While the international war of the rich on the poor is not winding down, and no victory is at hand (the US rules only Kabul in Afghanistan, and that only via Special Forces, while the countryside in Iraq remains in turmoil), let us glance this week at the traditional avenues of redress for workers, and school workers in particular--those who are wondering what can be done to struggle for reason and community. Let us look at the school unions using three benchmarks: the war, the state budget crises, and the brewing financial crises within the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association.
Leaders of the AFT loudly supported the current oil wars, both the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. In addition, AFT assets have also been active in the attempted overthrow of the elected government of Venezuela through their connections with the National Endowment for Democracy and Freedom House. (For background see http://www.hartford-hwp.com/archives/45b/098.html ).
Leaders of the NEA carefully avoided comment on the war, in fear of losing members, especially those in right-to-work states where membership is voluntary.
While a few NEA and AFT locals protested the wars, resources of the national offices of both unions were spent to support it--despite the clear impact of the wars on schools and reason.
State budgets are in deep crisis. Perhaps the most profound problems are in Oregon and California. What have the school unions done?
In Oregon, the union leaders have repeated urged school workers to make concessions in wages, benefits, class size, etc., and the educators have followed their lead--even though ever message of labor relations in the last thirty years is that making concessions to employers is like giving blood to sharks--they only want more--and the concessionary stance demoralizes a work force, making struggles in the future even more difficult.
In California, where NEA dominates, top leaders suddenly discovered problems with the state standardized tests, as a smokescreen to mask their failure to organize against the war and the related massive budget cuts ahead--cuts which will hurt those without capital first and most, and which will deepen inequality. NEA, after all, was key to the election of Governor Davis who oversaw the looting of the state treasury on behalf of Enron and other related utilites (Davis appointees were often simultaneously on Enron's payroll).
In San Diego, two cases illustrate the unions' deeper problems of the unions in betraying notions of solidarity. At the San Diego State campus, union leaders engineered the passage of a motion in the faculty union with urges the university president to direct any cuts at students who are, according to the union leaders, fair game. In the San Diego city schools, local NEA leaders embraced the tyrannical superintendent Alan Bersin, who has a long history of attacking teachers and kid via the regimentation of the curricula. SDEA leaders urged Bersin to aim cutbacks at support personnel (bus drivers, etc) as usual a color-coded group in dire need of jobs, in exchange for minimizing teacher layoffs. Both maneuvers are now commonplace.
Both NEA and AFT now face brewing internal financial crises brought on in part by lavish salaries and benefits for top officials, by outright corruption, and by a shrinking membership base which causes the officials to turn not only against the rank and file, but each other.
Salaries and benefits for NEA and AFT leaders are extraordinarily high for organizations that represent people who must live in trailer parks. The top officials of both unions earn over $400,000 a year, and should be able to live fairly well on their generous expense accounts. Staff at NEA averages over $100,000 a year, while NEA uniserv directors typically come close, or exceed, that. NEA elected leaders have spent as much as $1/4 million seeking top offices. With that kind of investment, they want something back, not only in the form of lucrative perks (ranging from free luggage to free housing), but in the promise of easy jobs in the future. In short, leaders and staff at both unions live very well, off dues.
Both unions have faced problems of internal corruption over the years, though the AFT has surely been caught more often, or perhaps has been more open about their problems. NEA, for example, covered up the theft of what was probably about $350,000 from the Florida NEA by the state Organizing Director. Recently, though AFT has been exposed in major scandals on the east coast, in two of its key membership bases, Miami and Washington DC.
