Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Philadelphia Teachers contract thrown out. Union leadership pleads for help from the courts

Protests are not enough though
By Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

The Wall Street Journal reports today on the decision by Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission to cancel the Teachers union contract and force its members to contribute to their own health insurance. Leaving aside the absurd idea that we should have an insurance company involved in health care, why would they not do this?  The capitalist offensive against US workers has increased in intensity including the ideological offensive yet the response from the heads of organized labor is the same old failed policies----offer more concessions and plead with the bosses to be less aggressive.

But this strategy won't work; they are offering peace when the opponent’s policies demand war. The representatives of the 1% in the US Congress do not make this mistake when their economic interests are threatened.  They don’t make it in the face of threats from competitors abroad or workers at home.

Bill Green, the chairperson of the School Reform Commission, the members of which are appointed by the governor, justifies the decision to the media: “We can’t say to students, ‘We would like to give you millions of dollars to improve schools, but the PFT won’t let its members pay for some of its health insurance,’” (Referring to the Teacher’s Union)

But that’s exactly what he is saying. The crisis in education is placed squarely on the shoulders of greedy teachers and their union so drastic measures have to be taken.  Well done, Mr. Green, you’ve performed well. But there is another possible explanation. It could be announced to students, parents and the working public that:
“We would like to give you millions of dollars to improve the schools but trillions of dollars are needed to pay for foreign wars and to fund despotic regimes that ensure a safe haven for US corporations. And although
U.S. wealth is up $34 trillion since the recession, Pew Research reported that 93 percent of you lost wealth, on average, in the post-recession recovery, and those who made it won’t part with it.”

Mr. Green would be out of a job and his career shattered if he laid bare the facts about wealth in the US and criticized the priorities of the few thousand people who have their hands on the levers of society.  Mr. Green is a representative of the 1%.  Both Democratic and Republican members of Congress are representatives of the 1% and defenders of the capitalist mode of production. The wars have to be paid for and the hedge fund managers, bankers arms manufacturers and others are determined it won’t be them and they have two political parties that represent these economic interests.

It is the trade union leadership that should be attacking the wealth of Mr. Green’s patrons as there is absolutely no reason for education or any other public services to be cut. . According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, “There are 3.6 million full-time minimum wage workers in the US and their total (combined) 2013 earnings is less than the 2013 stock market gains of just eight individuals all of whom take more than their share from society: the four Walton’s, the two Kochs, Bill Gates, and Warren Buffett.” This is not civilization. It is not a "Land of the Free" unless by that we mean to rip people off. And I remind the reader of the Oxfam International report that found the world’s richest 85 people have as much combined wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion (see Michael Roberts post: The Waltons, John Cochrane and the Road to Serfdom.

Jerry Jordan the president of the 15,000 member Philadelphia Federation of Teachers is a bit upset, after all, the union leadership offered concessions last year that would have saved millions of dollars he tells the media. And after 21 months of talking with the bosses, pleading with them to be nice, the contract was arbitrarily thrown out; weakness attracts aggression as they say.  Jordan tells the WSJ that the union “will fight the action, although he didn’t offer details.”, and accused the commission of “pursuing a ‘union-busting” strategy. What a surprise.  Union busting? Can that be? The union leadership has its finger on the pulse of society that’s for sure. 

So what is the union leadership’s response to this brutal assault? Jordan and his colleagues “quickly filed a lawsuit, joined by the state Department of Education, asking a judge to rule they have such power.” 
--> says the WSJ. Randi Weingarten, President of the American Federation of teachers AFL-CIO responded with the usual rhetoric: "Green, in fact, has shown by his actions—spending his time and resources hiring lawyers and going to court—that the commission would rather attempt to impose a contract than work with teachers to figure out what is best for Philadelphia’s kids." Yes they would Randi. It's the same old approach they used in Wisconsin.  The union leadership has no problem with cuts, they just want to be part of the discussion. But why should the bosses include them? (read more from Weingarten here)

I am sure the lawsuit will be accompanied by a letter from a friendly Democratic Party politician urging the state to be fair. This is in return for the huge sums of money from their member’s dues payments that these Democrats receive at election time, not to mention the volunteer precinct walkers and phone banks the unions provide. But let me see, have we tried this before?

Instead of relying on the tremendous power of organized labor to bring this economy to a halt especially when the additional power that the unorganized would bring to the table if the leadership were serious about organizing them was included; the failed policies of a generation or two are dragged out yet again; rely on the courts, rely on the Democrats, offer concessions, will be the limits of organized resistance. I have written too often about why the Union leadership refuses to fight so I will refer the reader to other commentaries about this subject but I do want to say something about public funds.

Where does public expenditure come from?
The argument we hear all the time about public sector jobs, our pensions, wages and benefits etc., is that the public doesn’t want to pay for them any more.  This is the result of the ideological war waged in the corporate media along the lines of the quote above from the chairperson of Philadelphia’s School Reform Commission.  Remember, the class that owns the means by which we produce the material needs of society is the same class that owns the production of ideas and as importantly, the means of distributing them, the universities and the mass media from TV to Hollywood movies. The only options are those that don’t undermine their material well being. They want to rob Peter to pay Paul.

