Photo: 75,000 Arizona teachers marched on the capitol in Phoenix on April 26, at the start of their strike. (Ralph Fresco / Getty Images)
by Jeff Mackler, originally published on Socialist Action, May 7
It’s been a long while since anyone alive has seen working people successfully fight back against capitalist cruelty with winning class-struggle strategies and tactics. Today, teachers, and their allies among state workers and working-class families in West Virginia, Kentucky, Arizona, Oklahoma, and Colorado have set an inspiring example for the entire U.S. labor movement. Their example goes far beyond the organized sectors, where the percentage of workers in unions today has dwindled to the lowest point since the early 1930s, at some 10 or 11 percent at best.
The ongoing wave of unprecedented statewide teacher strikes has demonstrated in real time that working people retain the power to change the course of history and win major gains for themselves and worker class allies in their state.
Contrary to the corporate media’s efforts to portray these teacher mobilizations as a reaction to Republican Party cutbacks, striking teachers have documented with mathematical precision that the most intense attacks on public education, social services, and teacher pay began with the Great Depression of 2008 and were implemented under the Democratic Party administration of Barack Obama.
Under Obama’s reign, 2008-2016, trillions in taxpayer dollars were transferred from working people to the ultra rich corporate elite—the 1 percent. The nation’s banking institutions, almost all of which were technically bankrupt or nearly so, were bailed out to the tune of trillions of dollars, as were the associated insurance companies, giant corporations, and mortgage entities, public and private.
In the course of President Obama’s eight years, millions lost their homes, college tuition skyrocketed along with unprecedented student debt, wages were frozen or cut, pensions gutted, education funding crippled, part-time “flexible” low-wage service sector work exploded, and 2.5 million immigrants were deported, while expenditures for privatized-for-profit prisons soared. At the state and federal levels, capitalism’s decision makers sought to resolve their inherent contradictions at the expense of workers.
Teachers take class-struggle road
The accumulated frustrations, anger, and resentment over this seemingly unending across-the-board assault on working people found its initial and confused expression in the 2016 election of “outsider” Donald Trump. Corporate America’s Hillary Clinton was the obvious target to express the mass hatred generated by the Democratic Party. It didn’t take long, however, for the reactionary “moron” Trump, whose poll ratings have dropped to historic lows, to show the mass of working people, teachers in the Republican “Red States” included, that there are no saviors in either of the twin parties of capitalism.
The longstanding gap between workers’ anger at capitalism’s heinous assaults on every aspect of their being and their willingness to take the field of action was slammed shut, almost overnight, and on a national basis, as teachers took the class-struggle road.
The striking teachers and their allies have shaken ruling-class institutions and emboldened workers everywhere as they broke with decades of class-collaborationist business unionism foisted on them by an entrenched and hardened pro-capitalist and highly paid bureaucracy. Their example has opened the door to a resurgence of labor in every arena of social life. Here are just a few of the groundbreaking lessons they are teaching the nation’s exploited and oppressed:
“20 percent or nothing”
The teachers have shattered the ruling-class-created lie that there are no funds available for public education, related social services, teacher pensions, affordable medical coverage, and adequate salaries to live a decent life. For decades, local school boards have cried poverty in the face of teachers’ union contract proposals for fully justified pay increases and maintenance of pension and medical benefits, as well as remedies for ever-increasing class size limits and every other aspect of public education.
With the exception of outrageous expenditures for school administrators, public education has been skunked. The remuneration scales for administrators have seen exorbitant growth as they present themselves as endowed with skill sets that require salaries on a par with top-paid corporate executives.
In a disgusting example of “divide-and-rule” tactics, the West Virginia teachers’ demand for an immediate 20 percent pay increase was initially characterized by state officials as a prime example of teacher greed and contempt for their students’ educational needs, as well as the needs of other public employees. The teachers immediately rejected this lie and fully justified their demand. They began by pointing out that state funds for public education had been slashed by the same 20 percent and that these funds had been transferred to the corporate elite’s billion-dollar enterprises in the form of tax breaks, subsidies, and outright grants.
