Dueling Strategies in the Defense of Public Education Part I

Ann Robertson and Bill Leumer

The massive turnout across the state of California on March 4 in defense of public education provides indisputable evidence that this movement is just at the beginning stage. And much credit is due to the countless number of students, staff, and teachers who committed many, many hours of their time, tirelessly organizing for March 4; without this dedication, the event would have sputtered to a stop.

Of course, those who participated are eagerly raising the question: What next? But in contemplating the way forward, casting a glance backwards can help illuminate some of the conflicting perspectives that were competing for hegemony in the struggle to defend public education. In this way we can begin to launch a discussion over the underlying strategy and tactics that can best guide our way forward.

The International Students for Social Equality

Although the International Students for Social Equality (ISSE) offered many correct observations, for example, by placing the blame for the decimation of public education at the feet of both Democrats and Republicans, and by connecting the campaign for public education with the need to create jobs, they included in their list of demands the nationalization of banks and major corporations, placing both under the democratic control of working people. Of course, if such a step were implemented, funding for public education would be solved because profits could be diverted from these sectors to public education.

One can supply at least some rationale for the call to nationalize banks at this historical juncture, given the extraordinary unpopularity among working people in response to the federal government’s bank bailouts. Nevertheless, at this time there is virtually no demand on the part of working people to nationalize banks, let alone corporations, and there is no call among working class organizations (either unions or caucuses within unions or other working class organizations that represent a significant sector of the working class) to institute workers’ control. This slogan was so out of step with the current consciousness of working people in general and the consciousness of those involved in the movement to defend public education in particular that it virtually fell flat and went nowhere.

Rather than helping to elevate the consciousness of workers, such a demand, because workers are not even remotely contemplating it, has the result of discrediting those who raise it. They appear completely out of touch with the current desires, aspirations, and organizational capacity of the working class. Demands must serve to galvanize working people to fight for their own interests as they themselves understand and define these interests, not appear as exotic, esoteric, and alien to them. While the demand for nationalizations and workers’ control might be entirely appropriate at a later date, workers will have to learn from their own experience that these are necessary steps to take.

Along the same lines, the ISSE rejects forming alliances with the trade unions, noting that “these organizations work to subordinate working class opposition to the Democratic Party and the capitalist two-party system.” And they add: “They work systematically to impose concessions on their memberships, accepting the lie that cuts are necessary to ‘balance the budget.’”

However, despite more than a grain of truth in these observations, they ignore both strategic and factual considerations.

Despite their flaws, unions nevertheless represent millions of working people, and they constitute the only institution founded on the basis of defending the needs and interests of workers as workers. Consequently, ignoring the trade unions results in the self-imposed isolation of revolutionaries from the organized working class. Also, because of pressure from their ranks, more and more trade unions are now adopting positions in conflict with the Democratic Party. For example, U.S. Labor Against the War has more than 180 local union affiliates, despite the strong support of the Democratic Party for Obama’s wars. Labor for Single Payer health care has many trade union affiliates and just passed a resolution calling on the Labor Movement to organize a Solidarity Day III demonstration to demand jobs, peace and justice. The Democratic Party does not support single payer health care. And many trade unions, especially teacher unions, are calling for taxing the rich or for progressive taxation in order to fund public education and social services, which again runs contrary to the Democratic Party program.

Turning away from the unions also ignores the unprecedented frontal attack the Obama administration has directed against the teacher unions by applauding when all the teachers at a Rhode Island school were fired or by forcing the conversion of public schools into charter schools, which eliminates teacher unions in a single stroke of the pen. The teacher unions will be compelled to oppose Obama’s policies if they want to survive.

If revolutionaries abandon the unions, then the Democratic Party and the employers will have little competition in terms of the hegemony of their ideas among organized workers.

All this is to say that the trade unions have a long and complicated history. In the 1930s many played a militant role in defending and promoting the interests of working people, often thanks to the role of socialists within their ranks. Because their ostensive role is to defend workers, trade unions are particularly susceptible to pressure from their own ranks to do exactly this, even though it might run counter to the interests of the corporate dominated Democratic Party.

Humanist Workers for Revolutionary Socialism

Humanist Workers for Revolutionary Socialism also offers some correct observations. Its members urge linking the struggle for education to the plight of public employees and the working class in general. Rather than condemning unions as completely irrelevant, they argue in favor of transforming unions into class struggle organs of the working class. And they correctly argue that the problem of the funding of education is rooted in the crisis of capitalism. But they fall into the same error as ISSE when they insist that “only an indefinite general strike can reverse the fee hike and layoffs” and therefore call for such a strike at this time.

