Teacher and activist Nicholas Ferroni speaks with Keith Pochick about the history and importance of organized labor in the US.
Today, DemWritePress is joined by Nicholas Ferroni, a high-school history teacher, outspoken feminist, and advocate for Democratic ideals. Mr. Ferroni is a high school teacher and nationally recognized social activist who educates, mentors, and inspires students to reach their goals while driving a national dialogue about education reform. Nick was noted as one of the “100 Making a Difference” and one of The Most Influential Educators in America. As a history teacher to students from all walks of life in his hometown of Union, NJ, Nick developed a “Teach the Truth” campaign to incorporate more minority figures in social studies curriculum, as well as including the history of the Gay and Lesbian Civil Rights movement. He also helped found his school’s Gay/Straight Alliance and Feminist Club.
Keith Pochick: Welcome, Nick. I appreciate you spending some time with me to chat about America’s current struggles and how they relate to our history. I’d like to focus on organized labor in America and the recent teacher strikes for a bit.
Nicholas Ferroni: Thank you so much for having me, Keith, and I appreciate all you are doing by speaking out and standing up. This sounds like a great starting point.
KP: Perfect. Many of us have watched as teachers in red-state America have recently shown their unity and won major concessions from their respective state governments. Teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona banded together to demand better pay for themselves and increased funding for the students they serve. What are some of the factors which made these strikes necessary, and do you expect them to continue?
NF: I am only in my 15th year as a teacher, but I am facing the same obstacles and attacks that the very teachers who inspired me to become a teacher faced during their tenure. Teachers are, and always have been, an easy scapegoat for society’s shortcomings and failures. Teachers are striking because they have been underpaid and selfless for far too long. They have been taken advantage of because they care so much, and their frustration reached a boiling point. The majority of teachers work second jobs in order to make ends meet and remain a teacher. Let’s be honest – if teachers were as overpaid and lazy as some politicians are claiming, more politicians would have chosen teaching.
KP: Hahahaha. Well said. I’m not sure if you know, but the first unified labor strike in America happened before our nation even gained her sovereignty. In 1768, tailors in New York went on strike to protest wage reductions. This fact reminds us that the struggle between the “haves” and the “have nots” predates America. The plight of the working class is centuries old, and likely started soon after humans began to coexist in large groups and divide labor. Even a novice history student understands that workers have been exploited throughout history by nobility, capitalists, and oligarchs across the globe. While I am an advocate for the working class, I do believe that overly restrictive labor laws can crush the vital ingenuity and innovation necessary to sustain a thriving society. How can America better balance the opposing, but mutually dependent forces of capital and labor?
NF: You just taught the history teacher something — I was not aware of that strike. As far as the continuous battle between labor and management, history proves that this will be a perpetual struggle. Employers will always try to exploit their workers so they can profit the most, while workers will always fight to ensure that they get what they feel they deserve. History also shows that each side gains the upper hand at different times. It seems that teachers are finally realizing their power and are striking to shift things into their favor, but it will eventually swing back the other way… and the fight will go on.
KP: The American Labor Movement has achieved so much over the years. Thanks to unionized workers and collective bargaining, America enacted child labor laws, shortened the workday, made weekends sacred, secured health benefits for workers, established family leave, and much more. However, the history of the Labor Movement isn’t all sunshine and Skittles. Violent revolts, instances of corruption in high level union officials, racism, and misogyny have frequently steered the movement away from its highest goals of empowering workers and fostering social mobility. As Progressives, how do we channel the useful aspects of worker solidarity, but keep it pure by exposing and expunging corruption?
NF: Unions, like political parties, need to be reformed from time to time. Like political parties, it’s only a matter of time that those in power become driven by greed and self-interest, and they need to be completely reformed – in some cases purged entirely. As long as Unions have power, corruption and exploitation will take place. It is incumbent upon the Union members to elect and support only those who have the best interest of the members in mind. A free press which exposes corruption and workers who are vigilant about those who represent them are critical.
KP: I truly believe that, considering its historical context, our Constitution was written to protect future Americans from totalitarian rule, and to obviate any need for bloody revolution by empowering the citizens to govern themselves. To read the Bill of Rights through this lens makes one realize that the Founding Fathers wished to fiercely guard the ability of the individual to freely dissent against his government. These freedoms would ideally protect against oppression, and would in turn make future revolutions unnecessary. At the time of its ratification, the Constitution was full of subtle and obvious hypocrisies and contradictions as it regarded, or rather refused to regard, women and African Americans. But the Founding Fathers had the foresight to grant future Americans the right and means to adapt our laws as we see fit. Adapt them, we have. Do you think the Bill of Rights is a more sacred segment of the Constitution, and if so, why?
NF: I couldn’t agree more. I honestly believe our Founders had someone like Trump, an authoritarian business owner and wannabe monarch, in mind when they wrote the Constitution and its founding principles. Our Founders weren’t perfect, but they did know that they didn’t know everything. There are good reasons why Article 1 regards the Legislature and not the Executive branch, and why the 1st amendment is about “freedoms” and not the “right to bear arms.” A blinding irony about our country is that we take the Bible literally, but not the Constitution.
