Alright, so I don’t usually write about my own local, because it doesn’t usually matter so much. But this is big.
On Thursday, the Bristol-Warren Education Association (BWEA) voted down a tentative contract agreement by a three-to-two margin. What makes this so significant is the bleak context in which this is happening—and it raises some serious questions about what comes next. I aim to interpret these results and answer those questions. The main point is this: the rejection of this TA is first and foremost a rejection of the union-busting attack that has been going on in Rhode Island for the last four years, a rejection of the policies of the Duncan and Gist administrations and their reflection in the practice of the district administration.
Perhaps the most immediately striking thing about this vote is the seemingly sharp departure from the overall direction of things over the past few years. Nationally, teachers have been under the gun of the Obama/Duncan Race to the Top and its accompanying programs that direct funding into operations that have directly targeted teachers’ union protections. (It was the School Improvement Grant program that provided the funding for the attack on Central Falls High School teachers.) In Rhode Island, they attacked East Providence in 2009, Central Falls in 2010, and Providence in 2011.
The Gist administration has been a nightmare for many reasons: the “Fair Funding Formula” that has seriously cut districts like Bristol-Warren while only mildly increasing funds to districts like Cranston and Providence (whose funding will now be siphoned off by Achievement First et al.); the punitive teacher evaluation program; and most significantly here, the insistence that seniority in teacher layoffs, recalls and promotions be trashed. It’s no coincidence that the superintendent who started the attack on seniority in Portsmouth (where teachers have filed a lawsuit against the administration’s assertion that seniority is null and void) has now taken up residence in Providence, where seniority has de facto been null and void for some time. And locally… let’s just say morale has been, um, low. (We wear black on the outside because black is how we feel on the inside.)
The tidal wave of problems is clearly nowhere near receding, either. This budget-cutting season in Rhode Island, while it has not yet seen a real outburst of outrage and protest, is generalizing much of the pain of austerity to the whole state. All 600 teachers in Woonsocket laid off—that’s a big deal. And the contracts that have been signed around the state reflect a systemic restructuring of teachers’ compensation and protections on the job. (I wrote about this late last summer—when it was clear that I personally was going back to work without a contract.) This attack is not peculiar to Rhode Island, either—it has its homologues nationally, and it comes with the ideological justification that “teachers have been the parasites on the system”, “the pigs at the public trough”, etc. In other words: the plan is for a catastrophic and permanent reduction in teachers’ salaries and rights on the job.
But let’s not forget the other part of the context: after some disorientation and much more disillusionment with the Obama administration, many people are now angry as hell about how the economic crisis has impacted workers in this country and around the world—and about how it has benefited the rich tremendously. The Occupy Movement provided the clearest expression yet of this gut-level rejection of the late neoliberal policies that have devastated our class. “But what are your demands?” cried out the “serious” people. The answer: we come with no demands, simply with the rejection of your system. We won’t pay for a crisis we didn’t create! Whether people directly participated in Occupy or not, the movement reset the terms of the political discourse in this country. If teachers previously thought of themselves as “middle class”, they are now much more likely to identify as part of the 99%.
In the Event
Let me reiterate: this vote was a vote of no confidence in the administration. No confidence in the administration of Melinda Thies, no confidence in the administration of Deb Gist, and though people didn’t say it directly or think it consciously, no confidence in the administration of Arne Duncan. It’s a manifestation of the complete lack of trust of the teachers in the administration, the expression of a sneaking suspicion that the administration is not negotiating in good faith. We don’t believe for a second that they won’t take advantage of any bit of ground we give—because they have done nothing but precisely that for years now.
Without delving into the specifics, I think it can be said that on the straight economic questions, this proposed contract settlement was in line with or slightly better than other agreements that other districts have signed, and probably surprisingly good, given the overall economic situation. Furthermore, I think that few teachers would criticize the union negotiating team for its role in this situation: it really seems that this was about as good a contract as we were going, so long as there were no extenuating considerations beyond the negotiating table that could change the game. (Beyond the table is, of course, another story—which I’ll address in the last section.)