What is presented to us are two bad options. The union hierarchy tells us that it’s either wage and benefit cuts or layoffs.  Workers choose the former of course. The union hierarchy enters every dispute and negotiation from a position of weakness, with concessions in arms. It’s easy for them as they generally do not have to work under the contracts they force on their members and their outlook is extremely short sighted and oriented to the present. They have no fundamental difference with the 1% when it comes to their view of society; they just want them to be less aggressive.

In this scenario, workers, most of whom do not have wages, benefits, security and a more humane working environment that public sector workers have traditionally had by comparison, begrudge paying for it for someone else.  We turn on each other having no alternative presented to us.  When you think about it, business receives far more government assistance than wage workers if you consider the defense industry and millions of businesses that rely on public money and projects for work. Then there are all the speculators and investors whose income derives from capital or the interest on capital. The law is made for them by their political representatives.

The source of wealth in society is the labor process, specifically that part of working time above that which produces value equivalent to our wages. This surplus value, the product of unpaid labor, is the source of the capitalists profit. But a healthy capitalist society needs transportation, and other agencies like garbage collection and education services and a means of defending the economy’s interests against its competitors and suppressing social unrest internally. The industrial revolution meant that workers needed basic reading and writing skills. So the capitalist class plows some of the national wealth back in to the economy in the form of social services and other public ventures that add to the economy’s efficiency from their point of view.  They are clever, they don't trust the market with the important stuff. The balance of forces in the class struggle will also at times force them to invest in public projects for the benefit of the working class such as our entertainment and pleasure, but they don’t like it.

So when we think of public money like the funding of education for all workers, or a national health care system, or mass transit, all that is happening is that a portion of the wealth our labor creates---our product, is coming back to us in the form of social services, in higher living standards.  We have to take this wealth out of the hands of the clique that usurped it to fully benefit from social labor. We must fight for more public sector services and jobs not less.  The market will not provide decent jobs with wages we can live on.

In order to do this, we must reject the 1%’s view of the world. 

The downward spiral will not stop by itself and capitalism will not stop it. The Philadelphia school system like many of them has cut 5,000 positions, closed 31 schools and imposed layoffs by seniority although when it hired staffers back, seniority didn’t apply, another undermining of a union principle that tends to weaken our power in the workplace. We are in for a new round of cuts in order to pay for the new “long-term” offensive in the Middle East that is driving this also.

“Requiring teachers to pay toward health insurance puts them in the same position as other district employees and most American workers.”, Bill Green, the Reform Commission’s chairperson says.  This is why every defeat, every setback by any group of workers is a defeat for all of us and why the union leadership’s policies are so devastating, they have cooperated with the bosses in driving wages, benefits and working conditions back to those that existed prior to the rise of the CIO in the 1930’s and all workers, union and non union alike are suffering for it.

The response from the Teachers union leadership to this latest assault in Philadelphia is a disgrace. It is the reason the rank and file union member doesn’t bother to go to meetings and why right wing elements like the Right to Work foundation get an echo among some workers. They point to the obscene salaries many paid officials make as their dues go up and wages go down. Why belong to a union? It is these disastrous policies that lead to the no vote for the UAW at the VW plant in the South.

A movement of opposition to the offensive of capital will develop and most likely outside of the official unions given the role of the leadership. But for union members who are looking to fight back we must recognize that we cannot avoid an internal struggle with the heads of organized labor who worship the market, are wedded to the Team Concept and cooperation with the bosses. This worldview forces them to suppress any movement from within their ranks that threatens the relationship they have built with the bosses based on labor peace.

Rank and file opposition caucuses must be built that challenge the union hierarchy’s disastrous policies and campaigned for openly among the ranks.  Changing or decertifying one union for another is simply trying to avoid a fight we cannot avoid. The entire leadership of organized labor speak with one voice on this issue----at this point in time anyway.

Opposition caucuses that confront the offensive of capital with direct action methods and with a program that not only opposes the Team Concept* and all concessions and austerity measures, but demands what working people need not what we are told is acceptable to the hierarchy and their allies in the Democratic Party is what can begin to transform this situation.  Power attracts and rank and file workers will be inspired by a movement that fights back aggressively on our behalf.

The public sector is the last major bastion of trade unionism in the US with some 30% or more of us organized.  Along with jobs, public services have also been slashed. As this writer and others have pointed out in previous commentaries, the days of guns and butter are over; the US ruling class is committed to placing workers and the middle class on rations----the poor and the unorganized and those not incarcerated, are already there. They are forced to do this by the system of production we call capitalism. It is not a character flaw.

Albert Einstein is credited with defining insanity as: ”Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”. When it comes to organized labor’s hierarchy they do the same thing over and over again actually expecting the same results, less aggressive concessions than the bosses are demanding. This has allowed them to slow the decline of their member’s living standards while preserving theirs. But today there is no room to maneuver, the labor leadership cannot even pretend to be fighting for their members interests these days and have moved to open collaboration, partially in order to save their own jobs.  This does not mean there aren’t decent leaders at the lower levels who want things to change. We have the power, we have the numbers, we occupy a critical role in production and distribution of society's needs, but change at the top will not come without a struggle within the entire labor movement.

*The Team Concept is the most damaging philosophy held by the entire trade union leadership and passed down to all levels of the apparatus. It is the view that workers and bosses/employers have the same economic interests. It is the philosophy behind the betrayals and the refusal of the leadership to organize a fightback against cuts. How can one mobilize one's forces against against one's own teammates? It has many different names, Quality of Life circles, Labor Management cooperation, Interest Based Bargaining etc.

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