School Winds Down: Resistance Heats Up

Can it be Sustained–or Make Sense?

By Rich Gibson, Emeritus Professor of Education, San Diego State University

Substance News June 2008


As school winds down, it appears the resistance heats up. Integrity comes forward. Can the resistance be sustained, or make sense?


It may be that the collision of No Child Left Behind  restrictions, the wars, and $130 a barrel oil, and a renewed sense of ethics, is prompting school resistance. In the past few weeks we have seen:


            **New York City teacher Douglas Avella's 160 students turned in blank tests. Avella was sent to the notorious $65 million per year NYC "rubber room," where disciplined teachers live in limbo but get paid, and then may be fired. One student said, "The school system's just treating us like test dummies for the companies that make the exams."


            **Twenty-six University of California students were arrested protesting a 10% fee hike (95% in the last six years) in the last month, 16 at a Board of Regents meeting at UCLA.


            **A North Carolina, Doug Ward, teacher refused to force his special ed kids take the exams he knew they were scheduled to fail. His boss, Jackson County superintendent Sue Nations, suspended him for the remainder of the school year and urged the school board to fire him. As Ward’s case may be unresolved after Substance goes to press, those who want to support him can write Nations at


            **As we know, Carl Chew of Seattle refused to proctor the exams, was suspended for two weeks. We do not, however, do civil disobedience in order to get fired or hit on the head. We do civil disobedience to spur action–to win. If disciplined, we should continue to resist. The answer to this particular charge of “Insubordination”  is easy: The exams threaten the health and safety of our kids and hence we cannot legally be ordered to impose them. If we do not appeal these charges, we just set up others for similar, and worse, discipline.


            **In San Diego, school workers, like thousands of others, are whipsawed with threats of layoffs. It began with the new superintendent announcing 1200 support personnel and more than 900 teacher layoffs. Rank and file teachers from Hoover High organized the initial Fightback Demonstration with more than 1000 parents, kids, and educators marching on the school board meeting. Several demonstrations, organized by San Diego Education Association and the Parent Teacher Association followed. The PTA rally, however, focused on cheerleaders singing the national anthem (forgetting the words) while three JROTC corps marched under an array of flags. The San Diego Coalition for Peace and Justice, including members of the Rouge Forum, has fought Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (military in high schools)  for five years. Mission Bay High students walked out of school last month, in part because students are involuntarily enrolled in JROTC–making people wonder why the PTA put such a focus on a program under no threat from layoffs or cuts. Less than 100 teachers showed for the PTA rally, most of those from a nearby representative council meeting, which SDEA did little to build.


            Only the rank and file Hoover High  led demonstration noted the connection between the economic crises, oil, and the wars–a reality highlighted in Substance Newspapers distributed at the rally along with “They Say Cutback: We Say Fightback!” flyers from the Rouge Forum. Now, all the support personnel layoffs remain on the table. More than 200 teachers are scheduled to lose jobs. The superintendent found some money, claiming it came down in a revised budget from the Governor’s office. Maybe he can find more. These layoff threats and retreats are common. But this year Las Vegas actively recruited many of the educators wrongly given notices and many of them left.


            **In Florida, the united bi-partisan legislature claimed a $4 billion shortage, slashed school funding by nearly $2 ½ billion, set aside money for school vouchers, and allocated an additional $300 million to the notorious Florida prison system. Even the Florida Lottery, one of many state lotteries the NEA promised members would help fund schools, but never did, cooled–a projected $100 million shortfall.

            The Florida Education Association, today a merged American federation of Teachers-National Education Association state affiliate, led the first state-wide school worker strike behind Dexter Hagman in 1968. Now, the union will pour thousands of volunteer hours and untold dollars into the coming election. President Andy Ford will attend the Democratic Party’s Denver convention along with dozens of other educators from around the country, likely to again be the largest body of organized people on the floor.

            In Miami-Dade, the school board voted on May 21 not to cut administrator salaries while slashing county school spending by $23 ½ million, laying off media specialists, and cutting spending on extra-curricula matters by $1 million. Throughout Florida, where school districts are entire counties, an ideal organizing situation, k-12 and university administrators seek to invalidate contracts and demand wage and benefit from educators. FEA’s leader response? Build closer relationships with the Superintendents Association and the School Board Associations. Democrats and Republicans combined to expand the Jeb Bush legacy: vouchers. Typically, from California to Florida,  demands for concessions are matched by calls for regressive tax hikes–supported by the California Federation of Teachers.


