By Workers’ Voice
Bipartisan Neoliberalism: Decades of Attacks by the Ruling Class
The last several decades in the US mark a bipartisan era of neoliberalism, in which austerity measures have eroded public institutions, lowered wages, and swelled income and wealth inequality to historic levels. This convergence of forces intensified with the Great Recession that began in 2008, and it paved the road to Trumpism. The GOP and a network of lobbyists and think tanks funded by billionaires have been waging class war against workers and social services using a litany of attacks, such as privatization reforms, anti-union legislation and media propaganda, politically motivated lawsuits, criminalization of dissent, regressive taxation, and draconian budget cuts. The right wing organization, State Policy Network (SPN), has raised close to $80 million for a campaign to “defund and defang” unions, and the Koch brothers are contributing $400 million for the 2018 midterm elections to make sure they fulfil their reactionary political vision. The Democratic Party, despite its rhetoric of being the progressive choice, has been largely unwilling and unable to provide an adequate defense against these attacks and has collaborated in advancing the neoliberal project over the past several decades.
Public education has been facing great opposition from the political establishment of both parties since the Bush era’s No Child Left Behind and Obama’s Race to the Top. Both of these initiatives tied federal school funding to student performance on standardized tests, and in some states teachers were systematically rewarded or punished based on standardized tests scores. If a school did not meet set standards, which were raised annually, it was cut off from funding, and teachers and administrators were replaced. This penalization of public schools directly fed into the process of charter school takeover. Both Democratic and Republican politicians signed off on this legislation, which erroneously labeled underfunded schools in underserved communities as “failing,” closed these schools, and then funnelled taxpayer funds to corporate charter schools in their place. Due to this structural dysfunction, more people are increasingly questioning and becoming critical of the disastrous neoliberal project and capitalist system at large.
Private Charter Takeover
With “school choice” advocate Betsy Devos as the new face of the Department of Education, the aim to definitively privatize education has become official White House policy. Charter schools earn profits (or demonstrate “efficiency”) through reducing teacher compensation, by far their highest expenditure, and one way they do this is by hiring young, inexperienced teachers. To make up for the inexperience of their teachers, charter schools often implement scripted, traditional curriculum, and enforce strict student rules and codes of conduct with punitive discipline systems. They further compensate for the inexperience of their teachers by significantly increasing the number and length of school days as compared to public schools, exploiting the teachers as much as possible. The resulting combination of frustration, from lack of experience along with overly regimented and demanding working conditions, leads to a high rate of teacher burnout and turnover, both of which negatively impact teaching and learning.
At the same time that charters were increasing in popularity and numbers, high-stakes standardized test results became the primary metric for education accountability, with disastrous consequences for the quality of education. “Teaching to the test” has rendered obsolete the traditional goals of education: preparing students to actively participate in a democratic society, let alone become critical thinkers capable of challenging and progressing beyond the status quo. Charter schools have often parlayed higher test scores to a considerable advantage over local public schools. Most state laws require charters to use lotteries in admitting students, but charter schools often create biased lottery systems that target student populations they want, while discouraging students who pose greater educational challenges, including English-language learners, students with special needs/disabilities, and the poor/disadvantaged. Many parents contribute to this phenomenon by using their privileged cultural capital to seek out charter alternatives for their children.
In addition, when charter schools make stringent demands on students, resulting in higher rates of suspensions and expulsions, they effectively remove the most behaviorally troublesome and academically challenged students. Otherwise, parents remove their children from these schools because of the heavy burdens that come with these disciplinary practices. Given all of these factors, it is clear to supporters of public education that public schools are being set up to fail and be replaced by privately owned charters.
Union Busting 101
Another major aim of the reactionary ruling class, which works in symbiosis with the school privatization movement, is to break one of the last strongholds of organized labor in the US: education unions, k-12 school workers in particular. Two of the largest and most politically effective organized national unions, NEA and AFT (2.9 and 1.5 million members respectively), are educator unions, and public education is the one major sector of the US economy that still has significant union density. If teachers’ unions are successfully gutted, a hard blow would be struck to the labor movement as a whole.
There’s an interactive relationship between the school privatization movement and anti-teacher union hostility. Teachers unions are the most powerful and politically effective organizations fighting for public education, and consequently they stand in the way of the attempt to privatize public schools. A telling example of the charter school movement’s commitment to fighting teacher unionization can be seen within the largest and most powerful charter network, KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program), at its AMP school in Brooklyn. When teachers at AMP formed a union, the school’s leadership refused to engage in meaningful negotiations and hired a union-busting law firm, which ran an anti-union campaign consisting of firings, captive audience meetings featuring scare tactics against unionization, and intimidation of union members. This resulted in many of the teachers quitting at the end of the school year, and prospective new teachers were informed that KIPP was a non-union school and they needed to be anti-union to work there. A year after the formation of the union, only a handful of the teachers who had organized the union still remained at the school, and management engineered a decertification vote.
