April 21, 2010

Is Central Falls The New PATCO?

Consumer Warning: This article draws a parallel between Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. Obama fans, please read the caveats and qualifications included herein carefully before braining out.

The article on budget cutbacks to education in NJ and young teachers’ resistance in Newark posted here at FotM just days ago by Rahim on the Docks, and updated just yesterday, has brought to the surface a deep concern I have about a little-noticed statement President Obama made last month, a statement that reminded me of an action taken by Ronald Reagan at the beginning of his first term.

First, the Reagan analogy. In his first year in office, 1981, Ronald Reagan broke a strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO)--one of only two national unions to support him in the previous year’s election. These federal employees hit the bricks for demands mainly concerning passenger safety--shorter hours, more modern equipment, etc.

First, Reagan fired all the strikers. Then he brought in scabs and military personnel to keep air traffic running. Finally he had PATCO decertified, breaking it entirely.

This one act was the main direct government intervention in labor relations during his whole administration. (Of course, the usual anti-union corporate types were appointed to run the National Labor Relations Board, OSHA, etc, but that is standard Republican practice.)

What breaking PATCO did was to send a signal to big corporations, flailing in the quicksand of the severe late ‘70s-early’80s economic crisis which was eroding their profits severely, that it was open season on unions. And they fired away--literally--laying off thousands upon thousands of workers, closing plants in the so-called Rust Belt of the Midwest, breaking union contracts, forcing givebacks, shifting production to low-wage, low-regulation areas in the Third World.

This is not a just a whiny complaint by labor unions and lefties. Reactionary economist and Federal Reserve Bank chairman Alan Greenspan declared proudly in 2003, that Reagan’s “action gave weight to the legal right of private employers, previously not fully exercised, to use their own discretion to both hire and discharge workers.”

One act, mere months after Reagan’s inauguration, and the working class in this country is still paying for it almost thirty years later.

So what step could Obama have taken that could conceivably parallel this crime against working people? True, he hasn’t done much to push through card-check legislation that would eliminate some of the many legal obstacles to union organizing, but he has, after all, already muscled through a health insurance reform law that may, arguably, wind up benefiting millions of working people. His appointees to the NRLB, OSHA and other government regulatory bodies certainly draw from the some of the best and brightest folks the labor movement has to offer. He stepped up to denounce Massey Energy after their murder of 29 coal miners.

Okay, let’s turn our attention to the small city of Central Falls in the state of Rhode Island. At the end of February, the superintendent of the school district fired every single person at Central Falls High School, 93 people-4 administrators, 74 union teachers, and a bunch of other staffers. The school board got to do this under federal law because the students were performing poorly on standardized tests and had a low graduation rate. The fact that the town is the poorest in the state, that a majority of the students don’t speak English as a first language, that population turnover in Central Falls itself is extremely high, that the school had improved its reading scores 21% over the last three years--none of this meant a thing.

And President Obama went out of his way to hail the action. He could even been content to let his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, make the shameful declaration that Central Falls officials were “showing courage and doing the right thing for kids." But no. On March 1, Obama himself praised the wholesale firings--to the US Chamber of Commerce, of all audiences! He justified the firings: “If a school continues to fail its students year after year after year, if it doesn’t show any sign of improvement, then there’s got to be a sense of accountability,”

Now, I personally tend to hold a cranky and unsympathetic position on the social role played by teachers in capitalist society, which is to condition future generations of workers to live lives subordinate to the needs of capital. And I find that teacher unions too often uphold the immediate interests of their members over and against the needs of the children they are teaching. But Obama’s rap is bullshit, pure and simple, collective punishment based on artificial criteria without taking objective circumstances into account.

And this brings me to the kernal of my concern about what he did. The economic meltdown is increasingly concentrated these days, in the US at least, in state and local budget crises. These are very real, extraordinarily severe and seemingly intractable. There has already been plenty of noise about how brutal budget deficits are the fault of greedy, overpaid civil servants and retirees. Why wouldn’t local governments, desperate for any way out of this mess, use Obama’s words and his general stance to justify directing their fire at all civil service workers and their unions, teachers included, for “failure to perform adequately” and “lack of accountability” ?

In the depths of the Great Depression under Roosevelt, the CIO unionized millions, proclaiming “The President wants you to join the union.” Will state and local governments in the coming decade rally to save their hides under the banner “The President wants you to break the union”?

1 comment:

Jimbo said...

That said, "I believe that the justification for keeping teachers and admin is as sound as the justification for firing them. it seems to me that the interests of the children are best served by cleaning house and hiring new teachers. Yes, that is painting with a broad brush but in a few extreme cases, that is the remedy.

Keep in mind that the focus is on results for education of the children there.

In Korea, where I am currently visiting the #1 ranked education system in the world, they rotate teachers out of public schools at least every 3 years. It seems to reduce cronyism and favoritism and keep the teachers fresh and focused rather than getting complacent about their purpose.

The moving out of admin and teachers to new schools and new students and parents has created a more vibrant system in Korea, which has lead to it being ranked about 20+ levels above the USA.

Let's face it. Our school system is broken and we are sinking fast even compared to BALTIC nations!!! OMG!

Yes, I am freaked about that as I watch Republicans and Democrats alike, tout how we (America) are #1. I see Sarah Palin and the Tea Party folks patriotically waving the flag about how we need to keep American military spending money on Nukes that aren't needed anymore, but hear nothing about education solutions.

Democrats are always talking about education and the working class, but their solution is to blame teachers and release the parents from any responsibility.

The Korean parents push their children to excel and study to an extreme. But if you want to be #1, that is what is needed. If you want to be #20 something, then having parents getting very actively involved is not needed and we can always blame the teachers who are supposed to do a great job with their hands tied by curriculum requirements and boards.

Teachers are getting a lot of blame for things they have no way to change. They cannot influence the school board who is looking to get re-elected. The board can only point their fingers at the smallest and least influential group that votes, teachers and keep spouting, it isn't my fault, it's theirs.

So until there is a change to how the board is created, the elected politicians must always point and blame someone else that does not include the parents who vote them into office.

Back to the point however.

Obama cannot do anything at this point but push for some drastic measures as were taken in the case stated. This is due to financial disaster brought on by the Tax cuts and other policies of idiocy by the last Administration that also wasted $2 Trillion on a war while they cut taxes. That money could have been put towards a much better use, but it is gone now.

Then there is, of course, the problem of the largest financial melt down in our history that happened under the watchful eyes of the WHOLE Congress and White House of the last Administration, which has led to huge unemployment, lost tax revenue and long-term degradation of our public services.

Obama did the right thing in praising that one instance. I am certain he does not advocate such actions for schools where things are okay or excelling. But sometimes you must do drastic things to get a new result.

I fail to see how this is in anyway CLOSE to what Reagan did. It is so far from the same level or severity or action, it cannot be rationally seen as comparable in any way. How Obama voicing support for some action taken in a small town compares to Reagan breaking the union and firing the whole controller members and ordering the military in to replace them is similar I cannot see it Jimmy.

They say if you keep doing the same thing over and over and expect a different result, then you're stupid. Why do we keep electing professional politicians to office year after year and expect a different result? Who are the real idiots here? We are.

I am not the Jimmy Higgins that wrote the first article.