107. Labor

I remember a time when the teachers’ association in Wellesley could not get a contract we considered reasonable. That’s a pretty common situation, but this time, we felt the injustice more strongly than usual. We voted to have a work-to-rule action. That is, teachers would only do what their contracts required them to do. As is true in many other kinds of work, most teachers ordinarily do quite a bit more than their contracts require. They care about the children they teach (caring is not required by their contracts), and this caring motivates them to do much more work than they are paid to do. So the work-to-rule action was not easy for teachers. It wasn’t easy for parents, administrators, or children, either. But it was an important attempt to communicate with the community.
People who have economic and political power usually want to keep it. One way to do that is to make sure the people who don’t have power don’t get together. History is full of examples. Religion is often used to teach people without power that it’s morally better not to have power. The ones who do have power usually have a somewhat different theological slant. They seldom believe that they are destined to burn eternally as punishment for having had power.
Political leaders create “public enemies” to justify their own actions: “I would love to make your lives more livable, but to do so, at this point, would seriously threaten the very fabric of our society.” Most people belong to some group or other that “threatens the very fabric of our society.” Whether or not you’re worried that our social fabric is going to unravel, it’s wise to take such statements with a grain of salt. I, personally, think such statements are dangerous, and protect some fabric that really ought to be rewoven.
A favorite way to turn people against labor is to call people communists. Communism is a category of economic philosophy. I almost wrote that it’s an economic philosophy, but if you really look at who the communists are and what they say, you discover that there’s a lot of philosophical diversity within communism. Karl Marx didn’t have a monopoly on communism, although it could be said that he was the foremost authority on Marxism.
But regardless of economic philosophy, most people belong to that huge group called “labor.” The colors of their collars don’t matter as much as you may think. Their particular incomes and life styles aren’t as significant as they sometimes appear; whether you’re paying rent or mortgage payments, most of you can’t buy an airline or skyscraper.
The messages sent by teachers when they strike or declare a work-to-rule action deserve your attention. They care about your children, and care about making school the best place it can be. They also want to make sure they and their families have what they need to live. You may disagree with them about particulars. But they are no more of a threat to your fabric than you are.

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