Who will be the lesser evil in 2014?

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.


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A Note on Foundational Assumptions

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.

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The Meaning of No

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.

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A Glimpse of Solidarity

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.

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The struggle to Dump Gist: the Balance Sheet

Despite our best efforts, the Rhode Island Board of Education voted 7-3 in favor of renewing Commissioner Deborah Gist’s contract on Thursday, June 6.  The two-year contract provides for a two-percent raise in each of the two years—a slap in the face to all of Rhode Island’s teachers who have endured between one and four years (depending on the district) without any raise.  While not the three-year contract with four-percent raises that she initially sought, the deal maintains Gist as the highest-paid education commissioner in New England.  What clearer illustration of the real mission of corporate education “reformers” could we ask for: the highest-paid official in the state with the highest rates of unemployment and childhood poverty in New England!  Not to be outdone, recently-turned Democrat Governor Lincoln Chafee, whose election as an independent in 2010 owed much to the efforts of teachers’ unions, came out with an expression of support for the deal.

Staying in character with her entire tenure thus far, Gist’s attitude at the conclusion of the deal was polarizing, magnanimous and condescending.  After the vote had been taken, Gist gave her acceptance speech, clearly delighted about her victory over the opposition.  In response to the forum put on by the state teachers’ union federations on May 20, she said (and I’m quoting from memory) that she had read the transcript of that forum twice, and that “I used my ‘coding skills’ from my graduate work” to determine that “we really all have the same goal” for public education.  I’m not sure how she could have read this teacher’s comments and concluded that we’re on the same side.  Perhaps it’s graceful for the winner of a tough political dogfight to come out with such “healing” remarks.

Prior to the Board of Education meeting, conventional wisdom on our side was that anything less than a three-year contract would be a win.  It seemed unlikely that the Board would simply vote down a contract—that would have left the state without a leading education official as of Friday.  But rumors were circulating that there might be a twelve- or eighteen-month extension offered, which would have been a clear invitation to leave the state.  In the end, however, the two-year contract was clearly a victory for the state’s top union-basher.  You could hear it in the comments of Board of Education members Larry Purtill (of the National Education Association of Rhode Island) and Colleen Callahan (of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers): they were voting no, reiterating their opposition to Gist’s privatizing agenda.  But they were only able to sway one other member of the board.  The end was a frustrating and demoralizing defeat for the real “stakeholders” of public education: teachers, parents, students—in a word, the “public” in “public education”.

I appreciate the good intentions of RIFuture editor Bob Plain, who summed up the night by saying, “Both labor and management can claim some victory this morning.”  It’s true that Gist’s supporters were timid in advancing their defense: of the five (by my memory) Board members to comment before the vote, three were in opposition, one recused herself from the vote, and one supporter spoke in terms that warned the Commissioner to listen to her critics and engage them in a productive dialogue (hardly likely from her).  It’s true that the unions and the public education proponents did much to reshape the terms of the discourse around higher education in the lead-up to the vote.  But I think Bob is wrong: this was a clear victory for Gist and for the corporate education reform movement, if a narrow one.

That said, defeat does not always mean utter rout—and this situation is quite the opposite.  In fact, to paraphrase Rosa Luxemburg, the working-class movement is peculiar in that it prepares and advances itself in the struggle precisely through defeats.  The advance for us is not in the stern warnings to the Commissioner to shape up her attitude—though that is an indication of how strong our campaign was.  No, the advance is to be found in the mobilization that preceded Thursday night’s Board meeting, going back to late April.  The opening acts included the successful forum sponsored by the Coalition to Defend Public Education on April 27, followed the next week by two simultaneous conferences put on by NEARI and the Teamsters for a Democratic Union, on May 4.  These meetings generalized the consciousness of those who attended them about the anti-union attack and the push for privatization that we’re all facing.  They were an indicator of something larger beneath the surface.

