Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Arizona Educators United and the Struggle for the Consciousness of the Working Class

by: Jason O'Neal, FFWP

         It has now been nearly two months since I first heard about Arizona Educators United on a local radio station in the Phoenix Metro Area.  I was returning home from a job interview during the first week of March and, because of the teachers’ strike in West Virginia and recent student protests over gun violence in schools, I paid close attention.  I heard that a Facebook group had been started, so as soon as I opened my front door I dashed to my laptop and began searching for them.

The administrators and moderators of the group reviewed questionnaires given to those who wanted to join.  These surveys asked how potential members are connected to the education field.  Because I had just recently moved to Phoenix to take a job as an “educator” for a non-profit which provides temporary housing for undocumented migrants, I was allowed to join the group.
Once inside the AEU Facebook page, I was able to chat and post comments on the timeline.  There were more than twenty thousand members from across the state with some from other regions of the U.S.  I quickly noticed that many of the conversations were aimed at coordinating events and hundreds of teachers were posting selfies and group photos wearing red tee-shirts.  #RedforEd was underway and, although it can be argued about how ineffective a tactic like wearing shirts in solidarity can be, it appeared to be a unifying action for this group.  Discussions were also taking place in relation to a potential walk-out by these teachers in response to stagnating wages and the legislative failures of the state government to properly fund public education.

Some of the more conscious comments made by multiple members were targeted at the Arizona Education Association.  Joe Thomas, president of the AEA, had just appeared at a press conference where he took the opportunity to endorse a Democratic Party candidate for governor in the upcoming elections in November.

Perhaps tired of the same political rhetoric, these class-conscious members were not happy with the AEA turning this action into an endorsement of David Garcia, a professor turned politician who unsuccessfully ran for Arizona State Superintendent of Public Instruction in 2016.  Aside from laying blame for the education crisis on the current governor, Doug Ducey, Garcia comes with support from the usual suspects of the liberal flavor of politics for the two-party government of big business.  With about a dozen non-profits and labor union endorsements added to a slew of state senators and legislators, as well as countless school board members, Garcia is portrayed as the Democratic savior of education in Arizona.

For the rest of that afternoon on into the early evening I engaged with AEU members through private messages and comments on various posts.  The group came from a wide variety of backgrounds and were concerned about many aspects of a possible teacher strike.  Hundreds of likes and hearts were clicked that day and Facebook provided a platform for questions and open discussions between teachers from all over the state and from dozens of school districts.  Most were encouraging messages professing support and asking about an upcoming march, but smaller groups were actively planning and coordinating local actions and organizing at their work sites.  At one point I was even involved in a conversation about learning from the lessons of the West Virginia strikes.  A wildcat strike, which went against the current laws in that state, resulted in a pay raise of five percent for all state employees.  The Arizona group, however, was looking at how the West Virginia legislature responded and quickly realized that government officials fought them every step of the way.  Additionally, the teachers in Arizona voiced their displeasure with how the West Virginia elected officials were going to pull the money from healthcare and other social spending programs.  This group of educators didn’t want the same thing to happen here.  Not all voices of AEU were united, however, as many retired teachers who receive pensions and are supplementing their income by substitute teaching were concerned about a strike because it would affect their pocketbooks.  One of them, a retiree living in Mesa, tried to get me removed from the group because he didn’t like my use of the term “business agent” when describing how a movement like this can get swallowed up by the labor bureaucracy if they aren’t careful.

Feeling energized and optimistic of a potential mass action movement developing here in Phoenix, I “friended’ several teachers from the group who liked the exchange of comments I had with other members.  Over the next weeks AEU continued their calls for #RedforEd every Wednesday and not surprisingly that slogan has been picked up by more than a few of the local politicians.  When I attended the March for Our Lives in Phoenix at the end of March, I saw many people in attendance were wearing their red tee-shirts and carried signs with slogans about education funding.  This was an exciting moment because Facts For Working People has discussed on several of our conference calls the explosive potential of a united front of teachers and students marching with women, grass roots activists from Black Lives Matter, and environmentalists against the failures of capitalism in solving the problems it has helped to create.

Will the New Boss be the same as the Old Boss…?

