Volume 16, Issue 1 — 2019
Austerity: Driving Us Into the Streets (& how we’re winning)
STEWARD UPDATE NEWSLETTER
hy are teachers so furious they’ve been striking? What’s the deal with the longest-ever government shutdown? Why is your state struggling to make ends meet? Austerity. But what even is that? “Austerity” is the word economists use for cutting spending to balance budgets. As economist Mark Blyth – who literally wrote the book on it – has explained, “Austerity, the policy of cutting state spending to solve debt and growth problems, sells itself to us through a strange combination of morality and seduction. Austerity suggests that you can have your cake and eat it too, but only when you cut the cake first.” Blythe – and a lot of other economists – go on to point out that the main problem with this idea is that it doesn’t work to make most people better off. It does, however, work for politicians and organizations that want to “shrink government” to lower tax rates on the wealthiest and cut government services and the pay and benefits of
Austerity: Bad Billionaire Idea the people who make government work. They have successfully framed the public discussion about taxes, government services and how much public workers get compensated. A perfect example, making headlines in labor news throughout 2018 and now into 2019, is schools funding, and its relationship to privatization. Since 2008, when the economy crashed, most US states, which must balance their budgets, have dealt with lower tax revenues by cutting their budgets, starving their schools in the process. In Oklahoma, for instance, many districts were down to four-day weeks as a cost-saving measure.
XOCHITL BECERRA, 1ST GRADE TEACHER AT CASTLE HEIGHTS ELEMENTARY, CHAPTER VICE-CHAIR
“I think unions fight for the people. For us, that’s our students right now. Austerity and budget cuts are a huge problem. Our school is fortunate that our parents help fundraise, but if they didn’t, we would really have nothing. The union has to be there to fight for things, our nurses and our librarians. Our union and our parents fundraise for those things. We have a district with so many women teachers, but so many male principals. I’m very outspoken about women taking leadership and the union working to do that. We need gender equality and equal rights for students, and unions are involved in those fights. They represent working class people, all of us.” Editor’s note: Many teachers’ unions, including the United Teachers of Los Angeles, (Local 1021, American Federation of Teachers), use the term “chapter chair” for “steward.” —Scott Heins is a freelance photographer who specializes in stories that highlight inequality. He has covered education labor issues and teacher strikes extensively since winter 2018. See more at www.scottheinsphoto.com
But austerity – and budget cuts so bad they’re sending teachers into the streets – didn’t start just in the last decade. Underfunding public schools and converting them to private ones (via charter schools or voucher programs) is just one part of American Austerity, a multi-decade, bipartisan project. Noteworthy examples include New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Austerity advocates don’t need a climate-change-induced crisis: Education Secretary Betsy DeVos did just fine without one in Michigan, where she bankrolled right-to-work and charter-school expansion policies and Senator Cory Booker’s rise to prominence was powered by Mark Zuckerberg’s financial commitments to similar experiments in Newark, NJ. (Note that Silicon Valley money was also part of the 1%-backed plan to do the same to Los Angeles schools.) And this approach is not just for so-called “red” states like West Virginia, Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and North Carolina – all of which saw teacher and parent actions last year. It’s also for “blue” cities like Chicago and Los Angeles. As we know from labor historian Lane Windham, since the 1970s, US corporations (and, sometimes, the rich people who own some of them) have successfully fended off their workers’ union organizing while also (not coincidentally) successfully lobbying for lower tax rates. Without taxes coming in, state governments have a hard time funding schools, roads, and other public needs. But without consolidated worker power (i.e., unions), it is nearly impossible to get governments, especially state governments, to raise taxes on corporations and the wealthy instead of cutting back the services we need from our governments.
STEWARD UPDATE NEWSLETTER
PEDRO DE LEON, 10TH AND 11TH GRADE CHEMISTRY TEACHER AND CHAPTER CHAIR AT UCLA COMMUNITY SCHOOL
“What we’re seeing now with this current administration, whether it’s on a national level or a local level with our school district, there’s the 1 percent of the rich communities that are overtaking peoples’ rights. People are not given a voice. As a union chair at the local level, we want to give our students a voice and stand up for their rights. The 1 percent has the resources to paint the picture differently in the media, but a union can be a great place to bring awareness – it’s a stronghold where people get informed and make a difference in their community and their country. We’re getting so much community support. Solidarity is about coming together as people and doing what’s right. I feel it here on the picket line. Unions are a good way to break out of your comfort zone and meet people that you share understanding with. This, to me, has taught me what community is supposed to be.”