Within the contract, the two issues that drove the rejection were issues with the healthcare plan and issues with the removal of seniority language. The healthcare language by itself may not have led to a rejection, though there would have been a significant section of the union rejecting it. Even the seniority language might have been accepted as an inevitable concession, given the Portsmouth lawsuit—though there were questions about why we’d take out seniority language altogether that may have increased the opposition.
But what really drove people to vote no were the bullying tactics of the administration. When the issues with the healthcare plan came up, the union leadership delayed the vote in the hope of finessing the issue—only to get a flat rejection from the administration. Even more offensively, when the vote was postponed until after February break, the administration (which had already announced layoffs) came out with additional layoffs during the vacation. For teachers at the high school, the additional layoffs also trace the outline of what the administration wants to cut in future years. This amounted to blackmail. For a number of people, it was the final straw.
Before moving on, I also want to comment on the sense among the rank-and-file. There were many who voted for the agreement—and I heard from more than one person that “we don’t want to cut off our nose to spite our face”. But I think those people were not entirely unsympathetic to the no-voters. Conversely, I think many of the no-voters did so with some understanding of why people would vote yes. The most dangerous and divisive sentiment, to my mind, came from the comments—one in particular toward the end—to the effect that “you members are passive, and so since you haven’t been more active (by which we mean to the two Providence rallies and a few pension meetings that happened in the fall, outside the district), you deserve what you get.” It had an angry and belittling tone that may actually have pushed some folks into the no voting category. And furthermore, that attitude is just plain wrong, as I’ll explain below.
The first step is to recognize this vote for what it represents broadly, beyond the individual issues or motivations of the teachers who voted either way. In the fourth year of a massive attack on every aspect of our profession, with no local having gone on strike in five years, with districts laying off their entire teaching staff—this local rejected the status quo. This no vote was the very first step toward resistance against the attacks. Teachers may not be ready to strike or even work to rule—yet. But the anger over the constant barrage of the last few years is now reaching a boiling point, and people are losing the fear of what happens if we don’t obey. This is a pivotal moment for teacher unionism in Rhode Island.
Among the yes vote camp, there were some who voiced a real frustration with the rejection sentiment, with two main counter-questions: 1) what more do you want than this? 2) how do you expect to get anything better than this? The first question is the wrong question, for it misses point of the rejection. Just like with the outburst of the Occupy movement, the point is not the demands; the point is the rejection. We won’t pay for your crisis! Teachers did not drive the district into financial crisis. We have given up much that we used to have in an attempt to be team players. We are done being the scapegoats.
The second question is more serious. It did not have to be answered before the vote, because the point of the rejection was the rejection. But now that we’ve rejected, it’s a serious question. It is entirely possible that we won’t have an adequate answer to it, an adequate strategy for building power behind our team at the negotiating table. We may end up being the sacrificial lambs, the martyrs who point the way forward to the rest of the movement but who do not ourselves make it to the promised land. We may get a worse deal than was offered to us, or face much worse retribution. This is all true. But we may also figure out some crucial next steps, not just for ourselves, but for all teachers, for the locals beyond us who are being pounded just as hard.
What is the strategy for moving forward? The key to it is mobilizing members in a contract campaign. I have raised this idea before, and it always seems like I’m speaking a foreign language to my colleagues. Let me pose it this way: the power of a union of workers lies in its willingness to withhold its labor, to strike. We are ready to reject, but not ready to strike. How do we get from here to there? What are the steps that lead from one to the other?
The first step is to affirm the anger that led to the rejection; the second, to unify the yes and no voters around the need to work together and actively at the local and building level in order to build pressure on the administration. This starts with group discussions, debriefing meetings, that are aimed at building unity. Within these meetings, we need to be honest and direct about the dangers and about what may ultimately be necessary to win, i.e. a strike.