Right wing governments have recently passed draconian laws adversely affecting public employees, of which the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill of 2011 (Act 10) is a prime example. This Bill greatly reduced the right for public sector workers to collectively bargain, increased their personal pension and health care contributions, added a requirement for unions to annually gather a majority vote of members in the bargaining unit in order to remain a recognized union, and capped wage increases at inflation rates. The bill even allowed the Governor to fire workers striking or engaging in other union actions by calling a state of emergency.
The initial response to these attacks on the working class was a powerful uprising. Around 100,000 workers and students rebelled by holding massive demonstrations in the streets and across college campuses, and ultimately they occupied the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison for several days. Instead of continuing this militant strategy of mass actions, occupations, and strikes to bring in broader sectors of the working class, Democratic party leaders and business unionists pushed a failed electoral strategy to recall Governor Walker. They moved away from the terrain of working-class struggle to the realm of the bourgeoisie. Instead of pushing for more mobilizations, occupations, and work stoppages leading up to a general strike, they moved towards the “controlled” arena of electoral politics. This resulted in a decrease in mobilizations, and a ‘get out the vote’ strategy to recall Walker, in which the efforts of working people were pit against virtually limitless money from the Koch brothers. Walker remained in power as the recall vote failed.
It is important to understand the impacts of this twofold betrayal of the Wisconsin working class by the Democratic Party and the GOP legislators. Following the anti-union legislation and failed Democratic attempt to recall Walker, the next few years brought a reduction in union membership numbers among public sector workers by nearly 40% in the formerly strong union state. Working conditions and wages deteriorated in Wisconsin, workplace injuries have increased, and now there are on average less-experienced public school teachers in the classrooms along with a higher turnover rate, all of which devistates students and families.
The latest attack on labor unions comes in the form of the Janus v AFSCME Supreme Court case, in which the majority of conservative judges will undoubtedly rule to make all public employee unions subject to so-called ‘right to work’ restrictions. Unions will need to increasingly motivate members to become and remain dues paying members or risk financial ruin and loss of political influence, primarily as the labor lobby of the Democratic Party. Many current unions are characterized by a top-down bureaucratic leadership structure and culture that disempowers and immobilizes the ranks. This will need to change if unions are to recover any capacity to use mass power to fight for and achieve meaningful transformation of the systems of widespread injustice and oppression.
Anti-union Propaganda & the Attack on Public Education
The labor movement has also suffered from the effects of conservative think tanks and GOP politicians successfully shifting the public’s opinions of unions by spreading false narratives about organized labor, which mainstream media outlets amplify. The right has mastered the populist language that was once (and is now just becoming again) labor’s domain. One such false narrative is that public sector workers earn more on average than their private sector counterparts and the oft-accompanied framing of workers being greedy to ask for higher compensation. Republicans pit workers against each other by promoting this view along with the scapegoating lie that collectively bargained contracts are major contributors to the growing budget deficits of the states. Actually, public and private sector workers with similar degrees of education and experience have wage parity and the general perception that their contracts are the driving force behind government deficits is incorrect. In fact, there is no direct correlation between states with unionized public workers and those facing budget deficits.
Given the “Great Recession” and weak economic recovery, government workers are continually under attack and opinion polls show declined support for public sector unions particularly. Government workers now make up a majority of US union members and have largely lost the labor solidarity between private and public sectors. Adding to this, the taxpayers shoulder an increasing share of the cost of public sector workers’ salaries and benefits, and more burden is falling on the working class as tax rates on upper income earners have dropped to half of what they were in the mid-1970s. Another side effect of this ruthless capitalist system is that most “middle class” career options necessitate higher education degrees.
As the cost of even “public” higher education increases, resentment at the “rigged” system intensifies, and is manipulatively directed by the ruling class toward unions. Teachers unions in particular are often blamed by the public for impeding individualistic advancement in the rigged economy, because they allegedly protect “bad teachers” when student performance test scores do not improve. In fact, the AFT and the NEA, in unity with the Democratic Party, until recently provided little to no protection for experienced educators, and actually advocated for damaging “education reform”.
Teachers Lead the Class and Strike Back
Unionists must think carefully about how to organize and build power in their schools, worksites, and neighborhoods for long-term gains. It is necessary for workers to educate, agitate, and organize ourselves, each other, and our communities, and unions can be a crucial tool in stemming attacks by the ruling class. The way forward is to engage in the daily work of connecting with every worker through one-on-one organizing conversations. Further, schools and communities need to move those who are already organized to become activists and leaders. We also need to develop strategies that allow us to not only connect neighborhood and community struggles with union struggles, but also to advance a vision of collective, mass actions to fight back against the many attacks we are facing.
With the Occupy movement’s slogan of “the 99%” and more recently Bernie Sanders’ much-hyped ascension, socialism has been put in the spotlight for the first time in decades. Union popularity among millennials has been on the rise to the point that a super-majority of this demographic supports unions and identifies as working-class, pointing to an increase in class consciousness and potential openness to a revolutionary vision. As young people take more leadership roles in union locals, they bring with them new and unconventional organizing tactics, primarily social media. They are propelled by a new current of left-populism that is informed by the changing sentiment in Republican states, a shift from anti-government dogma to a recognition of need for the government to provide or protect a living wage, health care, and a comfortable retirement.
