Labor, Solidarity, and the Future of Public Education
by Diane Lefer
Two weeks ago, I walked into an alternate universe. While the rights of American workers are under attack all over the country, I found myself at the 3rd Annual Labor, Social & Environmental Justice Fair — a whole-day event at California State University Dominguez Hills where students have been able to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in Labor Studies since 1977.
Hundreds of community members and students heard speakers and live music, attended film screenings and standing-room-only workshops, and visited more than two dozen booths set up along the East Walkway in front of the Loker Student Union.
They could register to vote, learn about community gardens, protest the sale of sweatshop clothing in the university store, learn how the UFCW can fight to protect workers in the food industries, support health care for all, sign postcards to Senators Feinstein and Boxer urging a vote against the Free Trade Agreement with Colombia (where 51 union leaders were assassinated in 2010), petition the university for a Women’s Resource Center (for a campus where 70% of the students are women), and meet a beaming Madelyn Broadus who is now a proud member of Sheet Metal Workers, Local 105, thanks to the apprenticeship she was able to access through the efforts of the Black Worker Center in South LA.
Though union workers (and, by extension all workers) in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states are under attack, while in Michigan, as Rania Khalek recently reported in Common Dreams, Republican Gov. Rick Snyder “signed a law granting state-appointed emergency financial managers (EFM) the ability to fire local elected officials, break teachers’ and public workers’ contracts, seize and sell assets, and eliminate services, entire cities or school districts, all without any public input.” The Center bucks that trend. Since opening in February with strategic partnerships with the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, with community groups and with labor unions, the Black Worker Center reaches “project labor agreements” for local hiring while making sure that local people have the necessary skills and training for good union jobs. Their mentorship program connects youth ages 16-24 with ironworkers, electricians, carpenters, and union members in “green” trades and industries.
Keynote speaker Mike Garcia of SEIU was a key organizer in the successful Justice for Janitors campaign in 1990. He noted that in the 1930s only 10% of the US population was middle class and only 7% in labor unions. In 1970, when union membership in the private sector had reached its all-time peak, 64% of the country was middle class. Today, while more families every day struggle just to make ends meet and the US sees the greatest disparity in income and wealth than at any time since the Great Depression, only 7% of the private sector workforce is unionized. Anyone see a correlation?
Steve Teixeira of Cal State University LA and Academic Professionals of California saw a glimmer of hope in the recent protests at Cal State University Fullerton where students — unlike those at Dominguez Hills — are overwhelming middle and upper middle class. They occupied a campus building for four days demanding that university president Milton Gordon sign their “Declaration to Defend Public Education.” Their vision that public education is “the principal foundation of a democratic society” and “a sacred trust,” suggests that in spite of a barrage of misinformation and attempts to pit class against class, race against race, Americans still believe this should be a land of opportunity and a place for personal and social development. “Though an educated workforce is essential to our prosperity,” the students wrote, “education itself has a social value that cannot be reduced to monetary considerations alone.” Education, they concluded is “the cornerstone of a vibrant, principled, and fundamentally compassionate democracy.” (Gordon finally signed on only after deleting language about labor negotiations. Hmm.)
Because the Labor Fair took place on a university campus, it was natural for much of the focus to be on education issues, but there was another reason. These days, it’s teachers, not Teamsters, who represent the labor movement. According to Kent Wong, Director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, teachers are the single largest group of unionized workers today and that is what has made them the target.
Another sign of hope: With the Reverend James M. Lawson, Jr. (known as the architect of the nonviolent civil rights movement), Wong now co-teaches a course at UCLA on Nonviolence and Social Movements. They had to lift the planned cap on enrollment given the number of students eager to attend and to participate in the required 20 hours of service. Some students are making an impact on the lives of workers by volunteering at the Black Worker Center. Others are committed to seeing that the California Dream Act passes this year to provide financial aid and employment opportunities to the 25,000 undocumented youth and students who were brought to the US at an early age and graduate from our high schools each year.
Wong reminded us that Rev. Lawson helped organize and Martin Luther King, Jr. died supporting the 13,000 African American sanitation workers who went on strike in Memphis, Tennessee in 1968, strikers who carried signs reading I AM A MAN. “The slogan was not ‘I need more money.’ The strike was for justice and dignity,” he said, “and ushered in a new era of public sector employees’ right to organize.” He urged us to make no mistake: “Race haters and labor haters are one and the same.”
Indeed, as Steve Teixeira pointed out, “We [in education] are in the same position as the civil rights movement.” Conservatives work to erode public education state by state. Just as federal civil rights laws were needed in the 1960s, he suggested we need to act on the national level to preserve free education. (As I learned to my surprise some months ago while reading Erwin Chemerinsky’s book, The Conservative Assault on the Constitution, there is nothing in the US Constitution that guarantees us a free public education. Though I have actually read the Constitution many times, somehow I never noticed and took the “right to education” for granted. We cannot.)
