The Strike That Didn’t Change New York

The Chicago teachers’ strike was a victory for workers around the country. But how do we move from homegrown resistance to a national movement that could ignite a shift in public policy?

Photo by Katrina Ohstrom

I never liked riding the bus as a kid. With its limited possibilities for adult supervision, the school bus was the venue of choice for kicking someone’s ass or exploring the more psychological expressions of adolescent torment. One day a boy my age looked at me defiantly across the aisle and set his jeans on fire. The first time I heard the word “cunt” yelled with real conviction? On a school bus. But had it not come, I would have been stranded without a ride. Which is, of course, exactly what happened to New York City’s 1.1 million public school children this January, when eight thousand bus drivers walked off the job, sparking a month-long standoff between Local Amalgamated Transit Union 1181 and Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

The Daily News accused drivers of “leaving kids . . . and forcing their angry parents to drag them to school in taxis or the subway.” Brooklyn Ink asserted that the strike could damage the development of children with autism by interrupting the delivery of therapeutic services received at school. In an interview with the New York Times, a parent employed at a Starbucks in Midtown Manhattan vented: “I had to take a leave just for this. It’s ridiculous.” For weeks, overwhelmed families shouldered the burden of trucking their kids to school. Then five Democratic mayoral candidates wrote a letter to union members urging them to return to work. Not one of the candidates addressed Bloomberg or Education Chancellor Dennis Walcott, who had stripped a job-security provision from the unions’ contract, inciting the conflict in the first place. Both Bloomberg and Walcott had shrewdly taken to referring to the protests as “a strike against our children.”

The next day, the strike was off — another in a long line of Bloomberg’s victories against organized labor. “In the city’s entire history, the special interests have never had less power than they do today,” he commented, “and the end of this strike reflects the fact that when we say we put children first, we mean it.”

The walkout left nine out of ten bus routes inoperational, effectively shutting down a critical service overnight. It should have been politically devastating for the mayor. But instead of strengthening the union’s bargaining power, the unavoidable impact of the strike on children, particularly those with special needs, was used as a cover by the union’s actual targets: public officials and private business interests. As one Staten Island driver pointed out, the union was not asking for a pay raise or benefits; they were simply protesting for the right to return to their jobs next school year.

But ultimately it was the bus drivers, not the politicians, who were seen as selfish. That the drivers had been picketing around the clock in freezing weather and losing wages to uphold employee protections guaranteed to them since the 1970s was immaterial to parents surrendering their own time and money to transport children to and from school.

It’s inevitable. Like all of the world’s financial capitals, New York is stunningly stratified by race and class. The city’s elites live parallel to rather than among the general public, with separate social networks and institutions that insulate them from the consequences of the disastrous policies they advocate, complicating the antagonism between labor and capital. As children, Bloomberg’s own daughters attended the private K-12 Spence School on East Ninety-First Street between Fifth and Madison, in the same neighborhood where they resided. In contrast, New York City’s school choice policy of matching students to schools based on preference rather than assigning them to local districts means that some public school students travel more than 90 minutes a day to and from school. Last year, the city finally allowed students to transfer if their commute was over 75 minutes — still twice the average time spent commuting by a New York adult. The problem with the school bus drivers’ strike was that it affected the working- and middle-class families who rely on public services much more than it cost the managerial class.

It’s a conflict faced by everyone whose job it is to look after children. Local government (in the case of the New York City bus drivers, in partnership with private employers) has power over the teachers, cafeteria workers, paraprofessionals, drivers, mechanics, and janitors it employs, but each of these care workers has power over the vulnerable population that depends on them for the fulfillment of basic needs. When care workers strike, their actions don’t stop production or result in profit losses for managers; they stop the provision of essential services for their students or patients. In highly segregated urban societies, the wealthiest people don’t even use public services, making it difficult to earnestly direct a refusal to work at the city’s elites.