The next step in the process was the aforementioned mass meeting put on by NEARI and RIFT on May 20, where more than 600 angry teachers showed up to voice their opposition to Gist.  This meeting was called with not even two week’s worth of notice—and still garnered a mass audience.  What was even more striking to me about the meeting was the incredibly advanced consciousness of the teachers who spoke.  It seemed that so many more teachers than I had ever imagined were aware of the influence of corporate “reformers” and their “philanthropy”.  One of the teachers who spoke, someone I’ve never met before, introduced us to the term “educapitalists”!  I walked out of that event deeply energized, and with one unshakable thought: if we had a political party that spoke like those teachers spoke, we would be unstoppable.

The mobilization for the Board of Education meeting on May 23 was not large, but the CDPE was able to plan for it effectively, dominating the list of speakers in the open forum.  Our message was out front—and the Commissioner had no one to speak on her behalf at that meeting (a mistake she did not repeat on June 6!).    This set the stage for a serious public debate over the merits of a commissioner who has to her credit only failed goals and federal Race to the Top money which has been unspent or handed over to the private sector.  And, it meant that the unions, though slow to mobilize, could call for a rally in front of the Board of Education meeting not even 72 hours in advance, and still draw a crowd of a couple hundred teachers and public education supporters.

The rally—and what led up to it—represent the most radical thing the unions have done in my 15 years as a member of NEARI.  It was not large—certainly nowhere near as large as the rallies at the State House they’ve called over the past six years (all two of them).  But it was a direct confrontation with the enemy, and it meant so much greater a determination on the part of the people who participated.  It has also had an effect on the discussions among teachers: though many of my colleagues were not able to go to the rally or to the mass meeting in May, everyone was talking about it.  The unions’ mobilization has brought to the fore all the questions that teachers need to be asking: How much more can we take?  How much more are they going to throw at us?  How do we start to fight back?

We must also state plainly that there are not two, but rather three teachers’ unions in the state: NEARI, RIFT, and the Providence Teachers Union.  The first two have taken some real steps forward; the last one is a real roadblock, due primarily to its leadership.  NEARI led the charge this time, and took real steps to mobilize the rank-and-file—in itself, a major accomplishment and a real break from the passive approach they’ve taken to the rank-and-file in the past.  NEARI locals are all led by full-time teachers, so there are no full-time union organizers in the locals.  That said, the locals have largely followed the state leadership in outlook, meaning that many of them now have a very passive rank-and-file, and are often kicked around by their local administrations.  This mobilization has changed the terrain, and may offer us a real opportunity to start organizing at the shop-floor level within the locals in a serious way.

The RIFT state leadership followed NEARI’s lead, and it’s very clear that Frank Flynn and Colleen Callahan were working very closely with Larry Purtill and Bob Walsh on this campaign.  More importantly, they followed NEARI’s lead and mobilized the rank and file from RIFT locals, including Warwick, Cranston, Pawtucket, Johnston, etc.  But the real glaring, gaping hole in all of this—once again—was the PTU.  The PTU mobilized only members of its Executive Board to the May 20 mass meeting, as well as to the Board of Education meeting last week.  (Well, E-Board members and members of the opposition, formerly known as Teachers for a Democratic Union).  They did not send out the email notification of the rally at the Board of Education meeting until 1:20pm on June 6!  Steve Smith, the top-down, conservative president of the PTU made confused remarks both times, and then proceeded to leave early both times.  The real tragedy of all of this is that the PTU sets the tone for the state.  It was the PTU’s acceptance of Race to the Top that imposed it on the rest of us.  The PTU’s utter contempt for its rank-and-file means that the rest of the state’s teachers are fighting an uphill battle with part of their army—really, the shock troops of the front line—still asleep back at the barracks.  The PTU has to be transformed, and the current leadership needs to be removed.

