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The Internationalist  
  July 2011  

You Can’t Fight the Union-Busters Without Fighting Capitalism

Lessons of Chicago CORE

CTU “Reformers” Bow to Democrats, Accept Layoffs –
Build a Class-Struggle Opposition!

Around the world, from Greece to the United States, the masters of capital are waging a war to make us pay for the global financial crisis, touched off by Wall Street, that has led to a new Depression. In the U.S., teachers and teachers unions are the targets of choice for ruling-class politicians who are using the crisis to ram through “reforms” that would wipe out decades of labor gains and gut social programs of the threadbare “safety net.” This winter/spring the focus was on Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s law eliminating bargaining rights for public employees, mainly teachers, and similar laws pushed by right-wing Republicans in Ohio and other states. But in Democratic-controlled states, governors and legislatures hammered away at seniority and teacher tenure. Now Medicare and Social Security are at risk as Democrats and Republicans push rival plans to “balance the budget” on the backs of the workers, and the drumbeat for corporate “education reform” is coming straight from the Obama White House.

On July 30, a national “Save Our Schools March” has been called in Washington by a host of liberal education luminaries, both national teachers unions and a slew of local and state affiliates as well as a handful of Democratic Congressional representatives. The march is also being built by many leftist and dissident opposition groups in and around the education milieu. The Guiding Principles are: no to resegregation of the schools, no to high-stakes testing, against tying teacher pay to student test performance, equitable funding of public education, etc., but no mention of who’s behind the war on public education. Many of these groups were last together when they were out there pumping for Democrat Barack Obama for president in the 2008 election. Once in office he spearheaded the attacks on teachers, hailing the firing of the entire staff of the Central Falls, Rhode Island schools. And now that he’s up for reelection? Both the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and National Education Association (NEA) have endorsed Obama for president in 2012, as well as supporting test-linked teacher evaluations.

No thanks. Defenders of free, equal, integrated public education for all need to mobilize independent of and against all the champions of the “free enterprise system” who would reserve quality education for the elite and consign the rest to limited “skills training.” Those who really seek to defend the children who are being victimized by the present dysfunctional system – and would be even more so if the privatizers succeed in their wrecking operation – must fight to defeat Obama’s “Race to the Bank” just as much as George Bush II’s “No Vendor Left Behind.”

Education workers need a real opposition to the education “reform” agenda being pushed by a holy alliance embracing the likes of the Business Roundtable and National Conference on Education and the Economy, billionaires like Bill Gates and Eli Broad, right-wing Tea Party Republicans and liberal Democrats. Although they may have their differences on other issues, we are facing a united ruling class offensive against public education, part of a broader capitalist war on the workers, and it can only be defeated by fighting on a program of sharp class struggle. All the “moderate” efforts to “shift the conversation” by lobbying and other forms of pressure politics (including demonstrating in the streets) are doomed to failure. Not convinced? Just look at the results so far. Who’s winning the war on public education? It ain’t us or our kids.

Chicago CORE: Quintessential Union “Reform” Caucus

CORE banner at January 2009 education summit on school closings and privatization.
(Photo: Caucus of Rank and File Educators)

The onslaught against public education has been going on for awhile now, and the misleaders of the teacher unions have sought to be “part of the conversation” from the outset. Since this has meant selling out teachers at every turn, it has spawned a multitude of union opposition groups of varying degrees of militancy. In a number of cities where the incumbent leaderships were notably weak and ineffective, these oppositions have won office. This includes Progressive Educators for Action (PEAC) in United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), which took office in 2005, and the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE), which took over the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) last year, as well as victorious union reform slates in Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. New York City, where the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) is run by the bureaucratic steamroller of the “Unity Caucus,” has a constellation of activist groups including the Independent Community of Educators (ICE), Teachers for a Just Contract (TJC), Grassroots Education Movement (GEM), along with a number of parent/community groups with similar reformist aims. Class Struggle Education Workers (CSEW), which is politically supported by the Internationalist Group, has a very different program.

Although it was formed only a couple of years ago, Chicago CORE is in several ways the model of such union reform caucuses. It was formed in opposition to the notoriously corrupt regime of Marilyn Stewart, who collaborated with Arne Duncan, even as the “CEO” of the Chicago Public Schools (who went on to become education czar for his basketball buddy Obama), closed scores of schools in black and Latino neighborhoods to make way for semi-privatized “charter schools” while firing some 6,000 teachers. CORE won a run-off election in June 2010 with 60 percent of the vote, running on a vague program that came down to “throw the bums out.” The CORE victory was loudly cheered by the reformist left and education activists around the country. Labor Notes (21 June 2010) hailed the victory by the “feisty” caucus. Rethinking Schools (Fall 2010) saw a “huge victory” by CORE, which “led a growing grassroots movement against the school closings, charter schools, and ‘turnarounds’.” Most effusive of all, the newspaper of the Internationalist Socialist Organization (ISO), Socialist Worker (14 June 2010) proclaimed “A New Day in the Chicago Teachers Union,” adding that Duncan “no doubt got a case of heartburn upon hearing the election results.”

Karen Lewis, the new CTU president elected on the CORE slate, talked a tough line. In an address to the union membership, she announced to the school board, “You’ve met your match. We will no longer be played. We will no longer be the scapegoats....” She declared that the “so-called school reform” is “not an education plan” but “a business plan” cooked up by “corporate America [which] realized they didn’t have a big enough share of the money in K-through-12 education, about $380 billion.” Lewis said that the new leadership should be judged not on their words, but on their actions. So let’s do just that.

As the CSEW noted at the time

“CORE, ICE, TJC and similar groupings in other union locals all have pretty much the same program. They basically oppose the leadership’s sellouts and want to go back to the trade-union reformism of the past. CORE’s election platform consisted of things like ‘get members on board with a common strategy,’ ‘mobilize the union against budget cuts,’ ‘develop a legal strategy,’ ‘develop a political strategy,’ and similar meaningless phrases. They’re going up against Arne Duncan’s hand-picked successor, in Barack Obama’s hometown. Is the CTU membership ready for the blast they are going to get accusing them of selfishly sacrificing kids’ education and other hogwash straight from the White House?”

–“Obama, Democrats Spearhead Teacher-Bashing, Union-Busting Corporate Education “Reform” (16 June 2010), reprinted in The Internationalist No. 31, Summer 2010

The CSEW insisted that, “in the present imperialist epoch, the reformist or even ‘social’ trade unionism of the past is impossible. There is a bipartisan capitalist consensus to go after unions, rip up their gains and eliminate workers’ minimal job protections in the name of competitiveness.”

This fundamental fact of trade-unionism in these times of decaying capitalism was almost immediately driven home by the bosses of the Chicago Public Schools. Less than two weeks after the CTU election and before Lewis took office, the School Board voted to lay off up to 2,000 teachers on the basis of their principals’ rating, regardless of tenure and seniority, while raising class sizes to 35 students. Teachers who had been selected as coaches and mentors to rookie teachers were laid off. Even the big business press recognized that this cynical ploy “could save money by making it easier for CPS to dump higher-paid veteran teachers instead of less expensive probationary teachers and to avoid the cost of dismissal proceedings” (Chicago Sun-Times, 24 June 2010). The battle was joined. And what did the CORE leadership of the “new CTU do”? Did they mobilize the membership for mass pickets jamming the Loop, to shut down summer school, to occupy CPS headquarters? No, they went to federal court, the bosses’ courts, asking for an injunction on procedural grounds, just as Stewart did in the past (and the UFT in New York does every time union action is called for).

Class-struggle unionists are not opposed to using every legal means to thwart the attacks on the public schools, the students, the teachers and staff. But we underline that the courts are not neutral, they are part of the bourgeois state just as the police and legislature are, and they exist in order to enforce the interests of the exploiters against the exploited. We hold that to defend the workers’ interests it’s necessary to mobilize the ranks of labor at the head of all the oppressed independently of and against the courts, the cops and all the capitalist parties and politicians. Reformist leftists, in contrast, pretend that if enough pressure is brought to bear in the streets, or otherwise, the courts can be induced to come down on the side of “the people.” So what happened in this case? For starters, the CTU suit said nothing about the over 500 “provisional” teachers who were dumped, and did not challenge the CPS’s “right” to lay off the 749 tenured teachers, only the way it was done. In October, a sympathetic judge ruled against the CPS and ordered that these teachers be put on a recall list and given priority when hiring resumes. Lewis hailed the “stunning court victory” – yet almost 1,300 teachers were still out of a job.

Then this past April came the fight over SB7 – the state Senate bill which sharply curtailed collective bargaining and seniority rights for Illinois teachers, while allowing the school board to increase teaching hours with no increase in pay. Coming in the wake of the Walker bill next door in Wisconsin, state NEA and AFT officials worked with Democratic legislators to craft a law that would gut everything but the right of the teachers  unions to bargain (and collect dues, which are then used to support the Democrats in elections). Under the terms of the law, unions would have to get 75% in a strike authorization vote, and could only walk out after 60 days of mandatory “bargaining,” allowing a “reasonable period” for mediation, another 14 days to consider the mediator’s report, up to 75 days for more “fact-finding,” 30 days following the fact-finder’s report, and giving ten days notice of intent to strike – forced to wait more than two-thirds of the school year before being able to legally strike! Union officials complained that these restrictions were unnecessary since the CTU hadn’t struck in 23 years, but on April 12, CTU president Lewis endorsed this vicious anti-union legislation.