The backlash against the bus drivers’ union strike was heightened by the fact that their case failed to move New York City parents. K-12 teachers have always had higher salaries and garnered more public respect than other school workers. Though their once unassailable status as “heroes” in the way of police officers and firefighters is increasingly under attack, even Americans who believe the school system is failing say they are happy with their local teachers. New York City bus drivers don’t have the same clout. In any case, their strike was too rhetorically narrow. Union members protested that the mayor was heartless, but their call for empathy meant little to parents who are themselves unemployed, underemployed, or, if they’re “lucky” enough to have a full-time job, severely overworked.

Since the 2008 recession, even job security — the singular premise on which the last surviving scraps of an American social safety net rest — is no longer seen as a right. The unemployment rate is 7.7%; the effective unemployment rate that counts part-time workers and those who have stopped looking for work is 20%. And while 92% of union workers have health coverage, only 68% of non-unionized workers do. Today only 12% of American workers even have a union in their workplace.

In The Future of Our Schools, union member Lois Weiner describes the choice made by American unions in the 1960s to use their political power exclusively to obtain health care coverage for members without fighting for universal health care. “It’s not common knowledge,” she writes, “but several decades ago the most powerful industrial unions in the United States had internal debates about how labor should deal with members’ need for health care and pensions. Advocates of business unionism argued the union should bargain for health care and pensions as part of the contract, making employers pay.” Others argued for an all-encompassing social justice orientation similar to that adopted by European unions, in which the unions would have used their (at the time) formidable power to lobby for universal healthcare and pensions. Had American unions secured tangible benefits for the public at large, it’s possible that they would still be a force to reckon with. Instead, the dramatic difference between the job security and livable wages of union members and non-unionized employees is now a significant obstacle to uniting workers in the struggle against punitive austerity measures. “In retrospect, the ‘practical’ stance of business unionism was shortsighted and it’s a mistake we ought not repeat,” concludes Weiner.

But the bus drivers’ strike was not merely a reaction to the removal of the job security clause from workers’ contracts. By fighting against budget cuts and the negotiation of cheaper contracts, the bus drivers were implicitly standing in opposition to the broader neoliberal ideology of privatization, competition, “lean” production, and relentless expropriation of workers’ personal time as a cure for society’s ills. That connection was willfully obscured by Bloomberg and Walcott — fluent in anti-labor language — and never clearly articulated by the union.

Compare this to the strategy of rank-and-file workers from the Transport Workers Union Local 100 and the Amalgamated Transit Union who, in conjunction with Occupy Wall Street activists, opened gates at four subway stations around the city during a March 2012 morning rush hour. The union members posted signs around the city apologizing to subway riders for service cuts and fare hikes which, they explained, were the result of the MTA’s determination to make the highest profit off of commuters.

The signs were formatted in the font used for MTA service announcements and urged riders to enter the station for free through the service entrance, making the public collaborators in a collective action against austerity measures. That service cuts meant layoffs for transit workers wasn’t even mentioned. “Be prepared for expanded free service until the resolution of contract negotiations in favor of TWU Local 100,” they advertised. A press release located the wildcat action in the context of the global political climate, connecting it to the interests of the class as a whole in a time of mass austerity. The tactic had international precedent — the Spanish indignados had been running their own fare strike, Yo No Pago, since January of that year.

The failure of the bus drivers’ union strike underscores the necessity of building national and international coalitions between unionized and non-unionized labor, workers and non-workers of all kinds, with the explicit aim of transforming the structure of institutions. After the surprise success of the September 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike — the first in the city since 1987 — the question was: what city’s next?

It’s the wrong question. Located in one of only eleven states in the US where public sector employees have the right to strike, Chicago is exceptional. America’s dogged adherence to local politics means that each district, city, and state is subject to its own labor law regimes. Anti-austerity strategy, in turn, will differ in different regions. What we should be asking is: how do we transition from a localized and evanescent series of collective actions to a national movement with a unified agenda that could ignite a shift in public policy? How do we move from home-grown resistance to victory?

