Number 12):

Apart from vouchers and the slap at teacher certification, Obama’s Race to the Top program for schools promotes virtually everything Romney proposes—charters, competition, accountability, evaluating teachers by student test scores. If anything, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been as outspoken on behalf of charters and test-based accountability as Mitt Romney. And, like Romney, Duncan has disdained the issue of reducing the number of students per teacher. [Link in original connects to Ravitch’s critical assessment of Arne Duncan in the New York Review of Books.]

Obama had promised us a new ‘coming together’ of the American nation. Well, at least when it comes to teachers, we finally have it.