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Lessons from the Teachers’ Struggle: Left-Racialism as a Tool of Union-Sabotage

We publish below a statement by a comrade of the Gulf Coast Communist Fraction on union action against the proletarian reactions by teachers in the United States to the health risks caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. It is followed by our denunciation of the so-called ’intersectionality’ theory at the base of bourgeois and petty-bourgeois ideologies of identity and race. There are passages or expressions in the GCCF comrade’s article that deserve to be clarified and discussed. But the essence and the interest of this position is elsewhere. Apart from exposing the classic manoeuvres of the unions to prevent and sabotage any initiative of proletarian struggle – in particular by playing on the legal framework governing official strikes, the use of strike notice – the text illustrates how the unions, including the leftist and so-called ’grass-roots’ unions, and the left of the Democratic Party as well as the various leftist groups, concretely use identity and racialism directly against the struggle and proletarian unity in the immediate reality of class struggle. One then understands better the exact extent of the success of the ideological and political bourgeoisie offensive launched following the murder of G. Floyd and the street demonstrations that followed it, which concluded with an unprecedented massive voter turnout and the election of Biden. The importance of political clarity and rigour and of the struggle that revolutionaries must have and lead against these leftist theories, both in their press and in their concrete interventions, is then better understood.

International Group of the Communist Left

__________________________________________________________

In the beginning of August, Jacobin Magazine published an article by union-steward and DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) member, Ben Beckett, which is a great example of how the delusions peddled by the DSA/Jacobin helps keep the workers in a state of defeat [1]. As stated in the article: “the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) planned to call a strike authorization vote to keep students from returning to schools in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. A few hours later, the city government cancelled a plan to bring students back to schools two days a week and announced that fall classes would instead be held entirely remotely. … Quite literally, the lives of enormous numbers of children, teachers, school staff, and parents have been saved thanks to teachers threatening to strike.” What these gross falsifications of a supposed victory on the part of the schoolteachers exposes is the DSA functionally propagandizing for the Democratic Party-backed unions. Schools all over the United States are re-opening amidst a pandemic that has yet to show any signs of subsiding, and the unions have successfully prevented a strike, thus any possible generalization of the struggle, from happening; meanwhile, the so-called leading voice of socialist politics in America is cheerleading this strangulation from the sidelines. It could be said the credible threat of a teachers’ strike motivated the unions and local governments to preemptively reverse school re-openings in cities where the deeply intertwined relations between the Democratic Party and unions are hegemonic, such as Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Chicago; on the other hand, schools are still widely re-opening outside of those select cities, meaning a strike is still a necessity, and all the unions did was extinguish the initiation of such an action. A strike initiated by those schoolteachers, regardless of whether schools in those few major cities remained closed or not, is a necessary means for extending itself to other regions and demanding all schools throughout the country either not re-open or at least take drastic safety measures, such as drastically reducing classroom sizes, until the pandemic has significantly weakened (even when distance-learning is in place, we cannot accept anything less than a reduction of class sizes). The maneuver illustrated in this Jacobin article is a successful containment strategy to keep the energies of the class confined to localization, as opposed to generalization. At best, what can be taken away from this is that the proletariat is far from a merely passive factor in the dynamic of this situation, but Jacobin’s framing ultimately serves capital by obscuring the real lessons to be drawn.