            **In Detroit, the new first year superintendent of the collapsing system threatened to open Small Schools based on the failed Chicago Model, then virtually disappeared. Community leaders are wondering where the $280,000 a year boss is. Simultaneously, the Detroit Mayor was caught philandering with his top aide and paying out $8.4 million in a lawsuit to cover up the affair. He vetoed a 5-4 city council vote that called on the state governor to remove him. Detroit remains an example of the choice between community or barbarism, teetering in the balance.


            **In Washington, D.C. the American Federation of Teachers local, Washington Teachers Union, appears  prepared to bargain a contract that dumps seniority. WTU is one of the more notoriously corrupt locals of the AFT. Past leaders like Barbara Bullock are in prison for embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars of member money. One top WTU leader sued the others for similar activity in April.

            The AFT is the more urban and smaller of the two US school worker unions. Other top AFT officials, like Miami's Pat Tornillo, are also in prison for embezzlement, while the former Broward County, Florida AFT boss Tony Gentile is in jail for molesting children. Both served

on key AFT boards which helped develop and promote the NCLB. The AFT in New York City, the bellwether local of the union, recently agreed to a merit pay scheme. AFT has overseen the near-complete collapse of urban schooling (Detroit would be a prime example) and done nothing of note but collaborate.


            **The coming NEA and AFT conventions in early July should be interesting. Activists will seek to bring forward motions against the NCLB and the wars while the leaders of the big school worker unions will do all they can to focus on nothing but crowning new presidents (NEA with Dennis Van Roekel at $450,000 a year and AFT with Randi Weingarten at $600,000 a year) and the billion dollar election spectacle which they traditionally use to side-track on the job organizing and conflict.


The Depth of the Crises: The Limits of Unionism


            At issue is whether or not there can be sense made out of all of this---and sense then connected to organization and direct action. The many budget crises and failed wars, which US elites cannot afford to lose, are very real.


How fast the economy collapses would require a crystal ball, but it is clear that:


    * The miscarried $3 trillion wars will not end, but expand (the best the US will get in Afghanistan is a draw, which itself is unlikely—300,000 Soviet troops retreated in disgrace, fighting an enemy that threw rocks at tanks, and in Iraq, US strategic and tactical incompetence is there for every other imperial military to see and makes wider war likely);


    * The related hike in the cost of oil, as of today the highest ever;


    * The national, home mortgage, global currency, and personal debt wreckage that could easily lead to bank collapses;


    * The dramatic rise in transportation and food costs (wheat, corn, meat, cheese, etc).


All this adds up to a very, very serious problem—the whirlwind that Chalmers Johnson has suggested in Nemesis could bring fascism to the US.


The lifelong anti-communist Johnson, though, can see nearly no hope. He equates imperialism with hubris and militarism. Rejecting Marx, he doesn’t come upon the imperialists’ relentless drive for raw materials, markets, social control, and cheap labor. Hence, despite his incredibly incisive analysis, he often concludes with this action plan:  “move to Vancouver.” If imperialism is just narcissism and bad people, then there is no way to foresee the likelihood for resistance.


It is possible that fascism could emerge in the US and around much of the world as a mass popular movement that could sustain for some time until those same people came to realize that fascism only deepens, cannot solve, existing problems. If the emergence of popular fascism is in fact merely pending, then only those willing to easily offer themselves to the Patriot Act will do much public writing about what to do.


Hope, however, may lie in the fact that, on one hand, people will resist because they must resist in order to live and, on the other hand, that people will resist critically, addressing the whole of the problem, capital itself, propped up by thousands of forms of selfishness, and people will answer opportunism with a call for equality. Surely this critique can emanate from schools where ideas, presumably, still have a role.


We may have, however, tested and reached the limits of unionism which, like the system of capital itself, are stretched to a breaking point. Unionism can be a cul-de-sac. Here are a few reasons why we must supercede unionism:


1, Unions marry people to their industry, nation, and capital itself. School worker and public employee unions commonly fight for tax increases while private sector unions oppose them. Auto workers back auto sales  (the Detroit Solidarity House-United Auto Workers parking lot still bans foreign cars even when those cars are made by union members) and the UAW historically opposed environmental laws. And the unions kept the industry’s secrets: the false claims of school worker unions that urban schooling is doing pretty well when it is not, or the UAW bosses’ claims that US autos were top quality.