The more class-conscious members of AEU are not fooled by the political grandstanding of the AEA and its willingness to continue to support the Democratic Party.  In a state which has voted solidly conservative on national issues over the past seventy years (except in 1996 when Bill Clinton carried the Grand Canyon State), it may be easy to lay blame on the doorstep of the Republican Party.  Since they hold the lion’s share of the state bureaucracy that might be a correct assessment, however, Democratic Party lawmakers are not innocent in helping to create this crisis of the classroom.  During the governorship of Janet Napolitano, the last Democrat to hold that office, she “signed a law that allowed some parents to receive state education money to pay tuition at private schools.”  Serving as Governor of Arizona from 2003 until 2009, before she was tapped to lead the Department of Homeland Security of the Obama Administration, Napolitano was known as the “Education Governor.”  However, before she took control of agencies which deported more immigrants than any administration in history, Napolitano left Arizona “nearly last in the country for K-12 funding, with a high-school graduation rate of 70 percent and state universities burdened with students unprepared for college work.”

Surprisingly, the years under Republican Governor Jan Brewer did see more money earmarked for education with nearly $600 million restored to a budget plan after she pressured the Legislature.  I would not presume to portray Brewer as an ally to working people or the poor, but the details of education funding in Arizona show a more complex story than just bottom line cash deposits.  Also, that “restored budget plan” was during Brewer’s first year, so how did we get to where we are now?  What must be said, regardless of the political party affiliation of elected representatives in Arizona, is that education funding in this state has been eviscerated over the past decade.

Where are we now…?

                Today is May Day and less than sixty days since I first heard of AEU.  Their membership on Facebook has grown to more than fifty thousand people and the teachers are now in their fourth day of a walkout which most think will continue at least through the next few days.  On the first day of the walkout tens of thousands of people marched in a sea of red on the state capital and lawmakers left the building early to avoid the crowd.  This morning’s radio interview with one of the leaders of the AEU revealed that teachers are planning to march on the state capital until legislators pass a budget to increase funding, which could take until Thursday.

                What has transpired in the past two months?  Some Republican lawmakers have taken to social media and launched attacks akin to red-baiting communists in the 1950s.  This is occurring at the same time that members of the state senate are profiting from charter school vouchers.

                There have also been ideas floated out in the capital about $150 in credits for educators who have to buy school supplies for their students.  Laughable at best, but merely a drop in the bucket on addressing the needs of an education system on life support.
Conservative lawmakers and their fundraisers disguised as political “think tanks” are now crying foul by stating the teachers are in violation of their employment contracts and that this walkout is “illegal.”  Imagine how those allegations would have been met in West Virginia where teachers “illegally” walked out against the “better advice” of their labor leadership.  Many of those educators in Appalachia were direct descendants of miners who took up arms against the state and coal companies to fight for better wages and working conditions when it was “illegal” to strike there decades ago.  I am not advocating armed resistance by teachers, however, it must be shown that the power of workers to organize and mobilize has constantly been undermined by the labor union officialdom who parrot the bosses about the legality of work stoppages.  When you consider the current legislative proposals in Colorado to criminalize walkouts, we must ask ourselves—why…  Why are elected representatives trying to cut off future teacher mobilizations?

What are national teacher unions doing about it?  Randi Weingarten was in Phoenix yesterday touting support from the American Federation of Teachers (the parent organization of the AEA).  Where have these unions been for the past decades of education debacles in the United States?  How would Weingarten be addressing this issue if she were the Secretary of Education in a Hillary Clinton administration, like many political insiders were predicting back in 2016?  Arizona educators should beware of the smiling faces from labor union leaders, especially when one considers the role they have played in propping up the American Empire’s political agenda.

Democratic Party lawmakers and their supporters are not very inspiring other than blaming the current governor and the Republican legislature.  Ducey is even facing a possible GOP challenger in the upcoming election based on his latest attempts to “work with” the teachers.  In a politically astute move, perhaps to foment division within the ranks of teachers or weaken public support, Ducey proposed a twenty percent pay increase for teachers to be rolled out in steps over the next few years.  But, given his past promises and failures, the governor is not gaining much traction in breaking this movement.  

What are they fighting for…?

A history of what #RedforEd is up against:

According to AEU, seventy-four percent of registered voters in Arizona believe public K-12 schools are underfunded.  Tracing this back over the past two decades, in 2000, voters approved Proposition 301 to increase state sales taxes by 0.6 percent and direct those funds to public education.  However, in 2008, the state began funneling that money to other areas of the budget.  Arizona schools successfully sued the state in 2010 for “misappropriating” that sales tax money, but the state refused to pay.  Instead, under then state treasurer Doug Ducey, the state offered Proposition 123 to take money from the state land trust and settle for seventy percent of what was due from the lawsuit.  A U.S. District Court judge later determined that Prop. 123 was unconstitutional and Arizona public education never received its back payments.  It is also important to note that before he began his political career Ducey was the CEO of Cold Stone Creamery and had ties to Teach for America and the Arizona State Charter School Board.

