Teachers send a message

May 16, 2011

Doug Singsen and Rebecca Sun report on the energetic and angry teacher-led protests against budget cuts in New York and Los Angeles.

LARGE AND lively teacher-led protests on Wall Street in New York and in downtown Los Angeles on successive days highlighted the growing anger over how budget cuts and layoffs are decimating public education.

The spirit of the two protests recalled the February mass labor mobilization in Wisconsin over union-busting legislation. Though far smaller, the LA and New York demonstrations tapped into the same widespread anger at politicians for bailing out banks and the rest of Corporate America during the financial crisis--and making school kids and teachers, and all working people, pay the price.

On Thursday, May 12, close to 20,000 people invaded the financial district of downtown New York as part of a protest organized by unions and activist groups. The demonstration incorporated the demands of public-sector workers, students, immigrants and the homeless around the central demand: "Make big banks and millionaires pay." The protest also targeted the city's billionaire mayor, Michael Bloomberg, whose recently announced budget includes plans to fire 4,200 teachers, and close 20 fire stations and dozens of senior centers, among other cuts.

Tens of thousands descended on Wall Street for a labor demonstration against budget cuts and layoffs
Tens of thousands descended on Wall Street for a labor demonstration against budget cuts and layoffs (Alexander Super | SW)

Antonia, a high school student in Manhattan, said, "I organized students from my high school to attend the rally, because at our school, we're already hurting. I don't know how future students will be able to succeed when we were already barely scraping by."

May 12 was a major step forward for the anti-budget cuts movement in New York and brought together dozens of unions and activist groups, including the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), Transport Workers Union Local 100, Communication Workers of America (CWA) 1080, Professional Staff Congress-CUNY, the health care union 1199SEIU, New York Communities for Change, Picture the Homeless, Make the Road-New York, VOCAL-NY, Community Voices Heard, Families United for Racial and Economic Equality, Citizen Action, New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts and dozens more.

The protest began at 4 p.m. at eight different assembly sites dedicated to teachers, students, transit/energy, peace, immigration, jobs, social services and housing. These feeder marches were originally supposed to converge on Wall Street at 5 p.m., where protesters would break up into 100 small teach-ins, before concluding with a closing rally. The convergence point was later moved to Water Street after the police learned of the plans and promised to blockade Wall Street in violation of our right to protest in a public space.

The initial marches inundated the downtown area with protesters converging from multiple directions, many of them taking over and marching through the streets, waving signs and chanting vigorously, creating a festive atmosphere throughout the area. As one participant noted, "People felt like the streets belonged to them."

As protesters marched by the headquarters of Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase, they directed their anger not only at the banks, but at a mayor they viewed as acting in the interests of the rich at everyone else's expense. "[Bloomberg] was elected by a constituency, and he's doing what they wanted him to do," said Jane, an elementary school teacher from Brooklyn. "Meanwhile, people are scared, they're not sure what's going to happen [with the proposed layoffs]."

A spirit of solidarity and mutual struggle was visible everywhere you looked. For example, as the large UFT contingent joined the concluding march, CWA members nearby began chanting, "UFT, UFT"--and UFT members responded by chanting, "CWA, CWA," which CWA members responded back to with chants of "We Are One, We Are One." The Wisconsin protests were clearly a reference point.

THE MARCH was not only the largest labor protest in recent years, but also the most militant. Yet while the protest demonstrated the potential for mass direct action against budget cuts, it also showed the limitations of a set of organizing strategies that have to be overcome in order to make that potential a reality.

One area in which these limitations were evident was in the retreat from the initial plans for a direct action. Although the plans for the protest had originated with the idea of occupying a public street without police permission, during the march, the organizers sent marshals to direct protesters to stay on the sidewalk rather than try to take over the street.

When the feeder marches reached the convergence point at Water Street, not far from Wall Street, it would have been easy for the protesters to simply walk into the street as thousands more continued to pour in behind them. But marshals nevertheless directed all protesters onto the sidewalks.

