This week, Valarie Strauss (Answer Sheet) interviewed American Federation of Teachers boss Randi Weingarten about why she went to Philadelphia and got arrested. Weingarten correctly noted that the people of Philadelphia, who had asked for a one-year moratorium on school closures, have been repeatedly ignored by the mayor. She also correctly pointed out that the push to close the schools is largely the initiative of the mayor, governor, the city’s School Reform Commission (SRC) and an outside consulting firm, Boston Consulting Group (BCG). “When the powers that be ignore you, and dismiss you,” she told Strauss, “then you have no other choice than to resort to civil disobedience to confront an immoral act.”
What Weingarten did not say was why they want to close dozens of schools (i.e., open up space for private charter schools to set up shop) or whether she was planning on engaging in ongoing civil disobedience to achieve her goals. The fact is that a single arrest at one high profile public meeting is nothing more than a publicity stunt. It is not an organized or effective strategy for reversing a large-scale public giveaway to private business.
One justification for the closures is the school district’s perennial budget problems. Yet the district voted to spend $1.4 million to hire BCG, according to Workers World. BCG Partner Sanjeev Midha is a trustee for KIPP Philadelphia (an online charter school). Not surprisingly, BCG promotes online education. Other BCG alumni include Mitt Romney, Benjamin Netanyahu, hedge fund manager John Paulson, and GE CEO Jeff Immelt. SRC members include Feather Houstoun, a former president of the William Penn Foundation (which donated additional money to hire BCG) and Pedro Ramos, who currently sits on the board of the United Way (which also coughed up funds to hire BCG).
If the school closures go through, the district will lose dozens union jobs. According, to National Educators Association president Dennis Van Roekel, the NEA, alone, has lost 150,000 unionized teaching jobs over the last three years. The AFT has no doubt lost thousands, as well. If Weingarten wants to save her own job (and her more than $600,000 per year income) she needs to maintain membership levels, not let them shrink further. However, to do this requires mobilizing Philadelphia’s teachers, who are affiliated with the AFT, to do far more than protest at school board meetings. They need to engage in concerted and ongoing job actions and civil disobedience, something neither Weingarten nor any other major union leader wants to do.
The paradox is that while union bosses depend on their members’ dues to pay their salaries, they depend on the good graces of the ruling elite to exist at all, graces that have been granted to them in exchange for keeping the system running smoothly. The quid pro quo is that if they keep their members quiescent and on the job, the unions are tolerated and minor concessions are sometimes granted them. The bosses will even tolerate the occasional angry rant, arrest or otherwise uncivilized act by union leaders if it helps them to keep the rabble in line. Consequently, union leaders have been relying more and more on legal and political action than on strikes and other job actions, a strategy that has, at best, merely kept the decline in union membership from occurring any faster than it has.
Weingarten described her action in Philadelphia as a strong “statement” that the mayor, governor and SRC are not on the side of the people. In other words, the school closures are an attack on democracy, which is a politically popular concept, but not one that is likely to save teachers’ jobs. If the problem is merely the product of bad politics, as she has implied, then the solution is supposedly to fight back in the political arena, thus squelching any movement for workplace actions.
Ultimately, Weingarten's got arrested because she needed to look tough to her constituents. It was a relatively painless and cheap way to win points among parents and teachers, but not an effective strategy for ending the school closures or saving union jobs.