While this claim might in fact turn out to be true, the working class at this point in history is far from accepting this conclusion, based on its own experiences. In fact, the current mood of California workers in the public sector leans more in the direction of desperately clinging to their jobs in the face of the massive layoffs of their coworkers, as opposed to venturing out onto what for them is the uncharted territory of a strike, let alone an indefinite general strike.

This is not to say that strikes should not be encouraged where the conditions are ripe and workers are prepared to fight. And if an indefinite general strike could result simply from a few leftists raising the call, then the call would be entirely appropriate.

Unfortunately, organizing strikes, not to mention general strikes and indefinite general strikes, requires a tremendous amount of education, preparation, and organization. Many intermediary steps must be taken where, for example, workers gain a sense of solidarity among themselves; where they acquire an understanding of the tremendous power they can wield when they engage in collective action; where they manage to select leaders who have a fighting spirit, who understand the class nature of the struggle, and are entirely trustworthy; where they have an organization in place that allows them to act as an efficient and effective unit; and where they have been convinced that by engaging in an indefinite general strike they could actually win their demands, as opposed to simply losing their jobs.

Those who call for an indefinite general strike in a context that is lacking most of these elements thereby give the appearance that they are not serious and are completely disconnected from the working class. In the current situation the most advanced trade union actions have only amounted to one day, isolated strikes, such as that called by the University Professional and Technical Employees at U.C. Berkeley and the one day strike tentatively called by the Oakland teachers union.

There was yet another problem with the approach adopted by the Humanist Workers for Revolutionary Socialism. They offered an eleven-point program at the outset of this movement that could only be embraced by people who are already convinced of socialism. It included the call for the defeat of the U.S. forces in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan and the condemnation of U.S. imperialism in addition to calling for the establishment of a workers’ government. Only a small minority of those who participated in March 4 is presently convinced of the desirability of these proposals. Most participants are completely oblivious of the imperialist nature of U.S. foreign policy and the need for a workers’ government. If the coalition building March 4 had in fact adopted this program, the demonstrations would have been miniscule in size.

This approach therefore misses the crucial dynamic involved in raising the consciousness of working people by failing to incorporate the strategic orientation of the united front. Masses of people do not become class conscious simply because someone lectures them on the virtues of socialism. They must learn from their own experience that capitalism always operates to undermine their needs and desires while socialism offers them the only solution, but these experiences only become possible when workers are prepared to fight for what they want. The united front therefore brings workers together over the demands that the workers themselves are prepared to stand up and fight for at any particular moment in history, such as defending public education and social services.

Put differently, the correct demands are not those selected by a few radicals who are intent on showing everyone else how far their own understanding has advanced. The demands must rather be carefully formulated to unite all those workers who want to put up a fight, thereby reflecting their level of consciousness at that point. The role of socialists then is to guide this fighting spirit increasingly in the direction of class independence, so that in the process workers come to realize they can only rely on themselves to bring about fundamental change, not on the politicians, the courts or the capitalists.

In the early stages of the current crisis surrounding education, many students and teachers at first impulsively lunged towards demands directed at defending only their own sector of education, even though clearly everyone was suffering. In the California State University system (CSU), the chosen slogan was: “CSU is the solution.” But socialists in the March 4 movement argued effectively that a far more powerful movement could be created by generating slogans that defended all public education, from kindergarten to the universities. And participants immediately perceived the logic of this proposal and adopted it.

Then, many in the movement, including UnitedEducators of San Francisco (American Federation of Teachers, Local 61), the teacher union covering K-12, have been insisting that the movement to defend education must be linked to the defense of social services, since state and city workers have been subjected to unrelenting attacks in the form of layoffs, pay cuts, and furloughs. This perspective has also begun to be accepted as those in the education sector realize their movement could be much stronger if an alliance was formed with these workers.

With a broadening working class alliance now part of the movement, some have been arguing that the next indispensable step is to raise the demand: TAX THE RICH! In this way enough money could easily be generated to fully fund education and social services. In other words, to avoid fracturing the alliance, the various sectors cannot be pursuing solutions that are unique to each sector but must promote solutions that include and unite everyone. This demand also raises the level of the struggle by framing it in class terms: workers and students are demanding that their needs are to be met at the expense of the rich, not at the expense of one another. And this demand has also begun to be accepted among a large number of the participants.