In fact, as few as 50 to 100 protesters were able to challenge the police several times, pushing at barricades to try and gain access to the street. Finally, the police themselves blocked off the street.

After about half an hour, people began marching to the closing rally at Battery Park at the southern tip of Manhattan. On arriving there, however, protesters found organizers from some unions and liberal groups who were directing their members to go home rather than to the rally. Staffers from the UFT even had printed signs telling members to get on the subway, indicating that they had planned on doing so long before the protest.

In the end, there was no closing rally, although as many as 2,000 people who weren't ready to go home remained in the park, discussing the protest and the next steps for the struggle against budget cuts.

The gap between the initial plans for a direct action and what actually took place reflects the conflicting pressure that budget cuts and anti-labor attacks have put on the city's unions, especially the UFT, the largest union in the city and the driving force behind May 12.

The UFT leadership stayed neutral in the 2009 mayoral election in an attempt to curry favor with Bloomberg. Nevertheless, Bloomberg has hammered teachers with school closings, charter school expansion and a campaign to get the state legislature to end teacher seniority. In response to these attacks, opposition groups within the UFT have taken the initiative when the union failed to do so.

For example, although several unions separately called small protests against Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo's budget cuts, the UFT did not. However, a number of activist groups and a few unions did organize a series of militant protests in Albany and New York City, including two small civil disobedience actions in Albany in mid-March, plus the larger Day of Rage Against the Cuts on March 24 and a protest/occupation of the State Capitol building in Albany on March 30.

APPARENTLY, THE initial anti-cuts protests helped to push larger forces into action. By endorsing the May 12 protest and its main demand--make the banks and the wealthy pay for the crisis--the UFT and other unions gave new momentum to the anti-cuts movement.

However, the leadership of the UFT and other city unions retain their overall framework of partnership with employers. Thus, union leaders saw May 12 not as the beginning of a campaign to mobilize labor resistance, but as a one-time-only show of force that, they hoped, would bring the mayor to the negotiating table.

The union's strategy, therefore, was to keep the protest within pre-determined limits. That proved to be no easy task, since thousands of workers and students felt the exhilaration of finally having sufficient numbers to directly confront banks like Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan Chase.

Similarly, the organizing for May 12, while a major step forward in the number of groups it brought together, was impaired by retreats and compromises on the part of the UFT and lapses in the democratic process of the organizing committee.

The first public organizing meeting for the protest unanimously embraced the idea of organizing a Wall Street protest without a permit and the inevitable metal police pens. UFT President Michael Mulgrew even visited the meeting and gave his endorsement to the plans.

However, as the date of the protest neared, the UFT backtracked, entering into negotiations with police for a permit, which also resulted in the location of the protest being moved away from Wall Street. The UFT also backed out of participation in the teach-ins, instead holding a rally on their own at City Hall before marching to the closing rally.

A second problem was that, until the final week before the protest, all organizing meetings were scheduled during daytime weekday hours, shutting out rank-and-file workers. Meanwhile, decisions made at public meetings were often altered or reversed behind closed doors, with only inadequate or vague explanations provided for why this had been done.

Another blow to the democratic process was that some groups were excluded for being "too radical" and for having socialists within their ranks. Among those left out were the United National Antiwar Committee and the May 1st Coalition, which organizes New York's annual immigrants rights march.

One result of the unions' strategy of using May 12 merely as a tool for negotiation is that no next steps in the fight against budget cuts are currently being planned. This represents a missed opportunity to begin building on the demonstration's successes.

By contrast, the grassroots group New Yorkers Against Budget Cuts already has public forums on the budget planned in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island, and a direct action planned for late June, shortly before the city budget deadline.

Still, the May 12 demonstration was a major step forward in the struggle against budget cuts. Thousands of ordinary people showed that they're ready and willing to participate in protests to demand that banks, corporations and the rich pay the full cost of the recession.

