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Teachers Are the Underdogs in a Decades-Long Class War

Activist teacher Gillian Russom discusses how teachers’ unions can engage strategically with electoral politics.

Thousands of teachers march through the rain in Los Angeles, California, on January 14, 2019, on the first day of their strike targeting the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The teachers’ strike wave began in West Virginia and spread across several red states, and then into blue states with work stoppages in Los Angeles, Denver and Oakland.

Leading teacher militant Gillian Russom has been a high school history teacher in Los Angeles for 18 years. She’s been an activist-member of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) for most of that time and currently serves on the union’s board of directors. She is a contributor to the book Education and Capitalism, published by Haymarket Books.

She continues her conversation with Truthout, discussing how teachers’ unions should engage with electoral politics. The following transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Ashley Smith: Teachers’ strikes have shaken state after state across the U.S. What are the key lessons of the strikes so far? How can these be generalized to the rest of the public sector and especially to the private sector, where unions remain very weak?

Gillian Russom: First of all, it’s not just teachers who are striking. Strikes have spread far beyond education to hotel workers, high-tech workers, nurses and even industrial workers … for example, at the Wabtec plant in Erie, Pennsylvania.

We’re also seeing strikes across the border in Mexico, where teachers have been leading the struggle, and now we’re seeing strikes at Walmart and maquiladora plants.

I think the most obvious lesson that people are learning is that striking works. In a period of a week or two, you win reforms that you have not gotten in years and decades of whatever peaceful methods you have been trying. People are seeing that with their own eyes. It’s the reason why the strike wave is spreading.

Another key lesson is that active, excited and inspired rank-and-file involvement is key to winning. In West Virginia, for example, the rank and file connected over Facebook, discussed and debated, and then just went out as one.

In places like LA, rank-and-file involvement was consciously engendered by new organizing strategies such as creating contract action teams at work sites. If you don’t have such rank-and-file activism, you will have a weak strike, a strike where teachers won’t stay out as long as they need to in order to win.

Not only can you strike and win, but in today’s political climate, people will support you. People are dying to see someone take a stand against the rich because class inequality is out of control. People are so happy to see someone say, “We’re not going to take it anymore, and we’re done with business as usual.”

All of that applies to the private sector as well. A lot of the private sector is very engaged with the public, providing services that people depend on. People are tired of how corporations are running these things and will side with the workers when they strike. The massive support for hotel workers in Chicago is an example of that.

Raising common good demands turns this support into active participation. This is not just us acting on behalf of the community, but we’re fighting for what we all want and doing it together.

That amplifies your power even more. In our case, parents were on the picket line every day. Yes, they were saying thank you, but they were also saying, this is my fight, too. Such solidarity is powerful and potentially unstoppable.

The strikes also show the importance of thinking outside the box when it comes to contract negotiations. It’s time to really think big and put demands on the table even if you don’t think you can win them because it gets people thinking about fighting for larger social and economic justice. You never know what you can actually get when you’re shutting down production.

Another piece of thinking outside the box, for us, was overcoming the classic dilemma that faces the public sector; often whoever you’re bargaining with has been starved for funds. They can therefore claim that they don’t have money to address your demands. That wasn’t our case. We faced a district that had a $2 billion surplus. But in other cases, they don’t have surplus, but a deficit.

In those cases, you can fall for the idea that you have to narrow your demands because the money supposedly isn’t there. We have to reject that approach. There is money there. All of this is a manufactured crisis produced by tax cuts and austerity.

So, you have to put demands out there that might require someone beyond our immediate employer to meet them. That’s what we did in LA. I didn’t know if this was going to work and to what extent we [were] going to be able to force the state to take action.

But we got the California governor to sign a law on charter school transparency; that would have never happened before our strike.

Our school board called for the state to put a cap on charter schools in a 5-to-1 vote. This is a school board dominated by privatizers. The mayor of LA, who is a very mainstream politician, is now saying he’s going to help stump for the Schools and Communities First Act that will finally tax corporations at the correct value of their property.

None of this was happening before the strike. So, we raised these issues at a bigger level, even though we knew that they were issues that our immediate employer could not solve, in order to force them to be talked about and hopefully force some action. That’s actually happening now.

One of the most important elements of this strike wave is the leading role played by rank-and-file teachers. Why is this so important for the union movement to learn from?

If you want to win, the rank and file must be actively involved in the whole struggle, from shaping demands to organizing strikes and building solidarity with the broader community. A lot of unions talk rank-and-file empowerment and involvement, but only in terms of structures.

But what is driving those structures? It has to be the conversations you’re having at your work site. Why do we need to have a 10-to-1 ratio of members to activists if there’s nothing that the activists are talking about?

So, what made us able to dramatically involve the rank and file is the conversations we were having about the big picture. We decided to talk to our members about the whole problem created by austerity and privatization.

We had a summary sheet with talking points to discuss with our members about the existential crisis facing public education and who’s behind it — the billionaires. So, to activate the rank and file, you need more than structures; you have a real purpose in activating the rank and file.

