Educators Take on Trump, Sexism, and Anybody Else Who Threatens the School System: SJEM Organizers Talk Back!
by John O’Reilly
One of the Twin Cities IWW’s most exciting areas of work is the Social Justice Education Committee (SJEM). Since 2012, SJEM has been organizing workers in K12 education across the metro for justice at work and in the community. C.M., an elementary school teaching fellow, says of SJEM: “We bring together education workers to give them tools to organize their schools to disrupt the oppressive status quo. We know that no matter what kind of policies are enacted at a district level, oppressive, hierarchical structures that are built into our school systems will need to be resisted from the grassroots.” By building a democratic organization across the education system in the Twin Cities, SJEM organizers hope to empower people who work inside the education system to stand up for themselves and their students. They work to “band together against white supremacy, the commodification of children and staff, and other oppression taking place in schools,” C.M. adds.
While the public education system is already represented by mainstream teachers’ unions, SJEM organizers see that there’s much more room for an organizing approach inside schools. C.M. notes that “with the rise of charter schools, organizing within each school is essential to avoid massive attacks on workers’ rights and school funding as more and more schools operate outside of the unionized world.” The prevailing model of unionism in the education sector, and in most of the country, is sometimes called “service unionism,” where unions offer themselves as a product for members, instead of members themselves directly taking action at their schools and in the community. C.M. sees the limitation of service unionism as a limitation to the ability of educators to change the system they work in. “We cannot really transform schools without building power and using creative action way outside of what the union bureaucracy allows for,” she says.
Another SJEM organizer, Moira, also works in elementary education, and says that the division within unions in the school district is a challenge that SJEM hopes to take on. “The current model of school unions is too divided to give education workers true power,” she says. “Engineers, education assistance, cafeteria workers, and licensed educators all have their own separate unions.” Echoing a slogan that has long been a rallying cry for the IWW, she says that workers need to organize industrially, all across the school system among different kinds of work, “in order to create schools that are socially and racially just.”
One of the most important impacts of the Trump regime so far has been its threatening attitude towards immigrants and refugees. Educators in the Twin Cities have seen this in their schools and are organizing against it, but it can be difficult. Moira says that an atmosphere of fear has already been created at her school, and that staff are nervous to talk too openly about Trump. SJEM is doing work to fight these fear. C.M. tells a story of what’s happened since the election at her school:
“The thing that has come up so far is that students are scared. My Somali students and students of color came in crying the day after the election and are worried that people ‘want them out.’ I assured them that I would do whatever I could to protect them and to keep our school a safe place, and a key part of actually acting on that promise will mean organizing with other teachers to create plans for what to do if our students or families come under attack.”
SJEM is currently working on developing organizing pledges for education workers to push their schools to commit to protecting undocumented students. The school system is a central part of our society and education is a right guaranteed to everyone in our community. SJEM members won’t let Trumpism take that away from their students. “Organizing ourselves to prepare for direct action, rather than trusting systems which are designed to work against us, will be critical to protecting our students,” adds C.M.
Women workers play an important role in the education system, a field dominated by female labor. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, over 75% of teachers in the K12 field are women. Traditionally, the high proportion of women in education has been one of the reasons why teachers and related education occupations have been underpaid and undervalued in our society: the same patriarchal values that permeate our society have real effects in the economy. The powerful have dismissed education as “women’s work,” and have dismissed “women’s work” as unimportant. The rise of teachers unions in the Twin Cities and around the country have gone a long way to fight these double standards. In fact, the first teachers strike in the United States was the 1946 AFT strike in St. Paul.
Still, despite decades of educator unionism, double-standards and bias remain for women in the workplace. Administrators can use sexist tropes to dismiss women in education. “Male bosses don’t take me seriously,” says C.M., “It is hard to maintain credibility when higher-ranking men come in and paint you as the ‘dreamer’ and themselves as the ‘thinker.’” Additionally, she points out that the lack of men in the field becomes a problem for students as well. “Young boys benefit from being represented on staff,” C.M. points out, but often don’t see role models for themselves at school because the amount of work, both paid and unpaid, that goes into education discourages men from entering the field.
SJEM has been pushing away at these and other problems across the metro area, and won’t be stopping any time soon. They see schools as an institution to protect and also one to transform: Asked why she’s working with SJEM to make things better at her school, C.M. has passion and a vision:
“I want my students to be treated as children, not products. I want to empower students to follow their interests and learn to be a part of a supportive and democratic community, not to sort my students into different classes for the benefit of the ruling class. Schools shouldn’t be a holding place for students, they should be a place to offer knowledge and growth that nurture humanity and the whole child. I am organizing because I think the only way to create schools that are actually good for people is to have them be designed by the people who work and learn in them.”
With Trump in power and his Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, taking aim at the public education system, the brave organizers of SJEM and those like them are standing up for their students and their schools.