Below is the campaign statement I submitted for the BWEA Election, which takes place this Friday. I’m running for VP of the local, and here’s why.
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Below is the campaign statement I submitted for the BWEA Election, which takes place this Friday. I’m running for VP of the local, and here’s why.
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I had meant to write something about the election before now. But with these candidates, what is there to write? They are all corporate tools. A vote for any of them, even the “less worse”, is nothing more than a vote for more corporate control over Rhode Island’s teachers, parents and students. Continue reading
Prefatory Note: the following was written over the summer and intended as part of a larger document for discussion among CDPE members. That document did not come to fruition, but I felt that it may be of use none the less to publish this part of it. The views contained herein are my own, though developed through contact and common experience with the multitude of participants in CDPE over the past three years. The history may well benefit from more input from a broader range of participants. And most importantly, this document is intended not to dictate a direction for the group, but rather to help enrich the discussion so that a collective sense of direction may be reached on the basis of a deeper discussion of the history and purpose of the group. Continue reading
Prefatory note: Over the weekend, I used the wonder of social media to raise some questions about today’s primary elections. I received a personal message from someone in my union, the National Education Association of Rhode Island (NEARI), expressing their disappointment that I was not supporting the union’s endorsed candidate, Clay Pell, in the Democratic Primary. Below is my response.
As a quick note: exactly two years ago I published another piece on this exact topic. Es como si el tiempo diera vueltas en redondo y hubiéramos vuelto al principio.
There is no going back.
We are forty years into that phase of capitalism that those in economic and radical circles know as “neoliberalism”. Margaret Thatcher famously defined it as “There Is No Alternative”. No alternative, that is, to the free market, the free flow of capital.
In brief: the last forty years have seen a massive push by the capitalist classes of the world to privatize, deregulate, capitalize, deunionize, undemocratize. Many books have been written about this process, wherein the US working class has lost 20 per cent of its purchasing power, while union density has dropped from 28% to 12%; wherein the world is now, for the first time in history, more than 50 per cent proletarian; wherein all the old certainties about economics, politics and society are now dead. Consciousness lags behind the course of material changes, so perhaps we should not be surprised that so many, particularly of the older generation, view all of this as a loss of what was a golden age, and cling so doggedly to notions that are now simply a lost cause.
What are these certainties? To anyone who came of age between the time of the Russian Revolution and the fall of the Soviet Union, whatever you thought of it, there was an alternative somewhere in the world to the Western model of capitalism. When Western capitalism hit the skids in the 1930s, the response of the more far-sighted sections of the bourgeoisie was to take significant chunks of capital out of circulation, off the market, and to lock them up in service to the nation state. This was the pattern, whether you looked at FDR’s New Deal here, or Hitler’s subsuming of national capital under the designation of “national socialism”. The stability of the post-war world was founded on this very premise, that the state was and ought to be the holder of a section of national capital, and that as such, the state would provision bits of that capital to the public at large. How this happened looked somewhat different in each place, but the underlying logic was the same.
There is a public sector, and even a social welfare state in Europe, precisely because there was a living alternative to free-market capitalism, achieved through a thorough-going social revolution from below, precisely at that moment where the capitalist system was about to collapse. This was the basis of the post-war boom, the framework for the “social contract” of the 1950s and 60s. This was the basis of all the old certainties.
Things started to change with the global recession of 1974-75. In the decade that followed, there ensued a massive assault on working class organizations and living standards. The biggest damage was done in the 1980s—it was in that decade that union density in the US was almost halved, with the losses of the last 25 years now just the trickle of an already deflated balloon. After the damage had been done, the 1990s set up the “new normal” of neoliberalism, albeit in time of boom. The 1990s saw the dismantling of Depression-era regulatory laws, the growth in the capitalization of the healthcare sector, and the end of a range of governmental programs (that patchwork commonly known as “welfare”, but which was never a single thing), each of which meant that state-held social capital was dissolved and effectively trickled down to individual corporate players. The development of new sectors of capital accumulation (the dot-com boom) were accompanied by financial speculation and the release of huge amounts of cash to the banking sector by the Federal Reserve Bank (in 1998, ostensibly to ward off the effects of the Asian monetary crisis).
