Conventional wisdom holds that universities are repositories of liberalism and progressive politics, in which innocent students are indoctrinated into holding borderline deviant, un-American beliefs. Right wing authors, pundits and politicians are forever bemoaning how American universities are controlled by a liberal/left wing/anti-free market orthodoxy. And in marginal and declining humanities departments that may be the case. But a review of US labor history and current labor issues shows that in reality elite universities have often been a source of reactionary, anti-labor attitudes, policies and actions. A brief look at early 20th century labor history, and current academic efforts associated with so-called educational reform, bear this out. While the recruitment of student strikebreakers one hundred years ago was couched in the explicit language of class warfare, today anti-labor ideologies and recruitment is spoken in the superficially milder, pseudo-scientific language of ideologically-framed education research, economics and human capital deployment. One hundred years ago, largely unorganized manual workers bore the brunt of this assault; today it is teachers and their unions.
|Ralph Fasanella: “Lawrence,1912:The Bread and Roses Strike”|
While the meaning of those signs may not be so clear today, at the time it was obvious to all concerned what they meant: that students from Harvard, Tufts and other elite universities in the region had willingly joined the state militia, with the support of their school’s presidents, to break the strike.
Indeed, according to Stephen Norwood, whose “The Student as Strikebreaker: College Youth and the Crisis of Masculinity in the Early 20th Century” (Journal of Social History, Winter, 1994), “…college students represented a major and often critically important source of strikebreakers in a wide range of industries and services.” Student strikebreakers, often but not limited to athletes and engineering students, were involved in strikebreaking in the 1901 dockworkers strike in San Francisco (Berkeley), the 1903 Great Lakes seaman’s strike of 1903 (U of Chicago), 1903 teamster and railroad strikes in Connecticut (Yale), the 1905 IRT strike in New York City (Columbia), and many, many others. During the great strike wave that followed WWI, Princeton president John Grier Hibben told officials of the Pennsylvania Railroad that his students were “ready to serve” in the event of a railroad strike. The Boston and Maine Railroad actually placed an engine and rails on the MIT campus to help train student strikebreakers.
Today, elite colleges produce endless studies and turn out cadre to facilitate the privatization of the public schools, which occurs under catch phrases such as “the business model in education,” “school choice,” “market-friendly policies,” “social entrepreneurialism” and others. These efforts presuppose the avoidance, neutralization and ultimate elimination of teacher unions.
The fact of student strikebreaking in the early 20th century is not so hard to understand. Unlike today, a university education was limited to a tiny percentage of the population, and the student body was composed of a homogenous group composed almost entirely of wealthy, white males who aspired to and identified with the interests and ideologies of the captains of industry at the time. According to Norwood, there was an additional overlay of obsessive concern with toughness, strength, and the “cult of masculinity” associated with Teddy Roosevelt’s “bully” persona. These tendencies combined to make it easy to see why “Employers considered students to be the most reliable strikebreakers of the period,” since their complete remove from the conditions under which working people lived at the time, combined with the prevailing attitudes of Social Darwinism, combined to make their antagonism to labor unions of a piece.
|“Fight Fiercely, Harvard:” Massachusetts Militia (composed largely of Harvard students) confronts Lawrence strikers in 1912|
Today, with the near-total collapse of private sector unionization, the last bastion of organized labor in the US is in the public sector. And among public sector unions, teacher unions have become a major focus in the effort to “reform” or “rationalize” the educational workplace, and to shape and form the “product” (aka students, according to NYC Department of education consultant and management avatar Jack Welch)) that is to be delivered to employers upon graduation. While this effort is always couched in the language of “Children First,” “The Civil Rights Movement of Our Time” or other such PR and focus group-generated slogans, the reality is that recent efforts to change public education are largely motivated by a desire to control the labor process and labor markets within and outside the schools. The language of corporate education reform rarely, and then only half-heartedly, invokes the now-quaint language of citizenship or democracy. Instead, it openly discusses the purpose of education as producing students who meet the needs of employer-dominated labor markets and a globalized, neo-liberal economy.
