How to Fight Back: Building Alliances of Parents, Teachers and Students

Across the U.S., public schools are being closed and replaced by privately run charters, benefits that teachers won over decades are being whittled away, and now huge budget cuts are threatening both to slash tens of thousands more teacher jobs – on top of the tens of thousands already lost – and to further damage kids’ education by raising class sizes.

The evidence shows that gains made over decades in lowering class size have in the past three years been rapidly eroded. Los Angeles has increased the size of its ninth grade English and math classes to 34 students. Eleventh and 12th grade classes now have 43 students on average. In New York City where the teacher workforce has been cut by over 8,000 over the past several years, average elementary class sizes have grown to 23.7 from 21.8. Of course, it is the poorest communities that suffer the most. The devastated city of Detroit is now debating whether to allow high school class size to go up to 60 students! The corporate education deformers, like Bill Gates and Arne Duncan, have the audacity to say that class size doesn’t matter. But we know that the bulk of these people send their children to private schools where class size is much lower on average.

Stimulus money and other emergency money that had been allocated by Congress to shore up state education budgets is now completely dried up. If anything, the prospect is for big cuts in federal spending as the Republicans have succeeded in pushing the establishment consensus toward a policy of vicious austerity in the name of reducing debt. And, of course, the budget crisis at state level is set to get a lot worse if the U.S. economy slips back into recession.

As we have outlined in this pamphlet, the fight to defend public education faces great challenges. It’s bad enough that the political establishment and the corporate media are engaged in all-out assault on teachers and their unions. But we have seen that resistance, unfortunately, is often hampered by the leadership of those same unions, especially the AFT, for whom making bad compromises is a way of life. As in the wider labor movement and in American society as a whole, it has been so long since there has been real mass social struggle, ­with the exception of the movement for immigrants’ rights in 2006 and more recently the Wisconsin uprising, that people have a hard time even imagining what it would look like.

Grassroots Campaigns

Despite all the obstacles, however, we have seen the development of numerous local grassroots campaigns against budget cuts, high-stakes testing, for lower class size, and against school closings and policies which discriminate in favor of charter schools. Combined with the victory of rank-and-file dissidents in some local teacher union elections, the grassroots campaigns show that this fight is still far from over. Even some members of the establishment have started to question the dubious logic of education reform.

In Chicago, teachers, parents and students came together several years ago to form the Grassroots Education Movement. They focused their efforts on slowing down the wave of school closings initiated when Arne Duncan was CEO of the city’s schools. They held forums, as well as public protests that mobilized thousands, and they intervened forcefully at every public hearing. This campaigning had a real effect on public opinion in the city, and in 2009 they succeeded in stopping six out of 22 proposed new closings.

Also in Chicago, Latino parents staged a weeks-long occupation in the fall of 2010 against the demolition of a field house linked to Whittier Elementary School in Pilsen, which the occupiers wanted turned into a library for the community. Teacher activists were front and center supporting this struggle, which was ultimately successful, although now the Chicago Public School authorities under the new mayor, Obama administration graduate Rahm Emmanuel, are trying to go back on their word.

For two years running in New York City, there have been intensive protests against threatened school closings and charter co-location proposals involving numerous community and teacher-centered groups. The biggest mobilizations occurred when the local Department of Education announced that it was closing 19 schools in December 2009. Each one of the threatened closures led to local public hearings, many of which were packed out with crowds of up to 900 attending. Hearings were often preceded by mass pickets outside threatened schools. This developing movement from below forced the leadership of the United Federation of Teachers to step up its own involvement.

The campaign culminated in a protest by several thousand very angry parents, teachers and students outside and inside the meeting of the Panel for Educational Policy (PEP) on January 26, 2010, which met to decide the fate of the 19 schools. Predictably, the PEP – a rubber stamp for Mayor Bloomberg – voted to close all 19. In a remarkable twist two months later to the day, a judge ordered the city to halt the closings because it had not followed the right procedures. Unfortunately, the UFT leadership did not follow up this victory with further mobilization of its membership or the communities affected. In the vacuum, Bloomberg and his then schools chancellor Joel Klein moved forward with plans to open new schools in the same buildings as the schools they sought to close.