The confinement of workers’ struggles to remain within particular and separate local/regional, or sectoral interests is the signature death-trap imposed by the unions, and symptomatic of their definitive integration into capital after the two world wars. Capitalism is a totalizing system that can easily compartmentalize losses in one of its parts, therefore the working class can only challenge capitalism as a single unified class, not an amalgam of particular sections divided along region/locality or economic sector/industry. By the unions ceasing their feigned threats of a teachers’ strike in major metropolitan cities like Philadelphia and Chicago upon the first concession granted by the city-governments, they have attempted to construct a barrier between the teachers in the most populated urban centers and teachers in others areas of the country where schools are still re-opening, which prevents the unification and centralization necessary to advance the struggle of the teachers to keep schools safe and continue classes through online education, in turn ultimately enforcing the separation of teachers from the rest of the class. Against the union-framework, teachers in the highly-populated urban centers of Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Chicago going on strike to demand school-closures or radical safety-measures across the country, and not just in their own cities, could spark a wave of struggle and would strengthen the revolutionary capacity of the working class to meet universal needs and threaten the capitalist order to a greater extent; it only makes sense that certain sections of the municipal bourgeoisie, utilizing the unions as their pawns, were willing to reverse school re-openings in their residence if it meant pre-emptively squashing a strike wave in the most populated cities in the United States, and stopping it from spreading and unifying with other mobilizations throughout the country. The task is not merely to unify teachers across regional boundaries, it is only a necessary component of the more primary task of uniting workers across sectors, through geographic extension and unlimited intensification of the strike. Instead of agitating for the development of the class struggle through the initiation, extension, and intensification of the mass strike, the Democratic Socialists of America worked with the unions and racialist-activist groups to organize an impotent day of protest on August 3rd. [2]

Although a street protest of workers raising class demands can be a terrain within the political boundaries of the proletariat, the mobilization and its slogans advancing the dynamic of the struggle is the sufficient condition for deeming it a political terrain conducive to the proletariat, otherwise it is a terrain antagonistic to the class; and the protest jointly organized by the DSA and the unions does not meet the sufficient condition just defined, because mobilizing teachers onto this terrain was detrimental to the dynamic of the concrete situation at the time. The unions and their left-capitalist sycophants in the DSA mobilized teachers into a street protest, while calling for an authorization vote, in order to defer and delay the outbreak of a strike until the agitation for one fizzled out. So what Eric Blanc, DSA grifter who has profited from the defeat of the last teachers’ strike wave by publishing a book on its supposed victories, has described as the American Federation of Teachers (most prominent schoolteacher union) providing a “morale boost” by announcing it would be considering ‘safety strikes’, is actually a union-maneuver that can only result in containment and demoralization of the workers [3]. Emancipation aptly exposes this strategy of ‘safety strikes’ as something “that the union would authorize – and therefore legalize – as a last resort after studying them on a case-by-case basis. In other words, they could allow spontaneous strikes where the number of cases would grow to unbearable levels. The aim would be to prevent a mass exodus by forcing workers to work in schools where the number of cases would be more manageable.” [4] So the union will only accept some sporadic, isolated strikes when they absolutely have to in the most severe circumstances, rather than supporting the clear need for a mass strike across the country, then and now.

Given that these left-capitalist entities don’t have any serious commitment to the slogans of “safe schools” and “no re-openings” they claim to identify with, what remains in their positive political content, or is it only sabotage sans positive content? Having a look into some of the elements taking part in the campaign lauded by the de facto propaganda organ of the DSA reveals what positive agenda is being propounded through these demonstrations and “rank-and-file” lobbying of the union-apparatus. For example, the Philadelphia-based Caucus of Working Educators’ platform has a peculiar subset of demands among the generic workplace demands, the latter of which the caucus appears to have no real commitment to, considering its role in these maneuvers, which contain a racial-identitarian content:
 “Paid mentorship programs for veteran teachers of color to support new teachers.
 Pathways to encourage high school and college students of color to enter the field of education.
 Annual publication of employee demographic information by the District, in order to show growth towards this goal.”
 [5]

These are not demands that speak to universal human needs, but redistributive racial patronage that segregates the class into particular identities, thus denying its essential character as a universal political subject. A program to pay certain teachers extra salary based on racialized divisions is to accentuate the exclusionary effects of the racial categories constructed and imposed by capital.

