March 4th Actions and Beyond, a Critical Approach
Rich Gibson March 2010
The core issue of our time is the reality of the promise of perpetual war and escalating inequality met by the potential of a mass, activist, class conscious movement to transform both daily life and the system of capitalism itself.
That is the background, the social context, of the momentous actions on March 4th, 2010.
This inquiry aims at actions in California, mainly San Diego, but will touch on LA very briefly. Others will have to fill the huge, international, gaps left out here to gauge what happened, world-wide, on March 4th.
The proposal for an action on M4 began in response to massive tuition hikes (32%) and faculty cuts (10% wages) and layoffs (thousand of classes cut) in Northern California (Jack Gerson will write well about this background )when students in the elite, segregated, University of California system began protests, and building occupations.
This was followed by a walkout in the entire UC system, backed by the American Association of University Professors. Note, in foreshadowing, that the UC system has no union. There is no union contract. The walkout was not met by union bureaucrat demands to halt it, and it happened.
Building occupations in the UC system followed. From UC Santa Cruz’ occupation: ““Having a good school within this capitalist society is like having a reading room in a prison. Not acceptable.”
Huge meetings of students and school workers (more than 600 people, maybe 800) called for March 4, mainly a day of "Strikes."
The idea spread via the internet and the many personal ties that people gained from being in demonstrations, meetings, and other actions together.
It spread into the "workhorse" CSU (less prestigious) system, and k12.
The union bosses in the National Education Association affiliates, the California Faculty Association (universities) and the California Teachers Association (k12 and some community colleges) as well as some American Federation of Teachers locals initially ignored this movement but, at the same time, some of their local leaders were deeply involved, especially in the Bay area and Los Angeles. There was pressure coming from the bottom up, lots of pressure in some places. San Diego’s education association, involved in bargaining a contract that expired nearly two years ago, largely ignored the event, focusing members on a tentative agreement reached March 2nd.
Meanwhile, students took the lead, backed by a handful of profs, k12 workers, community people, and politicos of all kinds, coming like bears to honey, sometimes moving in humbly, as should be done, other times issuing “What is to Be Done,” screeds over the internet. Online debates grew interesting.
Students stayed in the lead and did remarkable organizing to make M4 happen. They used their techno-skills but didn't have to be told the technology could be shut off.
Students built close ties with campus workers, person to person ties. At San Diego State, they asked the campus workers not to take down their signs, not to wipe out their chalkings on sidewalks, and the material remained, and the students later cleaned it up---followed through on their promise.
But the faculty of the California State University system is represented, to abuse the word, by the California Faculty Association, an NEA affiliate with direct ties to the CTA, which misrepresents the vast majority of k12 school workers.
CFA bosses did three things. Where they could, as in many community colleges and k12 schools, they ignored M4 entirely and many faculty never heard about it although they did place the “Day of Action,” on their web site and a few emails–that are typically ignored by faculty. .
Where that was not possible, they tried to divert the movement. They did all they could to (a) turn the call for strikes and walkouts into their "Day of Action," and then tamp down the action and (b) to urge people into lonely voting booths, especially in support of a tax on upper-level working class people to pay for schools---a mirror of a ballot measure CTA created last fall that failed by about 66%. CTA spent more than $20 million on that move to pit one section of workers against another.
The song that the labor leaders sang was: "None of us can violate the contract. We must work within the rules. We cannot strike or walk out."
When denying and diverting M4 was not possible because of rank and file and student action, CFA tried to take credit for the entire event.
At San Diego State (part of the CSU), CFA reserved the Free Speech Steps (yes, meaning the rest of the campus, as throughout the CSU system is not that, and it is legal), for M4, then tried to prevent the students from using the area---and CFA leaders said they had no plans for action on M4 at all, not at the outset.
Then, pressured by a few faculty members and a lot of students, CFA decided to set up a "Vent at the Tent" on M4--meaning people could come to the tent and say anything they wanted, but CFA gave no leadership on the "why" of the current circumstances, nor what the key issues might be. (CFA did the same thing on the recent contract concessions, about a 10% pay cut and booming class size--putting the issue to a faculty vote with no suggestion at to what to do, the real nature of the negotiations, etc--that slipped through with a vote of about 52% in favor).
SDSU CFA tops did all they could to discourage student leaders, steer them off their track. Indeed, in face to face meetings, CFA faculty leaders were downright mean to earnest students.
