The War on Public School Teachers: New Unions, New Alliances, New Politics

Published on The Bullet, Socialist Project’s E-Bulletin No. 854 (first on CheapMotels and a Hotplate.org), by Michael D. Yates, July 22, 2013.

The U.S. working-class was slow to respond to the hard times it faced during and after the Great Recession of 2007-2009. Finally, however, in February, 2011, workers in Wisconsin began the famous uprising that electrified the country, revolting in large numbers against Governor Scott Walker’s efforts to destroy the state’s public employee labour unions.  

A few months later, the Occupy Wall Street movement, which supported many working-class efforts, spread from New York City to the rest of the nation and the world. Then, in September 2012, Chicago’s public school teachers struck, in defiance of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s attempt to destroy the teachers’ union and put the city’s schools firmly on the path of neoliberal austerity and privatization.

These three rebellions shared the growing awareness that economic and political power in the United States are firmly in the hands of a tiny minority of fantastically wealthy individuals whose avarice knows no bounds. These titans of finance want to eviscerate working men and women, making them as insecure as possible and wholly dependent on the dog-eat-dog logic of the marketplace, while at the same time converting any and all aspects of life into opportunities for capital accumulation.

Capital, On the Offensive: … //

… Teachers, On the Counteroffensive: … //

… First, while the CORE and the CTU won a remarkable victory with the strike, the union still faces powerful enemies: billionaires who control large swathes of the economy, the nation’s political machinery, and the media. They have the capacity to engage in smear campaigns, spy on anyone they choose, hire provocateurs, and otherwise destroy those who defy their wishes. When they suffer a defeat, they don’t crawl into a corner and lick their wounds; they find new ways to get what they want. The CTU did not manage to win the things they wanted most. As one long-time high school teacher and union activist pointed out:

“[The CTU] was unable to: significantly slow the mayor’s crusade to close scores of schools; halt district funding for mostly non-union, privately run charter schools; stop the lengthening of the school day and year without adequate employee compensation; or prevent the establishment of a teacher evaluation system based to an important degree on unreliable student scores on standardized tests.”

What is more, Emanuel didn’t miss a beat in continuing to close schools. His handpicked school board agreed to close another forty-nine schools, the largest mass closing in U.S. history. Draconian budget cuts have been implemented, targeting mainly poor communities while maintaining funding for schools in richer areas and continuing the move toward charter schools. Labour journalist David Bacon tells us that “at Kennedy High School, for instance, a reduction from $15 to $13-million will cause the elimination of four of its five counselors, the school librarian, a clerk and special education personnel. Blair Elementary, which focuses on special education, is getting a 75% budget cut, and will lose seven special ed teachers, one general education instructor, and up to eight paraprofessionals.”

School principals are to gain broad new powers to hire and fire teachers and to decide how funds are to be spent, under a new budgeting scheme that lumps teachers’ pay in with every other expenditure. Each school will be allocated funds according to the number of students. Instead of the number of teachers being determined by rules for class size, staffing will be determined by principals, who will now have a fixed sum of money available to them. Therefore, administrators will have a strong incentive to get rid of tenured, better-paid educators in order to stretch tight budgets as far as possible.

The CTU has vigorously opposed the new cuts, with mass protests by teachers, parents, and students, in which scores of protestors have been arrested. These actions saved a few schools from closure. The union is planning more protests, lawsuits against the closings, and efforts to rid the city of Mayor Emanuel and hostile state legislators. A massive voter registration campaign is in the works. These are praiseworthy efforts, but they are defensive and certainly not assured of success.

Second, while the joining together of teachers and communities is essential to the consolidation of both union and citizen power, more solidarity will be needed if a labour movement worthy of the name is to be built. The working-class itself will have to be mobilized, beginning with members of the teachers’ unions nationwide and spreading to those of other unions, in Chicago and everywhere teachers are on the march. Here prospects are not very promising. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) long ago abandoned the militancy that marked their beginnings and embraced the business union model, focusing strictly on wages and benefits, forming partnerships with management, and ignoring issues of social justice. As what is happening in the public schools now shows, this was a recipe for disaster, one that continues. As labour journalist Lee Sustar points out, conservative leaders still rule the teachers’ unions: “AFT President Randi Weingarten has been directly involved in negotiations in New Haven, Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, in which teachers abandoned their longstanding opposition to merit pay and accepted the weakening of teacher job security.”

This past April Weingarten embraced the Common Core State Standards for mathematics and language arts, which were developed by school administrators, college professors, and representatives of private education companies. These standards were, in effect, imposed by the federal government on the states with the threat of denial of funds under Race to the Top. They were not tested, sanctify dubious “skills,” and do not have the benefit of input from either public school teachers or parents. Where they have been implemented, standardized test scores, tied to the standards, have plummeted, delighting those who have been attacking the public schools, who hope that the poor test results will drive communities to abandon them in favour of charter and private schools. Weingarten did urge a moratorium on using test results to punish schools and teachers, until the standards can be made to work effectively. She thus sounds a progressive note while accepting the premises she should be rejecting out of hand.

If the teachers’ unions are unlikely to aggressively support the CTU and other radical local union actions, the rest of organized labour is still less likely to do so. Support might come from local unions, but, except for the United Electrical Workers and perhaps a few others, national unions will be missing in action. These are still mired in the muck of labour-management cooperation; they are top-down autocracies, afraid of their own members. Like the AFL-CIO, the federation to which most of them belong, they are joined at the hip to the Democratic Party, whose leaders and major money donors support Rahm Emanuel and not public school teachers.

Third, rank-and-file insurgencies, in and of themselves, do not guarantee that a union will be radically transformed. The new leaders are susceptible to cooptation by employers and political elites, and to a retreat to business as usual when times get tough. Creating a new, more democratic culture within a union is hard work; it requires patience, rank-and-file education programs, a willingness to trust the members, and a commitment to a permanently adversarial relationship with those sitting across the bargaining table.

Finally, the fact that a group of reformers gets elected to lead a union does not mean that the union will embrace the kind of class conscious, anti-capitalist perspective that alone could help create a labour movement. COPE’s commitment to embed itself in the communities that teachers serve, especially those where poor, mainly minority parents live, is important. We are facing the imposition by our economic masters of what promises to be unending austerity, and those most supportive of CORE have and will continue to suffer most as a result. An alliance of teachers (and other public sector workers) and those who most need quality schooling (and other public services) could be a powerful building block of a radical politics. But to make such a politics a reality will require radical education – of teachers, students, parents. Every action taken by the union must be complemented by education: history, political economy, ideology. Only in this way can we come to understand why we face austerity, why our schools are being closed, why our communities are being laid waste, why certain topics are ignored in our classrooms.

The promise of public sector unions has been debated for at least forty years. Perhaps some teachers have finally seen the light, and, in the face of unprecedented attacks on them and public schools, are beginning to create new unions, new alliances, a new politics in our towns and cities. As always, I am hopeful.
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(Michael D. Yates is Associate Editor of Monthly Review and Director of Monthly Review Press. This article appeared on his blog CheapMotels and a Hotplate.org).

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