Friday, August 10, 2012

Lakeview Sit-in Sold Down River by Local Labor Leaders

By Jack Gerson

Shortly before 4am on Tuesday July 3, Oakland Unified School District police, backed by cops from the Oakland Police Department, the Oakland Housing Authority, and the California Highway Patrol, raided the sit-in and People’s School for Public Education at Lakeview Elementary. All participants were cleared.

For 18 days, the Lakeview sit-in and People’s School shined a beacon of hope for resistance to the ongoing assault on public education. It was a symbol of defiance to austerity as applied to public education, to the politicians and administrators who use budget deficits as an excuse to carry out the program of “venture philanthropist” billionaires like Bill Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton (Wal-Mart) Family: school closures, program cuts, union-busting, privatization, and gross over-testing and drill ‘n’ kill teach-to-the-test routinization to implant blind obedience and stomp out inquisitiveness and creativity.

One might think that labor would jump at the chance to ally with a parent –student –school worker – led fight against austerity, one with widespread support and sympathy in the broader community. But here in Oakland, labor leaders turned their backs on such a chance.

On Monday July 9, Bob Mandel and I brought a motion to the Alameda Labor Council’s monthly delegates meeting calling on the labor council to sanction a community labor-picket line at the Lakeview Elementary site, with the intention of blocking OUSD’s attempt to convert the site into administrative offices. Bob and I are both retired Oakland teachers and former members of the OEA Executive Board and Bargaining Team, and we both participated in the Lakeview sit-in.  Although most delegates were sympathetic to the motion and applauded frequently, the ALC leadership made its opposition clear from the outset.

Immediately after I read the motion, the ALC President, Dave Connelly, launched into a 10-minute-long soliloquy on why the motion was out of order and shouldn’t be supported even if it were in order. Connelly claimed it was out of order for two reasons: (1) we hadn’t brought the motion to the ALC’s Executive Committee, which had met three days earlier; and (2) the ALC could not sanction a picket line unless there were a striking union, and no unions were striking at Lakeview.  However, as we immediately responded: (1) We had tried to present the motion to the labor council executive committee meeting, but were told by ALC secretary-treasurer Josie Camacho that because she had been informed of the motion ahead of time, it could be raised at the delegates meeting without first being presented to the executive committee; and (2) the San Francisco Labor Council had sanctioned a picket line at the Occupy San Francisco encampment last October, and we deliberately used the same language in our motion as had been used in theirs.

Connelly’s second reason for opposing consideration of the motion was that one of the school worker unions objected to a picket line at Lakeview. He identified that union as SEIU Local 1021, and asked SEIU 1021 vice-president Gary Jimenez to elaborate.  Jimenez raised two objections: (1) SEIU 1021’s leadership had not been appropriately approached in advance about supporting the sit-in; and (2) the Oakland school district had just been returned to fiscal stability, and his union was fearful that re-opening schools would cost members’ jobs (I am not making this up).

We responded that: (1) We had approached SEIU 1021 in several ways, all fruitless: SEIU 1021 activists supportive of the sit-in tried to raise it at 1021's June executive board meeting (the leadership tabled it for a month); sit-in participants made a brief informational presentation to a 1021 membership meeting; and individual 1021 activists and officials were approached and asked to sign an open letter of support (some activists signed, but no officials); and (2) the district’s newly-achieved “fiscal stability” had been achieved by austerity: the district had squeezed out $40 million in cuts in the preceding school year, at the expense of school workers, school worker unions, schools, and students. Closing schools was not saving jobs. It was losing jobs for all school worker unions.

Rather than leaping at the chance to ally with this group, whose action had resonated throughout the Oakland community, the ALC leaders wriggled and squirmed, looking for any excuse to say “No”. Nevertheless – and somewhat uncharacteristically – the majority of delegates were clearly sympathetic to the Lakeview sit-in, so much so that the leadership could not simply get away with ruling the motion out of order.

What to do, what to do? The debate raged on. And then, a compromise motion from delegate Eisenscher:

“Council welcomes the parent-teacher-community struggle to keep Oakland public schools open and dedicated to the mission of educating children, and request that the Executive Committee consider and act on this issue on an expedited and urgent basis.” The motion was seconded and passed.

What did “an expedited and urgent basis” mean to the ALC leadership?  And how did they “welcome the parent-teacher-community struggle”?  “Expedited and urgent” translated to more than a week of sitting on their hands, while (non-union) OUSD contractors drove moving vans in and out of the Lakeview site, ripped up the outdoor basketball court, and generally did all they could to convert Lakeview into offices. “Welcome the parent-teacher-community struggle" translated to a July 18 meeting (nine days after that ALC delegates meeting) at ALC offices of the leaders of the ALC and the Oakland school worker unions. Also invited and present were the makers of the original motion, Bob Mandel and me. In two words, here’s what they meant by “welcome the parent-teacher-community struggle”: “No way”.

The SEIU 1021 “leaders”, vice president Gary Jimenez and Oakland classified school workers’ president Mynette Theard, said honoring a picket line might cause their members to lose pay, and might even jeopardize their jobs. AFSCME 257 president Morris Tatum concurred. ALC president Dave Connelly explained that labor solidarity meant that if even one union with workers at the site says no, then all must say no. I am not making this up.

Bob Mandel and I asked whether labor could pool resources to create a fund to reimburse any loss of pay. No, that didn’t fly. We asked whether the dissenting unions would agree to honor lines for a week. No. Three days? Sorry. Then we asked whether they had any proposals at all to concretely “welcome the parent-teacher-community struggle”.  They did!  Josie Camacho, Dave Connelly, and Gary Jimenez – the Alameda Labor Council secretary-treasurer and president and the SEIU 1021 vice-president – all proposed (enthusiastically and almost in unison) that the various parties should meet again. When? “Oh, some time when all of our schedules coincide – which will have to be after the summer. Maybe in September – although that’s kind of a busy month.”

Thus does the labor leadership act on “an expedited and urgent basis”. Is it any wonder that the public sector unions are careening down the same road that the private sector took thirty to forty years ago, and are heading for the same wall?

Here was a situation where labor was approached by a group that was fighting the austerity cuts to the critical area of public education. The Lakeview sit-in called for opposing closures of neighborhood schools. They called for full funding for quality public education. And they explicitly called for an end to OUSD union-busting of all school worker unions.

Furthermore, the Lakeview sit-in had strong public support – perhaps the most enthusiastic demonstration of horn honking by passing motorists and messages of encouragement from passing pedestrians. There was a growing recognition in the Oakland community, especially in the congested area near the Lakeview school site, that this really was all about fighting to save public education and reverse the austerity attack on all working people.

As we said way back in mid-June in the Open Letter of Labor Support for the Lakeview sit-in and People’s school that we released one week into the sit-in (
“The school closures, privatization, and overall downsizing of OUSD are part and parcel of the austerity, downsizing, and privatization attack on public sector unions and on essential public services. The game plan is clear: to do to the public sector unions what was done in the private sector in the 1970s and 1980s. Today, barely one in 20 private sector workers are unionized. That’s what’s in store for public sector unions – unless we stop playing the game the same way and by their rules.”

But the labor leadership continues to play the game by those rules. First and foremost, they pursue the “team concept” of labor collaboration with (and really, subordination to) management. 
  • As already mentioned, SEIU 1021 vice-president Jimenez said his union feared that keeping Lakeview and other neighborhood schools open would jeopardize OUSD's new-found fiscal stability. The fact is, for years OUSD has had, proportional to its size, double the administrative overhead and double the outsourced contracts of the average California school district. It has far and away the highest proportion of students in charter schools of any urban school district in California. It has not given raises to any of its employees in nearly a decade. SEIU 1021's own Oakland classified school employees membership has been cut in half: from 2500 in 2002 to 1200 today. Electives and vocational programs have been cut. School libraries have been closed. The Adult Education program has been shut down; it served 25,000 students when schools superintendent Tony Smith arrived three years ago. The high school graduation rate has fallen to barely 50%.  OUSD has been a laboratory for privatization, downsizing, and union-busting. And still, the SEIU 1021 leaders insist that labor must rely on management's good intentions. It's time to stop collaborating with management to deliver "stability" at the expense of students, schools, school workers, and the entire Oakland community. 
  • ALC secretary-treasurer Camacho is a long-time ally of Oakland mayor Jean Quan. This is the same Jean Quan who authorized not one, but several police rampages at Occupy Oakland last fall.  It’s the same Jean Quan who opposed the December 12 West Coast Port Shutdown because it might tarnish corporate Oakland’s image and drive away business.  This is consistent with their overall approach of accepting austerity cuts as necessary, actually almost welcoming them as “shared sacrifice”. (Of course, it’s working and poor people who do all the sacrificing).

I take no pleasure in describing how the local labor council and the school worker union leaders deep-sixed an opportunity for genuine working class solidarity. But for those who still look to the labor leadership with even a glimmer of hope, please read this, think about it, and then think again.

For more information on the Lakeview sit-in and People’s School for Public Education, please go to

Bail Out School and Services, Not Banks and Bankers!
Fight Austerity: No Cuts, No Privatization, No Union Busting!
Don't Collaborate With the Bosses! Make the Bosses Pay!

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