Schools are emerging as a central place to organize against corrupt, consolidated wealth and power, and for a progressive, even socialist realignment. In Chicago in 2010, teachers and community activists, driven by the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), initiated an exemplary fight back against impacts of neoliberalism, their struggle culminating in the famous Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) strike of 2012. Schools are the last public institutions that local communities are connected to on a deep level. They are the place where families trust the staff to take care of their children for most of their waking hours, and where they often participate directly in the socially reproductive labor of education by attending meetings and volunteering their time. School employees are one of the few remaining organized sectors of the workforce and school districts are often the largest employers within a local community, as our economic base has shifted from industrial to service and education sectors.
Teachers and support staff can and do provide political and civic education to the next generation of progressives and radicals. Together with students, families, and local-led social justice community groups, schools are integral to most major contemporary activist fronts (labor rights, stopping gun violence, immigration rights, anti-racism). Increasingly, students have been at the forefront of these protests, walkouts, and collective actions. As the youth fiercely challenge the government and provide revolutionary hope, the rebellion stands to grow organically and exponentially. The following words from the 1969 “Strategy for Revolutionary Youth,” are all the more relevant today:
Insurgent students in a number of countries have already shown how their initiative in confronting the established powers can serve to stimulate struggle in other sectors of society. The young workers will be in the forefront of the movements to break the grip of the bureaucratic machines in the unions and will set an example for the older generation in their militancy and interest in revolutionary politics.
Education workers and students make perfect allies as both can authentically espouse the slogan, “working conditions are students’ learning conditions.” By uniting their struggles, workers and students along with parents can win the demands for academic freedom, stable working conditions, pay equity, access to high-quality health care, child care, and fully funded schools.
In the states most affected by austerity budgets favoring corporate interests over public needs, weakening of labor laws, and the general devaluing of public education, teachers and other public employees are discovering how to fight back for their families’ material well being and in defence of their profession. The recent teacher-led strike of public employees in West Virginia has brought about a revitalization of labor militancy that has sparked workers movements in other states, most notably Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, and more recently Colorado. These direct actions have been organized mostly by women in the ranks and leadership, often with their own students or children on the picket line with them, outside the official unions, using social media and traditional organizing techniques of having conversations between teachers, staff, and activist parents and students. In solidarity, people in other states and school districts are becoming emboldened, forming new alliances, and raising class consciousness in the workplace and across the country.
Now is the Time to Build a Mass Movement
The function of schools once shifted from that of learning factories, reproducing compliant, obedient industrial workers, to today’s institutions reinforcing systems of meritocracy and an accompanying self-centered pursuit of career and material success. Today the function of schools must shift again, to a project of preparing students for the world we want to collectively manifest, a world that will increasingly value fairness, equality, harmony, community, cooperation, and dignity – a world in which socialism has replaced capitalism. The traits of generosity, empathy, and attentiveness should be a prerequisite for educators, and these skills should be explicitly taught to students. School and community leaders have a shared responsibility to see that students, families, all staff, local community, society at large, and the environment thrive. It is imperative that schools offer more complex perspectives, in contexts safe enough to explore inner and outer conflicts, so that students are more likely to make the leap of consciousness required to become leaders in transforming our culture from one guided by fear and scarcity to one anchored in trust and abundance.
To sustain the intense level of struggle required for revolution, our communities need to fend off attacks by the ruling class and further strengthen and unite the working class. We must construct a national and international mass movement of connected struggles building towards a socialist society. There are some promising signs that this ambitious task is achievable: more and more workers are relearning that the strike, especially with solidarity across multiple sectors, is a greatly effective tactic to bring about needed material gains and dignity. Overall, union membership and power are growing in locals that have embraced a model of social movement unionism – that is, a model based on rank-and-file organizing, which relies on the strength of the workers themselves and a vision that broadens the scope of workers’ own demands, allowing the union to connect with other social movements. Business unions are losing their legitimacy in the face of class struggle, which can lead to the growth of more independent leadership among our class, as we’re seeing in Chicago, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and other communities.
The Democratic Party must sink or swim, and while their party treads water, we, as Socialists, have an opportunity. We can help raise the consciousness of educators and other workers inside and outside the unions by first taking the time to understand the particular joys and hardships in each other’s jobs, and beginning to create and strengthen solidarity networks that connect the struggles of workers, families, and communities, while also giving them confidence to take collective action. We must strive to lead the working class in building a party that fights back and aspires to wrest control from the plutocrats in order to create a society that works for the common good. It is our immediate goal to democratize and create and sustain practical systems of accountability in unions, schools, districts, and community organizations from the bottom up. These structures are to serve as models for how we envision the organization of society at large. We want and need to sustain an all-inclusive and fulfilling life with economic security for generations to come. Educators and parents, along with students and children, are naturally at the forefront of this struggle.
 Published in the 1973 English edition of Leon Trotsky’s Transitional Program for Socialist Revolution.
 See Lois Weiner’s The Future of Our Schools (2012) for more on social movement unionism.