An America 'of, by and for' our bosses?

If you’re like most Americans—in other words, if you’re not rich, male, and a major employer—your rights and best interests have taken quite a beating in our courts recently.

A couple of weeks ago, corporate interests won the Vergara case, in which a California Superior Court judge attacked the basic idea that a principal or district should have to prove a teacher did something wrong, before firing them. This week, similar big-business interests received the blessing of the Supreme Court in two separate cases, Harris v. Quinn and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, to deal two more crushing blows, disproportionately to female workers. The former ruling weakened home care and childcare workers’ ability to bargain for fair pay and benefits, while the latter allows corporate chieftains to use religion as an excuse to ignore the Affordable Care Act, and deny female employees insurance coverage for contraception.

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These rulings share many disturbing elements, but perhaps the most troubling one is the idea that employers should have more right to dictate the terms of their employees’ lives than the employees themselves. In order to concur with these decisions, one must accept the idea that it’s okay if the freedoms we associate with the idea of America—freedom of speech and religion—are only enjoyed by those in positions of authority, while everyone else gets to live (or not) at their mercy.

It’s troubling enough that backwards beliefs such as these are championed by religious extremists. But the right is hardly alone in this “of, by, and for the bosses” crusade. Self-professed Democrats are on this bandwagon, too.

For some timely examples, we need look no further than the “Democrats” who supported Vergara, as well as hired guns like former Obama spokesmen and strategists Ben LaBolt, Robert Gibbs, and Jon Jones, who recently announced that their firm is promoting Campbell Brown’s Vergara copycat suit in New York.

Under the guise of “helping students,” these alleged Democrats are cashing in on a campaign that, if successful, will leave even more teachers vulnerable to being fired for their political views, sexual orientation, family status, and more. This will not only make it harder to attract and retain great teachers, but will further entrench the poverty and inequality that is the primary obstacle to success for millions of students. 

In America, hiring teachers is often a bigger challenge than firing them, especially in struggling schools located in our poorest neighborhoods. Indeed, from 2009 to 2011, the federal government offered teachers already employed by urban districts $20,000—a bonus of nearly half the average teacher’s salary—to transfer to a higher-poverty school with lower test scores. Only about 25 percent of eligible teachers applied.

It’s not hard to understand why. It’s difficult to find highly-educated people who are both willing and able to work under such challenging circumstances over the long-term. Ensuring that their pay and employment are increasingly tied to factors largely beyond their control (like test scores) and turning every professional dispute into a choice between their First Amendment rights and their livelihood doesn’t exactly sweeten the deal.

Perhaps more worrisome are the effects this movement could have on Americans more generally, especially students. It is an inescapable fact that economic and educational justice are linked. Family background is incredibly predictive of overall academic success for a reason: a lot of what influences learning insidethe classroom happens outside of it.

Children tend to succeed when they’re well-rested, well-fed and well-cared-for—in other words, when the adults they depend on can provide them with quality food and shelter. They need their caretakers to take time to talk to them, read to them, and offer them countless other non-school experiences and opportunities that promote learning. Poor and working class parents and guardians will always struggle to offer their children this crucial support, so long as inadequate pay forces them to work longer hours and/or take on multiple jobs and long commutes, just to provide their families with the basic necessities for survival.

Instead of addressing the root problems afflicting students and their families, Democrats like Gibbs, et al. are joining with the Hobby Lobbyists to actively make these problems worse. If we want America to a place where the other 99 percent of us can live and thrive, we need at least one major political party comprised of people fully committed to freedom and democracy for all of us, not just those in charge of “closely-held” corporations or other institutions. It is long past time for so-called Democrats like Gibbs, La Bolt, and Jones to answer an important question: Which side are you on?

Stevens is executive director of the advocacy group, Integrity in Education, in Washington, D.C., and a former school teacher.

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