The Party for Socialism and Liberation salutes the teachers of Oklahoma now on their second week of a statewide strike and mass rally at the Capitol. Their message is “For as long as it takes!”
The world has seen the dire conditions experienced by students in OK schools as teachers have posted on social media images of cracked and broken chairs and stacks of outdated, crumbling textbooks.
Teachers in Oklahoma have made it clear that they are fighting not only for much needed raises, but for the full funding of education in their state which means restoring all the cuts that have taken place in the past ten years.
Last month’s statewide strike in West Virginia, today’s strike in Oklahoma, mass rallies in Kentucky and mass action in Arizona–what does it mean that all these struggles are erupting in right to work, “Red” states?
In all these states dominated by GOP legislatures, the neoliberal trend of budget cuts on education in general and attacks on unionized public employees have taken their most extreme form.
Yet the attacks on education cannot be understood to be solely a product of the GOP. These neoliberal attacks on public education have come from the Democrats as well, with the Obama administration’s “Race to the top” which funneled public money to charter schools and shoved down schools’ throats high stakes standardized tests intended to result in failure, thus providing a pretext for take-overs and privatization.
As many have said, education should not be a partisan issue. Republicans have a reputation for openly engaging in union-busting and budget cutting while Democrats shake hands with educators with one hand while stabbing them in the back with the other. Now, as teachers put it all on the line, fighting not only for themselves but for the entire educational system in their state, the Democratic Party is trying to figure out how to capitalize on this energy and channel it into the midterm elections.
In Kentucky, the state legislature slipped terrible pension plan language into a different bill and passed it almost in secret. Understandably this infuriated teachers. Then, along strictly partisan lines, with almost no time to review the documents, a tax bill was passed on April 2 that increased funding by imposing regressive sales taxes on many services including dry cleaning, RV parks and pet care and instituting an also regressive 5 percent flat tax, giving the richest a bigger tax break. Following the passage of the tax bill, legislators by a wider margin passed the budget bill, that rejected the most extreme attacks on education that had been pushed by Gov. Bevin.
Now there are indications that the energy that brought Kentucky teachers to the capitol on April 2 , the energy that stopped the worst budget attacks, is being pushed by forces loyal to the Democratic Party into working primarily on the midterm elections, with the slogan “We will remember in November.”
Some may remember the struggle in Wisconsin in 2011, when public employees occupied the State Capitol to stop an anti-worker offensive by Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP-dominated state legislature. The workers and Democratic state legislators collaborated to defy Walker’s plans: the opposition elected officials left the state, creating a procedural obstacle to the passage of the bill by depriving the body of the necessary quorum. Meanwhile, masses of state workers and their supporters occupied the capitol itself, verging on a general strike. When the legal changes were pushed through in a secret vote, the righteous outrage of the unionized state workers was diverted into a Democratic Party attempt to recall Walker. This effort failed and the mass movement that had gripped the attention of the whole world–with solidarity messages coming in from Cairo–fizzled away.
The problem with diverting a mass movement in the streets into Democratic Party electoral projects is that while social change may sometimes be made at the ballot box, it is more often made in the streets — even when the most reactionary forces occupy the seats of power. As the saying goes, “When the people lead, the leaders will follow.” Without devaluing true working class leadership, this saying rings true.
In West Virginia, the teacher’s union leadership came to an agreement with the state and declared the strike over. Many gains had been attained. But the rank and file teachers wanted to go all the way and continued with a wildcat strike. The composition of the West Virginia State Legislature did not magically change overnight, and yet, the lawmakers felt compelled by the teachers’ intransigence to make more concessions. The people led and the leaders had to follow.
It is not for us to dictate how the teachers should conduct their struggle, especially under the difficult conditions they face. There is no “one size fits all” tactical approach in this struggle. For instance, in Arizona, the #RedforEd movement has been engaged in “walk-ins” instead of walkouts, where red-clad teachers gather at the flagpole of the school and talk to the community about their struggle. They also have a statewide walkout scheduled for April 11.
At the same time, it is not for no reason that the Democratic Party has been called the “graveyard of social movements.” Workers can and must work with those elected officials in the state legislatures who are more likely to propose and vote for education funding bills–this is only common sense. At the same time, it makes no sense to hitch the wagon of the fight to defend and fund public education to the Democratic Party, which has as its primary goal to retake the House and Senate–and for what? What record can they point to in living memory that suggests they will champion fully-funded education for all? We cannot wait for the politicians to do for us what we can and must do for ourselves–which is stand up and fight back for ourselves, for our students and communities and for the future.