They went even further, insisting that important pay increases be granted to state employees and for public education in general. They demanded that the funds for all of the above be raised by effectively taxing the rich—that is, by returning to the working class the funds “stolen” by the super-rich via legislative fiat, in order to advance quality public education!
Mass strike action vs. lobbying politicians
Teachers broke with the crippling arguments pressed forward by their local school boards and state and national union misleaders that they were compelled to retreat from their local contract demands based on the fact that local school boards have no funds to grant even modest improvements. The union tops’ fundamentally flawed strategic orientation was to lobby and/or to fund and help elect so-called progressive Democrats, who supposedly would more adequately fund public education.
Instead, teachers confronted state legislators directly and immediately in the form of coordinated and democratically planned statewide strikes and massive mobilizations in state capitals, which drew tens and hundreds of thousands. Aside from one such statewide effort in Michigan in the early 1970s, and perhaps a few short-lived others, these were the first statewide teacher-union strikes in the nation’s history. Labor’s most powerful weapon was put on national display and deployed in the interests of all working people.
Teachers demand, “tax the rich, not us”
Abhorrent to working-class politics has been the formal NEA and AFT leadership policy of repeatedly supporting, if not championing, every type of regressive school funding measure, including endless state property and sale tax increases. The brunt of these fall on working-class families, as do other regressive revenue raising measures, from statewide lotteries and legalized gambling to local city and county bond measures. None of these significantly apply to the corporations of the ruling elite; all are designed to disproportionately extract funds from working people.
Organized on a statewide mass mobilization basis aimed at forcing state legislatures to return what they considered stolen funds to their rightful place—public education in all of its manifestations and other social services—the striking teachers have opened a new battlefront to improve their lives along with the entire public education system.
Public education in the U.S. is largely funded at the state level, with regressive tax measures accounting for the vast majority of funds expended. In contrast, the federal government accounts for some five percent of all funds for public education. It is only a matter of time until teachers and their allies see the trillion-dollar corporate tax breaks at the federal level in the same light as their expression in the context of state budgets. No doubt Trump’s bipartisan $1.5 trillion in tax cuts for the rich has not gone unnoticed.
Class struggle collective bargaining
The teachers’ “all or nothing” demands sent a shock wave through ruling-class circles. The norm for nearly all modern-day collective bargaining negotiations with regard to teachers and nearly every other organized sector of the working class has been to begin the process with a “wish list” series of demands that almost everyone considered “excessive” or absolutely unattainable. The idea was to come to the bargaining table and, hopefully, reach a “reasonable compromise” with the employers that would fall somewhere between the unions’ initial demands and the employers’—which in recent decades have been most often proposals for massive cutbacks.
In the end, the result was almost always “settlements” to the employers’ great advantage, which were then sold to the ranks by both the bosses and the politically bankrupt union bureaucracy—ever “partnering” with the bosses on one or another spurious basis. This ingrained class-collaborationist “modus vivendi” was to sell the agreement to the ranks on the grounds that there was no other choice, other than perhaps to engage in a “futile” strike. Strikes, in their view, were obsolete, a relic from a bygone labor past that was no longer relevant.
The parasitic bureaucrats matched their words with deeds, overseeing an era in which each year the number of strikes has declined to historic lows, with union membership ever declining in relative proportion. The five statewide teacher strikes to date represent a clarion call to reject this kind of “unionism.”
When West Virginia teachers said “20 percent or nothing” to the state legislature and courageously stuck to this demand, they trumpeted a new beginning for the entire labor movement. The same holds for much of the other emerging rebellious teacher fighters. They refused to succumb to the bosses’ entreaties. They refused to accept their publicly presented offers of a few or even one percentage point less than their demands. They refused to accept promises to submit their proposals to various state committees, or implement them over the course of several years, or to drop their demands to include important pay raises for non-teaching state workers, or to subordinate their support for public education funding in general to raising their own salaries only.
Each and every one of these class principles had the effect of solidifying and qualitatively increasing mass support for the teachers’ cause. State employees joined their picket lines along with students and working-class parents. Labor’s historic maxim, “An injury to one is an injury to all,” became the guiding principle in the hearts and minds of millions across the country as hundreds of thousands of the nation’s teachers and hundreds of thousands of their supporters mobilized in unprecedented numbers to give birth to a new and vital unionism.
Teachers challenge bureaucratic leadership
The striking teachers in many respects forced their always reluctant and complacent “leaders” to pose as champions of their cause or be seen as sellouts. The level of spontaneity and independent power that teachers unleashed was decisive to overcoming their unions’ bureaucratic lethargy, its tightly-controlled usually impenetrable internal structures, and its fear of engaging in decisive confrontations with employers whom they see as endowed with invincible power.
In place of these “leaders” a self-acting, open, inclusive system of organization emerged, in which rank-and-filers took the initiative in sounding out the mood of their co-workers, including in mass decision-making and in imposing wide open methods of teacher-controlled voting systems to register and democratically mobilize the mass support that was heightened with their every move to make their cause the cause of every worker – teacher or not.
Defying anti-workers laws
Critical to the success of every aspect of their fightback, teachers openly defied every anti-union law on the books. They struck in the face of laws that banned teacher strikes as illegal, that mandated jail sentences and massive fines for striking teachers and their unions, and that threatened to void striking teachers’ certification credentials so as to ban them from working as teachers in the future. This collective and angry defiance, coupled with their massive mobilization of working-class support for their just and heroic struggle in the interest of all workers, effectively made them impermeable from ruling-class retaliation.
No politician dared to place a single teacher in jail or to remove a single credential. Bluster and threats aside, no laws were hurried to the floor of state legislatures to punish or infringe on what teachers had accomplished in the streets; no court injunctions were issued or implemented to uphold state laws banning teacher strikes. Threats to do so were tempered by more sophisticated capitalist politicians who understood that any form of collective repression was highly likely to result in deeper and broader support for the striking teachers’ cause.
The teachers militantly recalled the past victories of their class, from the distant battles of striking class struggle coal miners who defied both union bureaucrats and capitalist laws to emerge victorious in wildcat strikes almost a century ago to the unprecedented recent mobilization of five million women and their allies in Washington, D.C., and across the country who repudiated President Trump’s virulent sexism, racism, and homophobia. The fact that two-thirds of the striking teachers are women was not lost on anyone aware of the fact that working women today suffer from a generalized and systematic across-the-board discrimination in capitalist America. The emergence of women as central strike leaders served notice that the ongoing fight for women’s’ equality is sinking sunk deep roots in the workers’ movement.
Door opened to era of militant trade unionism
The teacher strikers served notice on AFT and NEA misleaders that they were fully capable of organizing themselves to defy moves to “settle” their struggles short of victory—that is, short of the unqualified acceptance by the powers that be of their central demands. Repeated calls by frightened and concession-minded union officials to end the strike and return to work were openly defied and accompanied by teachers’ threats to quit the union should it stand in the way of victory.
While we have no data on the number of striking teachers who have actually left the NEA and AFT, likely just a tiny percentage, the rank and file’s defiance of their misleaders’ acts of capitulation is a sure sign that the future bodes well for the emergence of a new and militant leadership in the arena of teacher and public-employee unionism, not to mention in the highly bureaucratized trade-union movement more generally. The same and more can be said with regard to the vast numbers of workers who have no unions at all, almost 90 percent of the workforce.
As opposed to the snail’s pace of “union organizing” that is at best contemplated by the present bureaucracy, the striking teachers gave testimony to the capacity of workers everywhere to seize the moment and surge onto the stage of history to fundamentally transform the present unions, significantly alter the relationship of class forces, and establish new institutions and relationships aimed at realizing their hopes and dreams for a better life. Teachers and their new allies stormed the heavens to do so. They contributed massively to opening a new page in labor history.
Indeed, any serious study of this history reveals that massive and independent rank-and-file explosions of worker militancy and union organizing in the face of ruling-class arrogance, exploitation, and violence has always been key to taking the next giant step forward for all workers and for all struggling humanity.
Jeff Mackler is the national secretary of Socialist Action, a Trotskyist political party. He was the nominee of Socialist Action for United States Senate in 2006 and President of the United States in the 2016 election. Mackler founded Northern California Climate Mobilization, is a longtime teacher and union activist with the American Federation of Teachers in Hayward, California and is director of the Mobilization to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal.