Labor geography has developed in fits and starts (Peck, 2018). The subfield had its genesis in Andrew Herod’s incitement (2001) to balance capital-centric accounts of geographic restructuring with explorations of labor’s agency in producing place and space. But the U.S. labor movement has weakened since this initial call, and scholars, like myself, interested in how workers create their own spatial fixes in the face of capital flight have fewer possible case studies to draw from. As Mitchell (2011) observes, any inquiry into labor’s geography today must consider the spaces workers fail to create or transform. Peck (2016) adds that, with union density so low, it is more important than ever to understand worker’s agency as relational, exercised in specific environmental contexts, through iterative response to constraint and opportunity.
The thrust of these arguments is easy enough to digest. I take them as guiding principles in my research on teacher unions and resistance to austerity. Still though, I have often had my doubts that my work truly has a spatial dimension. While financial industries are busy buying and selling public school buildings, remaking the places in which we live and reproduce ourselves, are workers and teacher unions having any impact at all? Moreover, while teacher unions need to adapt their organizing strategies to fit the particularities of each place, is location in this kind of analysis anything more than a canvas against which workers band and disband? Is place just a backdrop against which more “sociological” phenomena unfold?
Only recently have I felt on surer footing as I call my research labor geography. It has become increasingly clear to me that spatial organization impacts and is impacted by union activity, even in the context of labor movement decline.
In Newark, a city one of my informants termed “anti-colonial,” residential segregation comes up routinely as an obstacle to teacher organizing. Most educators who teach in Newark do not live in the city. I’ve yet to come across an official statistic, though I’ve heard estimates that about 75% of teachers live outside city borders. One informant laughed as we talked about this: “my colleagues get the hell out at 2:50 pm.” This seems to be the general consensus. I ask in interviews whether and how it matters that most teachers live in “the suburbs,” which is also, of course, code for “most teachers are white, most students are not.” Interviewees temper their words as they answer, invariably beginning by defending educators: “it’s not that they don’t care about the issues impacting Newark (e.g. lead poisoning).” It is, however, that the geographies between which teachers commute are so uneven, so different in terms of stability and racial and class make-up, that sustaining buy-in to Newark-based activism is difficult. Teachers, however well-meaning, are outsiders; activists I’ve spoken with argue that most teachers can dissociate from Newark’s poverty when they drive back to their (presumed) single-family suburban homes. Convincing them to stay to organize with a social justice caucus devoted to creating a more egalitarian Newark is difficult.
The notion of privileged and disconnected suburban teachers is also deeply imprinted in the imaginary of Newark parents and students. It is the image that Newark’s political class has often invoked to discredit teacher activism–why are outsiders agitating? What do they know about how Newarkers live? This compounds a whole host of issues impacting education, and as teacher activists reach out to parents, they recognize that–as a whole–they are sometimes seen as representatives of a racist school system, not necessarily members of “the community.”
I’m still sorting through my thoughts about this. Social justice caucuses have made it a priority to fight for the public interest, writ large. They have demands for affordable housing, for an end to ICE in schools, for public green space, etc. Because no public is pre-formed, their organizing actually takes on the work of building an engaged polity. There is a question though of whether a public can constitute itself when it is so geographically dispersed across uneven terrain?
The challenges that Newark unionists face in engaging teachers who live elsewhere add to the reasons segregation and suburbanization has harmed class struggle. It is not just that suburbanization promotes fiscal gating, the hoarding and uneven distribution of public tax money. It is not just that suburbanizations syphons a section of workers into the gates of a nebulous middle class, all the while stoking racialized fears of the “city.” It is that this segregation undermines social justice unionism.
Herod, A. (2001). Labor geographies: Workers and the landscapes of capitalism. New York : Guilford Press.
Mitchell, D. (2011). Labor’s Geography: Capital, Violence, Guest Workers and the Post-World War II Landscape. Antipode, 43(2), 563.
Peck, J. (2016). The Right to Work, and the Right at Work. Economic Geography, 92(1), 4–30.
Peck, J. (2018). Pluralizing Labour Geography. In The New Oxford Handbook of Economic Geography. Oxford : Oxford University Press.