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14 January 2019

Democrats’ War on Unions, Public Education

L.A. Teachers: Strike to Win!

The battle lines are drawn for 30,000 teachers in the United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), on strike for the first time in three decades. In recent years, UTLA members have faced relentless attacks by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) board, its billionaire superintendent Austin Beutner and Democratic Party politicians who have long starved education funding in the city. The aim is to crush the UTLA and to open the road to K-12 privatization schemes, centrally through expanding charter schools. A lot is riding on this fight for educators across the country. Earlier school strikes in West Virginia and Arizona were directed against Republican state governments; but the Democrats are also in the forefront of the assault on public education and teachers unions, including in California, a focal point of the anti-Trump “resistance.” Victory to the teachers strike!

Having gutted public education, the city rulers and their kept media, such as the Los Angeles Times, blame overworked and underpaid teachers for the miserable state of the schools, trying to pit parents against the unions. The UTLA’s demands, which focus on addressing student needs, are very modest: a 6.5 percent wage increase retroactive to July 2016 (which barely accounts for inflation); smaller class sizes in a district where 30, 40 or even 50 students are packed into a classroom; and more funding for librarians, nurses, counselors and other essential support staff. L.A. has one of the highest costs of living in the U.S., and teachers are forced to shell out enormous sums of their own money on supplies. Meanwhile, the LAUSD, while hoarding a massive reserve of nearly $2 billion, cries poverty.

In a vastly unequal city where extreme wealth meets drastic destitution, the LAUSD is the second-largest school district in the country. More than three-fourths of the students in the highly segregated district live in poverty, including thousands who are homeless. Over 73 percent of LAUSD students are Latino and 8 percent are black; many tens of thousands have undocumented parents under threat of deportation. America’s racist capitalist rulers see no need to pay teachers union wages or to invest in schools to educate these minority and working-class youth. The same ruling class that is going after UTLA teachers consigns millions of workers, Latinos, black people and immigrants to low-wage jobs and inferior housing and health care.

UTLA teachers and the city’s working people and oppressed face a common enemy and are natural allies in the fight for decent wages and better working conditions, which goes hand in hand with the fight for free, quality, integrated and secular public education for all. Central to this fight is expanding bilingual education in a district where some 25 percent of students are not proficient in English, and over 90 different languages are spoken. Bilingual education is vital for Spanish-speaking and all immigrant communities. Not only could young people retain their native language but also U.S.-born students could become fluent in more than one language.

Superintendent Beutner, a former investment banker, and other financial titans are pushing a sinister “portfolio district” model that would break up LAUSD into 32 competing networks—a plan that amounts to wholesale privatization and union-busting. In other cities like Detroit, Newark and New Orleans, such schemes have targeted so-called “failing” schools, resulting in mass firings of teachers and staff and the proliferation of non-union private and charter schools. For more than two decades, corporate education reform has been pushed by both capitalist parties. The Obama administration and its education secretary, Arne Duncan, victimized teachers whose students did not score well on tests, clobbered teachers unions and enforced school closures, with devastating impact in cities like Chicago.

Over the last decade, UTLA membership has shrunk by one-quarter due to the spread of charters, which serve to undermine public education and smash the unions. Today, LAUSD has more charters than any other U.S. school district. Charters were given a boost in 2000 with Proposition 39, which mandated that California public schools make their facilities, from science and computer labs to art and special education rooms, available to charter schools colocated on the campus. Since 2008, nearly $600 million annually has been stripped from state education funds to bolster the charter industry. Charter schools, which include for-profit and religious ventures, increase racial segregation and class inequality in education and must be opposed.

Significantly, the UTLA has succeeded in unionizing ten charters, and is currently trying to organize L.A.’s largest charter school group. In what would be the first charter school strike in the district (and the second ever in the U.S.), UTLA members at three South L.A. charters operated by The Accelerated Schools may walk out this week. This presents a golden opportunity to forge unity in action between public and charter school educators. They should strike together in a fight for an equal wages and benefits package at the highest level.

More broadly, the UTLA should mobilize during the strike to organize all the non-union charters, starting with the colocated schools. Bringing charter school teachers en masse into the UTLA and winning equal pay and work conditions would seriously undercut this union-busting tool. The union should appeal to charter teachers to honor its picket lines, while demanding no reprisals against those who do. A commitment to fight retaliation by the charter bosses would go a long way with non-union charter school teachers, who face onerous conditions in their own schools. Picket lines mean don’t cross!

Leading up to the strike, LAUSD pulled out all the stops to intimidate teachers, claiming that the schools will be kept open and threatening to punish absent students for truancy. The district has authorized $3 million to fund a massive strikebreaking effort, offering scabs up to $385 a day to cross picket lines. The district is also beefing up security by deploying campus cops, backed by other police, at picket locations. Campus police and security guards are not workers! These are the same racist forces that criminalize black and Latino students by subjecting them to random searches and police-state conditions. Their job is to victimize students and regiment teachers; during a strike, they protect scabs.

Mass pickets must be built to stop scabbing and to shut the schools down. Teachers should enlist other school workers and the rest of city labor to reinforce the picket lines. There is significant support for the UTLA strike among the ranks of SEIU Local 99, which represents janitors, cafeteria workers, bus drivers and teacher assistants. Local 99 members at ten schools overwhelmingly signed on to engage in sympathy strikes. This is an important act of elementary union solidarity, especially given that the SEIU leadership has made no attempt to mobilize systemwide. Instead, the SEIU tops are encouraging members to report to work—that is, to scab—while wearing ribbons and joining pickets before and after work!

Officials of the California School Employees Association, which represents clerical, professional and technical staff, have simply left it up to members to honor the UTLA picket lines as individuals, setting them up for victimization. The UTLA teachers must demand: No reprisals against sympathy strikers! There needs to be coordinated struggle together with the teachers in order to maximize the collective strength of the unions. Such joint struggle, with other school workers and charter school teachers alike, would be advanced by setting a common contract expiration, paving the way to eventually consolidating one single union in the school system.

An effective class-struggle fight in defense of the teachers unions and for quality public education requires going up against the labor bureaucracy’s embrace of the capitalist Democratic Party. Even as the Democrats wage war against the unions, the trade-union leadership preaches a strategy of reliance on these so-called “friends of labor.” Bigwig bureaucrats like Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, are key cogs in the Democratic Party establishment. The Democrats represent the interests of big business no less than the Republicans. Their occasional pro-worker rhetoric and empty promises serve to sow illusions in this brutal profit system. All the better to stab the working class in the back when it counts.

Case in point: Antonio Villaraigosa, former UTLA organizer, was elected L.A. mayor in 2005 with the backing of the teachers union and went on a rampage against it as “the largest obstacle to creating quality schools.” Seizing control of the school board, Villaraigosa fired teachers and attacked seniority under the guise of fixing “low performing” campuses. After being stung by Villaraigosa, the labor bureaucrats have continued to back “progressive” Democrats, keeping workers chained to the class enemy.

The UTLA endorsed new California governor Gavin Newsom, praising him for his supposed commitment to public education. Since his election, Newsom’s recurring message has been one of fiscal discipline and the need to “live within our means.” His new budget includes additional spending on social programs, but when state coffers are less flush, as in 2012 when he was lieutenant-governor, Newsom is right there pushing austerity and cutbacks to those very same programs.

The current UTLA leadership under President Alex Caputo-Pearl won election on the Union Power slate in 2014 and again in 2017 by adopting a militant posture; in office, though, Caputo-Pearl and Union Power have proved anything but. Teachers have been on the job for over a year and a half without a contract, as the UTLA tops have conceded to multiple rounds of mediation and “fact-finding” as well as to other legal straitjackets that hobble strikes. Their losing strategy to fight charter schools is to get their favored Democrats, like Jackie Goldberg, elected to the school board, an administrative body whose very purpose is to keep teachers in line.

Such class collaboration by the union misleaders is responsible for the decades-long decline in labor struggle that has allowed the ruling class to push through its attacks on education and public employee unions. What is needed is a class-struggle leadership of the unions—one based on the understanding that the interests of workers and the oppressed have nothing to do with those of the ruling class.

A leadership committed to a program of independence from the bosses’ state and political parties would transform the unions into battalions of struggle, not only to improve the livelihoods of their members but also to address the felt needs of all the oppressed. Such a leadership would support the building of a workers party dedicated to the fight for socialized medicine, for quality, integrated housing and for full citizenship rights for all immigrants, as part of the struggle to overthrow this decaying capitalist order. Only socialist revolution and the establishment of a workers government can rebuild society anew.