Workers Vanguard No. 954

12 March 2010


Labor: Fight Union Busting Attack on Rhode Island Teachers!

Central Falls, Rhode Island’s poorest city, has become the center of a national war against the teachers unions. When the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers refused Central Falls High School superintendent Frances Gallo’s demand that teachers work longer hours and attend training sessions after school without getting paid at union rates, the local school board voted on February 23 to fire all 93 teachers and staff. Outside the board meeting, teachers from around the state turned out by the busload to rally in support of the Central Falls faculty. In a supposed “compromise” currently under discussion, the union has already agreed to longer school days and “more rigorous evaluations and training” (Washington Post, 4 March). But even with this agreement, not all the teachers would be rehired.

Speaking in D.C. on March 1, President Barack Obama made a point of endorsing the mass firing, while his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, “applauded” the school district for “showing courage and doing the right thing for kids.” Obama’s speech elicited outrage from the teachers unions on up to the top level of the AFL-CIO, which had mobilized union members and spent hundreds of millions in union funds to elect Obama CEO of American capitalism. As a mid-level Houston Federation of Teachers official put it: “We worked hard for this man, we talked to our neighbors and our fellow teachers about why we should support him, and we’re having to dig the knife out of our back” (New York Times, 7 March).

The firings highlight that Obama’s “school reform” program means outright union-busting. In order to get some of the $3.5 billion the government is laying out for “School Turnaround Grants,” “failing” schools can choose one of four methods: school closure; takeover by a charter operator; “transformation,” which requires a longer school day and other changes; or “turnaround,” which means firing the entire staff and rehiring no more than half. One teacher put it succinctly to the Providence Journal (24 February): “I think the real goal is to bust the unions.”

Central Falls has more children living in poverty than anywhere else in Rhode Island, which has the second-highest unemployment rate in the nation, after Michigan. Of the more than 1,000 students at Central Falls High, 65 percent are Latino, and for many of them English is a second language. The largely Latino population has been subjected to immigration raids and a statewide campaign against undocumented workers. In 2008, some students stopped coming to class because their families had gone into hiding. The area’s textile industry has long been dying out. But Central Falls is home to the Wyatt Detention Facility, a private jail that held hundreds of immigrants—including residents of Central Falls—awaiting deportation. A Wyatt detainee, Hiu Lui Ng, a Chinese-born computer engineer, died of untreated cancer and a broken spine in 2008 after months of being denied medical treatment despite excruciating pain.

On the heels of the firings in Central Falls, the New York Times (7 March) reported that Boston school officials are forcing staff members at six “underperforming” schools to reapply for their jobs. Dismissing an entire school faculty casts a mold for broader attacks on public workers, who for the first time make up the majority of union members in the U.S., largely due to the erosion of industry and the acquiescence of the pro-capitalist labor tops to the proliferation of non-union shops. Democratic and Republican state governments are using the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression to attack unions and push through layoffs and cuts in wages, benefits and pensions. Some 60,000 teachers were laid off last year alone.

Having driven public education into the ground, America’s racist capitalist rulers blame overworked and underpaid teachers and their unions for the dismal state of schools. The fact is that for decades, public schools in major urban centers and dying industrial towns like Central Falls have been starved of funding by a ruling class that sees no need to educate those whose prospects are prison, the military or maybe a minimum-wage job. As we wrote in “Education U.S.A.—Separate and Unequal” (WV No. 544, 7 February 1992): “The problem for these youth is not in the classroom—it is race and class oppression which deprives them of jobs, housing, health care and every other social service.”

As Marxists, we defend secular universal public education as a democratic right. Against the class privilege and race bias that infuse education in this country, we fight for free, quality, integrated education, at all levels. We call to nationalize the private universities and for a state-paid living stipend so working people and the poor can attend. We demand the expansion of remedial programs, which are especially important for students from the decrepit, overcrowded, segregated inner-city schools that are little more than holding cells.

It was no accident that Obama chose Duncan to run point in the drive against public schools and the teachers unions. In January, Duncan declared that Hurricane Katrina was “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans,” where all public school teachers and staff were fired and where millions in federal funds went to private charter schools. Duncan was in charge of the Chicago school system from 2001 to 2008, with devastating effect. By his own account, some 60 schools were closed during his reign, primarily in black and minority neighborhoods, while the number of charter and military schools mushroomed. The Chicago public school system boasts of its five military high schools and of a Junior ROTC program that is the largest in the country.

A centerpiece of the bourgeoisie’s privatization schemes are charter schools, which are cynically promoted as a solution to the dismal state of education in the ghettos and barrios. In fact, charter schools constitute an attack on public education by siphoning off public funds to privately operated schools. The New York Times (7 March), which calls Harlem the “epicenter for charter schools,” notes that more than a third of all first-grade students in one Harlem district are in charter schools. The result is that already impoverished public schools are even more starved of funds. Proponents of charters prey on the desperation of parents in the ghettos and barrios to find decent education for their children. But studies show that such schools have actually increased racial segregation, increased the gap between the education available to inner-city youth and that available to suburban youth. They have also gone a long way in undermining the separation of church and state by allowing religious outfits to run schools with public funds.

It is in the vital interest of all public workers unions, and of workers more broadly, to mobilize in defense of the fired teachers. Against the rulers’ attempts to pit parents against teachers in the name of “school reform,” the teachers unions would win wide support from working people and the poor by leading a fight for quality public education for everyone. But to carry out such a struggle requires fighting against the labor bureaucracy’s class-collaborationist program of reliance on their Democratic Party “friends” in government.

The day after the mass firing at Central Falls High, American Federation of Teachers head Randi Weingarten could not even bring herself to condemn the school board’s action, instead calling it a “failed approach” to school reform. Her primary concern, as she later put it, was “whether Washington, the states and local districts will be partners that help us do our job” (New York Times, 7 March). Her successor as president of the New York City teachers union, Michael Mulgrew, promised that the process of removing a teacher could be accelerated after schools chancellor Joel Klein complained that firing “incompetent” teachers was taking too much time (New York Times, 23 February).

The disappointment expressed by the labor officialdom over the course taken by the Obama administration is a faint echo of the bitter anger in the working class, which has been clobbered with massive unemployment, home foreclosures and continued attacks on health care and other benefits. Time and again, the union misleaders have sacrificed the interests of workers on the altar of class collaboration with the bosses and their politicians. What is needed is a class-struggle leadership of the unions—one based on the understanding that the interests of working people and the oppressed cannot be reconciled with those of the capitalist rulers. It will take a workers government to rebuild this society—including by providing decent jobs, education and medical care for everyone. To get there we need a workers party dedicated to the overthrow of this decaying capitalist order through socialist revolution.