This past year saw 26 schools – including many of the previous year’s 19 – on the chopping block, a large number of co-location battles, further protests at the PEP meetings and another lawsuit. In a few cases, local campaigns have successfully stopped school closings or co-locations. There was also massive outrage when Bloomberg chose Cathie Black, a publishing executive with absolutely no background in education, to replace former chancellor Joel Klein. The city’s Grassroots Education Movement has taken the initiative to organize Fight Back Friday protests outside local schools with dozens of schools now regularly participating. Other local coalitions began to emerge out of this year’s fight against layoffs and budget cuts and the basis is being laid for a showdown over education in the next couple years.

In Los Angeles, the threat by the school board in late 2009 to turn 36 schools over to privately-run organizations including charter operators, a process they called “Public School Choice,” led the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) to put forward its own bids to run the schools. The school board demagogically talked about “letting parents choose” in referendums they clearly expected to win. Furthermore, the votes were only consultative, with the school board having the final say. The union saw how stacked the process was against them but correctly decided that to abstain would simply mean conceding defeat. Its activists put enormous efforts into drawing up their proposals and then arguing their case in the affected communities.

Defying the education deformers, 87 percent of parents voted to support the teacher-developed proposals. In L.A., the ability of teachers’ unions to resist has been significantly increased by the election of a reform slate to lead the union six years ago. In the end, the school board agreed that 29 of the 36 schools should be run according to the teacher-developed plans, and only four were given over to charters. Still, as in other areas, the drive to close schools and open charters remains intense in L.A., and an enormous effort is being made by teacher activists to develop better links with affected communities and stronger chapters of their union.

In Minneapolis, a protracted fight occurred in the city’s largest African-American neighborhood over the attempt to close North Community High School after a decade of school closings and charter invasion in the area. The Public Education Justice Alliance of Minnesota (PEJAM), which Socialist Alternative helped establish, played an important role in the campaign that succeeded in temporarily stopping the closure.

This year, of course, saw campaigns and protests against budget cuts and layoff threats in cities and towns across the country. In some areas, high school and college student walkouts against budget cuts showed the potential for bringing young people into the struggle. Many of these campaigns show great promise to become centers for wider mobilization and resistance in the years ahead. But it is critical that these campaigns clearly adopt the position of opposing all cuts and taxing the rich, i.e., rejecting the specious arguments about “shared sacrifice” that are constantly being made by politicians. It is also essential that, as they develop, these campaigns adopt a democratic structure which allows for as wide a participation in decision-making as possible by rank-and-file activists.

The Role of the Teachers’ Unions

All these developments point to the need to link the grassroots campaigns of teachers, parents and students against the various attacks on public education to the development of effective oppositions and alternative leaderships in the local and national teachers’ unions. This is because, if the struggle to defend public education is to have any chance of success, it requires a serious and sustained mobilization of the union membership working in alliance with wider working-class communities. To do this means building or rebuilding the union’s strength at the level of individual schools. It means teachers building effective links with their local community without waiting for the say-so of the union leadership. It means protests outside local schools building up to citywide protests and national protests.

Ultimately, without the collective strength of the teachers’ unions the struggle against education cannot succeed. Likewise, the unions can’t win if parents, students and the wider working class are against them or indifferent.

But for the movement to be effective it is also necessary to rediscover the methods of struggle from the past. We need mass protests, for example, but what is the point if these are simply exercises in blowing off steam that barely get covered in the media? There needs to be a deeper level of mobilization beginning in local working-class communities and a preparation to escalate protests if demands are ignored. This is by no means to suggest reckless tactics but rather to rediscover the methods of disciplined civil disobedience. As Jonathan Kozol, whose work has done so much to expose the real inequities in education, said several years ago, “You can’t change anything in the United States without disruptive nonviolent protest, and I’m very convinced that it’s going to take another round of that to win this battle.”

And teachers need to be prepared to go out on strike when the alternative is to accept never-ending retreat. One of the obstacles is that teacher strikes are illegal in most states and in some – New York, for example – there are onerous legal penalties for public sector workers who withdraw their labor. On top of that, at the moment there is the general fear of workers in this country that they could be replaced in an instant. It is no accident that strikes are at a historically low level. In the past teachers thought they were “recession proof,” but no longer. Nonetheless, in recent years teachers have heroically gone on strike in Gary, Indiana; Detroit, Michigan; Kent, Washington; Oakland, California; Miami, Florida and, of course, Wisconsin.