As things turned out, probably 700 students marched and rallied at SDSU--the biggest campus actions since the Mayday demonstrations about 4 years ago. The students, after a long struggle for space, set up speakers 10 yards from the "Vent at the Tent" which was largely ignored, the CFA mis-leaders turned into bystanders who pretended to cheer the students.
Then, however, student and faculty leaders used the sound system to not only denounce the system of capital and its wars which produced these crises, but to attack the CFA tops, in particular detail, for trying to wreck the day.
What the CFA mis-leaders actually thought about that, I don't know, but I watched their embarrassed smiles.
A disappointing number of faculty turned up for the student march and rally at SDSU, maybe 50. While I speculate, I don't think that comes from a lack of sympathy, or more to the point, mutual exploitation. University faculty are notoriously individualist, and not especially courageous---absent a really powerful minority of writers and activists--but the role of the union has to be important.
With a long history of SDSU union tops doing less than nothing, indeed some of them moving right into well-paid administrative positions at the end of their terms, with the union being well known for not protecting people, it's reasonable to think that some faculty were deterred. That would be especially true of the untenured and adjuncts who have, on one hand, plenty of reason to be afraid, yet on the other hand are the people hit hardest and the greatest reason to want to fight back.
In the two weeks prior to March 4th, the huge, prestigious, University of California at San Diego experienced a series of racist events: a fraternity held a “Compton Cookout Party,” where members and dates arrived in black face, the campus tv station ran a program defending the party, a campus newspaper, the Koala, ridiculed protests against the racist environment at UCSD which has a black enrollment of 1.3%, a noose was hung in the campus library, and a KKK hood was draped over the head of a statue of Theodore Geisel, Dr Seuss, on campus.
Rising protests against not only the racist atmosphere that made these events possible, but also against the economic cuts (32% tuition hike, classes abolished, etc.) which had a deepening racist impact merged with the March 4th action, perhaps making the usually very conservative campus a focal point for San Diego action.
School-based protests were held on k12 and some community college campuses through the early afternoon on March 4th. Then people merged at Balboa Park, perhaps 3000 marched to Governor Swarzeneggar’s San Diego office. Notably, students and faculty from Mission Bay High marched at least 8 miles from their school to join the larger late afternoon demonstrations.
In Los Angeles, thousands of students walked out of schools and colleges, CSULA in particular, and joined a mass demonstration at Pershing Square where the LAM4 committee, once again largely organized by students, led the day.
Reports came in from other areas about sit-downs on expressways, mass arrests in other areas.
With that as background, the actions on M4 were a great, great success. They prove that people will indeed fight back (for years, labor bosses said they would not, then sold members out on that premise).
People positioned so that they must fight back, will.
That does not mean they will make sense of why they must fight, that is, capitalism and imperialism produce over time nothing but miserable inequality and war.
It's possible people will fight the nearest appearances of oppression. Teachers will fight for teacher jobs, students for more admissions and against tuition hikes, nurses for nurses, the unemployed for jobs, the foreclosed for payment holidays, and so on.
What they're doing is following the war of all on all nature of the economy, capital, and once again defeating each other--as the union structures are designed.
The greatest success of M4, however, was that students took the lead with breathtaking competence, and they showed everyone that they could be more whole, creative, and joyful within a movement where they knew they were making sacrifices, taking real go-to-jail risks.
Those who have been discouraged for some time might be "restored to life." The No Child Left Behind Act did not work. It failed to create obedient and loyal workers and soldiers, far to the contrary of what some people thought.
Why, however, were the unions so onerously involved in trying to pound the life out of the March 4th actions?
That account has not been made, not in the liberal reviews from Labor Notes, nor elsewhere in the radical press. Rather, what is written, especially by NEA, is that there was wonderful unity of the education community, students and educators, and the broader community as well.
That’s not true. It avoids a critical reading that needs to be made as we plan what is next. What is going to be can only be built on what is.
The student leaders of March 4th are all for an end to tuition hikes, open admissions, well paid teachers in not-overcrowded classrooms, well-fed happy students gaining and testing knowledge in a reasonably free atmosphere, solidarity with the education workers and the community, that is, not restoring what we know is truly segregated not-public education, but fully transforming it, rescuing education from the ruling classes.
Are the union leaders and the unions' structures all for that? Not in their practice, nor in their theory.