Another example of the type of racialist politics present in this campaign is one of the organizations making up the activist-coalition behind the demonstrations on August 3rd: Journey for Justice. [6] It declares itself a grassroots community organization dedicated to fighting against the privatization of schools and for racial/social justice in the education system. Its platform also contains some revealing racialist demands, such as “proposing federal and local equity mandates that will penalize districts that refuse to address racial inequity in course offerings, implementation of discipline policies and access to opportunity.” [7] The phrasing of this is vague enough that what constitutes “racial inequity in course offerings” could mean courses deemed insensitive to the so-called cultural experience of ethnic minority students, thus calling for alterations in curriculum by petty-bourgeois technical experts educated by graduate programs in ethnic studies, like what the Democratic Party and its activist-machines associated with Black Lives Matter have actually been trying to do with pushing The New York Times’s 1619 Project, and other racialist propaganda, into some public school curriculum [8]. This isn’t to defend the sanctity of the present-day curriculum, which exists to indoctrinate children into bourgeois ideology, but to reveal the mobilization of workers by the unions as fodder for a new ideological strategy being pushed by the bourgeoisie. Even putting aside the possible directions the meaning of these slogans could be taken, and putting aside the problems with the racialist framing of the other slogans, the enforcement of this “National Equity Assessment” would require a proliferation of new salaried-positions in the state-bureaucracy to be filled by petty-bourgeois professionals. Not only this, these state-bureaucrats would be charged with “penalizing” school districts that don’t submit to their mandates (this is ironically the most concrete formulation in the above quoted portion of the platform), and what would the penalty be except for de-funding schools, and who could be more impacted by this than the teachers themselves? Therefore, an organization whose nominal purpose is to oppose the de-funding and privatization of schools, and thus places workers on the false terrain of the public/private ownership dichotomy, promulgates a policy that would wield the exact attacks on education workers typically associated with privatization, but cloaked in an “anti-racist” veneer. It is yet further evidence that workers protecting their interests isn’t a matter of nationalization vs. privatization, falling onto such a terrain only leads to defeat. On top of all this, Journey for Justice advocates an outright segregationist ideology when their platform states “we know that students do better overall academically when they are taught from someone in their own racial group” as a justification for another proposed program that would materially transfer income to the state petty-bourgeoisie and divide teachers along racial lines. [9] Curiously, this section of the platform condemns the privatization of schools because their proliferation correlates with a decline in black teachers, as if school privatization would be acceptable if it produced ‘racial equity’ in employment. What is observed here is not a struggle that resulted in a partial victory for workers, but a mobilization that contributed to the new racial-identitarian ideological campaign of the bourgeois faction represented by the Democratic Party.

If that wasn’t enough, another member of the coalition organizing the day of protest is glaringly reactionary in political character: Center for Popular Democracy. The Center for Popular Democracy is a component of the Democratic Party’s political machine, being a recomposition of ex-chapters of the now defunct (since 2009) ACORN, which itself had the same function as its successor. This advocacy group receives direct funding from the Ford Foundation and the Democracy Alliance, the latter of which includes billionaires Georg Soros and Tom Steyer in their membership. [10] It’s hard to understand how one could rationalize bourgeois endowment groups somehow being on the same side as the working class, but it has already been demonstrated what political interests are really being served.

