Last week, Valarie Strauss (Answer Sheet) interviewed American Federation of Teachers (AFT) 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, 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.”
The problem is that there is nothing immoral about it. While the majority of schools to be closed are in low income communities of color, the motivation to close them is not wicked, sinful, nor is the goal to harm poor black kids. Rather, the proponents are capitalists exploiting an essentially legal method to crush the Philadelphia teachers union and transfer public K-12 tax dollars to private charters and online schools. Calling it an immoral act merely obfuscates the financial motives (and legal methods) behind it, undermining teachers’, parents’ and students’ ability to successfully resist it.
Another problem is that a single arrest at one high profile public meeting is essentially just 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) and BCG members serve on numerous other KIPP boards, as well. Not surprisingly, BCG promotes online education and stands to profit handsomely from the closures by offering online courses to students displaced by the closures.
Other BCG alumni include Mitt Romney, Benjamin Netanyahu, hedge fund manager John Paulson, and GE CEO Jeff Immelt, as well as hedge fund manager and Democrats for Education Reform[er] Whitney Tilson—all cheerleaders for charter schools and teachers’ union-busting. 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).
BCG was also hired by the Transition Planning Committee (TPC) of Memphis to oversee their mass transfer of students out of the public school system and into private charter schools and has been involved in the post-Katrina plundering of the New Orleans school system, as well as pro-charter and anti-teachers’ union activities in Cleveland, Seattle, Chicago and Dallas. According to Diane Ravitch, their goal in Memphis is to increase charter enrollment from 4% to 19% of all students by 2016, which will effectively transfer $212 million from the public school budget to private charter schools.
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 lost thousands, more. 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 in the first place, 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. An occasional high profile arrest, while doing nothing to improve teachers’ job security, working conditions or compensation, does help boost union bosses’ street credibility by making them look like tough, self-sacrificing fighters, rather than parasites.
In order to keep members in line (and maintain the good graces of the ruling elite), union leaders need to convince the rank and file that alternatives to strikes and other job actions will be effective. In the case of the Wisconsin state house occupation, the unions argued that they could best reverse their state’s union-busting legislation at the ballot box and convinced everyone to go home.
In the case of Philadelphia’s school closings, Weingarten has similarly distorted the issue, ignoring the impact on job security and collective bargaining power and focusing on political corruption. She described events 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 (an immoral act?)—a politically popular concept that is likely to appeal to community members’ sense of patriotism, but not one that is likely to save teachers’ jobs or stop the closures. Indeed, 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.
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