Wednesday, March 14, 2012

San Leandro seniors end hunger strike to protest cuts

San Leandro HS students speak out. photo: SL Times
I attended my local school board meeting last night, a special meeting at which three young high school seniors announced the end of a hunger strike they began after last weeks meeting. The seniors went on strike in order to try to pressure the school board to dip in to a reserve fund it has to fill a $2.4 million budget hole. These young women should be praised for their courage and efforts to take a stand and bring attention to these issues. Anyone whose tried dieting is well aware of the determination it takes not to eat solid food for 7 days. Historically it is the youth, with their boldness, audacity and courage that move in to struggle first.

What I am witnessing in my small town is occurring throughout the United States and indeed the world---look at Greece.  We are all being asked to pay for a crisis that is not of our own making. And the attacks on public education are not to be seen in isolation, they are part of a generalized offensive against working people, housing, public services, wages, jobs, all the gains we have made over 150 years are under siege.  The  intention of the 1% is to put the rest of us on rations.

I was extremely grateful when a number of the young people came up to me afterwards and thanked me for my comments, especially when a young guy described them as "Badass". We all need constructive criticism from those that matter to us. Given that, I know some of the local youth read  this blog, so I want to explain in a little more detail the points I made in the three minutes we were allotted last night as three minutes is not a long time and I know I had some differences with others on some important issues.

The first issue for me is for us to reject in our own mind the idea that there is an economic crisis, that there is no money.  I pointed out last night the more than two trillion dollars that US corporations are sitting on and refuse to inject in to the economy, "mountains of cash" it has been described as in various big business journals. This amounts to a strike, not a strike of Labor, but a strike of capital.

The other example I gave was from a recent Brown University report on the cost of our government's wars that states: "Conservatively estimated, the war bills already paid and obligated to be paid are $3.2 trillion in constant dollars. A more reasonable estimate puts the number at nearly $4 trillion." So we have to reject this nonsense------first and foremost in our own minds----- that there is no money for education or for society to provide a decent life for all. It's not the shortage of money that's the problem, it's how it is spent.

If we don't reject this view, then our policies and ideas for saving education, for fighting back against the 1%'s efforts to destroy it, will inevitably fail because we will start from a position that there is only so much money in the pot, in this case, less money, and our only strategy will be limited to trying to distribute less and less in the form of services to more and more people that need them.

Last night's scenario at the San Leandro school board meeting is played out at city council and school boards throughout the state and nation.  Those that promised to defend education when they wanted our votes acting as the agents of the forces intent on destroying education and jobs. Anyone that accepts the argument, what amounts to propaganda, that there is no money for education will inevitably find themselves in the same position.

The school board is committed to carrying out the policies dictated to them by the state and the 1%.  So they maneuver and finagle and find every trick they can to make do with less.  We heard it last night and we hear it on TV and in the media, we have a choice: Cuts are inevitable it's just a matter of where.  We can save music if we lay off custodians, cut sports and keep drama, whatever.  It is a strategy of damage control and extremely divisive as we all compete for our (even smaller) piece of the economic pie: "Don't take mine, take hers".  Not a real useful approach to building the unity necessary to defeat the 1%'s attacks on us.

We heard one of the Union negotiators making the same argument last night.  The Unions are being cooperative, offering up their members jobs, benefits or other concessions like furlough days (temporary short term layoffs which may amount to a pay cut of $20% in some cases), they too accept that cuts are inevitable and enter the struggle from a position of defeat and weakness. Then the top officials who run the Unions wonder why members don't go to meetings.  There some two million workers affiliated to the official Unions in California, what a potentially powerful force that is.

Parcel Taxes
Another disastrous policy for saving education is to raise taxes on ordinary homeowners.  Firstly, this is another attempt to put a band aid on a festering sore.  These taxes will not solve the crisis in education as they do not provide adequate funds and they too are extremely divisive.  Many homeowners are on the verge of homelessness themselves. But even if they aren't what motivation is there for them to join our struggle, not to simply save education in its present form, but to expand it if we are advocating that we raise taxes on them?  Workers are under assault from all sides, we do not want to be seen as being part of that assault.
Instead, as Erica Viray-Santos, a teacher at San Leandro High's Social Justice Academy, pointed out last night, one source of revenue would be to institute an extraction tax on oil as it comes from the ground.  California is the only state in the nation that does not do this. This at least points the finger in the right direction.

What could the school board do?
I repeated last night what I believe the school board could do differently.
  • Vote unanimously to oppose the state imposed cuts and refuse to implement them
  • Call a press conference and announce that they will not be the agents of the 1% in dismantling public education.
  •  Organize/call community meetings, leaflet grocery stores and other venues where working people and youth congregate in order to build a movement that can fight the cuts through direct action and economic disruption as determined democratically by the participants(working people/youth can be very creative.)
  • Link such a movement to those fighting cuts in surrounding communities
  • Attend local boards in other communities and urge them to join with you in this fightback
  • Point to where the money is that we need to give people a decent life and our youth a future

Such an action would send shock waves through the state of California to say the least. The media could not ignore it.  As opposed to arguing over which of us will suffer which is divisive and weakens us, it would inspire young people and workers alike as they would finally see some official body taking a real stand on their behalf. With all it's faults, this is why the Occupy Wall Street Movement has received the support it has, because it places the blame where it belongs, the bankers and a system that places profit before people's needs. They have shown that with numbers we can challenge and defy their laws that harm us.
One board member said that if they did what I suggest, "The state would come in a take us over". But the state already implements its policies through the board members who carry them out.  The state already dictates what policies apply to the schools.  And imagine what credibility a politician would have among workers having been removed from office by state bureaucrats representing the 1% for defending public education. It would be a badge of honor given that politicians are normally punished in this way for corruption and outright theft of public funds that can't be swept under the rug.

Whether elected boards take such a position or not, we cannot wait for them to act.  We must build a movement that can reverse the disastrous course the 1% have plotted for us.  We must offer our youth a better future as opposed to the prison industrial complex where many end up, especially youth of color.

Jack Gerson blogged a year ago
suggesting an alternative to Jerry Brown's savage attacks on working people.  He wrote:

 First, increase taxes on the wealthy to increase state revenue by $14 billion. The highest-earning one percent of Californians have an average income of $1.8 million per year (sources: Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy; California Budget Project). If these high-rollers paid on average $50,000 more in income tax, the state would take in an additional $7.6 billion. The next highest-earning 4 percent of Californians earn an average of $310,000 / year. Increasing their taxes by $10,000 would bring in another $6.1 billion.

Second, amend Proposition 13 to increase taxes on corporate property but not on homeowners. This would raise more than $5 billion / year.

Third, impose a tax on oil extraction to bring in $1.5 billion / year more. (Every other oil-producing state has an oil extraction tax).

Finally, close the tax loopholes that allow more than half of California corporations to pay no tax at all.

This is just a first step in the struggle to reverse course.  An alternative to the strategy of defeat and damage control that is presently being offered.

One last point that just came to mind.  We should demand of any candidate for local boards or councils that for us to even consider supporting them, they should sign a pledge that they will refuse to do two simple things:

(1) Raise taxes on workers or the middle class. (and by middle class I mean local community mom and pops not tech start ups with 300 employees.) Refuse to participate or implement any cuts in public services like education or concessions on wages, benefits or conditions (including layoffs) of any workers public or private.

* If you are in San Leandro, agree with the general thrust of this commentary and would like to meet even just to discuss these ideas  please contact me at the e mail on the right or at:

Richard Mellor

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