Back in the late 70s, the Socialist Workers Party in the United States began a “turn to industry” that identified a number of sectors to be “colonized”. At one time or another, this included steel, rail, auto, coal, meatpacking, and garment. It pressured “petty bourgeois” elements like me to “make the turn” in order to save my soul. Despite all the usually overblown projections about what could be done in a given factory, the real goal was to “proletarianize” the membership and protect the revolutionary party against ideological deviations. Party leader Jack Barnes referred to those who questioned the turn as “Marielitos”.
As a computer programmer, I felt particularly vulnerable to charges of being “petty bourgeois” since I had worked at banks and insurance companies since the age of 23. But I was not the only one feeling the pressure. All sorts of trade union activists in the party had come under scrutiny because they were in the wrong industry, or—for that matter— not in industry at all. If you were a social worker, a librarian or a school teacher in New York City, you were instructed to leave your job and join a “fraction” in an auto plant in New Jersey. After Ray Markey, who had become a highly respected activist in the librarian’s union, refused to quit his job, he became viewed as just another petty-bourgeois element.
Of course, the entire basis of colonizing (love that word—what an unconscious adaptation to alien class influences) steel and all the rest was a schematic expectation that a new working-class radicalization would be a repeat of the 1930s. The SWP brass, particularly Farrell Dobbs who was an important leader of the Teamsters Union in the late 1930s, assumed that the blue collar workers in the UAW, USW et al would become the vanguard of resistance to attacks on labor.
Surprise, surprise. The crucible of struggle has been in exactly those trade unions that were dismissed as “petty bourgeois” by the SWP leaders, testifying once again to the folly of looking at the class struggle through the lenses of the past. In particular, the public school teachers of the U.S. have become targeted especially by both the Republican ultraright and their pals in the Obama administration with their devotion to charter schools. If you were expecting a repeat of Flint 1938, naturally you would miss a Madison 2011 with schoolteachers on the front lines.
Here are some recent dispatches from the public schools battleground.
The most egregious case of teacher hatred can be found in New Jersey with Republican Governor Chris Christie earning a love poem from the execrable Matt Bai in the February 27th NY Times Magazine section. Bai, an Obama supporter of the highest magnitude, has apparently found a new best friend. He told his readers:
And with political consensus building toward some kind of public-school reform, teachers’ unions in particular have lost credibility with the public. Forty-six percent of voters in a poll conducted by Stanford and the Associated Press last September said teachers’ unions deserved either “a great deal” or “a lot” of blame for the problems of public schools.
And so, when the union draws a hard line against changes to its pay and benefit structure, you can see why it might strike some sizable segment of voters as being a little anachronistic, like mimeographing homework assignments or sharpening a pencil by hand. In a Pew Research Center poll this month, 47 percent of respondents said their states should cut pension plans for government employees, which made it the most popular option on the table.
The Times followed up this labor-hating item on March 9th with special pleading on behalf of the lily-white hedge fund managers in Bronxville who were trying to find ways to kick the teachers in the teeth. Titled Even a Wealthy Suburb Faces Pressure to Curb School Taxes, we encounter a truly odious fellow named Peter P. Pulkkinen, a 40-year-old investment banker with children in the first and third grades. In order to cut costs, he would “attack ‘structural’ expenses like tenure, the accumulation of unused sick days and the rising amount the school board pays for pensions and health insurance.”
But the main weapon has been the charter schools, a type of institution that draws from both public funding and donations from multimillionaires who see this non-union bastion as a market-based solution for a deeply entrenched social problem.
Last Sunday night, “Sixty Minutes”, a kind of harbinger for informed liberal opinion in the U.S., featured an episode on one charter school in New York titled Katie Couric on paying teachers $125,000 a year. The emphasis in charter schools is to reward good teachers and to fire bad ones, just as is the case supposedly in the private sector.
