Written by Workers’ Voice East Bay
For this article, La Voz interviewed four teachers who directly participated in huge multi-day strikes in 2018 and 2019: Nicole McCormick, Mercer County Education Association President, West Virginia United; Craig Gordon, OEA member, strike organizing leader, organizer, a substitute teacher, site rep, Oakland cluster lead, member of Classroom Struggle; Maya Suzuki Daniels, an LAUSD teacher in San Pedro, California (candidirreverence.com); and Rebecca Garelli, Lead Organizer for Arizona Educators United, 6th Grade Science Teacher in Phoenix. This is part three in a three-part series. The first part addresses: worsening (learning/working/living) conditions for students and teachers, the attack on public education and unions, and the importance of rank and file organizing along with the community around personal issues. Part two discusses how bureaucratic leadership needs to be pushed by rank and file energy. Part three delves into the need for going beyond strikes to meet substantial, long lasting demands, and the larger political & societal context. Find the article in its entirety at http://www.lavozlit.com.
THE NEED FOR GOING BEYOND STRIKES TO MEET SUBSTANTIAL, LONG LASTING DEMANDS
As vital as strikes are to winning concessions from district employers and from the state, it’s apparent that today’s typical strikes, largely consisting of symbolic and non-militant picket lines, marches, and rallies, are lacking in their potential to bring on substantial and long-lasting gains and to fundamentally transform public education let alone our society as a whole. According to McCormick :
“We need to block the streets and we need to shut the capital down. If I was in charge and I had the power, I would love to, as a state, get every single educator to write a letter of resignation and take it to the capital. I would love to see on mass thousands of people storm that capital with letters of resignation and let them reign down on the Senate chamber. Of course the strike can’t be an end all be all. The whole purpose is to get people to be active and involved. Wouldn’t it be nice to get to a point to where you don’t feel that you have to threaten to walk out every single year, twice a year? But it’s not over, in fact we’re gearing up for a round three, we were already doing Red for Ed Fridays and were planning on having walk-ins. We’re gonna get the ball rolling again and I think it’s bad enough that if it doesn’t look like that they’re going to listen to us then we need to seriously consider some civil disobedience. “
In OEA’s strike, members explored the option of shutting down the Port of Oakland. Gordon outlines the importance of extra-legal tactics such as this, as well as the impediments that prevented this action from happening:
“There was an opening at the very end of the very first day of the strike to move to shut down the Port of Oakland, which is a huge generator of profits for the all of California and Northern California in particular. And the ILWU (International Longshore and Warehouse Union) had historically shown it’s in solidarity with OEA. By Tuesday, we believe that we could have gotten a large number of OEA members down to the port and even larger numbers of community members in the very progressive East Bay to cover all of the gates that would have been necessary to shutdown the port and that would have demanded that the port be taxed for public education and services. And while it’s been denied that CTA directly made the decisions, they clearly are advising a lot of caution in this case, a lot of the CTA staff was not supporting this. And so as a result, we ended up not shutting down the port by the fourth day of the strike. And as a result, Rep Council which finally met on the sixth day, planned to shut it down on the ninth day, which never came. And there was another action that was proposed that had strong support from all of the picket captains, which was a march from all sections of Oakland to downtown that would have been very disruptive. There are many other disruptive actions that could have occurred but didn’t.
What we kept being told was that the strength is on the picket lines, and it’s true you have to have strong picket lines. But it’s also was clear that that wasn’t doing the job. Shutting down the schools was important, but it wasn’t enough just as it wasn’t enough in 1996 to move the district. You have to push the powers that are behind the district and you have to be able to confront capital to do that. And that’s what we hoped to do. We in California are acting much more under a legalistic framework. You can’t strike in West Virginia without breaking the law, and yet they showed that you can strike statewide, while we’re mostly operating on a local basis here. There are a lot of things that are very inspiring and important about that.”
THE LARGER POLITICAL & SOCIETAL CONTEXT
In reflecting on the relative victories of the teacher strikes it behooves us to understand the need for political independence from the capitalist parties. As Gordon says:
“There’s still too much emphasis on lobbying Democrats, and ultimately we’ll see more support for campaigning for Democrats at the state and local level. It’s important to elect school board members who are more progressive, but I frankly think that it’s more even more important to do the organizing and be prepared to do the kinds of mobilizing to force these school board members to turn in a more progressive direction, and that will ultimately push things to the left. You have to bring your demands to the state, the district, and the county all at the same time. So you have to push them in a way that’s going to pressure their political power base, which are the big corporations.
