Dividing and Conquering the Working Class with Drug Testing:
Hawaii Teachers, Coercion, and a Failure of Working Class Solidarity

This article has been published at libcom


Dividing and Conquering the Working Class with Drug Testing

     In a historic blow to workers’ rights, and working class solidarity in Hawaii, the members of the Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA) have been coerced into voting to relinquish basic rights to gain a needed pay raise. The contract they agreed to provides for 4% raises over each of the next two years, with other supplements amounting to an 11% pay raise over two years. The newly approved contract includes a mandatory random and reasonable suspicion drug testing clause.
     Over the last few years, teachers have been deluged with red tape and paperwork, had arbitrary and rigid “standards” overlaid on their class rooms, and generally had their autonomy eroded. The streamlining of the educational process, designed to create passive, unquestioning, but efficient workers to meet the needs of the capitalist economy is now taking another step forward with the moral paternalism of invasive random drug testing, dictating what teachers may do in their free time.
     By dividing workers with this vote, effectively pitting them one against the other, the State has won another victory against working class people, thus maintaining a weak, scared, and divided working class incapable of challenging attacks on them from above.
     The moralistic cloaking of this attack on labor in the garb of “protecting the children” must be challenged openly and seen in historical context. Workers have often faced such social control. Henry Ford created a “Sociological Department” (later called the “Education Department”) to scrutinize workers’ domestic lives so as to “Americanize” immigrant workers. The idea was to alter home life to better adjust workers to greater efficiency and instill a better attitude toward factory work. “The Sociological Department investigated each worker and interviewed his family, friends, and neighbors. If the worker met specified requirements - ‘thrift, honesty, sobriety, better housing, and better living generally’ - he received the Five Dollar Day.” Otherwise, he did not receive the full wage, and could be discharged after six months if sufficient moral progress was not made according to Ford’s standards.*

     The Union’s Failure to Defend Workers as a Group

          “On Wednesday, HSTA President Roger Takabayashi was the only
          member of the union's board of directors to vote against sending
          the contract for ratification. Twenty-six members backed the
          contract and one abstained.”


     This contract should not have been put to the workers for a vote. Asking workers to choose between either a raise, or retaining basic rights is like asking them to choose between sawing off a limb or shooting themselves in the face, with a nice raise for the face shooters. This move by the Union leadership was dressed up as a “democratic” vote, but should be identified as what it is: union collaboration with the state to impose more control over workers’ lives. Presenting a dilemma, and calling it a choice is a devils’ bargain, bourgeois democracy at its worst, but far from an anomaly.
     This contract is an effective tool to drive a wedge between more “socially conservative” and “socially liberal” employees. Sixty one percent of the teachers who voted chose to ratify the contract. For some teachers, while they did not like the idea of drug testing, they felt the raise itself made the contract acceptable. For other teachers, the idea of criminalizing any type of recreational drug use not sanctioned by the state creates a better society: "I'm all for it," said math teacher John Furukawa. "As an educator, we need to promote an example to which kids can follow." (http://www.thehawaiichannel.com/education/13210269/detail.html)

