The Union’s Election Day Dilemma

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.

As is well known, Dan McKee, Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, is the lead man behind the Mayoral Academies, the most pernicious wing of the charter school movement in Rhode Island. Alan Fung is on the board of Achievement First and has been a major promoter of the Walmart of charter schools. And Gina Raimondo, the corporate tool who drove through the most serious attack on teacher and public employee pensions ever, is married to a corporate ed reform “consultant”.

The situation has twisted my union, the National Education Association of Rhode Island (NEARI), in complete knots. Frankly, the trouble started early, when NEARI endorsed Clay Pell in the Democratic Primary. Apparently, NEARI hoped that Pell, a relative neophyte and scion of Ocean State aristocracy, would overcome two obvious corporate tools and be the champion for teachers. Why they thought this is a mystery to me. And they certainly weren’t listening to any of those teachers (not just me—by a long shot!) who saw Pell as Chafee redux. While Taveras was certainly no friend to teachers, NEARI’s big beef was with Gina—whom Pell endorsed as part of his concession speech. Who were we voting for, again? And why?

NEARI now finds itself embroiled in a massive contradiction. On the one hand, it cannot endorse the Democrat without swallowing some serious pride, and more importantly, angering and betraying its members. But on the other hand, the Republican alternative is obviously unpalatable—Fung supports making Rhode Island a right-to-work state and attacking public employees. But in this corporate-dominated two-party system, will NEARI have to bear the responsibility for getting the greater of two evils elected?

This is where the knot gets knottier. Finding itself in a terrible situation, NEARI has endorsed the Republican candidate Catherine Taylor for lieutenant governor, who at least is not a corporate tool. They have put $20,000 into her campaign as well, including such things as mailings to members of the Massachusetts Teachers Association who live in Rhode Island. They have staunchly supported the campaign to reject a constitutional convention (more about that below). And while they have not endorsed Raimondo, Executive Director Bob Walsh has publicly voiced his support for her, giving the impression more broadly that the union has done an about-face.

How do our unions get stuck in this sort of position? Why are they so slavishly tied to a system that periodically (and these days, much more frequently) forces them to back their enemies against their enemies? Why don’t they build an alternative to the two parties of hedge-fund managers and lobbyists?

The answers to some of these questions became evident when I attended a NEARI Delegate Assembly two weeks ago. The discussion of the elections was, of course, front and center. A fair amount of time went to explaining the electoral acrobatics of the top leadership and the discussions of the Executive Board that led NEARI to a position of neutrality on the issue of a Rhode Island AFL-CIO endorsement of Gina Raimondo. Interestingly, a motion allowing NEARI delegates to the AFL-CIO to “vote their conscience” on the question was rejected, a clear indication of the real anger at Raimondo and the sense that we still have too much dignity to endorse our enemy just because she’s the “lesser evil”.

So why is she the “lesser evil”? The answer seemed to lie not so much with Raimondo as with NEARI’s real concern, the General Assembly. The logic goes: Raimondo is largely against us, but she’s not as bad as Fung, who would push for right-to-work legislation and much worse, especially in the context of a constitutional convention which would certainly be the plaything of the Koch Brothers and their ilk. Would we rather have a governor who doesn’t want to totally destroy us so we could go about quietly and patiently pushing our pet projects through the legislature, or a governor who’s going to declare total war on us?

The whole problem with this outlook is that it rests on the premise that the union’s purpose is to work on behalf of its members, for their particular interests without regard to the interests of all workers, and with the passivity and complicity of their members. What is more important is a good working relationship between the union’s leaders and staff, on the one hand, and legislators and bureaucrats on the other. It cedes all power ahead of time to political forces beyond our control, namely the political class and their elite paymasters. The question is not about how we stake our claim to running our own sector of the economy, but rather how do we keep our seat at the table with the big kids.

This narrow, neoliberal version of bread-and-butter unionism is essentially hostile to a larger transformative vision of public education—though, given the scale of the attack on public education, the union leadership has to at least pay some attention to the big picture. But fundamentally, it is blind to the source of union power—workers on the shop floor, teachers in the classroom—and indifferent to the question of workplace democracy, i.e. teachers’ control (ideally, in concert with parents and students) over the educational process.

Then, proving that irony is not dead, the next item on the agenda was about getting union members to be more active.