Not a single top labor leader in the US believes in the main reason people think they join unions for: the contradictory interests of employees and employers.
Instead, the labor bosses believe in the unity of labor tops, government officials, and corporations, in the national interest. That was called "New Unionism," by former NEA President Bob Chase. It's not especially new, except in the very current sense of the rapid deepening of the corporate state.
This New Unionism theory is entwined with the remarkable salaries and benefits that US labor mis-leaders enjoy. Reg Weaver, president of the NEA until last July, earned $484,000 last year and he could easily live on his expense account.
Labor bureaucrats know where the source of that bloated money comes from--the empire’s adventures overseas and their ability to sell labor peace to employers.
NEA and AFT are both still involved in the empire through groups like the National Endowment for Democracy. Kim Scipes, Paul Buhle and, before them, Jack Scott, have all written well about that. It's so commonly known, I won't pursue it here.
What many people do not seem to know is the traditional trade-off in US union contracts.
The labor tops sell labor peace for the duration of the contract in exchange for dues-check off, the agency shop or, in some cases, the union shop--meaning that people must either pay dues or join the union and pay dues. During the period the contract exists, members must live within the peaceful, exploitative, conditions of the deal, contract, the labor bosses dealt.
At base, labor bosses sell the predictable, becalmed, labor of the members they own in exchange for dues money.
Henry Ford understood this right away when it was explained to him: "You mean I'm the unions banker?!"
The labor mis-leaders use this somewhat hidden reality to discipline union members who might get a bit out of hand, at the extreme with wildcat strikes.
They threaten the members, arguing that a job action will destroy the union, "get us sued and we will all get fired and go to jail," a routine that those labor tops who have any real experience know isn't true. The only illegal strike is one that completely fails. Reality intervenes with contract law.
So, labor mis-leaders whipsaw the rank and file. People are forced to pay the union bosses, then the treasury is used against members in the form of propaganda, lawyers, etc., in order to maintain the deal that wins the labor bureaucrats those nice incomes. It is a vile deal.
But the rotten deal tends, in the minds of some, to be covered up with the heroism that defined, for example, the early days of the Industrial Workers of the World or the CIO. Such courage, meshed with anti-racism, internationalism, solidarity, anti-capitalism, and real friendship is worth emulating.
Current labor mis-leaders and the union structures themselves have, in fact, nothing in common with those days.
To be specific, to turn back to March 4th, what is described above is exactly what happened in California.
The union bosses are made irrelevant by actions like at San Diego State on March 4th. Even so, many people remain mystified not only by the unearned authority of union bosses, but unionism itself, as if to hope that what the union is, is not what it is.
Be clear. Union tops are the nearest and most vulnerable of workers’ enemies. They have some power in their treasuries they control, legal help, their illegitimate rule from the podium, but all that can be swept aside by, say, wildcats or, bluntly, removing them from the podium. It’s very unlikely they can be voted from office. The gross, undemocratic structures they sit upon are designed to keep the structure of the union intact, even if at the local level some people must come or go, usually corrupted by the very process that moves them into the hierarchy of leadership.
We can build a social movement that rejects the barriers US unionism creates, from job category to industry to race and sex and beyond.
People are more united throughout the world by systems of technology, transportation, communication, than ever before, but we are divided by class, race, nation, and sex-gender.
Why? Capitalism is necessarily a war of all on all.
Everything negative is in place for a revolutionary transformation of society:
*distrust of leaders, collapse of moral suasion from the top down,
*lost wars, the real promise of endless war,
*financial crises, massive unemployment, booming inequality,
*imprisonment of only the poor, growing reliance on sheer force to rule,
*eradication of civil liberties,
*corruption and gridlock of government at every level, etc.)
What is missing is the passion, class consciousness, organization, and guiding ethic to make that change. Our answer–an ethic of equality forged in a class conscious organization.
Now, beyond March 4th, rises March 20th, the 7th anniversary of the US obscene invasion of Iraq, and beyond that, Mayday, the international workers’ holiday that began in the US, then was swept away and became, in the States, Law Day, the day we are to celebrate obedience.
One fine idea that was raised several times is a “Reverse Strike.” That could, in my view, run the gamut from more sit-downs and occupations to mass teach-ins on campuses, carefully examining why things are as they are, once again demolishing the soldiery habits of daily campus life. We shall see where the movement flows, but there is every reason to believe it is begun.
Up the Rebels!
Good luck to us, every one.