There must me be something in the water in Barcelona, in our first strategy paper we mentioned the excellent work of Barcelona TEFL Teachers’ Association, in this paper we want to look at the positive work being a carried out by a (relatively) new ELT Teacher Cooperative (SLB – Serveis Linguistics de Barcelona) in the same city. We do, however, want to look at the larger issue of cooperatives and the possibilities and limitations which such forms offer teachers looking to find alternative ways of exercising their trade.
Marxism and Cooperatives
Marx himself can generally seem to be positive towards the idea of workers’ cooperatives:
But there was in store a still greater victory of the political economy of labour over the political economy of property. We speak of the co-operative movement, especially of the co-operative factories raised by the unassisted efforts of a few bold ‘hands’. The value of these great social experiments cannot be over-rated. By deed, instead of by argument, they have shown that production on a large scale, and in accord with the behest of modern science, may be carried on without the existence of a class of masters employing a class of hands; that to bear fruit, the means of labour need not be monopolised as a means of dominion over, and of extortion against, the labouring man himself; and that, like slave labour, like serf labour, hired labour is but a transitory and inferior form, destined to disappear before associated labour plying its toil with a willing hand, a ready mind, and a joyous heart. (Marx, 1864)
However, there is generally a suspicion on the part of Marxists towards cooperatives as a form of self-imposed capitalism (democratised exploitation) in a market economy. Indeed some argue cooperatives are a distraction from the struggle.
We do not want to disappear too far into Marxist exegesis but feel it is worthwhile pointing out some key differences between the Anarchist Proudhon and Marx. It is wholly understandable that Proudhon would develop a different view of the remedies towards inequality when looking at the problem from a different reality to Marx. Proudhon saw capitalism via the trade workshops in mid-nineteenth century France where not surprisingly the cost of selling the products were at extreme odds with the wages paid in the workshop. The basis of this was “private property” and the power which that private property (the ownership of the workshop) gave its owners to command the workers and live off their labour. Proudhon’s solution was therefore the abolition of private property, the paying of workers the actual value of their labour (a somewhat contentious phrase) and a network of cooperatives trading their goods on the market.
For Marx, however, he was looking more closely at the growth of the new factory system in Manchester which did not resemble that of the previous workshops. What was interesting internally were the changes this new system brought about, particularly a growing division between mental and labour labour, the increased division in labour of particular tasks, and the growth in supervision of those tasks.
It is important therefore to distinguish between private property as a means to exploit workers and private property as the driver of this this exploitation. Indeed, Marx was keen to point out that it was the regime of capital accumulation, the competition between capitals which led to this intensification of exploitation in the factory system and, therefore, was dismissive of Proudhon’s cooperatives trading on the market (without formal bosses); as exploitation was rooted in both the anarchic market competition over profit rates and the equal need to quantify effort and contribution solely in terms of labour hours expended.
Now, from an extreme and hypothetical perspective, we can imagine a small teachers’ cooperative cutting their own hourly rate in order to compete with a small academy for a contract to teach English File to a group of low-paid hotel workers, the hotel workers giving up their personal time for fear of management retribution should they not show an interest (even though some of them – working in the maintenance or cleaning department- do not actually use English much in their job). We could also add that the same coop teachers might have agreed to provide extra on-line materials, at their own expense in order to secure the same contract, and maybe even have decided to exclude a fellow coop member from participating as their ill health may jeopardise the smooth completion and desired customer satisfaction they require should the contract be renewed. We might properly ask, what is the advantage of being in such a coop, other than democratising our own self-exploitation and ensuring a third party owner does not benefit from our labour. Indeed, the third party owner of an academy (through certain skills, contacts and reputation) could be offering better working conditions to their teachers.
SLB, A Progressive Coop rooted in improving teaching and teachers’ working conditions
Although we cannot claim an intimate knowledge of the workings of this particular coop, it does appear that they are far from the hypothetical example quoted above. Indeed, they have demonstrated a clear record supporting teachers as workers, promoting trade union membership and campaigning against discrimination of Non-Native English Speaking Teachers (Non-NESTs). Despite being a cooperative of freelance language teachers, teacher trainers, material writers and translators (we are not sure of their size) they do no not see them themselves as a panacea for all the problems of teachers and recognise that teachers work in a variety of settings (i.e., non-freelance) and need protection and support tailored to those contexts. It appears they recently ran a workshop for teachers in Barcelona on the regulations covering workers in the sector even though we suspect, as freelance, they are not covered by the same employment guidelines. This is all highly commendable and we can see that solidarity is at the heart of their approach.