KP: We just hinted about the protection of dissenting opinions and behaviors. Let me shift gears if I may for a moment. I tend to view dissent as a voiced or written opinion which challenges those in power. When dissent inspires action, it becomes defiance. My sister Kristi is a middle school teacher in Virginia, and we have had some spirited discussions about American History. As a Virginian, I don’t underestimate the historical significance of the militant abolitionist John Brown and his raid on Harper’s Ferry. Brown attacked federal property and took hostages. He ultimately lost the battle, was captured and executed, but helped to ignite the Civil War which ultimately freed the slaves. Was John Brown a martyr, a terrorist, or something in between?
NF: First off, God bless your sister for her devotion to teaching our youth and empowering them with the skills to think for themselves. The John Brown debate is very close to my heart because I have had it with colleagues numerous times. I’ve had friends compare Brown to Bin Laden, labeling him a religious fanatic instead of a martyr. But I disagree — I feel that Brown provided the spark that was absolutely needed. Compare it to the American Revolution. Our Founding Fathers wrote grievances and letters to King George, and King George responded by oppressing them even further. It took action, protests, and even deaths to morph a letter writing campaign into an actual Revolution. To King George, Sam Adams and the Sons of Liberty were terrorists and radicals, but to Americans they were heroes and Patriots. When you boil it down, it all depends on which side you’re on. To Southerners, Brown was a terrorist. To abolitionists, he was a martyr who gave his life for a greater cause.
KP: I agree that one’s perspective not only colors one’s interpretation of history, but to a large degree, perspective influences the very recording of it. This again highlights just how critical it is for a healthy republic to protect dissenting opinions and behaviors. If those in power decide the truth, it becomes impossible to “speak truth to power.”
Thanks to a stolen seat, the Supreme Court recently decided that American workers cannot unite to have grievances against their employer addressed collectively, but must enter arbitration against their employer as individuals. Everyone blessed with half a helping of common sense understands that the only bargaining power a worker holds with her employer is through collective bargaining. Justice Ginsberg penned a scathing dissent (scan towards the bottom to find the dissent) about the Court’s decision. How can common, working Americans make our voices matter as much as the voices emanating from corporate super organisms?
NF: Honestly, we can’t—not without collective power. Again, history reveals that power lies in numbers, and that a divided populace is far easier to tame – even conquer. It’s no shock that when a businessman becomes President he favors corporations and capitalists over workers. History also reveals that power tends to shift back and forth between employer and employees. It seems that management and corporations are attempting to use our business-minded president to regain control and power, and it is working. Rights are won, never given. But in a society of unchecked corporate power, workers’ rights are easily taken away. As it concerns teachers and other wage-earners, we must continue to fight and organize. Like you said, the only bargaining power an individual worker has is through collective bargaining. When a worker is isolated, she is powerless.
KP: Both sides of my family are replete with immigrant ancestors. My forebears were Italian, Irish, and Hungarian migrants who desperately wanted a better life for their families. They didn’t find streets of gold when they got to America, but they found work. They went to the coalfields and farms of Appalachian Virginia and West Virginia and worked their asses off. Now, a couple of generations later, their descendents are nurses, teachers, veterinarians, businesspeople, doctors, and lawyers. I’ve got a damned nice life, and I realize that it wasn’t just my brain and effort which landed me here. Social mobility almost always happens slowly – in most instances, it happens not over years, but generations. To me, the sweat and sacrifice of my ancestors is my American Dream. My interpretation of The American Dream is this: the achievement of upward social mobility is the realization of the American Dream. What is the American Dream to you?
NF: As a descendent of Italian and German immigrants, I frequently heard about the “American Dream” from my relatives, and my grandparents in particular. At the time, the places they left were the “shithole countries” demonized by politicians and blamed for America’s shortcomings. The truth is, as we all know, that they are what made America great. A huge part of the American identity is its very absence of a unique culture. American culture is a collection and blending of all the cultures that immigrants brought here. As an educator and an optimist, I still believe in your, and our, American Dream. However, the field is not as even as it once was. The hope for upward social mobility is vanishing before our eyes. Another striking truth I’ve discovered is that many of my foreign-born students care, value, and appreciate this country much more than those who scream the loudest about patriotism and the American flag. I’m sorry that I tend to reference history so much, but everything we are witnessing and experiencing has already happened in one form or another.
KP: No worries. We are right on track; I sought you out in hopes that you would reference history early and often!
NF: Good. America began when she defeated a sociopathic, narcissistic, and self-proclaimed God: King George. Without the American Dream and the belief in our founding principles, America is destined to become one of the very fascist countries that we teach about in history classes. In light of everything that is going on and all we are going through, I can’t help but think of the words of Thomas Paine from his revolutionary pamphlet Common Sense: “These are the times that try men’s souls.” It seems more relevant now than ever before. How will we, as a country, respond when our entire way of life and principles are at risk? I am an American educator, and I don’t view my job as one in which I pour as much historical knowledge into as many heads as possible. At the end of the day, all I really want to accomplish is help my students learn to read and think for themselves. Is there anything more American than that?
KP: I don’t think so. America is a cacophony of individual voices which manage to come together to form a chorus. Thank you for your tireless efforts to educate the next generation of Americans, and please keep us posted on your upcoming projects!!
NF: Thank you for the questions and forum, Keith. I absolutely will.