While the Left was congratulating itself over the farcical victory of “almost, but not actually, going on strike”, schoolteachers have still been on the forefront of the struggle to not accept sacrifices for capital. In August 15th, Arizona teachers executed a ‘sick-out’ to force schools to cancel classes and proceed the year with distance-learning. [11]This action was not initiated by the union, but by the teachers themselves, despite an attempt by the union to take credit for it after the fact in negotiations [12], though silent during the time of the sick-out. [13] There was even some reported minor rumblings of desire for a “nationwide sick-out” by the teachers. [14] It didn’t take long for the unions to respond with their strategy of the ‘safety strike’, as can be seen in what took place in Andover, Massachusetts on August 31st. The publication called Labor Notes presents a day of sitting-out staged by the teachers’ union as an example of the workers flexing their muscles as a class, and concludes its report with the union passing a ‘vote of no confidence’ (impotent gesture of condemnation) against the local superintendent and marched in the building in protest. [15] What is conveniently left out by Labor Notes is that the union did not only vote to condemn the superintendent, but also voted to return to work back inside the school-buildings! After the single-day of working outside the building, the union officially decided that “educators will reluctantly enter school buildings on Tuesday under duress and hope that the School Committee will begin to negotiate reasonable health and safety benchmarks with us in good faith”. [16] Workers in struggle should never delude themselves with expecting “good faith” from the bourgeoisie, and the unions enforce this delusion! What happened in Andover, Massachusetts was that the union had voted to authorize a pre-planned one-day action a couple of days before the sit-out, amid increasing concerns among teachers and frustrations with the reopening plans being negotiated. [17] The action could have only resulted in exactly what it did: an undermining of demands, demoralization of the teachers, and a return to in-person classes with no real safety-measures. The union maneuvers to assure that workers don’t act until it grants permission, and once it grants permission it inevitably strives toward capitulation and sabotage; it ‘withdraws’ permission. It was no different in Andover when the union authorized a one-day sit-out to garner legitimacy among the teachers, and then voting to re-enter schools “in protest”, putting a brake on the drive to actually win the demands. Unlike the previously mentioned action by teachers in the J.O. Combs District of Arizona [18], the union-representatives in Andover rushed to speak on behalf of the teachers who were evidently too busy working outside during the sit-out to speak for themselves. [19The practical lesson to be drawn from all of this is to impose solidarity strikes against the union-framework of the ‘safety strike’, or rather to counterpose the mass strike to the ‘safety strike’; that is, to intervene and agitate for unlimited extension of the strike, not just on the basis of workers in the same sector uniting from different regions, but also on the basis of all workers, regardless of sector, in a geographic area. Against safety strikes, for solidarity strikes!

Some months have passed since the occurrence of these events, and despite hopes for an upcoming vaccine, the virus still rages. The United States has elected a new President, but it won’t reverse the drive for premature re-openings of schools; to again quote Emancipation: “For the unions, linked to the Democratic Party, the main problem with the Trumpist plan has nothing to do with the fact that it puts our lives in danger. Not at all. The whole problem would be that it’s not well planned and it’s not a real plan. They point out that there’s a danger that the workers might distrust it and refuse to carry it out. In other words, it may cause too much social instability, … Therefore, the aim of the unions is to embellish the reopening plan with complementary measures to restore confidence… and maintain the final goal of reopening the schools no matter what.” The schools in Chicago are planned on being re-open by January [20], while schools in Los Angeles had already long been re-opened since the original publication of the Jacobin article cited in the beginning of this article. Unsurprisingly, the situation of the pandemic has become too severe to bare, causing the State of California to resort to the typical authoritarian measures that avoid addressing the real issue of unsafe workplaces. Meanwhile, in New York City, although teachers had reported that they were unwilling to wait for a union-authorization vote to grant permission for a strike [21], the chaotic policy of the city-government going back-and-forth on school openings/closures has weakened the ability for teachers to act. They have, so far, only done isolated single-workplace actions. [22] The confusing alternation of schools re-opening/re-closing has effectively pit parents and students against teachers, eroding the ability of the latter to take leadership in this struggle. [23] It is no surprise that the racialist-propagandist behind the 1619 Project jumped on the first opportunity to condemn the closing of schools and to claim that they are low-risk; further proof of the alignment between the push for school-openings and the bourgeois racial ideological campaign. [24] Additionally, the Chicago Teachers Union posted a tweet, quickly deleted afterwards, declaring that the ‘push to re-open schools is rooted in racism and sexism’. [25] The meaning of this statement is that school re-openings are unjustified on the basis of being ‘rooted in racism and sexism’, therefore schools can be re-opened if the re-opening plan isn’t ‘racist’ or ‘sexist’. Basically, schools should re-open according to the advancement of the bourgeois racial ideological campaign, not based on the needs of workers. If the vaccine does turn out to be successful, then the question posed will be according to whose needs will schools be re-opened? According to the needs of capital, or according to universal human needs (which can only be met through the specific terrain of the proletariat)? The question can only be answered by the active struggle of the classes.

