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Philadelphia Teachers Under Attack—Labor Must Mobilize!

The Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT)—representing more than 12,000 teachers and educational professionals across the Philadelphia School District—faces a major assault. At a virtually unannounced meeting on October 6, the School Reform Commission (SRC) unanimously voted to unilaterally rescind the teachers’ contract and gut the their healthcare coverage. Whereas PFT members once enjoyed a free, quality health insurance plan, they will now have to pay thousands of dollars per year out of pocket.

 

This move represents another chapter in the war on public sector unions waged by capitalist politicians of both major parties. The impetus for these kinds of attacks is the severe budget shortages and debt levels faced by public institutions across the country. These already serious matters have only been exacerbated by the 2008 crisis and the austerity imposed in its wake.

Philadelphia’s school district has been in crisis since 2001, when legislators imposed the SRC on the district. This was a clear effort to force workers and students to pay for their schools’ financial hardships. During the intervening period, Pennsylvania’s government has given lavish tax breaks and subsidies worth billions to a wide range of corporations, including the lucrative natural gas industry.

The Role of the Democrats

Republican Governor Tom Corbett is justifiably blamed for cutting more than a billion dollars from the state’s education budget during his tenure. But the Democratic Party has itself endorsed the actions of the SRC. In fact, the SRC is a bipartisan body chaired by Democrat William Green, whose father, incidentally, was mayor of Philadelphia during a 50-day teachers’ strike in 1981. Both Democrats and Republicans on the SRC voted unanimously in favor of these attacks. Democratic mayor of Philadelphia, Michael Nutter, publically spoke in favor of the SRC’s actions against the teachers.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf has proposed abolishing the SRC, but what would this accomplish? Democrats have demonstrated themselves hostile to the teachers’ union time and again and would still dominate the new school board. Given the hostility of Democratic politicians across the country towards our teachers’ unions—from Chicago’s Rahm Emanuel to Newark’s Cory Booker—it is impossible to trust the job of standing up for teachers and public education to this party of the 1%.

The Way Forward

Decisive mass action is necessary to defeat the SRC. Ultimately, a union’s power lies in its ability to stop work en masse and bring the system to a grinding halt. A draconian law bars the PFT from taking strike action, by threatening to revoke the teaching license of anyone who participates in a strike. However, with enough preparation and solidarity from the broader working class, even the most anti-worker laws can be overcome by struggle.

pftOne critical lesson from 2012’s Chicago Teachers’ Union strike is that the union needs to reach out to the broader working class in the period before a strike in order to win them to the union’s cause. This can be done by making the struggle about more than just the wages, benefits, and working conditions of the particular union’s membership. The fight for workers’ rights must be linked to the broader struggle to defend and improve public services such as public education. It must encompass issues such as poverty, inequality, and racism. With the broader working class and the rest of Chicago’s labor movement on its side, the Chicago Teachers Union stood up to Rahm Emanuel’s powerful union-busting regime and won a partial victory through strike action. This should serve as a powerful example to teachers and other public sector workers across the country. By systematically building roots of support among parents and mobilizing students in support of their struggle, the PFT can lay the basis for a successful mass struggle.

Philadelphia’s labor leaders considered organizing a general strike in response to the SRC’s action, but backed down in favor of fighting the issue through the legal system instead. The instinct to call for a general strike is absolutely correct; however, a general strike is a massive undertaking requiring a great deal of advanced organizing and preparation—it can’t be improvised on the spot. Furthermore, a general strike would require broad support from the city’s working class, whose lives would be seriously disrupted by such an action. The need to link the struggle to broader concerns would be even more urgent in such a scenario. Nevertheless, the fact that labor leaders would even seriously discuss such a proposal shows that the labor movement is in a state of ferment. An effective general strike that enjoyed the support and participation of the masses of workers in Philadelphia would signal the beginning of a workers’ offensive that could force the corporate politicians and their ruling class masters to back down.

A Strategy for Ultimate Victory

Aside from militant union action, the working class needs political action to confront the anti-union, anti-public education agenda of the 1%. We need a mass party of labor based on the forces and resources of the labor movement. Organized labor currently wastes colossal energy and resources supporting the Democrats—a party that blatantly pursues anti-worker and anti-union policies. The recent nationwide struggles for public education and for the defense of our teachers’ unions attests to this fact. If  the labor movement’s resources were used to elect officials accountable to no one but itself, workers would finally have their own representation in government. It could effectively stand against attacks on public education and other public services, while fighting for universal healthcare, higher wages, workers’ and immigrants’  rights, and every other issue confronting working people today.

Ultimately, the only system that can guarantee a fully-funded, high quality education system and a high quality of life for all is socialism. Capitalist society is in a state of decay; these attacks against public education demonstrate the system’s inability to provide the bare essentials of a civilized existence. Workers create all the wealth while a tiny parasitic minority hoards it. The working class must organize in order to transform society and build a system in which every child gets the education they deserve, and every worker gets the dignity and compensation that they’ve earned.

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