The same month as the bus drivers’ union strike, teachers at Seattle’s Garfield High School voted unanimously to refuse to administer the standardized Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test — purchased by a superintendent who sat on the board of the company that marketed it. In their statement to the public, the teachers stressed that the test was “not good for students” because it wasted valuable instructional time. In a move that mirrored the actions of the rank-and-file transit union members, the school’s parent-teacher association took immediate steps to notify parents of their right to excuse children from taking the exam, giving parents a chance to join the boycott. They did. Diane Ravitch and Jonathan Kozol sent letters of encouragement. On March 22, district leaders began reducing the number of students required to take the test.

Former DC schools chancellor Michelle Rhee went on the defensive, warning in an op-ed in the Seattle Times, “Seattle public school students should pay attention. They’re getting a front-row, real-world lesson in how the actions of adults can distract from what’s best for students.” Rhee, of the “grassroots” education reform organization Students First, insists on referring to the Garfield High teachers as local teachers union members — and unions, she argues, prioritize the protection of educators’ jobs over the need for an objective assessment to evaluate schools’ performance.

Her well-worn assertion that teachers are nothing more than self-interested actors is flatly untrue, but it is rooted in a real shift that occurred mid-century. Under the influence of the AFL-CIO, teachers’ advocacy organizations changed in structure and tone from radical groups fighting for a voice in curriculum to groups negotiating higher pay and benefits for teachers.

From 1970 to 1971, Steve Golin interviewed fifty-two teachers who taught in Newark public schools during the strikes of 1970 and 1971. In The Newark Teachers Strikes, he tells the story of two teachers with opposing understandings of the role of urban unions:

In the 1960s as in the 1930s, Lowenstein wanted the Union to fight not only for teachers but for all the oppressed, including the children of Newark. Ficcio wanted the Union to focus on issues it could directly confront, at the bargaining table. . . . Everyone active in the Union during the 1960s was aware of a conflict between the new strand of bread-and-butter unionism and the older strand of socially committed unionism.

The debate was replayed in city after city, with people like Ficcio winning the day.

Throughout the 1980s, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) — the more urban of the two national teachers unions — maintained an educational philosophy indistinguishable from the neoliberal agenda being pushed through schools today. In 2008, Randi Weingarten addressed the AFT National Convention with: “Tests, if they are fair and accurate, and aligned with a rich curriculum, can play an important role in holding teachers, administrators and schools accountable for much of student achievement.” It wasn’t until 2012 that the AFT approved a resolution on standardized testing that called for “balance” in the use of assessments, and even then the language was weak, and the action behind the language was nonexistent. Only the Chicago CORE caucus pressed the AFT to pressure states to monitor the time and money spent on testing.

Either consciously or intuitively, Rhee and other corporate reformers have spent their careers invoking the bitter divisions at the heart of the twentieth-century urban education wars, which pitted unions and their middle-class white allies against low-income black families, left intellectuals like Paul Goodman, and the corporate reformers who supported local control of schools against teachers.

As slogans go, “Students first” is a descendent of the controversial “community control” experiments of the late 1960s and early 1970s supported by the Ford and Rockefeller Foundations — the granddaddy of the more insidious present-day Broad, Walton, and Gates Foundations. Both are vaguely populist suggestions that the answer to education reform can be found in individuals and local groups of students, teachers, and community members rather than through a well-funded, systematic program of desegregation and redistribution.

Ocean Hill-Brownsville is a New York City neighborhood adjacent to Bedford-Stuyvesant, where the median household income in Brownsville has fallen every year for the past four years. In 2009, it was $24,659 — $20,871 less than the starting salary for a New York City public school teacher. In 2013, the Citizen’s Committee for Children released a report ranking Brownsville as the third “worst places for children” to grow up in New York City. Seventy-five of every 1000 children living in the neighborhood were reported neglected or abused, with 52% living below the poverty line, and only 1/3 reading at grade level. According to census data, as of 2010, the demographics for the 11233 zip code were: 87% black, 5% white, .7% American Indian, .9% Asian, and about 3% mixed race.

