Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Lessons of the Chicago Teachers' Strike

Despite the resolve the working class displayed: massive demonstrations, strong picket lines and unwavering parent/student support, the reformers of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) in the leadership of the CTU showed their true colors Friday announcing that settlement had been reached, and that after a vote of the teachers’ House of Delegates planned for Sunday, the teachers would have gone to their classroom Monday the 17th without ever seeing or voting on the contract. Under pressure from the rank and file in the House of Delegates the planned capitulation was postponed over the objection of fake socialist Jesse Starkey, who has acted to keep the membership in the dark. The reformists are maintaining the fantasy that you can win a major strike by keeping the membership and their mass of working class supporters out of the discussion on the contract’s provisions.

This strike was as much the parents and students strike as it was the teachers. To win, the leadership of the strike needed to include the great mass of the Chicago working class, The first requirement for this mobilization would have been full disclosure. How else would the workers expect to defeat Emanuel’s injunction tactic, except by mass working class independent political action? This is something CORE and the ISO dread and worked overtime to prevent in this bourgeois presidential election year.

The entire nation had their eyes on Chicago as the fight for education is and has been in the forefront of the fight against the capitalist rulers’ imposition of austerity. Unlike the populist Occupy movement which found its base in the youth, the precariously employed, students and activists, while receiving only minimal, half-hearted and transitory support from the unions, the fight to “Save our Schools” has been the focus of hundreds of thousands of working class parents and teachers across the country.

Receiving only local media coverage, tens of thousands of angry parents, teachers and students have been attending thousands of school board meetings held in districts across the country to confront the school boards and the overpaid administrative lackeys of the ruling class. The job of these lackeys has been to impose standardized testing as the teaching model, eliminating critical thinking (Bush’s “No child’s brain left alive,”) standardized testing as quality control of teachers (Obama’s “Race for the slop,”) increased class sizes, closing of “underperforming” schools, privatization in the form of for-profit charters, the replacement of the professional credentialed and unionized teachers with scab “Teach for America” workers whose youthful exuberance and excitement at getting a job quickly fades as the false promise that they could make a difference is exposed by the reality they face in the under-funded and failing school systems across the nation.

But the nation’s parents, separated by ten thousand districts and hundreds of thousands of schools, are not an organized force with social weight that can be easily mobilized for impact. The minimal options allotted to parents: pass a school bond or not, raise money for the PTA classroom enhancement drives, donate time to the youth program of your choice, abandon public schools for the charter schools,–none of these cut to the root of the problem. Indeed, atomized as they are, the parents’ social weight and viewpoint is often misrepresented by the media pundits who pit the parents/students against the “greedy teachers.”

But this time in Chicago the parents were not buying it! Despite the hardship, tens of thousands of working class parents supported the strike with great hope that the organized strength of the teachers union would give their concerns for their children’s education a voice. The parents know well that the school board and administrators are overpaid lackeys (earning six figures) doing the bidding of the ruling class whose stated intention is to destroy public education and turn our children and their schools into commodities and profit centers for investors in the Bill Gates/Arne Duncan vision of schools without unionized teachers.

The capitalists, while ignorant, elitist and as condescending as Romney’s blunder on tape indicates, are driven to impose austerities and privatize education by the decay of capitalism and slow demise of the American Empire. To offset the declining rate of profit they must undercut the social wage through the destruction of social programs which do not directly profit the capitalists. Public education, defined pensions, public health, worker safety and environmental standards are in the crosshairs and any unions or organizations which stand in the way of their “rationalization” of the economy will find themselves attacked by the media, harassed by the State and the political and economic power of the billionaires. In the epoch of the decay of capitalism, the over-production of fictitious capital competing for ever-diminishing returns provides no incentive to employ the growing “surplus population.” 

American workers are coming to understand that the same “free market” pressure that drives Lonmin, Debeers and Anglo-American to super-exploit and murder the miners in South Africa are the same concrete material forces which drive Apple and Dell to super-exploit young workers living in the slave-like conditions at the Foxconn factory in China, and that the crisis of capital has created the necessity for the ruling class to impose austerity and commodify everything–all in order to offset the declining rate of profit. Under these conditions, where the social relations of the mode of production act to limit the productive capacity of the working class, those social relations are no longer sustainable except by means of repression, hence the “education reform” and the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

The strength of the CTU strike was that the fight was not for wages alone but aimed its fire at the ongoing privatization process. Fighting school closures, inadequate class room temperature controls, increased class sizes, lengthened school days, test-based “quality control,” the encroachment of charters, and the continued denial and de-funding of arts, music, physical education and the various electives that round out an education is exactly the battle the working class parents were happy to wage. Parents needed the teachers union to step forward in defense of our children and when they did the parents responded in solidarity, joining the picket lines, bringing lunches to the picketers, organizing youth support and putting enormous pressure on the ruling class, whose intention it was to drive a wedge between the teachers and the parents.

CTU Leadership Snatches Defeat From the Jaws of Victory

What the broader American working class support base for the Chicago teachers does not know is the lengths the reformist CORE leadership went to try to frustrate the CTU membership’s desire to fight the capitalists’ “reform plans.” CORE is a union reform caucus that was organized against the sellout and corrupt regime of United Progressive Caucus (UPC) led by Marilyn Stewart. CORE won the 2010 CTU elections based on a vague program of taking a more militant and grassroots stance against the attacks on education. The membership of CORE includes sympathizers of the reformist International Socialist Organization (ISO) and the ostensibly revolutionary Solidarity group. Right after the CTU 2010 election, Chicago Public Schools (CPS) threatened to lay off 2000 teachers based on principal performance evaluations and not seniority. Instead of trying to mobilize the ranks at that time for a real fight, the CORE leadership under Karen Lewis filed an injunction in Federal court on procedural grounds, not even opposing layoffs on principle. A judge ruled in favor of the injunction and imposed recall in hiring, but over 1300 teachers were still left without work.

Then in April 2011 we saw Karen Lewis championing SB 7 in the Illinois statehouse. This law perversely narrowed the legal basis of labor action and required a 75% yes vote for any strike authorization by civil servants. SB 7 trashed a number of teachers’ seniority rights and otherwise attacked their long understood and legal collective bargaining provisos. In this dirty business Lewis had a number of accomplices on the so-called left.

Lewis’ right hand man is vice president Jesse Sharkey of the International Socialist Organization (ISO,) which traces its political linage through Tony Cliff back to Max Shachtman. In the weeks after the passage of SB 7, when its contents and consequences were understood and when a Wisconsin-style mobilization could have repudiated the law, Sharkey did and said nothing. The ISO, with hundreds of members in Chicago did nothing and further covered up Lewis’ support for the anti-labor measure. Karen Lewis, you understand, is a Democrat, a card carrying member of the bosses’ party. As we have seen the ISO do previously in the San Francisco Labor Council and the California AFL-CIO State Federation, the ISO supports the anti-labor tactics of the Democratic Party and makes them possible. The ISO believes the CTU has legislator allies who must be supported and must not be left high and dry by any reversal of the CTU leadership’s support for SB 7. Subsequently the rank and file had other plans and 95% voted for the strike authorization and the Obama/Emanuel ploy fell on its face in front of massive union solidarity.

After ten months of negotiations the membership was not worn down and still rejected the capitalist education plan! In this respect this is a political strike and Emanuel’s injunction plot was always possible, even without the special provisions of SB 7, under Taft-Hartley.

Our class enemies are not geniuses and they picked the wrong city and the wrong time and the wrong workers to start this fight with. As the strike progressed the ruling class desperation was exposed. George Schmidt of the Chicago Substance News puts it this way, “Whether the unraveled is Vitale on camera, Emanuel fulminating behind the scenes…or Brizard quietly collecting his enormous pay while being told to sit down and shut up off stage, the sight is not pretty.” (David Vitale is president of Chicago board of education, Rham Emanual is mayor of Chicago and Jean-Claude Brizard is the CEO of the Chicago Public School system.) The fate of the phony education “reform” drive ushered in by Bush/Obama/Gates/Buffet and their hit man Duncan, with all the potential profit for investors in privatization, hung in the balance. 

Beneath the din of the punditries and politicians’ empty platitudes evoking sympathy for the struggling parent and students effected by the strike is their terror that the ruling class plan is being exposed and rejected by the teachers, the working class and the oppressed minorities! In Chicago, where 86% of the students are minorities, the working class parents know damn well that closing schools, overcrowding classrooms, driving out qualified teachers, and “teaching to the test” is part of the school-to-prison pipeline intended for the millions of youth that capitalism neither needs to educate nor intends to employ. The teachers have won the battle for support of working class parents and of Occupy Chicago. What they have not overcome is the reformist leadership of the CTU and the labor movement, which is entrenched in the bosses’ Democratic Party, which demands they demobilize the teachers and prevent this movement from spreading. They have not overcome it and this is what has come to pass.

Way Forward

As Leon Trotsky stated in his work Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay (1940):

“In other words, the trade unions in the present epoch cannot simply be the organs of democracy as they were in the epoch of free capitalism and they cannot any longer remain politically neutral, that is, limit themselves to serving the daily needs of the working class. They cannot any longer be anarchistic, i.e. ignore the decisive influence of the state on the life of peoples and classes. They can no longer be reformist, because the objective conditions leave no room for any serious and lasting reforms. The trade unions of our time can either serve as secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordination and disciplining of workers and for obstructing the revolution, or, on the contrary, the trade unions can become the instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat.”

The labor movement in the United States has a whole history of reform union movements based on vague programs for “union democracy,” against sellouts, fighting a corrupt leadership and/or based on simple trade union militancy. They have all failed the test of leadership and have become the class-collaborationist union bureaucrats they were fighting against. Under the leadership of the union bureaucracy the working class will continue to face defeats. In order to win victories we need to produce a new generation of worker militants that understand that there is absolutely no reconciliation between Labor and Capital. Rank-and-file union caucuses need to be formed on the basis of a class struggle program of transitional demands so as to put forward a fighting union leadership that will drive the bureaucrats out of union office. These caucuses will educate, unite, organize and mobilize against austerity and against all attacks on workers and the oppressed. These caucuses will stand for the absolute independence of the labor movement from all capitalist parties, be they Democrat, Republican or Green, Liberal, Conservative or “Independent.” Such caucuses could be a springboard for building a fighting workers’ labor party to fight for a workers’ government.

  • Smash SB 7 and Taft-Hartley anti-labor laws!
  • Defend Teachers and Public workers unions from union busting politicians!
  • Mobilize a working class offensive to defend students, parents, teachers, schools and neighborhoods against the capitalist war on the working class!
  • Stop School Closures and Privatization!
  • For Working Class Education! Defend Public Education!
  • For Free Quality Education For All From Pre-School Through Graduate School!
  • Establish student stipends, room and board as social guarantee!
  • Occupy the Schools! Nationalize all private schools and charters!
  • Socialize the big educational scholarship foundations and endowments!
  • For teacher/student/worker/parent control of schools and universities!
  • Limit class sizes! For a massive public works program to build safe, healthy facilities.
  • Free the students and educators from the regency of class miseducation, curricula of mystification and oppression!
  • For liberal arts and athletic education with adequate teaching materials and facilities. Teach working class history! Teach the history of the oppressed!
  • Drive out the labor fakers! Build Class-Struggle Caucuses in the unions and forge fighting union leaderships!
  • Ultimately only a workers government formed by workers councils backed and resting upon the armed might of the self organized working class—workers self-defense militia will be able to provide quality education for all and save our school! 
Reblogged from Communist Workers Group (USA)  blog

September 19, 2012
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