Ready to strike = Ready to win

March 24, 2014

With just days to go before the first strike in its history, the Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) won a tentative contract agreement from Portland Public Schools (PPS) officials that achieved the teachers' most important demands.

The victory was the product of a hard-fought campaign stretching back months, against a school district that was determined to push concessions on teachers in line with its commitment to the corporate school "reform" agenda. But the PAT countered with a determined struggle that united rank-and-file teachers--who, in the face of all the intimidation served up by the district and the media, voted almost unanimously to authorize a strike--and that mobilized support from students, parents and the community.

Adam Sanchez, a teacher at Madison High School, member of the PAT's external organizing team and an editorial associate of Rethinking Schools, spoke about his conclusions about the PAT's struggle at a meeting of the International Socialist Organization. His speech appears below, edited for publication.

I WANT to start by admitting that I wasn't one of the many teachers who were completely elated and excited after hearing we won a tentative agreement.

Rather, my first emotion was disappointment. I think it's important to acknowledge that disappointment, which a lot of us, particularly the organizers, felt at the time. I think it stemmed from all the organizing and preparation for a strike that didn't happen.

It stemmed from our knowledge that on the first Thursday of the strike, we were going to shut this city down. It's important to go back to the plans we had for that day and dwell on them a bit. Right before we got news of the tentative agreement, we had gotten some other news that the school district was planning, on the first day of the strike, to train scabs at Marshall High School--a high school that was closed a few years ago.

So that morning, every high school teacher in Portland was going to by picketing outside Marshall High School. We would likely have been joined by the Portland Student Union and the hundreds of supporters--and we would have shut that scab training down.

Portland teachers demonstrate during their campaign for a just contract

After that, everyone would have gotten on TriMet around the city and gone down to Pioneer Square. The students were going to have a rally at the school district building, and then a march to meet us at Pioneer Square, all of us in blue shirts. Then we would have had a mass union rally downtown, which would have shown this city what a fighting union looks like.

I think it's important to hold on to that vision of what would have been--because that day will come. I think it's just been postponed for a while.

IT'S BEEN postponed for a while because we won. And that's why pride is the second emotion I felt once the details of the agreement started coming in. I felt profound pride in the victory we had won.

After years of layoffs and speedups, a minimum of 150 new teachers will be hired next year. At a time when teachers' unions across the country are tying more of their profession to standardized test scores, we won language that bars test scores from being used in transfers, layoffs or merit pay schemes--that's huge. We won more prep time for elementary school teachers. We won a whole new article on academic freedom that forces our district to acknowledge the expertise of our teachers.

These wins will have a real impact in our classrooms next year and move us a step closer to the kind of education Portland students deserve.

I think it's also important to acknowledge that before this really big victory, there were some smaller victories within the campaign that we also need to recognize.

One of the first things we organized in the solidarity campaign was a Jefferson cluster forum on "The Schools Portland Students Deserve." At that forum, Rose Murdoch, a teacher at Beach Elementary School, spoke eloquently in comparing the exorbitant salaries of people like Yvonne Deckard, the district's $15,000-a-month union-busting consultant, with the lack of money that was being spent on our schools.

Murdoch pointed to a brown chair and said that at Beach, "That's the color the water that comes out of our drinking fountain." She said, "When our kids go out to recess, they have to pass by an enormous sinkhole." That speech was broadcast on YouTube, it was shown all over social media, and lo and behold, a week or two later, the principal came to a staff meeting and said, "Guess what we're going to fix?" That's the kind of smaller victory we have to hold on to.

Another important victory within the campaign was when the Portland Teacher Solidarity Campaign held a press conference, and one of the speakers was Kathryn Earl, whose son faced expulsion for bringing a box cutter to school because he had been bullied. She spoke about her son--one of the many children of color who too often get pushed out of our schools and into the criminal injustice system. Within a week of that press conference, her son had been reinstated. That's another important smaller victory.

We should celebrate these victories. And I think there's an important lesson in them: when we fight, we can win. That may seem obvious to those of us who participated in the contract campaign, but I think it's important.

I WANT to say a couple things about how we fought.

One, the document we wrote as a preamble to the union's bargaining position, titled "The Schools Portland Students Deserve," was absolutely crucial. It was a signal to the community and to our teachers that our union is no longer just bargaining over wages and benefits. We want to improve public education, and we want to bargain over the things that are meaningful to teachers, to parents and to students--and that's class size, the misuse of standardized testing, and so on.

Second was the union's one-in-ten network. In every building, 10 percent of union members were organizers for the building, and they were responsible for getting out information to the other 90 percent and for taking back information to the school cluster leads. When we were at our best, that network was working, and there was a lot of communication going both ways. We were at our worst during the campaign when communication was held up at the top and wasn't disseminated through the network.

Now, though we're celebrating, there are some things that we will never forget. We're not going to forget the loss of early retirement--that was a not insignificant concession, which is going to force a lot of educators into working longer.

We will never forget that the district went on Craigslist to hire scabs to replace us. We will never forget that from the beginning, they used union-busting tactics. They tried to erase 30 pages from our contract, and take away everything from child care leave for probationary teachers to work-load and class-size limits.

We will never forget that they refused to even discuss many of the issues that were important to us--like class size and standardized tests--because they didn't have to legally. And we will never forget that they refused to listen to the students' demands when they brought them to the board meeting--and everyone except board member Steve Buel walked out.

We will never forget how they tried to intimidate and bully substitute teachers into crossing our picket lines, by lying to them about what was in their contract. We won't forget that Yvonne Deckard is still on their payroll at $15,000 a month--money that should be going into our schools. And we won't forget that when we had our first informational picket, they sent a cop car out to every single school because they were so afraid of teachers on a picket line.

And we absolutely will never forget the disrespect and disregard for our teachers that this school board has shown throughout the bargaining. So while I'm sure that many people have various ideas for next steps, there's one step that we all can agree on: This school board has to go.

But I think the character of that campaign to replace the school board is important. We can't just run a "kick the bums out" campaign. One of the lessons of our contract campaign is you can't just be fighting against something--you have to give people something to fight for.

We need to think about what a movement campaign would look like and who candidates from the movement could be. We should look at the campaign of Kshama Sawant, the socialist who won a city council seat in Seattle. We should look at the campaign of Chokwe Lumumba, the Black nationalist who became mayor in Jackson, Miss--he had a people's assembly to come up with his platform.

At the same time as we learn from these campaigns, though, we also have to realize that even if we had a school board of revolutionary socialists, they would be working within a system and with a budget that is set up to ensure public schools will crumble. So to figure out our next steps and our longer-term goals, we need to take a step back and look at the larger picture.

IN ORDER to do that, we have to understand the economic crisis we're in. For decades, PPS was able to extract concessions from us by saying they just didn't have the money, and this was partially true. It's only because we're in an economic recovery right now, though a weak recovery, and because the state was able to rob public workers' pension funds that PPS has gotten enough money to hire hundreds of teachers next year.

What happened in 2007 and 2008 wasn't just another recession--it was a systemic crisis. You don't have to take my word for it--you can look at what the ruling class is saying.

David McNally, the Canadian socialist, pointed out that at the meetings of the G8 and G20, up until 2010, they were talking about a "decade of austerity"--this phrase ran through all the speeches at their conferences. But in 2010, there was a very important shift in language--and you can Google this. They stopped talking about a "decade of austerity," and they started talking about an "age of austerity."

This was a recognition in ruling class circles that a decade wasn't going to be enough. This is the "new normal" of capitalism--it's their plan to get us out of the economic crisis: tighten our belts for not just one, but many decades. This is why the debate in Washington isn't about should we cut--food stamps, for example--but how much we should cut, and how fast.

That may seem totally illogical, but to the capitalist market, it makes perfect sense. In order for economic growth to be restored, you have to lower workers' wages and cheapen capital to the point where profits can be made again. This is the logic of a capitalist crisis.

In education, there's a similar method to the madness--the cuts may seem disgusting and absurd to most of us, but they also make sense within the logic of the capitalist economy. In the U.S. today--in the eyes of the "free" market--we have an overeducated workforce. A Rutgers University study last year showed that 40 percent of recent college graduates are unemployed, and another 16 percent are underemployed. The number of college graduates working minimum-wage jobs has doubled from what it was five years ago.

On top of this, education is estimated to be a $600 billion industry. So when businesses are struggling to find new ways to make money, education can look very appetizing.

This is why there's no debate among the two major political parties around education. In fact, Barack Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan have done more to push the private corporate agenda in education than Bush could do.

YET IN the face of this, Portland is part of an emerging national fightback in education.

One aspect of the fightback, as we saw in Portland, is teachers' union contract campaigns. This started, of course, with the Chicago teachers and their heroic strike in 2012--although in Portland, we know there were several victorious strikes in smaller districts just east of the city.

In Portland, even though we didn't strike, we showed that if you prepare for a strike, you can win. And in St. Paul, Minn., the teachers had done so much community organizing-- they had parents on their bargaining team--that the school board knew early on that they didn't have the support. So all it took was the St. Paul teachers saying they were going to have a strike vote, and the school board caved. They got class size limits; they got 50 new full-time employees; they got $6 million for preschool; they got a 25 percent reduction in the loss of class time due to unnecessary standardized testing and several other wins. That's an important contract campaign to learn from.

The second aspect of this emerging national aspect is testing boycotts.

The first teachers boycott of standardized testing was at Garfield High School in Seattle. The Garfield teachers boycotted the MAP test. Teachers at several other schools followed suit, and they won.

That could have been an isolated event, but it's not. The boycott has now spread, thanks to Chicago. In Chicago, there are at least two schools boycotting the ISAT, a state-mandated test that was going to be obsolete with the Common Core State Standards--it's pretty similar to the OAKS test in Oregon in that respect.

It's important to point out that these boycotts weren't going after the big enchilada, the Common Core tests. Strategically, teachers picked tests that were vulnerable because they were on their way out or for other reasons.

A third important aspect of the national fightback is union election campaigns.

In Los Angeles, the largest local on the West Coast, the left-wing Union Power slate won a strong victory in United Teachers Los Angeles. And in Seattle, Jesse Hagopian, a leader of the MAP boycott, is running a campaign, along with 15 or so members of Social Equality Educators (SEE) to take over leadership of the Seattle Education Association (SEA).

It's important to look at this. The incumbent SEA leadership is saying, "Don't vote for SEE because they're just going to strike." And SEE members are saying back, "Look at Portland--to prepare for a strike is the best way to avoid one and win a good contract. Last year, you didn't prepare for a strike, and that's why we had 40 percent of the Seattle educators vote 'no' on the contract, and that's why we want a new leadership."

WHEN WE'RE deciding on next steps locally, we need to learn from these struggles nationally. In PAT, we need to educate our members about them and ask which ones excite them. What do our rank-and-file teachers and our powerful student union want to organize around next?

And we have to say to our teachers: Don't abandon your one-in-ten organizing network. We need to be able to run organizing campaigns that aren't directly related to a contract fight because the attack on public education will not stop.

It's also important as we move forward that teachers understand that we are part of the working class, for a number of reasons. One reason is that we're facing the same issues, and we can learn from other working class struggles that came before us. As journalist Lee Sustar wrote in an article for the New Labor Forum:

The core issues facing teachers are familiar to any trade unionist in basic industry or transportation. There is outsourcing, in the form of nonunion charter schools, which bleeds teacher union membership in the same way that unionized freight companies created nonunion operations that have nearly eradicated the Teamsters from entire sectors of the industry.

Then there is the push for the replacement of veteran employees with lower-paid workers--again following trends in manufacturing. The analogous moves in education are programs like Teach for America, which places recent college graduates in the classroom for two-year stints following minimal training. Merit pay for teachers, too, has its parallel in the auto industry, where profit sharing and performance bonuses are now standard.

And just as new technology is used to gauge the productivity of factory laborers and office workers alike, test scores, under [No Child Left Behind], are used to measure school performance. If students do not perform well--often because of poverty and its attendant social problems--teachers are forced out through school "actions" such as closures or turnarounds and even mass termination.

The Chicago Teachers Union's Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators worked with Jacobin magazine to put out a phenomenal web book called Class Action, which talks about how private-sector management strategies like lean production and Taylorism are being applied to public schools today.

We can and should learn from this working class history and theory. But I think also we need to teach. For too long, the working class hasn't fought back, and our standard of living has been eroded to the point where the U.S. today has one of the most unequal distributions of wealth in its history. Teachers have a responsibility as the largest sector of unionized workers in this country to help teach the working class how to fight again. We can't just be unionized teachers. We have to be teachers of unionism.

OUR FIGHT can't be successful without a broader fight within the working class. As long as the rest of the working class isn't getting raises or better working conditions, it will be increasingly difficult for us to argue that we should continue to get raises and better working conditions. It will be that much harder to get support from working-class parents if it seems like we have it way better than the rest of the working class.

And finally, improving education ultimately can't be won inside the school system. Our brother in Seattle, Jesse Hagopian, put this well in his chapter in the book Education and Capitalism, where he says:

You can't fix schools without fixing the society in which they exist. That is because a student whose home is foreclosed on will not be able to do the economics homework. A student whose loved one has been killed in a war in the Middle East will have difficulty connecting with the science teacher's attempt to bring alive the learning of human body systems. A student whose parents have been deported will have difficulty crossing the barrier of the parent signature needed for a field trip to the civil rights museum. A student whose family lacks affordable health insurance may find herself chronically absent from health class.

A student with parents who have been laid off may see his dream of going to college deferred for lack of funds. A student forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term because of the lack of access to an abortion provider may find her studies of the women's suffrage movement abruptly terminated. A student of color who has been warehoused in a prison will miss the lesson on Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

In moving forward, we need to take the time now to deepen our political education, which is ultimately the only way to ensure that we're ready for the difficult fights ahead. For the next struggle, we will need a larger layer of militant teachers, students and parents, who understand the corporate attack on education and how it plays into the broader attack on the working class, and who can articulate this to an even larger layer of workers and broaden our struggle.

Now is the time to find an organization where you can get a strong political education and training--to be prepared for the many battles ahead and truly win the schools Portland students deserve.

Transcription by Meredith Reese

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