Social Democrats, Union Bureaucrats and Capitalist Democrats

Lewis’s betrayal of the union ranks caused some embarrassment for the International Socialist Organization, since CTU vice president Jesse Sharkey, elected on the CORE slate, is a long-time prominent ISOer. For several days, the ISO  kept mum about this dirty deal behind the backs of the membership. But on April 21, the ISO’s main writer on labor and the Democrats, Lee Sustar, posted an article on the Socialist Worker web site, “A crisis for teachers union reformers?” saying that Lewis had “shocked” CORE members by her stab in the back. Sustar said that Lewis “acted alone,” and complained that she “withheld that information from the CTU House of Delegates,” which she addressed by Skype on April 13. He claimed “other CTU elected officers and members” only learned of the deal after the meeting. What Sustar didn’t tell readers is that the ISO is up to its neck in the CTU bureaucracy, whose paid staff includes a number of ISOers, and that the ISO’s CTU vice president Sharkey learned of Lewis’s sellout on the night of April 12, as he admitted to a CORE meeting two weeks later (according to a May 21 leaflet by the League for the Revolutionary Party). So Sustar’s April 21 article was a cover-up for the ISO’s own betrayal.

On the day that article appeared, Marjorie Stamberg of Class Struggle Education Workers posted a commentary, “Big ‘Surprise’ – Chicago Teachers Union Reform Leader Sells Out,” on several New York education activist blogs. A week later (April 27), an ISO supporter responded by posting a defense of CORE and arguing, “No one should have to apologize for supporting these genuine reform movements – warts, growing pains and all.” “We should see union leadership as merely a tool, not an end-all be-all” he intoned, denying that the Sustar article was “somehow hiding” the ISO’s role in CORE. But there was no mention that Lewis’s No. 2 in the CTU leadership, Sharkey, is a prominent ISOer, or of Sharkey’s April 25 admission before many witnesses that he knew of Lewis’ betrayal almost immediately and said nothing of it to union delegates at a meeting the next day. The writer piously hoped that the CTU ranks would reject Lewis’s “unilateral agreement,” and on May 4 the CTU House of Delegates did reject SB7. Yet this was just covering CORE’s ass, since the CTU tops did nothing to mobilize against the bill which was ultimately signed into law by Democratic governor Pat Quinn, whom the CTU had endorsed (along with other Democrats) in the November 2010 elections. Maybe that political support for capitalist politicians is one of the “warts” the reformists want us to overlook.

CORE candidates for leadership of Chicago Teachers Union, June 2010. From left: Michael Brunson, Karen Lewis (president), Jesse Sharkey (vice-presidcent), Kristine Mayle.
(Photo: Caucus of Rank and File Educators)

As the ISO wrote on April 21, “breaking teachers’ unions is at the top of the capitalist agenda in the U.S.” Quite right. That agenda is being carried out by liberal Democrats as well as Tea Party Republicans, and the role of the ISO has been to chain the ranks to the pro-Democratic labor bureaucracy, which calls on the services of these reformist pseudo-socialists to cover its left flank. And the ranks have been protesting, as the labor revolt in Wisconsin showed, with repeated demonstrations of over 100,000 people and calls for a general strike. At the Left Forum held in New York City on March 20, an ISO activist speaking on “The Wisconsin Uprising and Beyond” told the audience that the reason a general strike didn’t materialize when Governor Walker passed his union-busting bill was that the union bureaucrats were afraid that it would cause problems for the Democrats. What the speaker didn’t say was that at the moment when a general strike was posed and could have broken out, the ISO editorially opposed it. Socialist Worker (11 March) wrote that, “calling for a general strike – no matter how enthusiastically it is received – is unlikely to get very far.” Certainly not if the ISO has anything to do with it!

The most important lesson to be drawn from the experience of Chicago CORE that these sellouts are not a matter of individual betrayals but are built into the nature of union “reform” caucuses organized on the basis of “grassroots democracy” and labor militancy. Such groups cannot withstand a concerted onslaught by the bourgeois state and the bosses’ parties because they are in fact beholden to capitalism. This past July 6, Chicago CORE hosted a “National Conference to Fight Back for Education” (organized together with PEAC from Los Angeles) that brought together education activists from around the country and Puerto Rico. An account by Labor Notes (8 July) noted, “Even where reformers have won power, they haven’t been able to beat back all the attacks,” citing the cancellation of teachers’ scheduled pay raises by Chicago’s new mayor, Obama’s former chief aide Rahm Emanuel, and his schools chief Jean-Claude Brizard (a graduate of Eli Broad’s principals’ academy) along with the SB7 debacle (while not mentioning CTU chief Lewis’s role). It noted also that the UTLA agreed to a contract with four furlough days, while Los Angeles schools are laying off 2,000 staff members.

CORE isn’t the first union reform group to win office in Chicago. In 2001, Deborah Lynch, currently of PACT (Pro-Active Chicago Teachers and School Employees), won the CTU presidency, only to be voted out in 2004 after she negotiated concessionary contracts. This past March, PEAC’s Julie Washington lost her bid for the UTLA presidency after negotiating concessions on health care, salaries and furloughs, in order to avoid layoffs. The fact is that such reformers do no better (and sometimes worse) in defending the union membership than the old guard pie cards they replace, because they all accept the capitalist framework, as do the reformist leftists who support them and staff their apparatus. “Progressive” Democrats and social democrats will not and cannot defeat the bosses, because they are tied to the ruling class by an umbilical cord that feeds them. This has been proven over and over since the 1970s, as one “rank-and-file” caucus after another has won office, and then promptly sold out. Arnold Miller’s Mineworkers for Democracy, Ed Sadlowski’s Steelworkers Fightback, Ron Carey of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, Roger Toussaint of New Directions in the TWU, and now Karen Lewis of Chicago CORE: it’s the same story. The only difference with ICE/TJC/GEM/NYCORE in New York is their slim chance of beating the “Unity” juggernaut.

Class Struggle Education Workers at January 27 protest in New York City against school closings.
(Internationalist photo)

As the CSEW June 2010 leaflet noted:

“Reform caucuses that only fight for union militancy, democracy and the like, are doomed to fail once they come into office because they are incapable of battling an implacable foe. That’s what happened with New Directions in TWU Local 100 and the sellout of the 2005 New York City transit strike, and it’s been repeated over and over in the Teamsters, Steelworkers, Mine Workers and elsewhere. The bureaucracy must be defeated and driven out of the unions, replaced by a leadership with a program of hard class struggle if labor is to succeed against the concerted capitalist offensive.”

Lest we be accused of unfairly singling out the International Socialist Organization, it should be said that the ISO’s “strategy” is no different than that of a host of other reformist “socialist” and even “communist” outfits. Solidarity, the Freedom Road Socialist Organization (FRSO) and the Progressive Labor Party (PLP) also have supporters among the officers and staff of the Chicago Teachers Union and hailed the CORE victory. The LRP has criticized CORE, comparing it to the New Directions caucus which sold out NYC transit workers, but fails to mention that LRP supporters in the TWU gave critical support to New Directions when it ran for and won office in 2000. The World Socialist Web Site also criticizes the ISO and CORE, but usually omits that it opposes all trade unions, even praising scabbing and joining with the bosses in calling on workers to vote against unions in representation elections.

“Labor Lieutenants of the Capitalist Class”

Over a century ago, American Socialist Daniel De Leon coined the apt description of the union bureaucrats as the “labor lieutenants of the capitalist class.” This petty-bourgeois layer sits atop workers organizations (the unions) while disciplining them on behalf of the ruling class. They generally won office and entrenched themselves by winning some concessions or reforms from the bosses. But over the last three decades, the sellout labor bureaucracy has presided over the destruction of their own organizations, so firm is their loyalty to capitalism. Although this trend began in the 1970s under Democrat Jimmy Carter, the signal event was the stab in the back of the 1981 PATCO air controllers strike against Republican Reagan. While unions have been decimated in much of the private sector, now public employees unions (teachers first and foremost) are under the gun. And the role of union reform caucuses is to defuse the struggle to bust the union-busters, gaining positions for themselves only to sell out once in office.

On the eve of the second imperialist world war, Leon Trotsky, the founder of the Fourth International and co-leader together with V.I. Lenin of the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, wrote a prescient commentary, “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay” (August 1940), explaining the growing together of the trade unions and the capitalist state. Summing up, he wrote:

“In other words, the trade unions in the present epoch cannot simply be the organs of democracy as they were in the epoch of free capitalism and they cannot any longer remain politically neutral, that is, limit themselves to serving the daily needs of the working class…. They can no longer be reformist, because the objective conditions leave no room for any serious and lasting reforms. The trade unions of our time can either serve as secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordination and disciplining of the workers and for obstructing the revolution, or, on the contrary, the trade unions can become the instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat.”

When union demonstrators and labor supporters in Wisconsin chanted over and over, “This is what democracy looks like,” they failed to grasp this basic fact. More to the point were the few signs declaring, “This is what class war looks like.” And to lead the working people, and all the oppressed, the Internationalist Group and League for the Fourth International seek to build a vanguard workers party that fights for a workers government and socialist revolution throughout the world. Join us in the struggle. ■

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