So what more can be done from here?  The obvious first point is that the struggle against high-stakes testing, and in particular the use of the NECAP test as a graduation requirement, is at the front and center.  There have been indications that Gist and others may be looking for ways to back down from their hardline stance on this requirement.  They are caught in a contradiction: if 40% of Rhode Island’s seniors in the class of 2014 don’t graduate because of NECAP, it’s Gist’s failure to deal with.  I don’t expect she (or her successor, if she’s looking to duck out gracefully in the next two years) will admit defeat openly on this count—there will be some maneuver involved.  But there is a major opportunity for us to raise a single demand around the NECAP that also brings up pointed questions about every aspect of curriculum, instruction, resources, and control of public education.  The work of the Providence Students Union has led the way on this area; now is the time to start organizing parents and teachers around local opt-out and boycott campaigns, and perhaps a generalized, state-wide protest campaign targeting the whole requirement altogether.

Second, the unions need to start talking about state-wide contractual protections for teachers on the evaluation system.  Currently, the mandates come down from the state—and they are carried out an enforced inconsistently by local district administrations.  But the real kicker is that teachers’ protections against abuses of the evaluation system (and there are many opportunities for abuse!) are entirely up to the local to guard against via contract language.  It raises the even larger discussion of a state-wide contract for all teachers, and eventually the need for a state-wide school district—a reform that would likely face much opposition from local powerbrokers in their little fiefdoms in each district, but that could give a unified teaching force more power to set the terms of its working conditions.

Third, the rank-and-file mobilization of the past few weeks should give rise to organizing within the locals.  A state-wide district is a long way off, and it means that we need to use the momentum we have from this fight to push forward on the local level.  Teachers in Rhode Island have been kicked around in the last two rounds of contract negotiations, battered by the economic crisis on the one hand, and the barrage of a national anti-teacher campaign financed and driven by the “educapitalists” on the other.  The next steps now involve pushing forward on issues such as class size, compensation, protections against the evaluation system, and a re-establishment of our seniority rights.  These fights will necessarily come up against the limits of what Gist has pushed from the state level, particularly on the evaluations and seniority.  But I think we should understand that despite her victory, she has come out of this fight a wounded beast—and there is now more space for us to push back at the local level against her attacks.  Who knows—our administrators may be happy to have to cave in to our resistance!  It is likely too late to organize real activist campaigns around those contracts that are up this September.  But a disproportionate number of contracts, including Providence, Cranston, Bristol-Warren and others, are up in September 2014.  We have a precious year to prepare.

Lastly, there is a looming, all-important question: the gubernatorial race.  This entire episode raises a very pointed question about Rhode Island politics: will the unions continue to be subservient to politicians that turn around and screw us?  This has been the case time and again, and it’s never been more obviously the case than it is now.  The 2014 gubernatorial race is shaping up as a three-way race between current Governor Chafee, State Treasurer Gina Raimondo, and Providence Mayor Angel Taveras.  All three are now Democrats, meaning that the race will be decided not in November, but in September.  Raimondo and Taveras are open enemies of teachers, having savaged our pensions and fired all the Providence teachers, respectively.  Chafee has aided and abetted these attacks, and proven time and again that he is no friend of workers (and also not very competent as a human being in general).  It has never been more clear that workers—and especially teachers—have no candidate to vote for, only candidates to vote against.

There must now be a serious conversation about how to approach the 2014 elections.  Do we abstain from the elections?  I would argue that abstention, while perhaps not the most fruitful approach, would be better than supporting one of our enemies.  More usefully: do we run an independent candidate as an alternative to our enemies?  And most importantly of all: do we now start building a party for the labor movement in our state?  We should answer yes to these two questions.  Doing so will naturally raise all sorts of difficult ancillary questions.  But avoiding the questions now will lead us to further disaster in the future, and make waste of the progress we’ve made through this fight.  We need to launch local contract campaigns for September 2014, and we need an electoral strategy that strengthens those fights, rather than undermining them (which has always been the result in the past).  For the first time, I can say confidently that our teachers’ unions in Rhode Island have made a real advance, even in defeat.  We must now chart a course for victory.

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Open Letter to Chafee and Mancuso: Dump Gist!