At the turn of the century, Brownsville was a largely middle-class Jewish neighborhood. Northern migration of Southern black families changed its demographics more dramatically than any other neighborhood in New York City, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that there was massive white flight from the neighborhood. The postwar years saw an unprecedented increase in economic opportunity for the city’s once-ostracized European immigrant population thanks to a general increase in social spending (which disproportionately benefited whites), free education subsidized by the GI Bill, and the replacement of industrial jobs with white-collar jobs in New York City.

It was feasible that in one or two generations, children of working-class Italian, Irish, and Eastern European immigrants could rise to ranks of the middle class. As Catholics and Jews, they continued to be shut out from the lucrative WASP-controlled business sector, but many of them became public school teachers, marrying their parents’ positive views of organized labor to a fierce personal conviction in the ethos of meritocracy and the value of elbow grease.

Black parents and educators around the country had an altogether different relationship to unions. Labor historian John F. Lyons has argued that teachers unions’ right to collective bargaining was secured by politicians, particularly Mayor Richard Daley of Chicago, seeking to remove union opposition to the Democratic machine, which was under pressure from civil rights organizations to desegregate schools. As Dorothy Shipps points out in School Reform, Corporate Style: Chicago, 1880–2000, Daley’s offer of collective bargaining was a double-edged sword, at least in Chicago: the raises did not apply to most black teachers, who comprised a third of Chicago’s teaching force at the time and were usually hired as full-time substitutes or temps.

In contrast to the socialist Teachers’ Union (TU) it had replaced, New York City’s 90% white, majority-Jewish United Federation of Teachers (UFT) had never come out strongly for integration of the public schools. As soon as they’d completed their requisite five years of service, white teachers frequently transferred from predominantly black districts to “better schools” — i.e. white districts — leaving children in neighborhoods like Ocean Hill-Brownsville with a perpetually-shifting group of inexperienced teachers. The UFT successfully blocked the city’s efforts to put an end to this practice. In 1967, under the acrimonious leadership of Albert Shanker, the union again backed a controversial provision opposed by black educators and black community leaders including Martin Luther King, Jr. The “disruptive child” provision would have given teachers unilateral power to expel students who acted out in their classrooms, shuttling them into separate schools. During the UFT’s 1967 strike, Ocean Hill-Brownsville schools remained open.

As Jerald Podair observes in The Strike That Changed New York, “White teachers viewed the educational system as one that, while flawed, had helped them, and would help anyone wishing to work hard. Black parents saw the system as a failure.” By 1967, “it was time, as one parent would put it, ‘to make our own rules for our own schools.’” Fearful that the city was about to erupt in the same riots that had gripped Boston, Chicago, and Detroit, New York City’s business community eagerly supported community control as an ameliorative but largely symbolic gesture.

In 1968, the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school board — run by black parents and educators — sent a letter to high school teacher and chapter chairman of the UFT Fred Nauman informing him that he, along with nearly all white and Jewish educators in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school system, had been dismissed. In response, the UFT launched three citywide teachers’ strikes aimed at restoring the teachers’ jobs and challenging the community’s authority over organized labor. The conflict went on for two months, affecting nearly one million students and bringing out the worst in everyone involved, including racist and anti-Semitic rhetoric. It left lasting political and social divisions that prevented whites and blacks from uniting in opposition to austerity measures during the financial crisis of the 1970s — when 10,000 teachers were laid off — and which continue to influence the city’s politics today.

The legacy of the community control experiment — which was tried at various points in New York City, Chicago, Newark, and other cities around the country — was twofold. It gave parents a say over what their children learned in school, while requiring little in the way of a financial commitment from either corporate leaders or the government. Its proponents successfully called into question the legitimacy of the competitive promotion-by-exam system for both students and teachers (according to Podair, black candidates were frequently eliminated from consideration for teaching job on the basis of “poor pronunciation”). They challenged the system of tracking, or separating students into groups based on assumptions about their abilities, which most white parents believed in and which the UFT never questioned. They rejected standardized testing and designed a curriculum that balanced study of Western history and philosophy with the works of Malcolm X and Marcus Garvey.

But ultimately, the power that was redistributed through community control was social power, not economic power.