The united front strategy consequently operates in this way: Initially, demands are raised, although they might be entirely modest, that are aimed at uniting those who want to put up a fight, bringing many people together who might have different political affiliations. But when people participate in a struggle, their consciousness is raised. They learn, for example, that the Democratic Party is not supporting their struggle. They see that writing their so-called representatives in the state legislature or Congress accomplishes absolutely nothing. They learn that the courts and police are routinely used to suppress them, even though their cause is entirely just. But this means that the demands must be carefully crafted to resonate with workers each step of the way.

When leftists insist on including the demand for a workers’ government at the beginning of the struggle, they fail to realize that such a demand is accepted only after working people have had considerable experience consolidating themselves as a class and acting independently of the Democrats or Republicans. If leftists insist that participants must embrace socialism or the slogan of a workers’ government at the outset, they will prevent those who are eager to fight from participating and close the door to the real education these people will get through mass demonstrations and class struggle. In other words, this approach accomplishes just the opposite of its intended goal.

Freeway Blockades

Another controversy in the March 4 movement erupted over the question of mounting blockades of major highways and throughways, a tactic that some students ardently supported. Some of them argued that militant tactics such as these are absolutely essential since peaceful protests often amount to nothing and will only attract reformists, not those who are committed to real change. They added that it is not a question of the number of people who participate but the quality of the participation. In their minds, the more militant the action, the better it is, despite the small numbers who participate.

However, highway blockades mostly victimize working people who are trying to get to or from work or are simply trying to do their jobs. This tactic was imposed undemocratically on workers without affording them the opportunity to vote for or against it. Hence, it often results in repelling working people who would otherwise be sympathetic to defending public education, because they want free quality education for their own children.

Moreover, this tactic tends to divide the movement since it attracts only a small minority of students while alienating many other students, staff, and teachers who are sympathetic to the struggle but might be more sensitive to the negative effects of blocking traffic. It therefore serves to minimize the number of people who are engaged in the protest, rather than maximize it. And as a result, the tactic again inhibits the growth of the movement.

People are energized, enthused, and excited by massive demonstrations because they sense that when large numbers of people are united, the movement gains power and has a chance of success. It is as if subjective desires of working people are transformed into objective truths when embraced by huge numbers of people. Hence large demonstrations result in the participants wanting to reach out to even more workers until they succeed in winning a clear majority to the cause. This in turn inspires them to continue the struggle until victory is achieved.

Small demonstrations, on the other hand, usually demoralize the participants because they feel isolated, powerless, and disconnected from the majority of the population. And trying to win demands at the expense of working people who have the misfortune of being caught up in a freeway blockade will only divide and weaken the movement further. By isolating themselves from other workers they undermine their ability to win more workers to the struggle. Soon their demands begin to look entirely unrealistic because their lack of numbers emphasize their lack of power. And because of their disconnection from the working class, the participants, who often feel morally superior to everyone else because of their recourse to militant tactics, often end up drifting into the Democratic Party where they eventually believe real power resides.

Finally, revolutionary change does not result when only supported by a small minority of the population. To be successful, revolutionaries may not need the active participation of the majority of the population, but they do need their support. Most people, especially working people, believe that society should be run democratically. When they discover that the government refuses to adopt a policy even though the majority of the population has clearly embraced it, such as fully funding public education and providing jobs for all, then a revolutionary situation is created. People begin to demand that a new government that truly reflects the interests of the majority, which is constituted overwhelmingly by working people, replace the old, undemocratic system. Therefore, in order to maximize the possibility of fundamental change, activists must reach out to the majority of working people and attempt to win their support. One’s tactics must reflect this strategic orientation.

The authors recommend:In order to view the authors’ strategic recommendations in defense of public education, see “The Way Forward for the Movement in Defense of Public Education.

About the Authors:

Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.). Ann Robertson is a Lecturer at San Francisco State University and a member of the California Faculty Association. Both are writers for Workers Action and may be reached at sanfrancisco@workerscompass.org.

About Ann Robertson and Bill Leumer

View all posts by Ann Robertson and Bill Leumer
Ann Robertson is a Lecturer at San Francisco State University and a member of the California Faculty Association. Bill Leumer is a member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853 (ret.). Both are writers for Workers Action and may be reached at sanfrancisco@workerscompass.org.