The charter school under examination in this episode is named appropriately enough as The Equity Project (TEP). It was launched by a former teacher named Zeke Vanderhoek who is a Yale graduate—no surprise there. The school has a 3-member board of trustees, one of who is Peter Cove who is described as “one of the nation’s leading advocates for private solutions to welfare dependency, ex-offender reentry initiatives and for meeting the needs of underserved, marginalized populations.” Cove is also CEO of America Works in 1984, a corporation seeking to “link private-sector investment and employment with welfare reform.”
(For a thorough debunking of Zeke Vanderhoek’s project, read this: http://normsnotes2.blogspot.com/2011/03/relentless-self-promotion-of-zeke.html.)
In order to launch TEP, Vanderhoek drew upon funds he had accumulated from a company he started called Manhattan GMAT that provided instructions in how to pass a standardized test that will get you into business school. This makes perfect sense in a way since Mayor Bloomberg has become associated with the need for standardized testing, another specious way to improve primary schools that goes hand-in-hand with union-busting.
All you ever need to know about standardized testing can be found in a Monthly Review article by Dan DiMaggio, who put some time in at a place similar to Manhattan GMAT. This is what he observed:
Test scoring is a huge business, dominated by a few multinational corporations, which arrange the work in order to extract maximum profit. I was shocked when I found out that Pearson, the first company I worked for, also owned the Financial Times, The Economist, Penguin Books, and leading textbook publisher Prentice Hall. The CEO of Pearson, Marjorie Scardino, ranked seventeenth on the Forbes list of the one hundred most powerful women in the world in 2007.
Test-scoring companies make their money by hiring a temporary workforce each spring, people willing to work for low wages (generally $11 to $13 an hour), no benefits, and no hope of long-term employment—not exactly the most attractive conditions for trained and licensed educators. So all it takes to become a test scorer is a bachelor’s degree, a lack of a steady job, and a willingness to throw independent thinking out the window and follow the absurd and ever-changing guidelines set by the test-scoring companies. Some of us scorers are retired teachers, but most are former office workers, former security guards, or former holders of any of the diverse array of jobs previously done by the currently unemployed. When I began working in test scoring three years ago, my first “team leader” was qualified to supervise, not because of his credentials in the field of education, but because he had been a low-level manager at a local Target.
In other words, just as we are dealing with all along the line, is an attempt to cut labor costs. This is what this is about. A god-damned rich bastard like Peter P. Pulkkinen refusing to pay $100 more per year in property taxes while he is making millions of dollars at Deutsche Bank. Or Michael Bloomberg, Chris Christie and Scott Walker trying to do to teachers what Reagan did to airline controllers. And all of it goes back to the 1930s when the auto companies were determined to make a profit over the maimed bodies of assembly line workers who could not even afford a modest bungalow.
Returning to the Socialist Workers Party, that has always had a tendency—even when Leon Trotsky was advising it (maybe I should say because)—to demonize the “petty bourgeoisie”, even the auto workers were fair game at one point.
In the 1950s, a group around Bert Cochran decided that a less sectarian approach was needed and split with the party in order to launch the Socialist Union. One of their activists was Sol Dollinger, who had been married to Genora Dollinger—the leader of the woman’s auxiliary in the great Flint sit-down strike. When the Cochranites left, the SWP leaders dubbed them as embourgeoisified workers who had gotten tainted by prosperity.
Sol Dollinger had this to say about that charge:
Three decades later, I am amused by the explanations made by Frank Lovell [SWP trade union leader] that you heard as a new member of the SWP. He contended that the members of the auto faction had become embourgeoisified by high wages in the industry. My position as a Chevrolet worker is not much different than other autoworker members of the party. We rented in Flint and when I quit after seven years my wages were under five thousand dollars a year. When Genora’s father died of a heart attack in front of the Buick gate where he worked as a janitor, he left his four children $700 each. Genora rushed out to make a down payment on a house with a $3800 dollar mortgage with monthly payments of $35.
At any rate, the goal is clear today. We have to everything in our power to make sure that the clock is not turned back to that time when auto workers did not have a pot to piss in. Thank goodness the school teachers, the librarians, and the social workers have the backbone to take on the bourgeoisie in the decisive early stages of the battle.