California Teachers Union Trying to Smother Rebellion

Last week marked a “Week of Action” called for by the California Teachers Association which was supposed to call attention to the “State of Emergency” which public schools are in.  Students, teachers, and workers from across California were supposed to engage in the week of action, which was to include an occupation of the state capitol in Sacramento as part of a Wisconsin-esque challenge to austerity measures directed towards workers.

Now, if you’ve been part of any of the anti-austerity movements on campuses in the past few years, you know that the question of directing protest towards Sacramento has been contentious.  Many have called out the “go to Sacramento” route as being a means to diffuse anger directed towards local institutions of the state’s power structure (university administrations, local school boards, etc) and re-direct it towards the institution that supposedly has the “real power.”

While many of us here have definitely been partisan towards fighting where we’re at – building walkouts, strikes and occupations at the point of reproduction – we were interested in seeing what this “Week of Action” in Sacramento might generate in light of the developments across North Africa and Wisconsin.

Unfortunately, it seems that the union bureaucracy played a predictable role, as outlined in our comrade Jack Gerson’s piece below.  He critiques the “short-term/long-term” strategy used by the union (not to mention many activists in general) as a cover for simply capitulating to the austerity program of the ruling parties – both Democrats and Republicans.

What will it take to develop a revolutionary program that seeks to issue meaningful demands that speak to the needs people are facing, while at the same time challenging the state power structure and calling our organizational and revolutionary attention to the fact that the bourgeois state will never meet our needs as workers?  Jack’s piece reminds us of the glaring inadequacies of protests confined within the parameters of the union officialdom and reminds us of the need to develop left-wing challenges to their co-optation strategies.

The California Teachers Association ‘Week of Action’… What The Heck Was Going On In Sacramento?

Jack Gerson – May 19, 2011

On the evening of Monday, May 9, 2011, 68 Bay Area college students, public school teachers, and their supporters chanting “Tax the Rich! That will fix the deficit!” were arrested for occupying and refusing to leave the state capitol building in Sacramento, California. Although this happened on the first day of a “Week of Action” called by the California Teachers Association (CTA) to protest cuts to state funding for K-12 education, CTA leadership walked away from the occupiers and literally pulled CTA members out of the Rotunda, saying that the protesters were “not on message”. Oakland Education Association (OEA) secretary Steve Neat, one of the arrestees, described it thus:

One of the May 12 arrests outside the offices of Republican leaders in California’s state capitol, Sacramento.”CTA leadership had the perfect opportunity to join a group of students and teachers fighting for real long-term change with direct action. They were very conspicuous by their absence. In fact they left and tried to usher CTA members away when we started chanting ‘Tax the rich!’ I guess that wasn’t quite on message enough.”

Yet three days later, CTA president David Sanchez and several other CTA leaders were arrested for sitting in at the offices of Republican state legislature leaders Robert Dutton and Connie Conway. In the words of CTA’s press release, “CTA members refuse to leave capitol and demand passage of tax extensions to keep deeper cuts away from schools, colleges and essential public services.”

What is going on here? On Monday, May 9, CTA leadership did all in its power to prevent and — failing that — limit and undercut an occupation of the Capitol by students and teachers demanding funding for public education and services. On Thursday, CTA leadership occupies the Capitol to demand funding for public education and services. If you feel confused, you’re not alone. I’ve gotten phone calls and emails from around the country asking, “What the heck is going on in Sacramento?”

Part of the May 9 protest.So here’s what’s going on. CTA leadership’s strategy all along has been to throw their full support behind Democratic governor Jerry Brown. Last year, California labor unions contributed $20 million to Brown’s gubernatorial campaign last year. CTA was one of the biggest contributors. But as soon as Brown was elected, he started talking up the need for austerity.