In short, the dynamic of the last forty years is that of the freeing up of previously frozen capital resources, so as to feed the capital flows on the global market. Any chunk of money that is not actively flowing through the system—for example, pension funds, investments in public education, social security pools, social services, etc.—represents a brake on the system, and as such, must be broken up and thrust into the flows of capital. Even where certain of these are already partially exposed to the market, as with traditional defined-benefit pension funds held by municipalities and states, the trend has been toward breaking up these funds and releasing smaller bits to various investors more quickly and freely. More than privatization per se, the impetus is toward capitalization of all existing forms of economic life.
The difficulty for our generation is that, though the Iron Lady is (thankfully) dead and gone, her maxim still rings true. There is no material, living alternative, however flawed or problematic, to the neoliberal framework. Even the crisis which erupted in 2008 could not dislodge the framework, precisely because there was no alternative then; thus, the accelerated attacks on the public domain, on the commons. Despite the fact that neoliberal ideology no longer fit the conditions for capital accumulation, there was no compulsion on the capitalist class to do anything different. Even the governmental bailouts of the banks in each country represented not the negation of neoliberalism, but rather the continued use of the state to facilitate free markets. Austerity is the form assumed by neoliberal policy in conditions of capitalist crisis.
What this means is that there is no going back. There is no model that masses can see, sense, and fight for; there is only a rearguard struggle to stop the worst of the damage. That is why defined-benefit pensions are a thing of the past. That is why fights to stop charter schools are a losing battle. That is why labor-management partnerships are a façade for direct corporate rule. That is why the Democrats are not liberals, as measured by the New Deal or the Great Society. That is why NGO organizing is a dead-end for the Left. That is why union bureaucracies in chronic crisis tend toward solutions that rely not on power on the shop floor, but on increased dues collections from increasingly lower-wage workers and control of financial capital. That is why far-left groups that model themselves on the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (we might add: narrowly and ahistorically) are essentially irrelevant. That is why the military-industrial complex, with all its unknown unknowns, can ignore protests of millions in the streets and forge ahead with war. That is why the European technocrats can ignore repeated one-day general strikes and still impose austerity on nations stretched to the limit by the economic crisis. All the old models are failed, and there is no alternative.
This is not to say that there never will be an alternative; indeed, if that were the case, then the only suitable outlook for those on the left would be cold, hard cynicism. Nor does it mean we have nothing to learn from history; there is likely much more to learn, provided we don’t read back into it a single focus or interpretation. But it does mean that we have a tremendous labor to accomplish in the coming years and decades. We live in a decaying economic and social system that is damaging the natural world around us, to the point that human civilization as we have known it may well become impossible. While there is tremendous urgency, there is also an imperative to critically analyze our context, to think through what we’re doing, and to act intelligently. The first step is to free ourselves from the assumptions of the past. We have to admit, however difficult, that these assumptions no longer have any foundation.
While this post is not specifically about the fight to defend public education, I wanted to articulate this framework, as it has already increasingly grounded what I have written, and will do so even more in the future. We are in a period of reconceiving our alternative to the dictatorship of capital. The old models don’t apply, and we need to be honest about this. Our analyses, our demands, our vision, all have to be ruthlessly examined and refitted to the needs of the current moment and aligned with the trajectory of the movement into the future.
With just six days left, I sent in my ballot. On that basis alone, the informed reader will know how I voted.
This past Valentine’s Day, the parties to litigation over the ironically-named Rhode Island Retirement Security Act (RIRSA) announced a negotiated settlement that, if approved, would represent an incremental improvement—or, more accurately, various possible incremental improvements, depending on which of six voting blocs you fit into—over the terms of the original RIRSA legislation of 2011. The details of the settlement are to be found at ripensioninfo.org. For those unfamiliar, I wrote an explanation of the destruction of public employee pensions in Rhode Island that was published in Labor Notes shortly after. Many reports have since surfaced about the corruption involved in the whole pension heist, including Matt Taibbi’s reporting in Rolling Stone, as well as Dave Sirota’s most recent piece on the involvement of Enron money in financing Rhode Island Treasurer Gina Raimondo’s hit job.