            Even if union reformers succeeded in creating more democratic and egalitarian unionism, which the last sixty years suggests is unlikely, the unions would still be structurally unable to meet the challenges of capitalism itself. The unions do not unite people; they DIVIDE people

(by craft, skill, industry, race, sex, nation, public vs private, etc.). The structural break, commonly unnoticed by union reformers, shatters the possibility for the kind of solidarity that demonstrates the fact of, “an injury to one is an injury to all.” There are, nearly, no progressive lessons to be learned from the formal AFL-CIO/NEA Labor Movement, except when the rank and file fights the union -- with the goal of overturning it entirely. The Industrial Workers of the World shout, "The working class and the employing class have nothing in common," applies to workers and their union leaders as well.

            Union democracy, more myth than anything, is constricted democracy, parallel to capitalist democracy which is, after all, the executive committee of the rich allowing poor and working people to choose who will oppress us best–and their armed weapon. Union democracy rarely exists but let us say it might. Then NEA democracy would be democratic only within NEA. Would it be ok for the NEA’s democracy to, say, urge a cut in welfare grants to maintain educator jobs? Is it alright for the New York AFT to do nothing about the racist, white, composition of the teaching force. Black and Latin educators are not hired and those who remain drain from the system. That overwhelming “democratic” majority of white teachers has a lot to do with the racism in the schools.

            Official union methods of redress, like grievances and arbitration, lead workers geographically off the terrain where we have power, and as we move farther away, we wade into a bureaucratic swamp where, more and more, compromise, not victory, promises the best deal as labor aristocrats slowly reveal, in the steps of the procedure, that they lose nearly 2/3 of the arbitration cases they file, partly because of incompetence, partly because arbitrators are biased. But the grievance procedure offers labor bosses a clean, mysterious, far away process that lets them retain close personal relationships with employers–and the union leaders are unsullied by real labor strife—proving they can control their members, earning their agency shop incomes.

            Indeed, agency or union shop income, once a trade-off for a now strike clause, grows into the union’s reason to be–so natural that it strikes no one as odd that the key sources of educator power–students, parents, and community people–are not allowed in, and surely not allowed to vote in, school worker union meetings because of capital’s bottom line: pay your dues.

            C. Wright Mills recognized these processes long ago. Writing in New Men of Power (1948) Mills called the labor aristocrats “whores of power,” who sell the potential and labor of their members to employers.


(2) The union leadership is guided by a dishonest and largely fascist ideology that snares their membership base. That stance can be summed up by what NEA's former president, Bob Chase, calls New Unionism; the unity of business, government, and labor (all labor) in the national interest. But it is not new –it is what the pro-capitalist, imperialist, ideology of the AFL-CIO and the NEA always has been. Many US workers, especially white men, made gains with this strategy in the last century, recognizing that history will be cruel to them as members of a class. The continuing appeal of nationalism inspires even new immigrant workers who "win" entry into the fallacious activism of the AFL-CIO, as the Justice for Janitors campaign shows.

            Lenin was correct in his analysis of imperialism, saying that there is a direct line from the fruits of monopoly capitalism and imperialist war to the bribery that allows creation of a labor bureaucracy, aristocracy, which in turn betrays the interests of most workers in the world, and eventually betrays many workers who think they shared the bribe themselves. The top salaries paid to NEA and AFT leaders are linked to their knowing connections to groups like the National Endowment for Democracy and the American Institute for Free Labor Development, fronts for the Central Intelligence Agency, demolishing indigenous labor movements around the world in order to prop up the empire—as George Schmidt’s research demonstrated in the “AFT and the CIA” publication long ago. Why are the union bureaucrats so bad? They are paid well to operate inside the work force as a stealth-weapon of the employers and the government. That pay comes from imperialism, and they know it.


Fascist ideas appeal to large sectors of the Labor Movement. The rank and file of one of the fastest growing sectors of unionism: cops, prison guards, enforcement agents for Homeland Security, as well as members of the traditional craft unions -- all exerting terrific influence in the AFL-CIO. The recent Service Employees International Union goon squad attack on the Labor Notes conference (see May Substance) is an extension of Labor’s past, and harbinger of the future.