The lasting effects of this underfunding has resulted in Arizona schools having more than $1.1 billion less than 2008 funding levels.  The state is now ranked 49th in the U.S. for teacher pay with no significant raises in the last ten years.  Teachers have fled the state creating more than two thousand vacancies and leaving more than sixty thousand students in some 3,400 classrooms without a permanent “certified” teacher.  Arizona also spends less on administrative costs, $780 per student, versus the national average of $1,173.  Per pupil classroom funding is ranked 48th in the nation at less than $3,300 per child.  In the sixth largest city in the United States, and a region that accounts for three quarters of the state population, public schools receive nearly fifteen percent less funding than they did ten years ago.  Money is no longer available for facility repairs, building maintenance, and construction.  Some public schools have ceiling tiles falling, leaking pipes, roach and rat infestations, and malfunctioning plumbing as a result of the $2 billion cut from “capital funding” since 2009.

Teachers are asking for these issues to be addressed and funded properly before they return to classrooms.  The members of AEU voted nearly 3 to 1 to walkout and make the following demands:

·         Restore Education Funding to 2008 levels
·         No new tax cuts until Arizona pupil funding moves to the national average of $11,392
·         Twenty percent salary increases
·         Competitive pay for ALL EDUCATION SUPPORT STAFF, this includes cooks, custodians, librarians, bus drivers, and paraprofessionals
·         Permanent salary including annual raises

Now, one may ask where this funding will come from and many of the members of AEU are divided on this very issue.  It's where the details get tricky.  Local radio stations are running interviews with pundits and some members of AEU where they are discussing the possibility of legislating a sales tax increase through a November ballot measure.  Some say it could be as high as one percent, but most are settling on a half a percent hike in taxes.  This may sound appealing at first, however, why should citizens of this state settle for voting on a ballot issue to raise their taxes to fund schools when tax cuts for the wealthy and large corporations is what got us here to begin with?  That sounds pretty regressive, even for those Democrats who are claiming to be “progressive.”  What’s next?  Another school bond where future tax revenues are given away to pay for loans with interest to Wall Street banks and private investors?  Just look at what happened in Puerto Rico and their current financial mess dealing with municipal bonds to figure out where things can get worse for public education in the Grand Canyon State.

The bottom line is there is no quick fix for the mess that public education in the U.S. has found itself in.  Yes, it’s good to see so much teacher resistance to President Trump and his education secretary, Betsy DeVos, but performance pay tied to teacher growth, standardized testing, unequal education based on property values and income, and cuts to public education funding have been around for decades.  In the case of Arizona, cuts made to state budgets during the Great Recession because of decreased tax revenues were compounded by additional tax breaks for the wealthy.  Once the economy “recovered” (if anyone who works for a living can even consider their circumstances to be better) the taxes were never restored and the top tenth of one percent of the wealthiest Americans kept their money while the overwhelming majority are worse off than they were in 2008.  Some states, like Arizona and Oklahoma (whose own teachers walked out last month) continued to lower taxes with no concerns about funding education. 

Speaking of Oklahoma educators, mistakes made by their leadership in ending their walkout after nine days must be addressed.  With a pay increase of $1,250 per teacher passed off as a victory, the Oklahoma Education Association stated it will turn its focus on supporting Democrats in the upcoming elections.

Is this not how the labor bureaucracy always suppresses movements from the rank and file?  And aren’t Democrats just as much to blame as Republicans?    Just look at what former President Obama’s first chief of staff, Rohm Emanuel, has done to teacher unions in Chicago if you need to be reminded of what to expect from the two political cartels of power and money.  Will teachers in Arizona fall for the same divide and rule tactics?  Only time will tell, but what remains to be seen is what will Democrats offer teachers in exchange for their concessions to the bosses? 

I will leave you with a lesson I have learned about politics in the United States.  I came to Phoenix from California, where I lived for more than twenty years in San Diego and the Bay Area.  Over the past decade I have become more politically active, first through my former union and then by unwittingly supporting liberal candidates for elected office.  I grew up in a conservative community in South Texas, but I have moved further left and passed the liberal capitalists because of the things I have learned from the events of my own life and the changing of my class consciousness.  It has been a fast-paced and educating experience, but an invaluable one which has taught me to look both ways before crossing the street.  In this case, watch out for those who you know are against you as well as the actions, or inaction, of those who claim to be your allies. 

Teachers in Arizona have accomplished many things in a short period of time and their success must be recognized.  However, it is the responsibility of workers everywhere, whether organized or not, to help them see the possible errors made by previous direct actions and how to avoid them as this movement continues to grow stronger.  Employers and workers have nothing in common and our interests are contradictory to one another.  The sooner we all realize this the better.

No comments: