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Dueling Strategies in the Defense of Public Education, Part 2

by Workers Action Wednesday, Mar. 24, 2010 at 3:25 PM

In Part I of this essay we looked at strategies in defense of public education that are referred to as “ultra-left,” meaning that they veer so far left that they sever ties with the working class and consequently lose all traction when it comes to influencing the movement. Here we will examine strategies that veer to the right, often ending up in the camp of opportunism, which means sacrificing principles and working class independence for the sake of quick but illusory gains. The interests of working people are subordinated to those of the capitalist class and the politicians who represent them, be they Democrats or Republicans. Finally, we will return to the question of how to proceed forward.

Organized Labor and the Democrats

Many top union officials often serve as examples of this rightward deviation. Some took the opportunity to place the blame for the crisis of public education at the feet of Republican Governor Schwarzenegger, overlooking the fact that the California Democratic Party politicians have routinely showered generous tax breaks on corporations, thereby depleting the state treasury of much needed money for public education and social services. In this way these union officials are taking advantage of the education crisis to offer backhanded support to Democratic Party candidates by denigrating their opponents. Others do this more explicitly by announcing at rallies in defense of public education that “we” are going to support one or another Democratic Party candidate who is truly a “friend of labor.”

But the promotion of Democratic Party candidates or politicians forgets that Democrats, as well as Republicans, receive huge amounts of money from corporations and the rich. Corporations do not give money to candidates without the expectation of a handsome return on their investment, often taking the form of favorable legislation, including generous tax breaks. After all, the people who run these corporations are always looking at the bottom line, as they say.

One need only take a quick look back at the past four decades to realize the Democratic Party has done virtually nothing for working people. Our standard of living has been on a steady decline while the income of the rich has skyrocketed, public education and social services have been decimated, bankers were allowed to prey on us, ruin our lives, and even commit criminal acts in the process, and then get bailouts while we lost our jobs, our health care, and our houses and were left to struggle on our own. Meanwhile the environment has become progressively more polluted. The tax burden has been shifted off corporations and the rich onto students (in the form of tuition or fee increases) and working people. Moreover, not one significant labor law reform has been passed while the Democrats have held the White House with majorities in both houses of Congress. The latest blow came when, even with their recent super majority in Congress, the Democrats could not bring themselves to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made organizing unions easier. And they have entirely given up pretending that they would like to eliminate the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act.

Democratic Leadership vs. the California Democracy Act

More recently, the Democrats have played a devious and manipulative role in response to the California Democracy Act, which would reduce the requirement for the California state legislature to pass a budget and raise revenue from two-thirds vote to a simple majority. While many of the rank and file Democratic Party clubs have actually endorsed the Act, those who wield power in the party are doing everything they can to subvert it.

John Burton, California Democratic Party Chair, is promoting a competing initiative that would only reduce the requirement for passing a budget to a simple majority while raising revenue would still require a two-thirds vote. The logic behind this maneuver is self-serving and perverse: By maintaining a two-thirds requirement to raise taxes, the Democratic Party can continue pretending as if they would really like to raise taxes on the rich and the corporations, but the Republicans refuse and the Democrats lack a two-thirds majority that would allow them to override the Republican resistance. In this way, Democrats can talk as if they support working people — after all, talk is cheap — while at the same time not alienating their corporate sponsors by actually raising their taxes.

Jerry Brown, California Attorney General and Democratic Party candidate for governor, added his own twist to undermine the California Democracy Act. As Attorney General he has the power to label the initiative and cunningly chose the word “taxes” rather than “revenue,” thereby throwing fear into the heart of ordinary working people who do not want to see their own taxes rise and thereby lowering the chances of its passage. However, the majority of Californians, along with the rest of the country, are strongly supportive of raising taxes on the rich and on the corporations, which is the ultimate goal of those who initiated the California Democracy Act. Because he is now a candidate for governor, Brown does not want to alienate the wealthy with the specter of their taxes rising with the passage of this Act.

Why the Democratic Party Can’t Defend Working People

The explanation for the failure of the Democratic Party to defend the interests of working people is straightforward: they place their faith in capitalism. They believe it is the best of all possible economic systems. But capitalism, because of its very essence, operates in opposition to the interests of working people. Because capitalists are in a constant state of competition with one another, in order to survive each must keep production costs to a minimum. Those who succeed can undersell their opponents, push them out of business, and in this way survive. But labor constitutes a major production cost, and accordingly, business owners are always intent on running the business with as few workers as possible, with the lowest wage scale, and with ever-dwindling benefits. Whenever possible, they consequently transform their workforce into part-timers, mercilessly take advantage of undocumented workers, replace workers with machines or computers, demand that the workforce take a pay cut, contract out work to avoid union wages, transfer the entire business overseas to find the cheapest possible labor, and so on. They are not in business to serve the community or provide jobs to those of us who need them; they are in business to maximize profits for themselves. And if they do not succeed, they go under. The Democrats, just as much as the Republicans, are intent on supporting U.S. capitalism at the expense of working people. Accordingly, despite lip service to the contrary, they are compelled to be fundamentally anti-labor and have done nothing to mitigate, let alone stop, these crippling trends.

Even when the Democrats pretend to do something for workers, like pass legislation that would encourage the creation of jobs, they do it by helping out the corporations. Just this past week Congress passed a so-called jobs creation program that simply amounted to giving corporations one more tax break: they do not have to pay their share of Social Security for the remaining year for any new worker they hire. Of course, the workers have to pay their share of Social Security. And perversely, in the final analysis such legislation will pave the way for the Democrats, in alliance with Republicans, to begin to dismantle Social Security on the grounds it is insolvent.

Alliances with Organized Labor

Convinced at this point in history that there is no other game in town, organized labor has turned to the Democrats, pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into their campaign chests, with the desperate hope of winning some substantial gains. But despite these munificent gestures, it has seen very little “return on its investment.” In fact organized labor has begun to exhibit the classic symptoms of the neurotic: one repeatedly does the same thing with the exact same results while expecting a different outcome. As long as organized labor is anchored to capitalism, it will have little choice except to humbly plead for help from the Democrats. But as the capitalist system continues to decline, and economic indicators are pointing in this direction, the pressure will intensify on labor officials from their membership to find their sanity and try something different.

Some have argued that because of their ties to the Democratic Party, the movement to defend public education should reject forming a united front with the unions. A united front is defined as an organized movement in which working people, although they might have different political perspectives and belong to different political parties, nevertheless come together to fight for a few fundamental issues that they have in common. The antiwar movement, for example, is a united front as well as the movement to defend public education and social services.

But despite its ties to the Democratic Party, the impulse to reject working with organized labor in a united front is misguided. First, because of the intensity of the current economic crisis, union members are mounting growing pressure on their union officials to defend their interests as they witness the massive layoffs of their coworkers and suffer pay cuts and furloughs. With no help coming from the Democratic Party, organized labor will be increasingly compelled to act independently of the Democrats and begin to turn instead to mobilizing its own ranks, and working people in general, in the form of mass demonstrations in order to exert political pressure in their own self-interest.

Second, as was mentioned in Part I of this article, the Democratic Party has in fact launched an attack on organized labor, particularly the teacher unions, by championing Race to the Top and leaving No Child Left Behind basically intact. And it has signaled its intention to cut “entitlements,” meaning Social Security and Medicare. These attacks drive a wedge between organized labor and the Democratic Party.

Third, by including organized labor in united fronts, union rank and file members will be exposed to a variety of political perspectives, including those that are critical of the Democratic Party and capitalism. These ideas can in turn influence the direction of the unions.

Fourth, by joining a large united front movement to save public education and social services, an entirely new perspective opens up to the unions. Currently, when fighting for gains or when simply defending what workers already have, unions have been engaging in purely symbolic protests. For example, a small demonstration is called at the house of some U.C. Regent, or at a bank during working hours when hardly anyone can come, or perhaps at Senator Diane Feinstein’s house, where a few hundred union members, at best, show up. But small symbolic demonstrations have little impact on employers or government policy. The union officials are only going through the motions of protesting without believing that anything significant can be won.

Mass Action

In contrast, during the 1930s workers staged massive demonstrations, mobilizing all their members and supporters from the community, in order to completely close down a particular business and force the owners to raise wages and recognize the union. The Civil Rights movement organized huge demonstrations and tore down racial barriers. The women’s movement organized mass demonstrations and won the right to vote.

Massive demonstrations unleash a dynamic that has the potential to change the political landscape. When people are brought together in large numbers, they no longer feel isolated and powerless. They begin to experience first-hand the strength that flows from their unity, which in turn encourages and pushes them forward in the struggle to win even more adherents. Here working people are acting independently of the politicians, flexing their muscles, as it were, and beginning to experience their own political power. As the demonstrations grow in size, it becomes apparent that they truly represent the interests and have the support of the majority of Americans. And because of this support, people become convinced that victory is possible. In the final analysis, these demonstrations lead to the recognition that what was considered an unrealistic dream only yesterday, such as full funding for public education and social services, is now entirely within reach.

By endorsing and building the March 4 mass demonstrations in defense of public education and social services, and by demanding that taxes be raised on the rich and the corporations, organized labor is already embarking on a new course of action that, if pursued, will place it on a collision course with the Democratic Party, which has been championing regressive taxation and has ruthlessly slashed social services, taking money from the most vulnerable people in society and transferring it to the big corporations in the form of new tax breaks.

The stakes are high. Those in organized labor clearly recognize that they will be up against powerful forces, representing the wealthiest sector of society, if they continue to insist on raising their taxes. They understand this will be class war. But as the California state budget continues to hemorrhage so that even more teachers and state workers are laid off, the unions will have little choice but to continue along this path. And while the wealthy are surely powerful, working people, when united and organized independently as a class, are even more powerful. If the owners of businesses, that is, the stockholders, are absent from their work sites, no one notices. However, when workers collectively decide not to go to work, society comes to a grinding halt. In the final analysis this fact ensures that working people have the power to insist that society operate in the interests of the majority, and working people are the vast majority.


About the Authors:

Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.). Ann Robertson is a Lecturer at San Francisco State University and a member of the California Faculty Association. Both are writers for Workers Action and may be reached at

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