ORGANIZING YOUNGER WORKERS
t’s obvious: the labor movement needs younger workers to organize for its own health and survival. And to improve their own working conditions, younger workers must organize. Younger workers – typically defined as millennials (or people born after 1980) and younger – have the energy and new ideas we need to preserve what we have and fight for all working people. “It is important to involve younger workers in the union because the future of our contracts and our world depends on us,” says rank-and-file nurse, shop steward and elected leader Michelle Gonzalez. Despite all that, younger workers face real barriers to leading unions. To begin with, they are less likely than older generations to even be members of a union, so they have fewer personal
interactions with unions and experience less union contact among their friends and peers. Despite this low union membership in general, in the U.S. millennials are part of the most pro-worker, pro-union generation in recent history. According to a Pew Research Poll, in 2016 “75% of 18-to-19year-olds hold favorable views of unions.” Younger workers – like most U.S. workers – lack unions, so they’re organizing their workplaces in new and exciting campaigns. For the first time in decades, the number of union members in the U.S. did not drop. The increase? All due to the efforts of younger workers. In fact, in 2017 76% of newly unionized workers were under 35. Younger workers are leading campaigns such as the high profile Fight for $15, the expanding unionization of digital
So, for example, Chicago’s former mayor Rahm Emmanuel chose to shutter underfunded, underperforming schools in poor communities of color, rather than fund them with enough workers (teachers, counselors, others), supplies, and maintenance. In 2012, the teachers there struck for a week. Officially, legally, they walked out as they fought for better wages and benefits – because that’s what the law restricts them to. But just as present in their discussion were school closures, opposed by most parents and community members. In Los Angeles, where teachers struck for nine-days, the conflict boiled down to people vs. billionaires. LA Superintendent, and former investment banker, Austin Beutner wanted to bring the logic of that market – yes, the same logic that crashed the economy ten years ago – to the LA public schools. His (AUSTERITY CONTINUED)
news media, as well as the recent teachers’ actions – walkouts, sickouts, and strikes. Those actions, almost all in states where union membership is voluntary, continue to build power as newly activated teachers flocked to their unions after the actions. Across the U.S., the Fight for $15 has energized younger workers to organize, strike, and engage in creative actions to unionize and raise the minimum wage. It may come as a surprise to more senior union members that their younger colleagues might be more pro-union than they are! To help younger people become leaders in their unions, we need to change union culture starting with the obvious and most harmful: two-tier contracts that place the brunt of concessions on younger workers. Here are some suggestions for engaging with younger workers and union members: ■■BACK TO BASICS. Younger workers are like any other group of workers; they should be organized around the issues that matter to them. Don’t assume! Take the time to ask, listen and build trust (ORGANIZING CONTINUED)
STEWARD UPDATE NEWSLETTER
(AUSTERITY CONTINUED) plan, leaked to the media in November, would “carve up the district into clusters of schools run like competing stock portfolios. Any school judged to be an underperformer would be sold off like a weak stock,” according to Barbara Madeloni, former president of the Massachusetts teachers union, who wrote about the strike in Labor Notes. This fight, Madeloni explains, is not only about the public good but about democracy itself. “Corporate education reformers spent $13 million in the last [school board] election.” Where did they get it? A who’s-who of the most anti-worker rich people and families in the country. It starts with the Waltons, who own WalMart and are the richest family on Earth. Doris Fischer, who founded The Gap and is founder of the largest charter school company in the US, KIPP. Netflix CEO Reed
Hastings. And Eli Broad, a marquee name in the school-privatization world, fourth richest man on the planet, and someone who once told the Wall Street Journal that “the unions no longer control the education agenda of the Democratic Party.” Why? Because they wanted to pit public schools against charter schools and make Los Angeles the model for how to privatize all of public education. In Oklahoma, for example, #redfored forced the state to raise taxes for the first time in two decades to pay for education. (News broke recently that the legislature has fought back this session by proposing bills that would outlaw future strikes.) There, it’s a multi-step project to track how the money that should be going for educating Oklahoma kids is, instead, going to support oil and gas companies that are already raking in billions.
The same isn’t true for Los Angeles, where the district has almost $2 billion in reserves. The idea that they can’t pay for school nurses, counselors, smaller classes and better educator salaries (all things reportedly addressed tentative agreement) – it’s just not believable. It also forces the underlying question – what – and whom – is the money for, if not for students and the people who educate them? The idea that it’s for someone other than students and workers? Yup – austerity, again. UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl wrote before the strike that, “Educators will not be bought off. We need a host of improvements for our students… the UTLA struggle for a fair contract is just one part of a broader movement for students, families and schools.” So, for example, alongside the tentative agreement, which covers wage and (AUSTERITY CONTINUED)
BETH TRINCHERO, ENGLISH TEACHER AND CHAPTER CO-CHAIR OF UCLA COMMUNITY SCHOOL
through genuine communication and exchange. ■■SOLIDARITY IS A POWERFUL
“For me, being active in a union started when I was a new teacher at a school in south LA, where the teachers were constantly told that we had to do certain things like put a bulletin board up a certain way or attend mandatory meetings. I had a very active chapter chair who would stand up in the middle
workers and the Fight for $15 dovetailed with Black Lives Matter when worker leaders connected police violence against Black people (and others) with economic injustice and racism. Attacks on immigrants and asylum seekers, increased rent and cost of living, sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination may all be issues that motivate younger workers to become active in their union. Union leadership and shop stewards should be prepared to fight for issues beyond the traditional bread-and-butter demands. Our unions are stronger when we are part of social movements and build broad solidarity. ■■CHANGE UP YOUR COMMUNICATION. Part of the overall culture change is an expectation of real-time, transparent, two-way communications. Keep members
of meetings and call out administrators for being untruthful or being disrespectful to teachers. There were other mentors at that school who were active in the union and speak truth to power, talking to administrators that would get them to back off. At some point at that school, administrators tried to take money from it, and our union was able to fight back. This week, being in a union has meant solidarity, community, standing on the train and seeing people you don’t know, but being able to say, ‘Our struggle is the same. What we are going through and doing on behalf of our students – our fight is one.’ This week has solidified the connection we as teachers have to one another in our union.”
