We won’t let our pensions build prison cells

March 13, 2019

Michelle Sapere, a teacher in Rochester, New York, describes how educators are coming together to demand that no pension fund money go to the corrections industry.

ABOUT A month ago, I received a call from Basma Eid of Freedom to Thrive in New York City. She had gotten my contact information from a mutual friend and comrade and was looking for teachers in upstate New York to discuss an important issue.

This phone call happened to fall during the exact time I was trying to start a social justice caucus of rank-and-file teachers after growing increasingly impatient and frustrated by the lack of union leadership’s tangible support of striking educators across the country.

I had learned from some of the greatest leaders of educational social movements during panels at the Socialism conference in Chicago and the Marxism Day School in New York City over the course of the past two years. Every single one of them stressed the importance of creating one’s own group to gauge where co-workers were at and to begin building even the smallest coalition for even the smallest campaign.

That was my plan. Gather a few fellow teachers and try to rally around wearing “Red for Ed” once a week and post solidarity photos on social media to support striking teachers in other states — maybe encourage others to support the GoFundMe pages that helped to feed the workers on the picket lines.

Speaking out at a protest against GEO Group
Speaking out at a protest against GEO Group (Freedom to Thrive)

This was the plan until Basma called me. She informed me that the organization she helped found, Freedom to Thrive, recently helped New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) members make sure their pension funds divest 100 percent from for-profit corrections corporations GEO Group and CoreCivic, and she was looking to spread this throughout New York state.

“It’s time NYSTRS [New York State Teacher Retirement System] align its investments with the demands of its members,” said Basma Eid. “With over $8 million invested in the incarceration of our communities, we will continue to organize until NYSTRS reads the writing on the wall and finally divests from an industry that profits off of pain and reinvest in our students and community.”

BASMA INFORMED me that the NYSTRS still holds investments in these two groups. I was shocked and disgusted. Basma wasn’t surprised I was shocked, since this information is certainly not advertised, and most teachers, too busy with teaching, second jobs, families, bills, life, etc., don’t have time to go through the more than 36 pages of fine print to individually look into every single company our pension is linked to.

After all, these corporations aren’t labeled “Racist Criminal Injustice System, Inc.” In fact, CoreCivic just a few years ago had “corrections” in the title, but after doing some digging and realizing they were getting pushback, changed its name to something more subtle.

Speaking of digging, I began to do my own and found op-eds in local newspapers in Rochester, New York, of community activists calling out the NYSTRS and urging divestment. In a 2014 article, Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski was quoted denouncing our union members’ investments and stating we were against it.

“Certainly neither teachers nor their unions are interested in investing in prisons,” Urbanski said. “No teacher that I know of is in favor of supporting or building more prisons.”

Fast forward to today, and we’re still invested. Rank-and-file teachers (including building reps), guidance counselors, social workers, administrators, clerical, custodian, library staff and others all share this same retirement plan, and when myself and my fellow caucus members tell them about the investment, they react with the same shock and disgust that I had when I first talked to Basma.

NYSUT DID pass a resolution to divest, but it still hasn’t. We can’t underestimate the power of rank-and-file teachers to get the job done, and now that more of us know about it and are fighting, we are confident we’ll win. Unions need to be transparent with all its members so when going to battle over something so important, we can help. Let us help.

It’s absolutely ludicrous that the second school district in the country to support Black Lives Matter at School wouldn’t have all its members aware of the fact that their pension money is going to the racist school-to-prison pipeline. And so our caucus, which began with three teachers, grew to seven in two days and included a guidance counselor.

We are now at 10 and growing, and our caucus now includes social workers as well. This is just “official” in-person meetings every week. Our closed Facebook group of Rochester educators went up to 55 members just two days after it was launched.

Our Facebook page is at 150 likes and growing. We voted unanimously for the name “TASE,” which stands for “Teachers Against Student Exploitation,” and we’re in the process of building for a March 21 public meeting/live stream event co-sponsored by Freedom to Thrive, with Basma coming to Rochester to speak on the panel, and the Rochester Branch of the International Socialist Organization.

Rank-and-file teachers have a right to know how their pensions are being invested and must be notified. If union leadership cannot meet this demand of divestment, then rank-and-file social justice caucuses of teachers and support staff will.

The rank and file should have been brought on board and made 100 percent aware of this over four years ago. Also consider this: although NYC teachers divested from these corporations, literally no NYC teachers I spoke to personally knew about this, and many of them are hardcore activists.

This was a campaign that Freedom to Thrive was able to win, and that shouldn’t be dismissed, but imagine how much bigger and stronger this would have been if teachers knew about it — their union leaders certainly did.

I urge all my fellow educators out there across the country — check your pensions. Start your own TASE branch, talk to each other — this is a campaign we can and will win. As teachers against the exploitation and oppression of our students, their families and each other, we will not settle for less.

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