The Honorable Lincoln Chafee
Governor, State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations
82 Smith Street
Providence, RI  02903
Members of the Rhode Island Board of Education
c/o Eva Mancuso, Chair
80 Washington Street
Providence, RI 02903

Dear Linc and Eva,

I’m assuming that by now you’ve received dozens, hundreds, perhaps even thousands of letters about this matter.  You will shortly be receiving a petition signed on-line by over 1,000 people on the issue.  And now, even I, humble high school foreign language teacher and public education blogger and activist, am haranguing you about it.  The matter is this: when it comes up for consideration this week, Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist should not have her contract renewed.  Period.

So you ask: why not renew Gist’s contract?  There are so many reasons in her practice over the past four years, that I barely know where to begin.  Let me cover the basics by saying that Gist’s tenure has been a reign of terror on teachers.  The Commissioner has repeatedly issued edicts that affect educators and students, and done so as though her word were law.  From the day she pronounced teacher seniority a dead letter, to her support for the firing of the Central Falls High School Teachers, to her ill-conceived implementation of a disastrous teacher evaluation plan, Gist has made no secret of her contempt for Rhode Island’s teachers.  Her modus operandi has been seriously demoralizing to teachers all over the state.

But what of students?  Well, in the first place, an attack on teachers is an attack on students.  Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions.  A commissioner who demoralizes teachers will demoralize students as well.  Let me make it more concrete: Gist’s policies have increased the weight of testing on students in Rhode Island tremendously.  While the Commissioner herself may not have implemented new tests—the NECAP was already in place when she arrived—she has held firm on the requirement of “partial proficiency” on the NECAP for high school graduation, despite all the evidence that this is bad policy.  But the secondary effects are even greater: the teacher evaluation system means that teachers implement more in the way of assessments so that we have “data points” for our evaluations.  Students complain that they are being evaluated in EVERY class, and it’s true.  So even if an educator could be completely “professional” and try to hide from the students that she or he is feeling from administration, the action of the testing would give it away anyway.

At this point, you stop me and object: but what about RACE TO THE TOP!?  To which I retort: race to the top of what?  And who’s left behind?  And who falls to the bottom?  You see, Gist’s grand achievement—the winning of a federal Race to the Top Grant—is not a big win for teachers, not a boon for students, not a boost to our public schools.  Quite the contrary: the vast bulk of the funds has been earmarked for data collections systems, consultants, and charter schools.  Gist even stated clearly in 2010 that Race to the Top would not solve anyone’s financial crisis—and indeed, it hasn’t   What is has done is to advance the real agenda of Deb Gist and the education “reformers” she’s in league with: to privatize public education even further.  This is the real content of Gist’s tenure: she has done all she could to attack teachers’ unions while finding ways to stuff public tax dollars into the pockets of private individuals and corporations.  As a taxpayer, I want my money back.  As a teacher, I want my profession back.  As a member of the public, I want the “public” put back in “public education”.

So now you know my assessment of Deborah Gist, one that she has failed.  But please be aware that it is not just Gist, and not just Rhode Island, where this drama is being played out.  All over the country, people like Gist are doing the dirty work of a handful of wealthy individuals, in reality nothing more than racketeers benefiting from the privatization of our public schools.  But in each case, ordinary people—teachers, students, parents—are standing up to these attacks.  From the Seattle teachers who boycotted the MAP test, to the Philadelphia students who walked out against the financial starvation of their schools, to the Chicago teachers who went on strike—and got majority support from the parents—our side is on the move.  Back in Rhode Island, we are organizing and growing in number.  We want to stop the degradation of our public schools at the hands of people like Gist, yes—but we also want to transform them into democratic institutions that nourish and promote the best in our society.  From the bottom up, we are reclaiming the institution that was in the first instance a demand of the labor movement: free, universal, public education for our children as a safe haven from the exploitation of the labor market.  We refuse to allow that same market to now take control of this institution for its own nefarious purposes.  We are the people, asserting our right to a dignified existence, to vibrant and democratic public schools, as against the designs of the powerful.

