Thinking About Education Workers’ Struggles and University Education after Capitalism

In October 2015, the Toronto General Membership Branch of the Industrial Workers of the World hosted the Working for Each Other, Working for Ourselves organizing summit, which brought together revolutionary public service worker-organizers from across Canada and the United States.

The Summit’s opening plenary, “Public Service Workers’ Struggles and Public Services After Capitalism” attempted to begin conversations about what public service work—including education—would look like if capitalism was defeated and a system of social and economic organization that prioritized people’s needs was implemented. Here’s how the panel was introduced:

“This summit is about us all struggling for a better world. We hope it serves as a contribution to the development of a fighting, revolutionary movement of working people that might be capable of overthrowing capitalism and systemic oppression once and for all.

It is easy to articulate what we are against. We are against the violence of the system in which we live – and the environmental destruction, poverty, misery, and humiliation it produces. In the words of the preamble to the IWW’s constitution, ‘There can be no peace so long as hunger and want are found among millions of the working people and the few, who make up the employing class, have all the good things of life.’

The preamble to the constitution also asserts: ‘It is the historic mission of the working class to do away with capitalism. The army of production must be organized, not only for everyday struggle with capitalists, but also to carry on production when capitalism shall have been overthrown. By organizing industrially we are forming the structure of the new society within the shell of the old.’

The focus of this summit will be on developing the skills necessary to build a movement capable of ‘doing away with capitalism.’ However, we also want to take some time to consider what, exactly, it is we are fighting for.

We, a small group of revolutionaries, members of a small revolutionary union, could take this time to explain our grand vision of a world in which capitalism has been defeated. Unfortunately for us – and maybe fortunately for you – we don’t know exactly what that future society that we might call the collective commonwealth, or socialism, or what-have-you, will look like. What we do know concretely, is what our own lives and work are like under capitalism, and what we aspire for our lives and work to be in a just society.

So, we have prepared a few short testimonies which explain what it is that we do for a living and why, what some of our issues and grievances are, how we think our jobs would be different if we were part of a larger and stronger movement and what our jobs might be like if we won.“

We’ve decided to post the remarks of one of the panel’s participants, an IWW member involved in the 620 IOC, which publishes ClassRoom.

What is your job?

I’m a teaching assistant at a Toronto university. I’ve taught politics, social science research methods and labour studies courses for 5 years.

What is the point of your job?

I help students develop reading, writing and critical thinking skills. In theory a liberal arts education will expose them to lots of new ideas literature that will help them cultivate themselves as free, creative individuals. Unfortunately, in actual practice, I basically help give my students the skills to get entry-level jobs. There’s not much levelling involved. ­The students who are good at school generally do well and the ones that aren’t don’t. Many of my students are the first generation in their family to get a university education. Most will end up working in jobs that have no relation to what they studied in school.

What are the major grievances/issues?

I really like my job and if it wasn’t for this job I wouldn’t be able to afford grad school. That said, the wages are low. And the neoliberalization of the university means that more and more people like me are going to continue on in academia in low paying and precarious academic teaching jobs.

How would your job be different if you had a fighting union at work and were part of a fighting labour movement?

I have a good trade union. However, it has its limits. If my union was a part of a bigger, broader, fighting labour movement we could conceivably win free tuition. This would be a significant amount of money saved for people like me who pay to go to school and work. It would also mean my students would get to spend more time focusing on school and less time juggling work schedules.

What would your job be like if we won and there was no capitalism?

As a PhD student I study prison labour. I hope that if we win, I would have to find something else to study. My students would be more diverse if certain populations weren’t systematically excluded from university education. But moreover, grading, one of the things I hate the most about my job would be unnecessary. I would get to teach students who are going to school because they want to learn, rather than any other reason—like improving their general chances of getting a job. Instead of being a short 4 year period in some people’s’ lives, university could be something many people do throughout their lives, pursuing education related to the things that interest them regardless of what they do for a living.