The Democrats have been just as complicit and instrumental in privatizing Oakland public schools as the Republicans. You have Democrats here on the school board, you have Democrats making up an overwhelming majority of the California legislature, and you have a Democratic Governor. Just chopping from the top of the district doesn’t work because ultimately there isn’t enough money locally to do what is needed. Even if you did completely restructure the local budget, there isn’t enough money to do what needs to be done to provide anything close to equitable conditions. To really reduce class size and provide the kinds of individual support that you need you must reallocate the state budget and make corporations and banks pay much more. That’s going to be going against the interests of the Democratic Party. The CTA is kind of a junior partner of the Democratic Party, which represents the capitalist class. So, winning the current contract entails a much bigger political fight. You have to build connections statewide, but you have to also become much more independent of the state affiliates, which are just too embedded into the capitalist Democratic Party. “
Socialists have a particular role in moving the conversation forward and in developing and sharing powerful organizing strategies. Gordon again:
“Socialists have a big role to play because they have a perspective of the larger context that it’s not just a fight over public schools, but a fight over the needs of working people, the 99% against the 1%, of working people against capitalists, also underscoring the social struggles that are both based on class and as well as race and gender and other ways in which people are divided. It’s key to understand the role that public education has in helping people who don’t have political power to understand the system and then learn how to fight back for a public education system that empowers working class kids and students of color. Socialists have a particular role in understanding the connection between all of these issues as well as a class understanding that the people behind privatization, those who are fighting to destroy public education, are the capitalist class in general. People who are not part of the 1% sometimes can be co-opted into supporting it. Anti-racist politics or slogans and issues are used in very opportunistic and disingenuous ways to promote privatization.
A lot of people who aren’t socialists understand the need for smaller class size and more student supports and the need for that money to come from the rich and from corporations. All the additional resources needed are anti-capitalist demands. The costs necessitate a redistribution of wealth, either by taxation or appropriation [taking] of the capital that is used towards the war machine, in order to maintain the balance of economic power in the world. To create an educational system that truly meets the needs of everybody and certainly of students and people who have been denied adequate education for generations, takes a radical redistribution of resources.
The demand for “the schools our students deserve” cannot be won without eliminating poverty, but even to begin to provide education that starts to redress a lot of the inequity, you have to then demand that kind of radical redistribution of resources. Capital is going to fight back with everything it has just to hold onto its share of the resources that you’re trying to take away to pay for an equitable education system that radically changes the ability of young people to learn and develop a sophisticated understanding of the society and an expectation of a decent standard of living and of opportunities that it doesn’t have—this is something that can’t be tolerated by the capitalists. To have a truly equitable education, to have a highly educated population, even a high literacy and awareness of social and political issues, is threatening to the people who have power. They can’t tolerate that. That is against their interests.
That’s why the educational system promotes a very dumbed down understanding of society in their history books. They’ve been forced over the many decades of struggle to make textbooks and curriculum a little bit more inclusive, more diverse, but ideologically what’s included is still very patriotic and very supportive of the system we have. You can have very progressive curriculum, but if students can’t read at beyond a second grade level or a fifth grade level or whatever, by the time they’re in high school, it still serves the same purpose. Your kids aren’t going to be able to read and understand and discuss at a high level and they’re not going to even give a shit because given all of the factors in their lives, including poverty and racism and these decrepit schools and large classes. Socialists have a role of helping, of not only putting that analysis out there, but informing the strategy you need to understand that you can’t win these things through lobbying. You are not going to get them without more mass direct action. “
“Where do we go from here?” is the natural question poised after the strike. McCormick understands the importance of raising mass movement consciousness:
“You get to a point where you either give up and you say, I’m done and you leave the profession, which is why that we have a thousand vacancies. Or you get to the point where you say, I’m tired of your bullshit. And you start making plans to address that because people in power have money. But we have the numbers, we are the 99%. They are very few. And we are many and our government should fear us. And the fact that it doesn’t is because we have gotten away from this mindset of power in the majority. We’ve gotten away from this mindset of solidarity, never cross a picket line, an injury to one is an injury to all. And so I’m hoping to build that back, that people’s power to where they say, you know what, this is an injustice and my neighbor is suffering and I’m sick of it.”
Garelli envisions a future of working class unity: “I think all workers, no matter what trade, no matter how they identify politically, should join together and demonstrate solidarity as a singular, working class force, since our struggles are all connected.”
Suzuki Daniels points to teachers as being the force to lead the movement given their natural role of educating themselves and those around them. She advises:
“Educate yourselves and those within your personal sphere of influence. My firm belief is that organizing begins, ends, and persists through education, and leadership must come from communities most impacted by decisions and policy. This means that people who are used to having space, platforms, and privilege must take a step back and let others lead. We have to stop promoting an ideology of representation and “being the voice” for oppressed communities. Our communal responsibility must be to create space and support platforms that allow marginalized folks to step up, step forward, and say what they’ve been experiencing for years. This begins with creating strong and authentic relationships that cross social and cultural barriers around identity, language, class, and privilege. We have a deeply socialized tendency to work with and advocate for those that share our identity, and we need to navigate advocating for our specific communities with a larger class struggle. In other words, if socialists want to build an inclusive and intersectional movement, we need to work on being accessible, knowledgeable, and intentional about creating a structure that empowers a broad and diverse coalition of people. Get ready! For teachers, strikes and labor disputes are not an if, but a when. We need to embrace our unique ability to be the vanguard of defending labor in this country.”