Governor Chafee, Chairperson Mancuso: are you with the powerful, or are you with the people?


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Winter Storm Duncan misses Providence

US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was scheduled to visit Providence today and tomorrow.  His original plan was to visit for a breakfast celebrating the schools operated by United Providence, which I describe below.  Someone must have tipped him off that we were planning a protest, because then he added a “town hall meeting” to address the question of safety in schools.  In the end, Winter Storm Nemo and the subsequent closure of Providence schools on Monday appears to have scotched his plans–but not before we prepared to confront the Front Man of Corporate Reform.  Below are the remarks I had prepared for our protest.


On one hand, I have to express my shock that Secretary Duncan would have the nerve to speak about “school safety” on a day when the Providence Public Schools did not think it safe to have school.  On the other hand, the callous elite obliviousness Duncan has displayed today is in fact one of two main characteristics of his tenure as Secretary of Education.  The other his is single-minded drive for privatization of public schools, no matter what the social cost, no matter who gets hurt by his schemes that parade as education “reform” but are in fact simply a way of transferring public funds and public property to individual interests in the private sector.

This is, after all, the man who claimed that Hurricane Katrina was “the best thing” that ever happened to New Orleans.  He retracted the comment later, but how could someone make such a comment about a disaster that killed over 1000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands, predominantly Black and poor?  Simple: Hurricane Katrina allowed charter schools to tear apart what was left of the public system, to divide up the city’s student population among unaccountable and disconnected bureaucracies that could then profit off of their little chunk of formerly public sector capital.  In this case, a natural disaster was the pretext for a smash-and-grab crony capitalist operation.

Here in Providence, our seemingly increasingly frequent natural disasters have not yet been enough for such a whole-sale privatization to occur.  Without a natural crisis as an opening, Duncan has been forced to resort to artificial crises produced by the Federal Department of Education, in collusion with venture philanthropists such as Bill Gates and the Walton family, with charter school operators, textbook and test-writing companies, “data collection” outfits, and of course, state education departments and officials, such as our own Commissioner of Education Deb Gist.  Using the testing requirements of No Child Left Behind, Duncan and his acolytes have gone a step beyond the Bush administration, putting funds behind the school “turn-around” measures mandated by that disastrous law.

Race to the Top, touted as an alternative to NCLB, was in fact a massive extension of it.  When Rhode Island was granted RTTT funds to the tune of $75 million, Commissioner Gist made sure to emphasize that no school district would see any of this money going to alleviate the budgetary crises that almost all of Rhode Island’s districts face.  Instead, certain schools in Providence were arbitrarily declared to be “failing” and essentially put into receivership using RTTT funds.  This is where the UP model comes in: it is essentially a tripartite arrangement between the PPSD, the PTU, and the UP corporation for the sake of bamboozling the first two and channeling the funds to the third.  In the process, the PPSD and PTU appear to have lost all control to a malevolent, dictatorial and ignorant bureaucracy run by a private corporation.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is what Arne Duncan has come to Providence to celebrate.

Let me just end my remarks by pointing back to Chicago, where Secretary Duncan started his education career as CEO of Chicago Schools.  On Duncan’s watch, something like 20 schools per year were closed and turned over to private charter school operators.  Meanwhile, the schools left in the public domain were underfunded, the teachers’ rights curtailed, the curriculum brutally standardized and the students shoehorned into it.  Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, also a former Obama administration official and Duncan’s colleague, has presided over a city with a massively rising rate of violent crime.  Emanuel has announced his plan to close 100 more Chicago schools in the next year.  It’s stunning that Secretary Duncan cannot make the connection between the closing of schools and the murder of teenage children like Hadiya Pendleton, shot on the street after taking an exam on January 29.  To paraphrase Woody Guthrie, some school violence comes from those with guns, and other school violence from those with private sector friends and Federal Government funds.

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