What I want to take up here is the question of what this settlement represents, why many members of the Employees’ Retirement System of Rhode Island (ERSRI) will be voting “no”, and what that “no” vote means. I base the following not on any expert knowledge of actuarial science or accounting, but simply on my existence as a public employee, my conversations with coworkers, and also the odd informational meeting on the pension settlement that I attended in East Providence earlier this month.
The first question is: what’s wrong with the settlement? In many ways, the settlement represents some improvement for retirees and future retirees on the terms of the original pension reform. The cost of living adjustment (COLA) on underfunded pension funds will now be made every four years instead of every five; the penalty for early retirements will be decreased; and perhaps most significantly, ERSRI members with 20 years or more of service as of June 30, 2012 will be moved back to the 100% defined-benefit plan (i.e. the old pension system). But fundamentally, the real objective of the pension reform remains in place, namely the financialization of a significant portion of retirements for the younger generation of workers. Half of my pension still belongs to investment bankers, and its value depends on the vagaries of the market. Wall Street still wins.
So why would anyone accept this settlement? It’s easy to see why the 20+ year members would want to go back to the old plan (though I’ve been told that even then, all is not roses). There is also the prospect, for the more market savvy, that the defined contribution plan could yield much greater returns—if you know how to play the market, perhaps. (That sentiment—“I want to hold on to my investments”—was definitely present at the East Providence informational meeting.) But more generally, it’s likely that many ERSRI members will feel that this is the best we can get. After all, the pension reform was approved overwhelmingly by the Rhode Island General Assembly. In the lead-up to the approval of the legislation, my union sent out postcards encouraging members to get involved to stop the reform—but the postcard featured an image of a bulldozer bearing down on teachers and state workers. That image was completely à propos of the actual situation, but it frankly did not inspire confidence toward a victory for pensioners. For those of us who feel completely bulldozed, getting a little help scraping ourselves off the pavement may seem like a real step up. In short, I do not think anyone voting “no” should feel resentment toward those who do not (vote).
But the question is different when posed in regard to our union leaders. The union leaderships are, in point of fact, committed by the terms of the settlement to advocate for the settlement. But more than that, they are running scared. They are scared to death that the settlement might fail; they are scared to death of going through with legislation and its costs; most of all, they are scared of the possibility that a judge may rule in the only way that would be definitive, namely that public employee pensions are not actually guaranteed as property rights. These fears are not necessarily ill-founded. In particular, the costs of further litigation give reason for pause: while the unions will have to pay for their own lawyers out of union dues, the state has already said it will pay for its legal team by dipping into the public employees’ pension funds. In other words, they’ll use our money to fight us. True bastards.
Probably even more terrible is the prospect of Governor Gina Raimondo. Raimondo’s campaign, recently announced officially but publicly known since 2011, is by far the best-financed gubernatorial campaign in the state, having garnered massive contributions from all over the country by venture capitalists appreciative of the treasurer’s contribution to their own enrichment. To compound matters, it appears—so an inside source tells me—that some of the private sector unions are eager to endorse Raimondo for governor, as she is the most “viable” candidate, and unions love endorsing a winner. Though the public sector unions are not likely to endorse her in any case—NEARI has already endorsed Linc Chafee redux Clay Pell—the approval of the settlement agreement will open the way for the private sector unions to endorse their darling without seriously endangering the unity of the union bureaucrats. (If there was ever an argument in favor of breaking from the Democrats and building an independent workers’ party, this total mess of a situation is it.)
The bureaucrats also have a reason to fear that the settlement will fail. If any one of the voting blocs in the settlement votes by 50% + 1 or more to reject the settlement, the whole thing will be scrapped. If that does not happen (and they’re relying on passivity for it not to happen—see below), there is still the possibility that the next step, the judge’s fairness hearing, could turn up some argument that the judge will accept as a reason not to deem the settlement acceptable. But most importantly, the final say on this deal lies in the hands of the Rhode Island General Assembly…in an election year… And here lies the real rub. Whatever we think about it, our fate is in the hands of people who overwhelmingly voted against us before, and whose leadership has just changed in a more conservative direction.
At this point, I should clarify a point that has been implicit up to now: there is no way to actively vote “yes” on this agreement. The vote is happening by mail-in ballot which only allows for a “no” vote. If you approve of the settlement, you are instructed to do nothing. This has been widely confusing to union members, who are used to being able to vote “yes” or “no” on contract offers. But this, of course, is not a contract offer. It is, rather, a legal settlement which is no way required the mobilization or even education of union members. As such, it is being carried out along the lines of a class action lawsuit. In that context, it is widely assumed that it will be near impossible to make any real democratic decision on the way forward, when the parties concerned are only connected through the suit and may never be able to meet in person. The legal team comes to a decision on how to move forward toward a settlement, and the only active possibility for the parties concerned is a “no” vote—if not, the “yes” is already assumed, even if the concerned parties don’t vote. While this fact has angered some union members who view it as undemocratic or even a rigged process, it is more significant for the position that it forces union members into—namely, that of passive observers of a larger process they can’t control or even influence.
So to answer the question posed in the title: what is the meaning of “no”? Clearly, it should not be understood to mean that retirees want their COLA every five years instead of four, nor that the majority of people are happier playing roulette with their retirement. What it is, is the active expression of those who are paying attention, who understand how brazenly we’ve been defrauded by the likes of Gina Raimondo, Kurt Schilling, and other such corporate crooks. It’s a rejection of neoliberal destruction of workers’ living standards and rights. It’s a complete rejection of RIRSA, and a plea to return to a time when public employees were guaranteed a living from hiring to grave. We never got a chance to vote on the pension reform—until now. Here’s our vote.
The power and the glory of the “no” vote—but also its ultimate futility—is that it’s utterly utopian. There will be no return to the old system. It’s impossible, and we were condemned to lose from the beginning. Why? Because public employee pensions, a product of the Keynsian phase of capitalism, have long outlived the conditions in which they were created, and are now a victim of the crisis of the neoliberal phase of capitalism, a.k.a. austerity. The dynamic is this: after a generation of unbridled free-market fundamentalism, the bankers reached the end of the line. The emperor had no clothes, the banking system was exposed as bankrupt (in more ways than one), and everywhere governments threw boatloads of cash at them to prop up the banking system. This drove them into what are known as sovereign debt crises—no money to fund public expenditures that weren’t banks, no shred of will to tax the rich, thus the inexorable drive toward austerity and cuts. Our unions were utterly unprepared to deal with this onslaught—lacking comprehension, lacking vision, lacking any recent experience of mobilizing the members for any kind of fight, they were completely powerless. It would have taken a state-wide strike against the bill to potentially stop it—though even then, the example of Greece, where numerous general strikes and mass social unrest has not succeeded in stopping the austerity—does not bode well. It was in this context that Rhode Island’s public employees were, as previously noted, bulldozed. The problem now is that the very foundations of the old system have crumbled and been condemned, and no new structure built on them stands a chance.
In one way, the Great Rhode Island Pension Robbery is simply a question of stealing from the poor to feed the rich, a basic Wall Street smash-and-grab operation. It would seem a simple solution: tax the rich! As Homer Simpson would say, “in theory, communism works.” Yet in another way, the question is much more difficult, because it’s material. The rich are now so much richer in relative terms than at any time in living memory, and to get to that point they had to not only defeat us, but to imprison our hearts and minds. The weight of their accumulated loot is now so great that the freeing of our minds looms as a monumental obstacle. The task before us is not simply to fight for the greater taxation of the rich; it cannot be to restore a pension system whose time has long since passed. Rather, it must be to formulate a vision for a thorough-going social transformation, one that posits human need and solidarity above individual gain, competition, and corporate profits. This vision must then be translated into an actual program for change, one that calls for direct action, and that by moving people into action, convinces them of the necessity of that transformation.
What is the range of possibility? What we’ve been doing so far has not worked. We need a serious shake-up of all existing relations and institutions. A “no” vote on the settlement by any one of the membership blocs will be a shock to the process, but one that we produced. It will definitely produce a crisis for the labor bureaucracy headed into the fall elections, where the unions are once again stupidly throwing all their eggs into the Democratic Party’s basket. Could it raise the prospect of an independent political vision and organization for the labor movement? Could it at least raise the prospect of independent action by public workers to stop the attacks on the public sector and the ravages of austerity? Voting “no” may not get us any closer to better pensions in this generation. But it might just open the space for us to discuss the necessity of and the plan for turning this system on its head.
UPDATE: It’s no rumor that private-sector unions want to endorse Raimondo. In fact, it’s already happening.
This weekend’s March on Washington was a fantastic and exhilarating event. Honestly, I did not get to hear any of the speeches. They might have been pretty horrible—I imagine Eric Holder had nothing useful to say—and it will make a difference to the movement how the leaders from the front direct it. It’s not irrelevant for socialists to discuss and analyze this.
But what was inspiring was the solidarity you could feel building among the people who went, from getting on the bus, to stopping at the rest stops in Connecticut and Delaware, to the march itself. I had a particular experience of this because of the bright red t-shirt I happened to be wearing, which said: Stand with the Chicago Teachers Union.
Numerous times, people stopped me to ask if I was a Chicago teacher—clearly, something they admired and respected. Let me tell you: as a teacher, it is not often that people stop you in public and express their solidarity or sympathy, much less respect. The difference here was that I was in a crowd that understood that the Chicago teachers went on strike not just for themselves, but for their students, the majority black and brown students whose schools were closed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. They understood that the union was supporting the community, and they, the community, supported the union.
Somewhere around 3am on Saturday morning, the bus stopped at the Delaware House, a massive shiny interstate rest stop in the smallest state (well, except my own). The men’s room was slightly crowded (but no line—under socialism, we’ll massively expand women’s rest rooms). A man washing his hands asked if I was a Chicago teacher as I approached the urinal. No, I’m a Rhode Island teacher, but I think what the Chicago teachers did with their strike, and engaging with the community before and after, is a model that all teachers’ unions should follow. Another man was brushing his teeth at the sink, rinsed out his mouth, and asked:
“Don’t you think principals, at least, should be armed?”
“Look, we have a cop assigned to the school already…”
“But cops never get there fast enough.”
“But the cop is stationed in the school full time, and it’s not helpful. Did you hear about the woman at that school in Georgia that stopped that guy from shooting up the school?”
I wasn’t about to convince this man brushing his teeth at a rest stop at 3am that we don’t need guns in school, much less that we need a socialist transformation of our world. But the molecular processes involved in a mobilization like this, in every moment of it—from the build-up to the trip to the event and beyond—this is what gives me hope for the future. It’s what sustains me as an activist and a socialist. Who knows when the ideas will come to fruition, when those few comments will resurface and that man will begin to see things differently—perhaps never. And frankly, who knows how or when the experiences and ideas of the people I traveled with and encountered will illuminate parts of the struggle for me (some of them already have). But the arc of history bends toward justice, and the arc of our moment is bending toward radicalization and enlightenment.
As we got off the bus at 6:30am, a reporter from the Bay State Banner, the African-American newspaper in Massachusetts, stopped me and commented on my shirt. She wanted to interview me: why did I, a white teacher, choose to attend the March? Why did I think it was important? What was the connection with Chicago? And could she take a picture of the shirt, both sides?
I don’t know where the movement is going from here. It looks to me like the Obama administration may get off the hook and not press federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman. It also looks like much of this energy will be channeled into voter rights and voter registration—only to be funneled back into the Democratic Party in 2016 (ready for Hilary!). In my city, we’ve made some important connections—but the Black leadership here is still weak, and has a lot to do to connect with the community. Right now, I think we can hold discussions, do film screenings, carry on study groups around The New Jim Crow and other books, and write about the numerous minute manifestations of racism in our city. I think it’s likely different somewhat elsewhere, in cities where the Black community is better-organized and where there are on-going struggles for justice for the victims of police brutality, for prisoners, against school closings, etc. There is still a long walk ahead of us to reach a place where we can say there is a coherent national movement.
Socialists have already made important contributions to this movement, from our ideas to organizing buses and raising important chants at the march. But we should also learn a lesson here: when we can connect our experience as teachers, as workers, to the struggle against racism; when we can explain our politics not through formulas we’ve read in books but through our own stories; when we reach a point where we can lead our unions into antiracist struggles and show in practice what a multiracial workers’ movement can do to end racism; then, socialist ideas and organization will be relevant to masses of people, and those masses will make socialist ideas into a material force to be reckoned with.
In the meantime…be sure to wear your red Stand with the Chicago Teachers Union t-shirt.