Brown has proposed an austerity budget that includes about $12 billion in cuts to essential public programs ($1.7 billion from medical care for the poor; $1.5 billion from welfare, $1.4 billion from higher education; cut hundreds of millions from programs for the disabled, for home assistance for the elderly, etc.) and an equal amount from extending regressive taxes set to expire this year for another five years (among them increases to state sales tax, vehicle license fees, and a decrease in tax deductions for dependents).

Brown’s cuts have already been approved by the legislature, but Republicans are blocking extension of the regressive taxes. So the argument in Sacramento has been between Brown — who wants to extend Schwarzenegger’s soak-the-poor taxes for another five years — and the Republicans — who call for more program cuts instead of more taxes. Two rotten choices, right? Well, CTA leadership is openly and ardently demanding immediate approval of Brown’s tax package. Brown warns, “There is no other alternative. We all must sacrifice.” And CTA agrees: “We must fight for this budget. It is balanced. It mixes cuts with taxes. We must fight for it because the alternative is so much worse.” That is their focus, pure and simple. That was why they sat-in at the offices of Republican leaders Dutton and Conway. They tried to break up the Monday sit-in because its message was “tax the rich”, not “pass the tax extensions” (i.e., “tax the poor”).

However, it’s hardly a secret that not everyone is sacrificing. Not the banks — huge bailout and rip-off of taxpayer money, record profits, big bonuses, minimal taxes. Not the oil companies (especially in California, the only oil-producing state without an oil extraction tax). Not corporations (more than half of all profitable California corporations pay no state income tax). Not the rich (state income tax is lower now than it was under Republican governors Ronald Reagan and Pete Wilson). Making the banks, corporations and the rich pay would provide the money needed to restore and expand all essential programs and rescind all layoffs.

A Code Pink member arrested in Sacramento May 9.In fact, the Brown / Sanchez call for “shared sacrifice” was so hollow that even many long-time supporters of the CTA leadership (and of the Democrats) bridled. At CTA state council in early April, the 800 delegates forced the leadership to revise their plans for the May “Week of Action”. The call that emerged from this meeting supported Brown’s proposal for extending regressive taxes “short term”, while calling for progressive taxation “long term”.

But, CTA leadership never had any intention of a massive mobilization to Sacramento for their “Week of Action”. CTA has over 300,000 members. CTA State Council alone has 800 members, and they have several hundred paid staffers. CTA leadership could have turned out five thousand to Sacramento without really trying. But that wasn’t their plan. Their plan was to keep everything small, mild, and most of all under their control. Had thousands shown up on Monday, the Rotunda occupation might have turned into a sustained occupation, and the calls for “Tax the Rich” might have grown in substance and appeal. Things might have gotten out of hand. And so there were well under two hundred at the leadership’s Monday noontime “mass rally”, where the speeches were all about supporting Brown and his regressive taxes. Here’s what happened after that rally, in the words of Oakland Education Association president Betty Olson-Jones (one of those arrested on Monday).

“By later in the afternoon, scores of UC Santa Cruz students had arrived, drawn to support teachers and occupy the State Capitol — after all, that’s what they’d heard CTA was planning to do! So when CTA members filed into the Rotunda at 5pm — as planned — to chant and march, the students joined us in a lively, energetic show of solidarity. And that’s where CTA leadership got scared, started pulling (literally!) blue shirts from the crowd and ushering them to a side hall. When many of us just kept on circling the Rotunda chanting, some of them got angry started yelling at us to leave. We didn’t. The irony (among many) is that CTA had a permit until 6pm! There was no reason to abandon the demonstration at 5:10, except that it wasn’t under CTA’s control. They were upset that the students were “taking over their action”! The reality is that the students had been unfailingly respectful, asking me and others how they could support us. What kind of a message did it send to the students when CTA leaders pulled teachers out of the Rotunda? They later told us in jail that they felt CTA had abandoned all of us. Had more teachers stayed it would have been an extraordinary opportunity to act in unison with our allies, the students.