So, having taken a peek at the Ivy League (and other) union-busting efforts of one hundred years ago, what do we see today?
Let’s (to use only one of numerous examples) briefly look at Harvard, where in 1904 university president Charles W. Eliot described strikebreakers as “a fair type of hero.” Harvard is the currently the home of The Program on Educational Policy and Governance (PEPG), which is affiliated with the Kennedy School of Government, and has notable alumni such as Michelle Rhee (whose anti-teacher and anti-labor behavior needs no introduction) and Cami Anderson (who is currently busy privatizing and charterizing NYC’s District 79/alternative high schools).
PEPG describes itself as “a significant player in the educational reform movement” that provides “high-level training for young scholars who can make independent contributions to scholarly research… foster a national community of reform-minded scientific researchers… and produce path-breaking studies that provide a scientific basis for school reform policy.” (I’ll have some more to say on the ideological basis of the pseudo-science that forms their “scientific research”)
A quick look at their Advisory Committee and major funders, shows it to be made up almost entirely of pro-privatization and anti-labor individuals and groups. Its funders include foundations such as the Walton Family Foundation, Bradley Foundation, Olin Foundation, Milton and Rose Friedman Foundation and the William E. Simon Foundation. Its Advisory Committee includes Jeb Bush and a host of investment bank, hedge fund and private equity interests. Its affiliates include the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, The Hoover Institute and The Heritage Foundation (with the Brookings Institute thrown in for a bi-partisan gloss). While claiming to be independent and non-partisan, it in fact espouses and is dominated by the free-market fundamentalism that has served the US so very well in recent years, and is now (to use a term from the Wall Street backers of corporate ed reform)) engaging in a hostile takeover of the public schools.
Studies and reports by the PEPG show an obsession with vouchers, charters, merit pay, the “inefficiencies” and failures of collective bargaining, and other “market friendly” topics and policies. While ostensibly using the scientific method, the entire premise of their research is based on assuming as a given the existence of so-called self-regulating markets: in other words, unquestioned assumptions and ideology masked as science, and a latter-day counterpart to the 19th century medical “science” that strove to “prove” the efficacy of bleeding as a medical procedure. A 2009 paper co-authored by PEPG director Paul Peterson purported to “scientifically” show how for-profit school management companies were superior to both traditional public schools and non-profit school management entities. Independent and non-partisan, indeed.
The PEPG’s 1998-99 Annual Report, in a prominent sidebar to an article entitled “Do Unions Aid Education Reform?” (I bet you can guess their answer to that one), stated that collective bargaining and unions “reduce the diversity of instructional methods, reduce low-and high-ability test scores” and “increase high school dropout rates.” Sounds scientific, no?
Unlike the early 20th century, union busting emerging from the academy no longer takes place at the (literal) point of a gun, as in Lawrence. At least, not yet. Instead, it is done in calm, measured, reasonable-sounding tones, using the façade of faux scientific inquiry, and by creating an academic, philanthropic (or in this case, malanthropic might be a more accurate term) and media echo chamber that endlessly repeats its unexamined assumptions, half-truths and outright distortions. Additionally, in the realm of real world practice we have the union-busting efforts of Teach For America (founded by Princeton grad Wendy Kopp, and recruiting exclusively among graduates of elite colleges and universities), which happily supplied replacement workers (aka scabs) for the schools in post-Katrina New Orleans, where the entire teaching force was summarily fired.
While it would be grossly inaccurate, and is nowhere near my intention, to tar all college students, professors and administrators with an anti-labor, anti-humanistic brush, the reflexive assumption that universities are always exemplars of social progress is due for some revision and skepticism. That elite universities should be so complicit in the ongoing destruction of public education is a cruel paradox that exemplifies the many dilemmas teachers face today.
History, however, should teach us not to be too surprised.