According to Rosemary Lee, United Teachers Los Angeles, due to budget cuts 400,000 students will not have places in California’s community colleges next year. They’ll end up channeled into for-profit colleges, said Teixeira, like Kaplan or University of Phoenix that are under investigation for ripping off students and making money off the “debt farming” of federal student loans. Student debt in the US has now passed the trillion dollar mark, burdening hardworking young people — those not lucky enough to have parents willing and able to foot the bills — for decades to come.
“How do we preserve schools for people,” Lee asked, “and not for profit?” Or, in the words of Professor Jose Prado, how do we combat the “contemporary agenda to wrest public space from those of us who have a stake in it and turn it over to those who would make a profit?” Apparently public education would be a $4 trillion industry if fully privatized.
Lee, who serves on the Trinational (US, Mexico, Canada) Coalition in Defense of Public Education, finds the Mexican experience pertinent to our own situation as we saw in a portion of “Granito de Arena,” a documentary about the resistance of Mexican teachers, students, parents, and community groups after the World Bank and International Monetary Fund set the privatization of public schools as a precondition for loans. One result? A tuition-free teachers’ training school with 46 years of service to poor rural, mostly indigenous communities had its enrollment drastically cut. Dormitories were demolished so that many students from distant villages could not even think of attending given the costs of urban rental housing. Throughout Mexico, parents found themselves expected to pay for “free” public education in the form of school repairs, water, electricity, and more, just as California parents in middle and upper class neighborhoods make up out of their own pockets the funding for basic programs that no longer exist at all in neighborhoods where families live too close to the edge to close the budget gap themselves.
Here in the US, we’re not being pressured by the World Bank, but myths about the deficit and pressure from Standard & Poor’s fulfill the same function. Latin America has been our guinea pig but maybe should now be our model. The so-called free-market Washington Consensus that plunged most Latin Americans into greater poverty while sucking up wealth in the direction of the top was seen as such a success by the elite, it’s now firmly in place here. But now, most of Latin America has rejected this economic model and we should follow suit. When much of the Mexican national budget went to service the international debt, the cutbacks in essential services fueled widespread grassroots democracy and spontaneous protests. (I have to wonder whether the elite sees the cartel, paramilitary, and government violence now raging in Mexico’s public space as a convenient discouragement to in-the-street demands for justice.)
While speakers at the fair expressed concern about charter schools as the leading edge of privatization, I’d say privatization already prevails in Los Angeles where so many middle and upper earning families feel they have to send their kids to private school and then are understandably reluctant to pay taxes to support the inadequate under-resourced public schools they don’t use.
I am constantly amazed by media reports that the budget cuts will increase class size to 28 when I know students who sit — or rather don’t sit, as there aren’t enough chairs and desks to go around — in classrooms of 60 or even 80 students. Then we demonize teachers when they become demoralized and their students miss the mark. Classrooms like these are not preparing our young people for college so that, for example, Gustavo Lopez earned A’s in high school and then to his shock flunked the assessment tests when he entered East LA Community College. In his day, remedial programs were available during the regular semester and Lopez is now himself a teacher. But one of the reforms set to be imposed will end this sort of remedial instruction.
The Mandatory Early Start Program will require Cal State students who test at a remedial level for English or math to start college early, taking a fulltime summer course. It sounds reasonable, till you consider that the students who incur the extra cost, the inability to work full-time to earn tuition money over the summer, and who will now face an increased likelihood of being kicked out come overwhelmingly from communities where families struggle to earn a living and schools have fewer credentialed teachers and where even the most dedicated educators cannot provide individual attention even to the most motivated learners.
Dominguez Hills — where 90% of students are people of color and 93% initially test out as needing remedial help — is meeting the challenge, clearly not interested in churning out tomorrow’s Walmart and McDonald’s employees or taking initial test results as any sort of measure of intelligence. Inspiring as the day’s speakers were, perhaps it was the students, such as the 51-year-old woman about to graduate next month with her B.A., whose words moved me most. One after another, they told how Vivian Price, coordinator of the interdisciplinary and Labor Studies program, changed their lives with her encouragement, support, inspired teaching, and unwavering belief in their abilities.
I get it now: When public education works, it’s transformative of the individual and of society. Maybe that’s why it’s under attack.
Diane Lefer is an author, playwright, and activist whose recent book, California Transit, was awarded the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction. Her stories, novels, and nonfiction often address social issues and draw on such experiences as going to jail for civil disobedience and her volunteer work as a legal assistant/interpreter for immigrants in detention. Her new book, The Blessing Next to the Wound, co-authored with Hector Aristizábal, is a true story of surviving torture and civil war and seeking change through activism and art. Lefer writes for LA Progressive, where this article originally appeared. More about her work can be found at: http://dianelefer.weebly.com/.