Education without the Middleman
In the era of apps and the gig economy, many workers are not technically employed by anyone. Their labor is broken up into tasks, and capitalist society proudly declares that they get to be their own boss. This translates into a constant hustle to cobble together enough little jobs to add up to a sustainable income. This was the case for the educational workers of Black Cat Tutoring, members of the South Sound General Education Union, in Olympia, Washington.
Feeling isolated by the working conditions and wanting to share career advice with other people doing educational work, we initially set out to create some informal social space. Without any professional support, this was mostly for venting, ranting, and generally commiserating. In the beginning, we were focused on solidarity because, without a physical workspace to get to know coworkers, some of us had gone years never meeting anyone else doing the same kind of work.
Like other contractors, most of our work interactions are with clients, not colleagues, creating a unique kind of alienation where you are isolated and cut-off from traditional organizing models. On top of that, the global health crisis and social distancing are seriously limiting the tried-and-true methods. However, since we were motivated by the social aspect of organizing, doing things differently was never an obstacle, and Black Cat Tutoring has grown out of this creative response to some unavoidable facts.
Some of us were already teaching online before the pandemic, developing methods and learning the unique aspects of digital pedagogy. This definitely applied to our organizing, which occurs via video-calls. We consider online platforms to simply be a different medium, with their own drawbacks, similar to the limitations of classrooms, desks, and chalkboards.
As tutors, we have the freedom to focus on our individual students and overcome some of the inadequacies of the more formal classroom environment. However, since tutoring is an educational practice developed mutually with students, large companies take advantage of these close, personal connections that are produced through our work. By slapping their brand on our pedagogy, they profit from the student’s desire to learn and the tutor’s commitment encouraging that learning. As the “middleman”, large tutoring corporations ensure that workers have limited contact with their clients. There are no ways to find out how much a client is paying or how much a worker is receiving. In this context, students and tutors can only develop relationships around the content subject; this is dehumanizing and ignores our existence outside of scheduled sessions. It is like the drive-thru of the education industry.
While we are struggling to keep flexible schedules and live on unstable incomes, large corporate education companies are charging students unfair amounts for something which should be considered a human right, excluding anyone without the means to pay for what is mistakenly labeled a luxury service. It is only under an exploitative system that learning could be considered a privilege reserved for the few, as if it were a reward and not a basic need. The idea of tutoring as a luxury also shames and discourages working class adults, considering them beyond the scope of continuing education. For us, learning is not about enjoying privileges; it is about living a full life and exercising the freedom to grow as a human.
Black Cat Tutoring specifically aims to address economic issues related to tutoring by redesigning the entire model. As a democratic workplace, we make decisions collectively, putting us in charge of what happens with the profits of our labor. Our prices are adjusted according to what our clients can pay, and we supplement these funds with quarterly fundraising. With financial support from both students and patrons, our science, math, and language tutors can reach students who would not typically consider themselves “the kind of people that get tutoring”. Additionally, our tutors are paid in-full for an entire quarter of services, allowing them to offset the unstable income from gig work which typically pays per completed hour and does not compensate for prep-time or professional development. Over time, by collectivizing, we aim to alleviate the fluctuations in our work volume, in order to create financial stability based on solidarity and commitment to education.
For us, affiliation with the IWW has been fundamental in initially introducing tutors to each other. Last year, when many of us joined the IWW, there were not any specific resources for tutors, and a lot of the membership, though supportive of us as workers, did not know how to help us with our unique organizing situation. Nevertheless, during the summer and fall of 2020, our regular, online General Education Union (GEU) meetings made us confident that we could depend on the union’s support. Through our membership in the Industrial Workers of the World, we have had the opportunity to fundraise and promote our project on international platforms that we would not have had access to without the committed solidarity of our fellow workers.
So far, the response we have received has been amazing, but fundraising is an ongoing process. We depend on small amounts of support adding up, including sharing information and links about our services with people you know and on social media. Likewise, we are looking for people who want to learn math, science, French, Spanish, or ESL with our tutors. Whether you are currently taking a class, would like to learn on your own, or have a partner or small group looking for instruction, Black Cat Tutoring is committed to providing tutoring services that are fair for everyone involved.
Black Cat Tutoring Cooperative is affiliated with the South Sound General Education Union