What else can we do?

I promised to offer alternatives to CTA’s historic pattern of defeatism and accommodation (discussed in the previous post).  So today I’ll list a few fairly general things I think CTA and its parent organization, the National Education Association (NEA), should do to pull out of this long downward spiral of political retreat and increasing weakness. I won’t pretend to be all positive and constructive here; while I give a concrete example for each of the general suggestions in bold type, I also give negative examples of how far in the other direction NEA/CTA’s actions (and lack thereof) have been.

  • Provide financial, legal, and research help to local affiliates seeking to make local corporations pay their share for public education and other services.

For example, CTA and NEA should support the campaign the Oakland Education Association (OEA) has been waging. For six years we have highlighted city’s largest corporations and extremely profitable port (4th largest in the U.S.) and have demanded they pay their fair share for schools and other vital public services. At demonstrations and press conferences, in flyers, opinion pieces, and letters to the editor, we have made the point that “Oakland is not a poor city,” but that the wealth generated here is not fairly distributed.  We have also articulated and publicized a vision for quality public education that could be achieved if we tap that wealth.

But we could use help. To write and lead a campaign for an initiative for progressive taxation or to plug corporate loopholes requires more time, staffing, and funding than OEA currently has. NEA and CTA have ignored our repeated requests for such support.

  • Work with other unions and organizations to sponsor and campaign for state ballot initiatives for progressive taxation in various states.

On paper, NEA has long supported progressive taxation to pay for public education and has occasionally deployed staff to help educate the public on the issue. But, as described earlier,  CTA has failed to follow through on that principle in California.

If NEA or any affiliates—or the American Federation of Teachers—have done better elsewhere, please comment on this post about it.

  • Support collective bargaining efforts by local affiliates to win significant gains in educational conditions.

In our current contract negotiations, OEA has demanded major class size reduction and other educational improvements along with pay comparable to other districts in our area. On one hand the pressures on us to make concessions during this economic meltdown are even worse than usual; on the other hand, the potential to gain public support grows as the $12 trillion corporate bailout strips naked the old lie that “there’s no money for public services.”  CTA could recycle some of our dues into a media campaign to support our demands and help lead the way for other locals to fight for similar progress. In past contract years, however, CTA has pressured OEA to moderate our demands and has intervened to broker concessionary contracts.

  • Support calls for grassroots organizing and labor action to fight attacks on public education and to win real progress.

As my earlier posts from the NEA Representative Assembly have shown, that’s so not happening. The new business item for nationwide labor action for fully funded public education at corporate expense  was strongly opposed by both CTA and NEA leadership (and most delegates). Worse though, was that NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, with the consent of delegates, closed off debate on the idea. (Debate on a similar motion supported by OEA was also blocked in 2007.) Aside from that motion, there was not a single proposal to organize labor action or even public demonstrations to defend education, let alone to demand quality schools for all.

  • Sponsor a massive media campaign to build support for real educational progress (such as class size reduction) and to combat pervasive misinformation and the destruction of public education.

CTA leadership and delegates argued that the media campaign included in the motion for a nationwide strike would be too costly. NEA leaders estimated such a campaign would take $20 million of NEA’s $355 million budget for 2009-10. Sounds like a bargain to me. CTA alone spent $12 million this past spring campaigning for a set of extremely divisive and regressive state ballot measures that the voters wisely defeated. (The initiatives proposed a short-term fix for school funding in exchange for a cap on state spending and sacrifices in other public services. Other unions, including the California Federation of Teachers and California Nurses Association, opposed the initiatives.)  And NEA and CTA will spend tens of millions again this year campaigning for and lobbying politicians supporting school privatization policies and ever more funding cuts.

  • Demand and fight for what teachers and students really need.

At NEA’s Representative Assembly the CTA leadership got thousands of delegates from around the country to sign postcards appealing to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for “a fair budget.” Did the cards call on him to eliminate cuts to public services that already have been severely reduced year after year? No, they asked only that he “minimize cuts to education.”  This is not to suggest that a differently worded postcard would have changed history, but it does illustrate CTA’s narrow and defeatist mentality. With 9000 elected delegates and many others gathered for the RA, a march to governor’s San Diego office a few blocks away could have made a powerful statement. Instead CTA leaders picked a few dozen people to stand for the whole, apparently because a march permit would have been required and nobody had thought to obtain one.

Here’s the point: If we are serious about improving public education in California or anywhere else, we have to start by demanding what students and educators need for quality education and mobilizing people to actively fight for those demands. To briefly break that down:

(1)   Demanding what we need – Compromise will take place in the course of bargaining, but the lower the starting point, the lower the result. That would be the case even if low-balling ourselves didn’t signal weakness (which it does). Starting with strong demands does not ensure success, but begging for mercy from the outset is a sure formula for defeat. This applies to budget battles as well as to contract negotiations.  NEA and CTA officials regularly advise locals to make “reasonable” demands from the outset (as if it’s reasonable for to accept little-to-no progress toward decent conditions).

“Find out just what a people will submit to, and you have found out the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them.” Frederick Douglass

(2)   Mobilizing to fight – No matter what we demand, we can only win by fighting hard and effectively. NEA and CTA’s strategy is based on electing “friends” to office and then lobbying them behind closed doors. Occasionally they rally members to send cards and emails or to rally and march.  People without power have never won anything by electing “friends” and politely lobbying, but by mobilizing pressure with visible protest and direct action.

Thanks for hanging in through this long post.

Next: More specific ideas for a strategy to move forward.