IN LOS Angeles, a demonstration held the following day, Friday, May 13, was one of six teachers' protests in California cities as a culmination of a statewide week of action called by the California Teachers Association (CTA).

For the CTA, the goal of the actions--which included protests at the state Capitol building in Sacramento--was to pressure state legislators to vote for tax extensions to provide continued funding for public education. But because of the regressive character of those taxes, many union members and supporters believe that the focus of the struggle should be higher taxes on the wealthy.

The protest in LA reflected that more militant mood. With the backing of United Teachers Los Angeles, more than 5,000 teachers, parents, students and union members rallied at Pershing Square in downtown Los Angeles May 13.

At many schools throughout the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), teachers, parents and students rallied outside their respective schools before joining the rally at Pershing Square. At Roosevelt High School in East Los Angeles, 50 to 60 teachers, students and parents picketed in front of their school and marched to the nearby Metro station for a speakout and mini-rally, before heading on the train together to Pershing Square. Once at the square, students from Roosevelt rallied together with other East LA high schools, including Garfield and Mendez, to show their unity.

Schools in the LAUSD district were given a shortened day to increase participation in the rally. However, in return, LA School Superintendent John Deasy asked that the demonstration focus solely on issues in Sacramento and not LAUSD, where more than 5,000 LAUSD teachers, counselors, librarians and nurses currently face layoff notices sent out by his office.

In fact, Deasy has accelerated LAUSD's union-busting and privatizing attacks on UTLA. He has invited every teacher and school to join a pilot program for the district's new "teacher effectiveness" plan, sweetening the deal with more than $1,000 for every teacher who participates and an extra $5,000 for every school, even as layoffs loon.

Deasy has also proposed sweeping changes to LAUSD's Public School Choice program, including the elimination of parent/community advisory votes and a requirement that all internal school design teams submit "thin contract" proposals to weaken union power.

Moreover, reconstitutions of "failing" schools are multiplying. After Fremont High was reconstituted last year, now several middle and high schools, almost exclusively in South Central, face the same fate. Jordan High School, for example, is slated to be divided into three pieces, one of which will be given to charter operator Green Dot. Deasy and the school board are also trying to hand over the entire Clay Middle School campus to Green Dot via the Public School Choice process.

UTLA has filed suit challenging both the Clay and Jordan moves as illegal and has also filed an unfair labor practice charge with the California Public Employment Relations Board to try to block LAUSD from imposing a teacher evaluation plan without negotiating it first. The union is also challenging LAUSD's budget numbers, including a $150 million discrepancy the district has failed to explain.

Mounting teacher anger over all these issues--as well as the threat of a new round of state budget cuts--gave momentum to the demonstration on the busy streets of downtown LA. Hundreds of people from all parts of Los Angeles produced a constant stream of red union t-shirts and picket signs from the adjacent Metro station into Pershing Square all afternoon as people carried signs and chanted along the perimeter of the square. In addition, teachers, nurses, public workers and union members from Montebello, Riverside and other surrounding cities also came out in support.

Contingents of parents, students and teachers carried banners of pictures and names of teachers at their schools who have received reduction in force (RIF, or layoff) notices. As art and music programs have been decimated in the past few years, art teachers carried signs stating, "85 percent cut, 85 percent gone."

California Federation of Teachers (CFT) President-elect Josh Pechthalt spoke about the unfair tax structure in California, where the richest 1 percent in California has been paying less in taxes over the recent years, while workers have been paying more. His message resonated: People carried signs stating "Tax the Rich" and "Tax Corporations to Fund Education" and chanted, "Furloughs, hell no!" (LA teachers who have kept their jobs have had their paychecks slashed as the result of unpaid furlough days.)

The successful rally brought teachers, parents, students and community members together to show that this is not the end, but a hopeful start to fighting for more funding for education and a call for a more progressive tax structure in California.

Randy Childs, Danny Lucia and Alexander Super contributed to this article.

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