(3) The union leadership is utterly corrupt and cannot be transformed. The top leaders not only pay themselves more, and steal (note the steady stream of AFT bosses sent to prison for looting the teachers' union), they set up impassable hierarchies of power, patronage machines, that reformers tend to mimic -- while at the same time the unions habitually mirror the organizational structures (and the language) designed by managers in the industries they represent. These hierarchies are not set up to overcome a vicious, organized, foe, but to enforce the quasi-religious idea (coupled with privilege) that someone else can and should comprehend and change the world for members -- customarily called the union-as-a-vending-machine approach.


Over time, members learn to want to become like the bosses -- because this kind of maneuvering on the bosses' terrain can, sometimes, win short term gains -- rather than getting rid of the bosses, as demonstrated in the repeated demands for "respect." The ability to control the work place becomes confused with ability to control the union, which is often a contradiction. There is no way to overcome this structural and psychological poisoning of the well.


The corruption of the US unions goes back to their founding moments, the AFL rotted with racism and nationalism at the outset, the CIO soon to follow. The AFL (and later CIO) leaders sought to sabotage every major labor struggle in the history of the US.


(4) . Today, the leadership is completely insulated with years of practice of atomizing resistance (and crushing it, spilling blood, collaborating with the police, when necessary). The game is rigged. People will no more likely to get past union corruption than we can vote out capitalism itself.


This is not to say the fight should not be made inside the unions–a battle against concessions, for advances, when our bosses are weak. Indeed, school worker unions, the largest in the US with more than 5 million members, are not habituated to thirty years of sellouts, concessions, and retreats as is the industrial working class in the US. It may be that over the years educators were lucky to take the empires’ bribe: social control (indifference or passive support for the NCLB’s curricula regimentation, high stakes exams, and militarization) for predictable pay and health benefits. But that payoff may quickly come to a halt.  Whatever the root cause, it remains that nearly no one in the US today, in a school union or elsewhere, has ever led a strike, and less so a strike that won. Resistance needs to get smart, fast.


It is to say, however, that the fights ahead cannot be won by unionism alone. People need to keep two toes in the unions, and ten out. We face the entire array of capital and its government, really an engine for capital accumulation no matter if we are ruled by Obamagogue, Hillbillary, or McBush–all telling but one truth: endless war.


Who, What, Where, How?Why? When? Now.


The central organizing point of life in North America -- the choke points of US society just like there were choke points in key plants in the Great Flint Strike Against GM in 1937 -- are no longer industrial work places, but schools, the military, the transportation system (hub of immigrant rights)  and to a limited extent, prisons and the health care system: the carrot and the stick.


The velvet glove is usually more potent than the obvious iron fist. More than 49 million kids are in schools now, more than ever before. One-half of them will be draft-eligible in the next five years. Many people now rely on schools for safety, food, health care, mental care, and above all, a modicum of hope. When the hope from schools is extinguished, youth are the most likely to initiate the struggle for social change, even if they may not be able to carry it through to the end, as 1968 in France demonstrates.


So, at issue is: can sense be made of the Whole of the budget crisis, the relationship of capital-empire-war-racist budget cuts-attacks on schools; can reason attach to action in the form of a united struggle of kids, parents, school workers, a battle that sees both the front and rear sight, the relationship of reforms like the struggle for books, supplies, lower class size, wages and benefits, and the long term goal–the transformation of capital itself founded on an ethic of equality, personal and collective responsibility. This requires new forms of communication and organization.


It also takes action, activity outside the bounds of custom and good manners, that sometimes encapsulate educators. Visalia, California, school workers took thousands of “Abolish NCLB,” petitions to the NEA representative assembly two years ago. When NEA bureaucrats maneuvered to prevent them from presenting the petitions, to the point of seeking to ban their entry to the hall, organizers gained entry and dumped those petitions on the NEA president, Reg Weaver, during a session. Willingness to break the rules, seize microphones and podiums, will be necessary if any kind of reform is to happen inside the unions.


Sacrifice is necessary as well. The struggles ebb and flow. NEA moved to dismantle the “Abolish NCLB” web site Visalia set up. It went dark in late 2007, their staff transferred. But the behind-the-scenes organizing continues.


 Only Substance Newspaper and the Rouge Forum ( in the US connect the wars, the NCLB, racist high-stakes exams, and the militarization of schools. We did that even before the NCLB existed, warning middle school teachers in 1997, "you’re teaching the combatants in the next oil war."


The Rouge Forum Louisville conference adjourned with many, many suggestions for what to do: test boycotts, driving recruiters off campus, rejecting union concessions and building a spirited Fightback movement uniting school workers, parents and students, and organizing teach-ins for the fall as well as our own conference in 2009.


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