Well, in the first place, we can get union members active by means of activating strategies, e.g. filing more and collective grievances, using collective pressure tactics, and even small forms of direct action. This is a question that requires creative thinking by people on the ground; the role of the union leadership in this case is to “let a thousand flowers bloom” and to spread the word of each new case to all the union’s members across the state. But even if our union leaders were so enlightened, the all-consuming focus on electoral activity—and on politicians as the agents of “progressive change” (I can feel my stomach turning as I type the words)—by its very nature leads union members back into passivity. But this is precisely where I want to return to the question of the Constitutional Convention.

I found guest speaker Mike Araujo’s case against the ConCon to be quite convincing. In essence: this initiative comes from the moneyed right-wing, and thus they will have the momentum if indeed the measure passes. In the context of Scott Walker’s Wisconsin, plus the possibility of a Fung governorship, we could face devastating attacks. It’s really quite nauseating that the pro-ConCon forces are using popular disgust with the 38 Studios debacle as a reason in favor of a ConCon, when these are the same people who have pushed for precisely those sorts of corporate sweetheart deals. The real money bags behind the ConCon are those of our enemies. Fair enough. But what if the ConCon does pass?

This is where I think we need a better framework for activating the base of the unions, the rank-and-file, one that sees an opportunity for activity in every crisis. A Constitutional Convention would require the election of delegates from each Rhode Island House District. Could the unions field a union candidate, a rank-and-file worker, from each district? Of course they could. This could be a good initial salvo to the politicians: get out of the way, or we will know that you don’t stand on our side.

But not only that. A union effort could put forward not only a rejection of ALEC-style shenanigans; it could also advance a real pro-working-class agenda as an alternative. This would be an opportunity to speak to all workers in Rhode Island, not just the already-unionized and public-sector. That was the major mistake that NEARI and the other unions made with the pension fiasco: while Gina and Co. were concocting a financial crisis that would have been paid for by municipal tax payers (i.e. workers—not the corporations), our unions were touting the narrow framework of “save our pensions”, “keep the promise”, etc. This was not inspiring to the entire private sector workforce, for whom pensions were already a thing of the distant past. It’s precisely why we were steamrolled the last time, and why we cannot afford to continue promoting sectional interests that are or can be portrayed as contrary to the interests of private-sector, non-union workers.

The program can be kept quite simple: a rejection of the weakening of workplace and environmental protections, of tax breaks for the rich; and a basic demand to raise the minimum wage in Rhode Island to a living wage. Such a demand could unite workers across the public-private spectrum and really put the right-wing and the corporate class on the defensive. Now imagine that our side—the union movement, actively representing the entire working class and not just a few sections—mobilizes candidates, workers from the shop floor, for every constituency behind this program. The fact of the program makes it easier for each candidate, regardless of name recognition or not: they’ll be identified not by their individual names, but with the program for worker advancement. The Democrats who routinely and as a matter of course sell us out can politely step out of the way, or prove that they really are obstacles by opposing candidates for the union platform. This could provide the basis for the development of an actual labor party of the future, starting in the here and now.

Furthermore, a campaign around the ConCon would provide innumerable opportunities to activate union members and to organize the unorganized. Imagine it: union members could go door-to-door not to stump for someone who will betray us, but for a vision of social change. Unions could call rallies not simply to defend union benefits, but for all workers—and fast-food workers could support such actions actively and much more safely than rallying outside their non-union workplaces. The collective of unions in the state could call a one-day strike in opposition to right-wing corporate attacks on workers. While such general strikes in Europe are often bureaucratic and ineffective, in Rhode Island (and in the US generally) it would be such a bolt of lightning that it could seriously inject life into the currently moribund labor movement. Most importantly: such a movement could give workers confidence to start taking action on the shop floor, providing the best and surest basis for democratizing our society at large.

I say all this without illusions: I think it quite likely that if the ConCon passes, our union leadership will duck for cover behind the Democratic Party, only to have the Democrats turn around and join in the anti-worker barrage. I think that in the current situation where the shop floor is a sheer dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, a reign of terror over the workers, that all electoral politics cannot but be bourgeois politics. When will we turn off of this long trek of subjugation to the bourgeoisie, and onto a path of liberation? Every moment could be just such a juncture, provided we’re willing to seize the opportunity.  But in order to see the opportunity, we need a vision of workers’ democracy, and a plan to bring it into being.

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About riredteacher

I'm a foreign language teacher and socialist in Rhode Island.
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