It’s a refrain in the endless attack on education: ‘no one deserves a job for life.’ The phrase is meant to convey outrage against the tenure system. It summons images of feckless educators goofing off on the public’s dime, job security making us deaf to the injured cries of our students and rebukes from school administrators alike.
Implying that good work can only be motivated by fear, this view promotes a dim view of human nature. Such poorly documented negativity is contradicted by abundant evidence that people with job security put in hours of their own time to do the job well.
So let’s entertain the opposite idea for a moment. Let’s say that job security is widely productive, that everyone deserves a job for life. Everyone should have the opportunity for meaningful work with a reasonable degree of security.
Everyone deserves a job for life. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights included “just and favorable” conditions at work and protection against unemployment as basic human rights. This visionary document also asserted broad access to education as a fundamental component of what it called “the dignity and worth of the human person.”
Job security does not make employees less likely to work hard. To have job security is to have a sense of ongoing possibility at work. This possibility breeds investment, not slacking. Creativity emerges from employees having a stake in our place of employment; enterprise arises from our dreams of a future.
Ask any educator when she started planning for the school year and you’ll hear about plenty of time spent off the clock during the summer months. Such unpaid labor is not extracted by coercive metrics of assessment, by high-stakes testing. It emerges out of reflection about the past year, from hopes of doing it better. These ambitions make labor meaningful.
Asserting the importance of job security is not equivalent to saying that everyone deserves a job no matter what. Like any other labor arrangement, the tenure system includes processes for dismissal and for employee grievance. Further, as I have argued elsewhere about staff responses to imposed austerity in Wisconsin, employees who are invested in their workplace want to work hard to ensure its success, even in difficult times (see my “Skeleton Crew: Or, Adventures in Austerity Math”).
When politicians talk about “education for job readiness” do they really mean to call for the creation of a disposable labor force? Visions of a collective stable and prosperous future implicitly include job security. No one dreams of a work life continually ruptured by downsizing and restructuring for themselves or for their children. But this is, increasingly, what is available.
As Ben Casselman points out, when people today wax nostalgic about the stable employment of the mid-twentieth century − the “good manufacturing jobs” touted by so many politicians −what they are really longing for is the security that resulted from a long history of labor organizing. Since this much-touted heyday of American manufacturing, unions have been purposely eviscerated and blamed for economic downturns. The job security vouchsafed by the labor movement is blamed for the loss of stable employment. In reality, job loss has been caused by enforced austerity in the funding of public institutions and by corporate choices to restructure and/or move operations overseas, away from labor protections like job security.
Currently, to mention teachers’ unions in a conversation about education is to risk being barraged by largely unsubstantiated fables of “dead wood:” horror stories about entitled teachers taking advantage of easy and stable jobs at the expense of our children. Such cautionary tales blame educator job security for current problems in our education system.
The attack on tenure has been part of a broad assault on public support for education, K-PhD. Animosity towards educators leads to the concentration of power in the hands of management. This is evident in the move to “take over” Milwaukee Public Schools, transferring control away from teachers, students, and parents to an unelected board. At the same time, despite imposed fiscal austerity, the amount spent on administration in higher education continues to increase exponentially.
Administrative power increases as job security declines. Management in every sector, education included, prefers flexible, meaning disposable, labor. The broad access to job security and education envisioned by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights comes to seem like a long-gone fantasy. As is becoming dramatically evident at Long Island University and elsewhere, educators are easily replaced, even if our skills, commitment, and knowledge are not.
Workers can always be replaced: we learn that again and again as “flexible” policies are used to deracinate public institutions and eliminate experienced workers. But the stability and vision created by longstanding systems of job security are not replaceable. There will always be people to do the job, though increasingly, we do them in circumstances that undermine us.
Everyone deserves a job for life. All workers deserve job security. More broadly, we all benefit from stable institutions and educators inspired to work hard for our collective future.