     “Protecting the Children” and “Setting an Example for the Kids”
     To hear all the talk about protecting the children, one would think there had been a recent rash of violent attacks and or molestations on keikis by drug crazed teachers. Several high profile cases of teachers and Department of Education employees brought up on charges ranging from smoking a joint, to dealing ice, cocaine, and ecstasy, are being used to justify a sweeping crack down on teachers’ rights, and being sold as a moral crusade for the kids. Following this logic, one might expect given the 3300 plus U.S. troops killed in Iraq, the tens of thousands of maimed troops, and the body count for Iraqis surpassing half a million (counting only the post invasion phase of U.S. policy), some actions might be taken to keep military recruiters away from kids, especially given the recent national coverage of recruiters’ lies to kids about “not getting shipped to Iraq” and promises of college funds many will never see.
     What kind of example are teachers setting for children when they vote for a contract which divides workers into morally fit or unfit categories based on lifestyle, regardless of whether or not any problems have arisen in their work with children? Are illegal drugs like marijuana connected to violent or abusive behavior any more than legal drugs like antidepressants are? You can test for marijuana use outside the classroom, but unless a teacher is actually drunk inside the class room, no moral line has been crossed. A high school teacher who has a martini at a jazz concert is fine, but if that teacher takes a hit off a joint, and is randomly tested, he may face termination or punishment and ostracism by other faculty and community.
     What about teachers who have problems with harder substances like meth, ice, crack, cocaine, or heroin, or who exhibit signs of severe alcoholism? The obvious answer is that if a teacher exhibits warning signs or has endangered children, the community or coworkers should approach the person and make sure they can either clean up their act to the point of being an effective teacher, or transfer out to a position not involved with kids, and as a last resort, be told to leave. This requires actual human interaction among equals who are genuinely concerned for the children’s and each others’ safety and well being, not mandates by opportunist bureaucrats who want to score political points by harassing and demonizing teachers as a group so they appear to be “doing something” about the problem.
     What teachers are “teaching” kids by ratifying this contract is that it’s ok to sacrifice people who are not like you to arbitrary and idiotic authority and punishment. They are saying very clearly that standing together as a class against coercion by the powerful is a waste of time. They are pounding one more nail into the coffin of class solidarity, now merely a quaint outdated concept which has been replaced by “every worker for him or her self”: “Well, if I don’t do illegal substance x, I don’t see why someone who does shouldn’t be fired or punished as a rule.”

     When Unions Fail
     Unions are sometimes the only thing standing between workers and even more severe exploitation. Historically they have sometimes helped workers in their struggles for basic rights such as the eight hour day, and health and safety protections. But unions have too often been incorporated by management as a tool to mediate and lessen the effectiveness of workers’ demands. With the HSTA, we see an example of a union selling out its workers, and systematically opening them up to further attack. In cases like these, if there is to be a defense of workers as a class against the encroachments of grandstanding moralizers in the service of capital (consciously or not), wildcat action will be necessary. But this requires a minimum of class consciousness, the kind that led to the formations of unions originally, and the kind that sparked direct actions even when unions lagged behind or went against working class interests. What we see with the recent vote is a lack of class solidarity and a willingness to play by the rules laid down by the state in the service of capital. The message sent is this: we'll keep pumping out obedient and cowed workers who accept that their “rights” can be revoked from above at any time.

     Acting In Our Own Interests

     A teachers’ union divided is vulnerable to further erosions of such rights, and eventually to attacks on wages and benefits when that becomes necessary, as it has become necessary in countless school districts across the globe. When capitalism in general faces crisis and declining profits, it unloads the burden of that crisis onto the working class. Teachers are not only exposed to random drug tests, but are already expected to pay for supplies out of pocket, perform overtime work without pay, and to act as police, reporting on fellow workers and students regarding immigration status, drug use, and other issues.
     Teachers themselves will need to take the reins at some point, and stand up for each other, even if this has to happen outside the normal union channels. They’ll need to organize their own struggle without interference form parties, vanguard groups, unions, or NGOs.
     While today, the attack comes in the guise of protecting the children from drug users, tomorrow it may be “terrorists,” “political dissidents,” “illegal immigrants,” or “communists.” Of course, all these things have already happened, and are all further smokescreen issues covering attacks on labor.
     The anti-drug argument needs to be identified for what it truly is: an attack on the working class in an effort to divide workers over social behavior, just as race and political affiliation have been used in the past. A failure to unite and fight back now will lead to further erosions of self management of our own lives.

*“Adapting the Immigrant to the Line: Americanization in the Ford Factory,
1914-1921.” Stephen Meyer. Journal of Social History, Vol. 14, No. 1. (Autumn, 1980), 70.

     Angry Teacher May 2007


Further Reading:

Class Struggle Beyond Unionism