Moreover, the cooperative does not only seek to improve working conditions but is clearly committed to promoting, through its lively podcasts and training programmes, a radically different teaching methodology which suits students better and improves the teaching experience of the teaching practitioner. Again, this is highly commendable.
Some areas of comradely concern
We urge readers to listen to the cooperative’s podcasts, they really are extremely interesting and relevant. However, there is a clear conflict between equipping teachers with a new methodology and their own needs to earn a living as materials and course writers by offering an online course to teachers. This not a moral failing but a harsh reality. And we think, “coop guru”, Geoff Jordan (who, incidentally for his lucid writing style, passion for teaching and practical approach, is not a bad guru to have) should bear this in mind before criticising others like Marek Kiczkowiak for doing the same on his TEFL Equity Advocates blog. We have not tried the online course SLB are selling but it seems a very well-supported (academically) course and a welcome relief from the usual ELT fare, but 500 Euros seems rather expensive for low paid teachers and especially, given that in a quite magnificent interview with tutor and Second Language Theorist Mike Long on Podcast 3, the course providers confess to there being very little institutional support to put such ideas into practice. This is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, only to highlight the weakness of attempting to promote change through individualistic initiatives lacking wider institutional support networks which would make such actions relevant.
Rebuilding the House From the Inside
As in the case of Goethe’s father (even if for very different reasons), it is not possible to pull down the existing building and erect a wholly new edifice in its place on totally new foundations. Life must go on in the shored-up house during the entire course of rebuilding, “taking away one storey after another from the bottom upwards, slipping in the new structure, so that in the end none of the old house should be left.” Indeed, the task is even more difficult than that. For the decaying timber frame of the building must be also replaced in the course of extricating humankind from the perilous structural framework of the capital system.
In many ways we can see how this cooperative is attempting to build a new ELT inside the old. In that sense, the cooperative is a great example of Marx’s: “The value of these great social experiments cannot be over-rated”. However, as per Mészáros, we do need to attend to “the rotting timber” and not deceive ourselves that such timber is salvageable. We say this in relation to a bright and entertaining discussion of our own piece (“The meaning of Scott Thornbury”) on the cooperative’s second podcast. We believe the presenter and Geoff Jordan, were being far too soft on the phenomenon which is Scott Thornbury. We were particularly concerned to hear Geoff Jordan argue that now Scott Thornbury (the person) had “made it”, he should be more critical of the institutions via which he had become a success (indeed by all evidence Scott Thornbury is being just so). This is almost like Bill Gates donating his fortune to charity or the “philanthropic” work of George Soros. The issue is that the phenomenon (the reception and impact) of Scott Thornbury is about individualism (sometimes referred to as a network of individuals but nothing approaching a true collective), the self as entrepreneur, climbing hierarchies to achieve status and material comfort through the entertaining quality of their speeches and books. Thornbury the phenomenon can appear both “radical” and successful but it is ultimately about “making it”. This is indeed a comfortable warm vision for liberals who do not want to think of those that don’t “make it” or the obstacles put before others (maybe they couldn’t afford a Masters – neither having the time nor the fees).
No, we have to build the new house from below, thinking of students who can’t currently afford classes, the way English teaching legitimises and spreads inequality, the rank of file teachers trying their best to meet student needs, it is from this base we must rebuild the house and not put our faith in reading one more book by one more expert or doing one more course to put on our CV.
The fourth podcast by SLB is an interview with the incomparable Paul Walsh concerning his work on precarity in ELT. Again, we urge readers to listen (and we hope ourselves to add to the discussion on this particular topic at a later date). However, the podcast ends with a survey (conducted by coop members) into working conditions of English teachers in Barcelona (repeating a similar and excellent similar initiative undertaken by the TEFL Workers Union in London). Provided they maintain this focus, the SLB will continue to be a shining light in the world of ELT, attempting to find practical solutions to the everyday lives of teachers and bringthat about permanent change. Let’s hope they keep up the good work.