School unions battle privatization in R.I.

September 4, 2012

School support staff, including paraprofessionals, maintenance, cafeteria and bus workers, held a one-day strike in North Kingstown, R.I., south of Providence--and the teachers' union voted to support them by not crossing picket lines. Brian Chidester, a teacher and member of the Bristol-Warren Education Association, comments on the meaning of this latest in a wave of school struggles in Rhode Island.

IT'S AN understatement to say that the pressure is building. But it's hard to avoid the metaphor when you see the bursts of steam. You can still hear the lid rattling, and you know it's going to erupt. The only question is when. That latest burst of steam in Rhode Island came on August 28, when North Kingstown Schools did not open on schedule.

So what happened in North Kingstown (NK)? Essentially, the NK Educational Support Professionals (ESP) came to an impasse in negotiations when the NK schools privatized 26 janitors, dealing them a $13,000 pay cut--all considered, a reduction of some 40-45 percent.

The exceptional thing here is that the NK ESP voted to strike over the issue of privatization. This is a major step toward workers taking collective, working-class action, and we cannot understate its importance. In any number of cases in the last 40 years, contracts have included provisions that deprived a portion of the bargaining unit its rights, pay or even jobs altogether, supposedly in order to safeguard the jobs of the rest of the members. It was a losing game. But that game now appears to be over.

School unions rallying during the one-day strike in North Kingstown
School unions rallying during the one-day strike in North Kingstown

Even more significant: the National Education Association of North Kingstown (NEANK)--the teachers' union--voted unanimously to respect the picket line. This is an event of tremendous significance: In the past 40 years, if one group of workers were to go on strike, they might have received the well wishes of the other workers--from inside the workplace. It is conceivable that the strike by the ESP, by itself, might not have closed the schools. But the vote by the teachers sealed the deal.

ON THE evening of the 28th, workers rallied outside the school committee meeting before entering. By one estimate, 300 people attended a meeting that probably doesn't draw even a score of observers on a regular basis. It was thrilling to see the solidarity: Two dozen or so members of IBEW Local 2323, the Verizon workers' local, showed up, as did firefighters from North Kingstown, Cranston and possibly other areas.

The NK School Committee Chair Kim Page and the rest of the committee displayed a level of arrogance and contempt of the audience to rival Anthony Carcieri or Kathy Crain (before she resigned and regained some measure of humanity). They first moved public comment to the end of the agenda, and then adjourned the meeting early, supposedly due to the "rowdiness" of the crowd.

It's unclear where this is all going next. School opened the next day, as the ESP agreed to work without a contract--a retreat, almost certainly. It's certainly possible that the union will be unable to defeat the privatization, despite the opposition of two school committee members.

The other school officials are neoliberals, bent on using any excuse to privatize and attack unions. As As writer Tom Sgouros wrote:

In a conversation one summer evening this past July, one council member told me with certainty about the waste that could be cut out of the school budget. As I usually notice when people decry government waste to me, the member could supply no specific suggestion to cut beyond the job of an assistant to the superintendent, a cost of less than one-fifteenth the amount they insisted be cut.

It's a classic case of the "lean budget" red herring. The really stunning thing is that the NK schools have a budget surplus of $700,000--and the town has millions in surplus, truly an incredible feat in the current economic conditions.

But the experience will have longer-term reverberations, particularly for the NK ESP and NEANK. Ideas are one thing, but consciousness is another. Any ideas these folks have about the fairness or immutability of our current society, any fear or disdain they may have for engaging in direct class struggle--even those ideas they may still voice--now stand in contradiction to their actions.

It was in the way that they said the Pledge of Allegiance at the opening of the school committee meeting, when they shouted, "and Justice FOR ALL!" at the school committee. The NK ESP has taken us another step along the path to the coming cataclysm.

IT'S BEEN five years, by my count, since the first day of school was disrupted in any Rhode Island school district. In the intervening period of quiet, our schools have faced a two-pronged assault: on one hand, an unending budget crisis fueled by years of tax cuts for the rich, the collapse of real estate values and the general economic crisis for the bottom 99 percent; on the other, a wave of education reforms that have seriously exposed the real weaknesses of our unions. (If you're not familiar with these attacks, check out the archives of my blog Rhode Island Red Teacher.)

In 2011, we faced a real contradiction: on the national and international scenes, we saw the Arab Spring, the labor uprising in Wisconsin, the movement of the Indignados in Spain. And of course: Occupy.

Meanwhile, on the local level, it seemed that our unions were simply ready to surrender and call it a victory. Several districts signed concessionary contracts, led (as usual) by the Providence contract, which called for a pay freeze over the course of the contract and a restructuring of the pay scale. Even Cranston, which at the time was doing fabulous work to stop Achievement First from taking more money from their district, saw the union accept further concessions.

And of course, all of this was on the heels of Rhode Island's successful bid in 2010 for a Race to the Top (RTTT) grant. The RTTT grant meant roughly $75 million in federal funds--but almost all of it has been earmarked for charter schools and the new evaluation system, which requires consultants and "data collection systems"--i.e., showering all this public money on the private sector. Central Falls teachers were the first to bear the brunt of this new evaluation system, in 2010-11. But in 2011-12, the rest of us started the "gradual implementation" year. The pressure increased tremendously, and the contradiction ripened.

It was in this context that my own local voted down a contract offer. The two real issues: 1) to keep our seniority in the event of layoffs; and 2) to demand respect. In the first instance, we retained the seniority language in our contract; the validity of that language hinges on the Portsmouth lawsuit, still pending. In the second instance, I don't know that we won respect from our administration. But we started to build that respect among and for ourselves.

My local's contract rejection and the NK ESP strike are important steps. But the path is perhaps best indicated by the coming explosion 1,000 miles west of us. The Chicago Teachers Union has now set a strike deadline of September 10.

Here is one of the nation's largest teacher unions, putting forward their own reform program, building community support, and taking on Obama's former chief of staff in the midst of the presidential election. Remember: it's the Democrats, and especially the Chicago Democrats, who have really led the attack on public education in the last four years. The Chicago Teachers Union has already forced a few concessions from Mayor Rahm Emanuel, but there's still quite a struggle ahead of them. They are leading the way in the fight to defend public education, and we would be well advised to watch, study, and do all we can to support the CTU.

First published at Rhode Island Red Teacher.

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