Antonio Lakhan, December 2020

[1] -*. https://www.jacobinmag.com/2020/08/chicago-teachers-strike-covid-19

[2] . https://truthout.org/articles/teachers-and-students-mobilize-in-more-than-35-cities-to-demand-safe-schools/

[3] . ibid

[4] . https://en.communia.blog/unions-and-the-reopening-of-schools/

[5] . https://www.workingeducators.org/platform

[6] . https://www.demandsafeschools.org/about/

[7] . https://j4jalliance.com/project-details-5/

[8] . https://www.pbs.org/newshour/education/how-some-educators-are-teaching-antiracism-to-the-youngest-students and https://pulitzercenter.org/lesson-plan-grouping/1619-project-curriculum

[9] . https://j4jalliance.com/project-details-6/

[10] . https://www.politico.com/story/2014/06/inside-the-vast-liberal-conspiracy-108171

[11] . https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/15/world/coronavirus-covid-19.html#link-190065df

[12] . https://www.thecentersquare.com/arizona/arizona-teacher-s-union-guiding-sick-out-in-district-per-leaked-video/article_6d39f936-e0de-11ea-a220-d3b8c1a9c6d8.html

[13] . Right-to-work and no-strike laws are often cited as an excuse for why the union appears absent from, or even hostile towards, an action. However, it is an unacceptable excuse only selectively used for convenience. As seen in Massachusetts, the union did not hesitate to make its presence known in backing an action deemed an ‘illegal strike’, as long as it was completely under the union’s control.

[14] . https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/aug/15/us-schools-reopening-teachers-sickout-arizona

[15] . https://www.labornotes.org/blogs/2020/09/ready-work-not-indoors-educators-bring-lawn-chairs

[16] . https://patch.com/massachusetts/andover/andover-teachers-union-votes-enter-school-buildings

[17] . https://whdh.com/news/andover-teachers-refuse-to-enter-school-buildings-following-union-vote-to-begin-the-year-remotely/

[18] . https://www.abc15.com/news/getting-back-to-school/teachers-staff-stage-sick-out-in-j-o-combs-school-district-forcing-monday-classes-to-be-canceled

[19] . https://www.boston25news.com/news/health/andover-educators-stage-safety-sit-out/IGP2RJVTKBCC5GIK775NPC3YPA/

[20] . https://abc7chicago.com/chicago-public-schools-cps-return-to-school-reopening-plan/8048985/

[21] . https://newyork.cbslocal.com/2020/09/16/nyc-public-schools-first-day-of-remote-learning/

[22] . https://nypost.com/2020/09/11/teachers-work-outdoors-at-nyc-after-colleague-gets-covid-19/

[23] . https://abc7ny.com/nyc-schools-closing-coronavirus-reopening-covid/8089049/#:~:text=Outraged%20parents%2C%20lawmakers%20lash%20out%20over%20New%20York%20City%20school%20closure&text=New%20York%20City%20schools%20are,rollback%20of%20the%20city’s%20reopening.&text=Parents%20angry%20with%20Mayor%20Bill,outside%20City%20Hall%20on%20Thursday.

[24] . https://twitter.com/nhannahjones/status/1329149143068127235?s=28 and https://twitter.com/nhannahjones/status/1329145528379207694?s=28

[25] . https://patch.com/illinois/chicago/amp/29128089/ctu-loses-credibility-blaming-push-for-reopening-school-on-racism

Originally published on http://igcl.org/USA-Lessons-from-the-Teachers

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