The next step within these discussions is to lay out some possibilities for smaller actions we might take. Perhaps we start with a button campaign? Perhaps we ALL ask for letters of recommendation, as if to say you’ll need to replace all of us? Perhaps we have a rally before or after school, or outside a school committee meeting? Perhaps we occupy the Bristol Common? Perhaps we work up to a work to rule? There may well be other ideas in addition.
The one other urgent aspect is the need to build support for our cause among parents. We might even call this…solidarity. In particular, the issue of class sizes (contained within the contract offer) and the issue of the rumored changes to the high school schedule (extra-contractual) are issues that we can use to win parents to our side. How might we involve parents? What I’m outlining here is a new conception of trade-union work that goes beyond the contract and beyond the narrow bounds of our membership into joint action with larger groups of people in solidarity. I know very little about the parent groups, as by the time they reach high school, parents are more disconnected. Could we reach out to them and find allies? Could we have a coordinated presence at school committee meetings? Could we sponsor a joint community meeting on the way forward for Bristol-Warren schools?
The last issue that must be addressed is this: the district is definitely in a financial crisis—perhaps more, perhaps less. But we need a program for how to resolve it, and demands that go with it. The last contract contained a provision that both the union and the school committee would seek more state funding—a fine sentiment, but relatively meaningless because completely unenforceable. I’m not sure what the school committee has done—and perhaps we could accuse them of bad faith as a result. For our side, I guess we replaced Gablinske with Morrison…a lot of good that did!
The crisis will ultimately require a resolution at the state or national level, but we cannot directly affect that level. What we can do is to raise a demand around fair taxation that opens up some questions. First of all: that Warren pays rather higher taxes than Bristol, and that Bristol could pay a little more. But second and more importantly: that the big landowners in Bristol should pay A LOT more. And third: LET’S TAX ROGER WILLIAMS UNIVERSITY. This “non-profit” entity charges tens of thousands of dollars a year in tuition to students, yet gives very little back to Bristol (and nothing to Warren). It’s parallel to the role that Brown plays in Providence—and could set an important precedent.
I want to conclude with two issues I opened up earlier: the negotiating table vs. beyond, and the attitude toward the rank-and-file. First: how we can expect to get something better is through action. It’s like Frederick Douglass said: without struggle, there can be no progress. This vote is the first step in opening up a real struggle against the union-busting of the past four years. What will get us a better contract offer is not our willingness to concede, nor our eagerness to be “team players”, but rather our ability to state and defend our interests, which are in synch with the interests of parents, students, and public education generally. And it will require new forms of direct action, starting with those that can galvanize an activist core of the BWEA membership.
Finally, on the membership. Part of the desperation of certain people, including among them people on the negotiating team and among the building representatives, is in fact a deep lack of trust in the members of the local to fight for their own interests. I think it’s probably a wide-spread experience that many teachers don’t stand up for themselves, don’t attend rallies and important events, don’t act on their own in ways that union-minded people and leaders think they should act. But it begs the question: what have they been asked to do? What has their leadership done to lead them? How has their leadership engaged them in meaningful action for their interests (i.e. not lobbying shithead politicians)? I get extremely frustrated every time I hear that condescending tone toward the members of this (and any other) union. Stop blaming our members for not following a lead that hasn’t been given to them! Stop substituting your own individualized activity in certain, mostly bureaucratic spheres for the actual work of organizing teachers into collective activity! Don’t say the members won’t back up the negotiating team when the members haven’t been given any opportunity to show their actual support!
If there is any criticism I would level at the union leadership, it’s not for their conduct at the negotiating table—so far as I can see, they’ve done absolutely as much as can be done there. It’s about what has not yet been done to organize the members for real action. The rejection of the proposed contract is a clear indication that if the members weren’t ready to act in the past, they are at least getting to that point now. Time is of the essence: this is the moment for this union to organize all its members for real action, even if on a modest scale. Only through the activity of the unified membership on a broad scale will we be able stop the onslaught against teachers and move this contract forward.