In Chicago and New York, the business community was happy to hand over control of schools to parents since it meant that more expensive (and unpopular among whites) tactics like busing or finance reform would be abandoned. Decentral­ization became the sanctioned alternative to a coordinated, mandatory effort at integration. Participation became a replacement for a redistributive strategy that would attempt to offset the consequences of common discriminatory practices such as redlining — charging residents in predominantly black neighborhoods more for services — and blockbusting. Reactionary organizations of whites soon co-opted the language of community control to avoid integration, a development anticipated from the start by socialist Michael Harrington.

When Chicago teachers struck in the 1980s, a Chicago Tribune editorial indicted the teachers for their selfishness: “The teachers intend to grab up every possible dollar the school board can raise. And they shouldn’t be surprised that no one believes them the next time they say that they really care about the children or the city.” On the same page in July of 2012, the paper warned, “A strike could start as early as Aug. 18, a week into classes for a third of the district’s students. Both sides know who would lose the most: Chicago’s school kids.”

In fact, the 2012 strike was a seminal victory not only for Chicago’s kids, but for parents, teachers, and workers around the country. When the Chicago teachers struck, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators — an openly anti-neoliberal movement that took power from the AFT-backed CTU in a landslide victory in 2010 — didn’t just shrug and ask us to believe that what’s good for labor is good for students.

Instead, CORE indicted business reformers and politicians for their role in bringing about a punishing wave of high-stakes standardized testing and school closures, connecting the struggle against market-based reforms and austerity to a social justice movement that encompasses all community members. Significantly, instead of working in tandem with corporations as the AFT and CTU have done, Karen Lewis publicly reprimanded business leaders for their overreach: “The business peopledo not have a clue, but they are the ones calling the shots.”

CORE’s stance echoes the oppositional behavior of pre-1960s unions, who routinely called out business tycoons for tax evasion. At the turn of the century, when the Chicago Commercial Club — a group of wealthy businessmen still active today — argued for budget cuts in schools as a response to an economic shortfall, the teachers’ union responded by filing a lawsuit charging the club members’ corporations with failure to pay their taxes. The corporations were defeated in the state supreme court.

It’s undemocratic and unfair for America’s mainly local and state-funded schools to bear the burden of being the singular means through which the social welfare of an entire country is either protected or destroyed. But if schools are to be the chosen battlegrounds where corporate “reformers” seek to teach American labor the value of productivity, efficiency, and free markets, it’s a challenge that should be met. If, as Maryland-based defense firm Lockheed Martin claims, “Industry has an important role to play in building the workforce pipeline — and the classroom is the place to begin,” then they should be required to provide jobs for students who’ve graduated from their programs. And before they enter into partnerships with schools, putting their employees in K-12 classrooms in Maryland to “develop talent,” businesses must show their commitment to American children by paying their taxes instead of pushing to receive retroactive exemptions. On March 19, the Maryland Senate passed a bill that would exempt Lockheed Martin from paying $450,000 a year in county taxes.

Corporate reformers from Bloomberg to Rahm Emanuel to former CEO of Chicago Public Schools Arne Duncan have made a critical strategic mistake in closing “under-resourced” schools. Never before have parents, teachers, and students been so united in defending their local schools. In New York City, UFT chapter leader Julie Cavanagh — who participated in a lawsuit against Bloomberg for the right to protest school closings and charter schools—seeks to replicate the success of CORE with MORE, the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators, an explicitly social justice caucus. She’s currently campaigning for UFT President. This April, United Opt Out (UOO), a national organization that seeks to end corporate education reform, will demonstrate at the Department of Education in Washington, DC.

Building a lasting opposition to the neoliberal consensus on education “reform” will require teachers unions to form broad, international alliances with the general public, instead of bargaining for seniority provisions and miniscule pay raises that never come as promised.

Teachers must focus their advocacy on actions that clearly benefit students as much as they benefit teachers. That means speaking up when it comes to issues that affects the lives of their students — high-stakes testing, yes, but also the deepening of segregation in our schools; police brutality in schools and out; the lack of access for low-income families to healthcare; and the US prison state, which disproportionately affects low-income and black students. That’s what it means to put students first.