Teachers’ unions must defend their members’ pay, conditions and benefits, and do so without apology. But they must also go beyond this to advocate for a different vision of education with a more holistic method of assessment than high-stakes testing, a vision that includes the conscious fostering of critical thinking and wider cultural development, which are being squeezed out by the current model. They need to fight for real democratic control of schools by the teachers and working-class communities they serve. This means opposing the top-down, corporate “mayoral control” model which has done so much damage in many cities. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin, activists succeeded in building public opposition and defeating a proposal for mayoral control of the city’s schools.

The teachers’ unions must also mobilize alongside other public sector unions against the manifold attacks on pay, benefits and basic union rights. Despite the attempts of the corporate media to pit working-class people against each other by saying, for example, that workers’ pensions are the reason for higher transit fares or cuts in services, we must lay the blame for the crisis squarely where it belongs: on Wall Street and corporate America. It is worth pointing out that polls this year have consistently shown support for public sector workers.

Breaking with the Democrats

Probably the most important step the unions need to take is to break their ties of dependency to the Democrats and corporate politicians generally. It is the failure of the Democrats in office to take serious measures to reduce unemployment and stop foreclosures – while giving massive bailouts to the banks – which has opened the door to the far-right Tea Party to present itself as the voice of disaffected Americans. The Democrats’ signature legislation on health care was really a bonanza for the insurance companies. They have not even tried to pass the promised Employee Free Choice Act. Obama has drawn down the U.S. presence in Iraq to 50,000 troops, but has escalated the disastrous occupation of Afghanistan. On every issue, including education, the Democrats in power have acted in the interests of Wall Street and the corporate ruling class.

Working people need their own political party. Clearly there is not yet widespread support for this step. However, if the unions, including the teachers’ unions, were to run independent candidates at state level against the most virulent Democrats and Republicans on a no layoffs, no budget cuts, tax the rich platform it would be very popular with working-class people.

The struggle to defend public education has many dimensions, but there is no time to lose in galvanizing all points of resistance into an effective fight-back. All working-class people must see that they have a stake in this fight.

A Class Struggle Policy

The victory of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) in the Chicago Teachers Union elections of June 2010 and the election of Karen Lewis as president of the union was widely and correctly seen as a victory against the “negotiating concessions” model of trade unionism practiced by Randy Weingarten. CORE cut its teeth in grassroots organizing alongside teachers and parents to stop school closures.

Lewis and CORE opposed privatization of the schools, President Obama’s Race to the Top program, and undemocratic business unionism. But while Socialist Alternative welcomed CORE’s victory, we also emphasized that the new leadership of the CTU would immediately come under ferocious pressure and that mistakes were possible and even likely.  

Indeed CORE has faced many challenges and difficulties in the two years since it came into office which in no way negates the huge step forward that their victory represented. This was not unique. The reform leadership the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) initially elected six years ago,  while it effectively mobilized the membership around a range of issues, also failed at a critical juncture to take decisive action against mass layoffs.

In particular it buckled in the face of a court injunction against the threat of a one-day strike in 2008 and wound up agreeing to seven unpaid furlough days to avoid further layoffs. Reform groups in other unions propelled into office to replace discredited old guard do-nothing leaders have unfortunately, also frequently, failed to deliver on expectations.

Why is this? One can point out that the activist layer on which these reform groups have been based is extremely narrow compared to the past. This reflects the massive negative effects on workers’ consciousness of the whole period of corporate globalization from which we are only beginning to emerge. There is also a generation or two in the unions in this country who have almost no direct experience of real class struggle.

Good intentions, radical rhetoric and even union democracy won’t be enough to withstand the current offensive against unions, jobs and services. Experience in struggle and a class-struggle approach will be necessary to withstand the pressure of this corporate avalanche.

Big events are now unfolding. The uprising in Wisconsin demonstrates conclusively that wide sections of the American working class are prepared to fight back against the never-ending attacks on their living standards and rights.

Through the experience of both victories and bitter defeats, a new generation of class struggle union activists will be educated and steeled with the ideas, strategy, and determination to effectively push back the corporate offensive. Socialists have a crucial role to play in the discussion about the way forward and in educating activists about the history and lessons of the class struggle.