In Washington, AFT leaders have been rightly accused of stealing around $5 million from the members' treasury. Two top leaders have pled guilty to embezzlement. The officials openly led lavish lives, hosted extravagant parties, drove immodest cars, etc., yet their continued theft went unnoticed by both the national office of AFT, and the members. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A14959-2002Dec19.html
In Miami, long-time AFT boss Pat Tornillo, who recently caused the Dade County AFT/NEA )a merged union) to build a 100,000 square foot building as a memorial to himself, has been the subject of an FBI raid and long-term investigation into the union's finances. With the recent unprincipled merger of NEA and AFT in Florida, this means that the huge Dade union has been unable to meet either its debt obligations to bank creditors, nor to the state NEA/AFT, which has mired the parent body in financial problems as well. Current speculation now is that the top bosses of both NEA and AFT were aware that Tornillo had used the Dade treasury like a personal bank, and hoped the merger would cover the trail. http://www.miami.com/mld/miamiherald/5765748.htm
Tornillo, according to Education Week, was the ,"Godfather of the New Unionism movement," which was guided by the philosophy that the union and management have overarching interests, everything in common, and that they should join together as "partners in production." Tornillo, along with former AFT boss Al Shanker, mentored key AFT and NEA leaders, like Adam Urbanski of the Rochester AFT, in getting both the NEA and AFT to adopt this fundamentally fascist vision. They were also major players in the failed attempt at the NEA-AFT merger, which would have encased New Unionism in the AFT's undemocratic structure, a move voted down by the NEA rank and file. Since that failed vote, the NEA and AFT leadership have tried to gain the same objective through the back door, state mergers, as in Florida, where John Ryor of NEA, and Tornillo, foisted the merger on the members, and new unionism as well--with a hidden budget crisis as a footnote. New Unionism is now the guiding outlook of both unions, though the rank of file of the unions has never had a chance to debate or vote on it.
Both NEA and AFT are feeling the squeeze of their inability to attract new members, and in some states where membership is voluntary, like Texas and Florida, people are quitting fast. With fixed costs for staff, oppulent buildings, etc., this means serious problems. For a time, NEA and AFT mimicked the corporate world, gaining members by mergers, by expanding their market into the ranks of support personnel (usually treated as second-class unionists), and through fictitious budgeting, as with Enron or the DC local. Now, however, the piper is demanding full pay.
In Michigan, the NEA hopes to offset the crisis by a dues increase aimed at teachers, and a huge dues increase aimed at support workers-who now pay a percentage of their wages, but who will be directed to pay dues on the same scale that teachers pay now.
Whatever may have once been progressive about the school worker unions is long lost. Neither NEA nor AFT sees that workers and their bosses have less in common than more. Indeed, their structure and the culture of their leaders demonstrate that the people at the top identify more with superintendents, bankers, and generals than they do with the rank and file. Moreover, the unions do not unite people. They divide them. Parents, students, and community people are routinely excluded from this kind of unionism, in a period when their participation is absolutely vital to school worker power. Both unions are profoundly racist, in part because they reflect the demography of the job (90 percent white) and in part because their leaders are simply racists, who benefit from the continuation of racism.
This is a period of epic change. The structures, their cultures, and their stated plans and goals, of the NEA and the AFT are incapable of offering school workers of all kinds, and students, parents, and others, the kind of organization that is necessary to face the crises ahead: war, financial crises, and an unprecedented attack on the working class via a government firmly in the hands of the rich. It will no longer do to insist that the unions are where the workers are, since the only form the members are in the union is really by being forced to pay dues. The huge gulf between the members and the bosses is, in some cases, as profound as the gap between the school workers and their bosses. The point can no longer be a matter of reforming the unions, but of how to reach into them, to meet the rank and file, in order to create something new.
Nearly 100 years ago the Industrial Workers of the World adopted this as the first sentence to the preamble of their constitution: "The working class and the employing class have nothing in common." Just two weeks ago, the New York Times ran a front page photo of an American Airlines worker who, having made massive wage concessions, later discovered his bosses had set aside millions in pensions for themselves--and the AA union leaders failed to tell the members about that little tidbit. The worker held a sign, "Hey! We Thought We Were All in this Together!"
It should not take 100 years to learn that we are not. This is an international war of the rich on the poor, and there are sides to be taken.
The Rouge Forum is seeking to initiate a discussion about other avenues of redress. At issue, in part, is this: What is it that people need to know, and how do they need to come to know it, in order to lead reasonably free, creative, and equitable lives? This would seem to be the work of schools.
You are welcome to join us at the Rouge Forum Summer Institute in Louisville, June 26 to 29, or to contribute your ideas to the Rouge Forum News, published quarterly.
Thanks to Eric, Marc, Phillip, Victoria, Amber, Gloria, Alcorn, Randy, Jim A., Ms Hitt, Donna, Marg Evans, Dave S., Jaime, and Sdeducator. Special thanks to Education Intelligence Analyst, Mike Antonnucci, whose research was helpful in creating this piece, but who would probably disagree with much of it.