The last important lesson is that we in the union movement should have confidence that if we frame our issues as responding to attacks from the billionaire class, we will win support and solidarity. We can build a broader working-class fight back.

There is a lot of discussion now in the union movement about how to advance its agenda in the electoral arena, especially inside the Democratic Party. What’s your view about how unions should approach electoral politics?

The strike wave has dramatically shifted the discussion about public education across the country and especially within the Democratic Party, even among some who had supported austerity and privatization. Many Democrats are now presenting themselves as allies of our movement.

But the truth is that … the neoliberal agenda in education has been bipartisan, and the Democrats (and Obama in particular) went way beyond what the Republicans did. Think about Obama’s federal policy, Race to the Top. It forced school districts to compete for a tiny pot of money by opening up more charter schools and tying teacher evaluations to standardized testing.

Remembering that the Democrats’ role in this has been key is important when whole sections of the party are now changing their tune about education. We obviously know the reason why: the popularity of our strikes and how we have changed the conversation. That should lead us to stick to our guns and continue the strike wave, not simply rally to this or that politician who has now changed their position.

In my union, it’s always been a classic refrain every time there’s a school board election to say that since we have a seven-member school board, we have to get four Democrats on the school board to get what we want. After this trike, some even said that everything we won during the strike will be in jeopardy if we don’t go all out for the school board election.

Luckily, many in our union rejected that way of thinking. We said, “Remember we lost the last school board election to privatizers, but they are now voting for our agenda because we went on strike. They even called for a cap on charter schools in California! It was our power from the workplace that changed the conversation and policy.”

That does not mean we should ignore the electoral arena. Because we’ve shifted the conversation, we can say to the politicians singing their new tune that if you’re not for austerity and privatization anymore, and you’re now for funding public schools, this is what we want you to do. That’s exactly what we’re doing in California.

We’re saying that if you really stand with LA teachers, you’d better be a public proponent of taxing corporations for their property taxes at the correct rate, which we have not had in California since Proposition 13 passed in 1978. That’s the reason we’re in the toilet in terms of funding. So, you better reverse that wrong.

We’re also saying that if you stand with teachers now, it is time to cap charter schools and regulate them and require a community impact report before any new charter school can be opened. Most communities already have enough public schools. The only impact of opening a charter school is going to be to lose teachers and defund public schools.

By exposing such facts through a report, we can build support for an even bigger campaign against charterization. We can build support for bills in Sacramento that would put a moratorium on charter schools. We should be using the momentum built up by the strike to demand that all candidates adopt our demands.

What does that mean for the upcoming presidential election?

It gives us an opportunity to put forward a national program of what we who have gone on strike across the country want and need at the federal level. The government has set all these terrible policies like Race to the Top that have narrowed everything down to the state and local level. But many national politicians claim that funding is not really their problem because it’s mostly a state issue.

We need to change that conversation. Here are a couple of ways to do that. First, Title I is a federal program to provide funding to schools based on their number of low-income students. But right now, politicians are violating that commitment through massive underfunding. We should make a demand on all the presidential candidates to reverse this and fully fund Title I.

Second, we need to agitate about special education funding. The federal government is supposed to contribute 40 percent of this funding to districts, but they have not been doing that for decades (they currently provide only 14.7 percent). So, school districts, because they’re legally liable to provide special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, have been making up the difference, and that’s been coming out of local school budgets. It’s a reason why local school budgets are starved.

So, we can demand that the federal government meet their obligation to provide funding for special education. This election is an opening. We should push our unions.

This is not the time to run around and think about endorsements or which person do we like better; it’s our time to craft our agenda for public education at a local, state and federal level, and demand that politicians sign onto that. We might be able to put forward a “New Deal” for education leading up to 2020.

A new generation of socialists is playing a key role in this strike wave. How should socialists organize in this new and exciting situation?

If you were on a picket line during any of these strikes, you felt the incredible power we have as unionists. We have the chance to be the champions of the working class and students of color. That’s what made these strikes so amazing to be a part of. I think our role as socialists must be to push this strategy of bargaining for the common good, but we need to go beyond that to create unions for the common good, an entire labor movement for the common good.

We have to carry that spirit into the way we create strategy for the whole working-class movement. We must become leaders of our side and help reverse the one-sided class war that has gone on for decades. Key in all this is combining class demands with specific ones about oppression, in particular racism.

In LA, we have an opportunity to take on millionaires, billionaires and racism at the same time.

We have so much money in our state that’s concentrated in the hands of the rich and their corporations. Think about Silicon Valley and all the corporations like Apple, Wells Fargo, Chevron and others. Then think about the students going to school in South Central LA and East LA. That inequality is a crime.

At the same time, socialists in our union have argued that UTLA should campaign for a municipal ballot measure to stop prison funding and to create more accountability for law enforcement. It’s called Reform LA Jails. It’s going to divest money from prisons and put it instead into job funding and mental health programs. The LA county jail system is the largest mental health facility in the country. That’s just one example of how we can lead based on a socialist perspective that combines fights against class inequality, racism and all other oppressions into one common struggle.

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