MOTIVATOR: BROADEN THE UNION FIGHT. Over the past five years, fast food
STEWARD UPDATE NEWSLETTER
FRANK BURTON, PHOTOGRAPHY TEACHER AND CHAPTER CHAIR AT HAMILTON HIGH SCHOOL, LOS ANGELES
“The union to me is a community that brings teachers together to fight for what they believe is right, what students deserve. The labor movement is under attack, but we are using that to become stronger. It’s a national discussion, from West Virginia to Arizona to here in California. If we can win this contract fight for our students, then it sets a prime example for the rest of the nation to follow in our footsteps. Not just for teachers but for unions everywhere. Unions are the last bastion of the middle class. We’ve set the boundaries as to what is acceptable for a human being to work – a 40 hour work week, holidays, our rights. Unions have kept us human and not just cogs in a wheel.”
(AUSTERITY CONTINUED) working conditions, the union announced the school board would vote on a resolution that calls for CA Governor Gavin Newsom and the state Legislature to cap charter schools – limit their expansion – in the district pending further state study. Both President Caputo-Pearl and Superintendent Buetner talked about the need for California to better fund the LA schools. It took the LA union years to build the knowledge, analysis and support they needed from members, parents and students. Leaders say they couldn’t have won without it. UTLA chief negotiator Arlene Inouye said, “Working people in LA now understand that we have billionaires who control our school board and that we have a superintendent who’s a Wall Street banker. Our parents know the difference between their children’s teacher and the moneyed interests that are currently controlling our school district.” She went on to say, “We were inspired by Chicago and we were inspired by the red states. I’m so proud to be part of this struggle for public education, for social justice, for women, for racial justice, for all working people. And
our unions are the place where we really have the power to bring this all together.” Steward Update is pleased to bring the voices of five UTLA strikers and stewards (that union calls them “chapter chairs”) throughout this issue.
informed by text message, email, social media and in-person conversations. Your coworkers will be expecting meeting announcements, report backs, bargaining updates, and information on upcoming actions. Remember, nothing takes the place of face-to-face communication and relationship building! ■■SUPPORT YOUNGER LEADERS. “Incorporate them into leadership positions so that they may utilize their voice organizing others,” suggests Gonzalez. Identify younger workers who are natural leaders and invite them into the work. Bring younger people to investigatory meetings, walk them through the contract, and support them as shop stewards. Encourage younger people to run for formal leadership positions and mentor them when they win. ■■FOSTER UNITY. Focus positive energy on the young people who are already engaged. At all costs, avoid twotier systems that disproportionally affect younger people. Build multigenerational trust by supporting each other in solidarity. —Marlena Fontes is a millennial herself and coauthor of a study for the AFL-CIO on younger workers. She has worked as a labor organizer and union rep for over 9 years.
—Dania Rajendra is the editor of this publication and the director of Union Communication Services, which publishes it. She is a longtime economic and social justice writer, editor and strategist.
ELIA LARA, 2ND AND 3RD GRADE BILINGUAL CLASSROOM AND CHAPTER CHAIR OF THE ELEMENTARY SCHOOL
“I’ve been learning that we help the community feel empowered and know their rights as human beings. We have the media supporting privatizers, anti-democratic people that just want to break morale and humanity, and the union does a very good job to support people and understand ‘You are important.’ And this is how. In a community, the union not only helps teachers to understand their rights but also their community.”
T H E B A C K P A G E
OPEIU Steward Update is a bi-monthly newsletter for the information and education of OPEIU’s dedicated stewards.
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The OPEIU Steward Update is published six times a year by Union Communication Services (UCS)—The Worker Institute at Cornell ILR in partnership with the Office and Professional Employees International Union, AFL-CIO, CLC, 80 Eighth Avenue, 20th Floor, New York, NY 10011. For information on obtaining additional copies call 212-675-3210. Contents copyright 2019 by UCS—The Worker Institute at Cornell ILR. Reproduction outside OPEIU in whole or part, electronically, by photocopy, or any other means without written consent of UCS is prohibited. David Prosten, founder; Dania Rajendra, editor.
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