“By 5:30 most CTA teachers had been moved out of the building (having been told by CTA staff and leadership that we faced immediate arrest and that our permit allowed us to sing, not chant (!)), and went to “rally” outside.”

Another May 9 arrest in Sacramento.And so the leadership tried to squash the Monday occupation, opting instead for a late-week “on-message” tame action unambiguously supporting Brown and demanding that the Republicans stop blocking the regressive tax extensions.

Unfortunately, despite their unquestioned courage and commitment, the “short term / long term” approach adopted by some of the Monday occupiers (OEA’s Olson-Jones included) is, at best, inadequate.

Brown’s proposal — supported by Sanchez and by State Council — is for a five-year extension of the regressive taxes. If five years is short term, what is long term? Furthermore, vague calls for “long-term” progressive taxation are already condensing into proposals for modest increases to high-end income taxes and equally modest adjustments to corporate taxation. The fact is, CTA leadership’s short-term and long-term leadership’s strategies are identical. They are to co-opt dissent and channel it into the Democrats; provide massive funding for Brown and Democratic politicians; phone-bank for Democratic candidates; usher incipient mass movements off the streets and into lobbying, phone banking, fundraising, etc.

And the Democrats’ strategy — short-term, long-term, and in-between-term — can be summarized in one word: austerity. And this is more than just a California strategy. In state legislature after state legislature, Democrats and Republicans agree that public worker unions and pensions and essential public programs must be rolled back, and labor bureaucrats support this call for “shared sacrifice”.

Fighting austerity requires a mass movement that rejects the whole notion of “shared sacrifice” and insists on rolling back all the cuts and all the layoffs and getting the money that’s needed from the banks, from the corporations, and from wealth (earned and inherited). The old slogans still apply: People before profits; Make the bosses pay!

Originally posted:

4 responses to “California Teachers Union Trying to Smother Rebellion

  1. Thanks to Jack Gerson for an incisive critique of the recent “Week of Action.” As always, he offers much food for thought about the present state of worker organization in the age of austerity.

    I work for a union, and have done so on and off since the 1990’s. I have also been a rank-and-file union member and a non-union precarious worker in the service and educational sectors. And, as a matter of fact, I am a non-union worker now, even though I work for a union.

    I can say unequivocally that in terms of basic things like higher pay, job security, and access to health care, working as a member of a union is usually better than not. But without the shop-floor solidarity necessary to back each other up and fight regularly against the boss and for ourselves and one another, being in a union can feel like little more than a fact on paper. And shop-floor solidarity can be built in either formally unionized or non-unionized workplaces, and it can be absent in either, as well.

    As a low-level union staffer who keeps her politics very quiet on the job, I can tell you that as far as I can see, the main condition that keeps unions pacified is not the quality of the union leaders but labor law itself. Anyone appointed, elected, or hired into the union bureaucracy is in some way responsible for making sure the union doesn’t get sued, fined, and enjoined out of existence. Particularly since the passage of Taft-Hartley in 1947, damn near everything that workers have developed to fight effectively has been made illegal IF IT IS DONE BY AN OFFICIAL UNION (True rank-and-file wildcat action -that is, not called, sanctioned, or organized by “the union,” outside of the scope of a contract, defiant of Taft-Hartley- is actually not punishable under labor law, as I understand it.)

    A rotten union official in it for herself might only be concerned with keeping the union chugging along until she reaches retirement, true, but even the most principled of people in those positions wouldn’t last long in office or on staff if he put the struggle ahead of the law, and because of the value of the various protections afforded to workers through union contracts, many union members would not support a union official who recklessly risked the union’s existence as an institution in that way. The institutional role of a union staffer or official is in direct contradiction to effective working class struggle.

    For that reason, arguments about whether or not unions have revolutionary potential seem kind of silly to me. As institutions bound by labor law, they don’t. That’s not to say they are no good and useless in peoples’ lives, and that’s also not to say that class struggle must be held back because of this fact.

    To their credit, the more “militant” unions have in recent times dedicated significant resources toward organizing programs that look for ways to creatively exploit loopholes in labor law in order to win some gains or at least prevent some losses. But even these unions have a siloed view that lacks an orientation toward the class as a whole, even rhetorically. And certainly, there is no excuse for union officials’ consistent attack on rank-and-file militancy where it emerges. Even the more “militant” unions in my experience tend to be extremely top-down and authoritarian, with a rigid and vanguardist grip on “the program” under which all staffers and rank-and-file are required to subsume their own activity or face expulsion from organizing activity.

    On this last point: I find it mysterious that unions face existential threats (like the Wisconsin law that takes away collective bargaining rights and dues check-off) with the same feeble set of tactics that have set in over the last few decades as the labor-law-proscribed accepted norm: march, rally, boring “on message” speeches, petitioning law-makers, election-season door-knocking for Democrats, etc. etc. This stuff has objectively failed for decades, and it’s hard to believe that unions even believe it has a chance of working this time around. But better to face extinction of the institution than to unleash rank-and-file struggle? Where’s the logic in that if the worry about rank-and-file struggle is that it will make the union vulnerable to injunctions? I don’t know the answer to this. I suppose that either these unions are unaware that they are institutionally shielded from true wildcat activity, or the officials are individually so protective of their own often lucrative positions that they dare not risk the changes that might accompany a rank-and-file rebellion.

    Ironically, in the “progressive” wing of modern unionism, the jealous officials of today are the very same New Leftists who once wrested control of the unions from a previous generation of dinosaurs, champions at the time of dissent and rupture of the existing order.

    We all know that any real fight against austerity will have to come from workers who are either in unions or not, going far beyond the restrictions of labor law (and therefore, the institutional unions.) I don’t know how it will start, or how it will be sustained, but I think we all know it’s not going to start because of the labor leadership, regardless of who they are. There can be no doubt of this since Wisconsin – if there ever was any. And if that’s not enough proof, the declining rate of unionization, even in an era of renewed commitment to organizing within the unions, tells us that unions as we know them are on a steady path to extinction.

    Originally it was workers who organized unions, but that has turned around backwards into unions “organizing” workers (again, a change implemented by the New Leftists, albeit with a veneer of rhetoric about “worker-led unions” and “bottom-up organizing”) Workers organized unions originally as vehicles of struggle, but unions have become ossified as they have institutionalized, and are really no longer much more than anemic defensive organs that try desperately – and ineffectively – to protect a shrinking set of hard-won gains. I think that through class struggle – which is going to happen regardless – it always has and it always will – we will necessarily develop new vehicles to carry us forward, based, as always, on solidarity in a fight against a common enemy.

  2. Well said Huli. I agree in the most part. But I disagree that unions have NO revolutionary potential, since under at least one cohort of leaders, I see at least one example of a powerfully situated sector of workers being imbued slowly over time with a commitment to the class as a whole, on an international level. You said,

    “For that reason, arguments about whether or not unions have revolutionary potential seem kind of silly to me. As institutions bound by labor law, they don’t. That’s not to say they are no good and useless in peoples’ lives, and that’s also not to say that class struggle must be held back because of this fact.”

    Do you think that when a union, even from a top-down process, acts in solidarity with more oppressed proltarians in third world countries, and educates its members as to why this is important to the working class as a whole to do, even though it will have negative impact on their own self interest… that this is devoid of revolutionary potential?

    Mind you, the ILWU was bound by labor law to not act in defense of Oscar Grant, Palestinians, or South Africa, and that in addition to tactics based merely upon finding loopholes in the law, the ILWU has employed other tactics that have found it on the wrong side of the law, facing legal sanction, yet continues to put its own ass on the line for the black and brown workers of the world. Is this self-sacrifice and courage “devoid of revolutionary potential?” Or is there something there that revolutionaries can build upon and advance?

    Do you know any other union in the US that does this kind of thing, even on a symbolic level? Do they deserve respect? Should the leaders receive some credit for their patient work which sets them apart politically in significant ways (internationalism, anti-racism, anti-imperialism) from any other union, as an institution that educates workers with broader class consciousness than strategies for their own self interested gains?

  3. I think it’s great when it happens that rank and file members and the occasional elected union official put aside concerns about institutional self-interest to fight on a class-wide scale. I think the ILWU deserves our support in beating back the sanctions it is facing now.

    But these ruptures are exceedingly rare in the union world, as we know. The real question, then, is how can we nurture the possibility of such activity spreading and becoming commonplace again? How can we contribute to the potential that the next time masses of workers rebel against austerity, for example, that neither the unions, the pigs, or the bosses can hold us back? I have to say I don’t have the answer to that, and I frankly feel a bit distrustful of anyone who claims they do.

    For now, my inclination is to suggest that rather than looking for ways to engage with unions (as institutions that I believe are fundamentally limited, though in many ways important to the daily well-being of many workers) we can continue to engage with our fellow workers, building shop-floor solidarity wherever we do our work, be it in precarious wage-labor, on campus, in our homes and neighborhoods, or in whatever sector we find ourselves.

    We still have a lot to learn from one another, but I have found that through my experiences in taking risks and fighting back I have gained a certain level of confidence that seems to gain me and my opinions some respect and trust among my co-workers. From there, I find that they will often come to me with their problems and in those conversations we can discuss how to build our solidarity as a method to protect each other and fight back. I find that when we have that kind of practical experience with eachother it opens up other opportunities to fight . But building the kind of relationship of trust and solidarity necessary to move farther takes one thing above all: time. And with that, patience.

    I’m inspired also to think about militant shop-floor struggles that gained much of their grit and tenacity from the decades-long friendships formed on the job. Unfortunately, one characteristic of the modern work world is the precarity of work and the fact that most people have to change jobs frequently, so those powerful bonds may not have time to ripen. Of course, here the experience of the Wobblies might be instructive, since part of their strength at their height was the transient nature of the work they did in the West, moving from logging camps to shipyards to mines in mountain towns, spreading their fight around. (By the way, I want to recommend reading Stan Weir’s accounts about “informal work groups.” He’s written some very moving things about this.)
    So, as you can see, I have more questions than answers about all this. But for lack of a clear and certain direction, I tend to err on the side of building solidarity where I’m at. At least until somebody comes around who really has all the answers, I guess.

  4. Unfortunately I didn’t read this post until now, but as a union member who was at this “rally” I can say that it is accurate. But I also want to mention that I think that the union “leadership” did intentionally ratchet up the rhetoric (the flyer I got from the California Federation of Teachers mentioned “no business as usual”) in order to encourage a potentially more radical element to “do something” at the capitol. I also got this message from my union rep, who suggested Wisconsin-style tactics might be used. Maybe the whole thing was theater, the more “responsible” unionists pulling away the more militant, trying to demonstrate that the officials might lose control of the rank and file if the state government didn’t at least pass the regressive tax extensions the governor wanted.

    As far as the whole “are unions worth a damn” debate goes, I pay union dues whether I like it or not, so of course I’m going to try to build some more radical tendencies within it. Of course this is balanced by my need to not overplay my hand before I have something like job security. Sure there are other things people can (and should) do, but in a way defending unionism in general is becoming necessary because simply defending workers’ right to organize AT ALL is becoming necessary in this country. I think that there is enough of a popular critique of corrupt self-interested union bureaucrats out there to maintain a healthy skepticism of “union leaders” without having to “come out” as a Marxist revolutionary. And dogging the Democrats and their intimacy with the unions is a giant first step – I definitely have noted sympathy with this criticism at my workplace… As in the past, the threat of rank and file revolt (as long as this isn’t a stage managed threat) can push the whole organization to the left…

    Thanks for the piece.

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