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What Drove the UESF Strike Vote

Red Alert for San Francisco Teachers

by ANDY LIBSON

On May 10th, 1880 United Educators of San Francisco (UESF) teachers, counselors and paraprofessionals voted overwhelmingly (97%) to authorize a strike vote. The UESF strike vote was the first step of a two-step process for strike authorization. The vote was a big step forward for United Educators of San Francisco and showed the immense well of anger building within our membership over the immediate attacks by the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD); and the years of sitting-by while district administrators slowly chipped away at our contract and work conditions.

This year, SFUSD is calling for more furlough days, even larger class sizes within both general and special education, massive cuts in the work year for Early Child Development teachers, and cuts in prep time for AP teachers and department heads. What’s more, in March they hit our union with nearly 500 pink slips. All this was done while SFUSD sat on over $75 million of restricted and unrestricted reserves, $40 million of that amount coming from concessions SFUSD already extracted from us in our last contract round in 2010.

Though the strike vote meeting was called late & hastily thrown together by UESF officials, the results of the vote made it clear that all of us (UESF leadership and those of us who had been pushing for a strike vote for many months) had underestimated the immense anger brewing within a layer of our membership and the willingness to strike in the face of years of attacks on public education.

UESF moves because we do

Still, the strike vote was not just a result of the belligerence of SFUSD. It was certainly not the result of persistent contract campaign run by the PLC. The central organizing impetus within UESF for the strike vote came from the reform caucus Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU); and dovetailed with our run for union office.

EDU ran a yearlong campaign to replace the current UESF leadership based on a campaign organized around rejecting concessions (No Layoffs, No Furloughs), rejecting austerity (Tax the Rich) and emphasizing class struggle and strikes as the basis for defending our work conditions, our students and our schools.

The EDU decision to connect its strategy of building for a strike to a campaign for union offices was the subject of much debate within the caucus as far back as August of last year. A central argument against the run was that EDU was too weak within the union to contend for top offices, that we should instead emphasize building from our bases at school sites. There were concerns that EDU did not have the resources to both fight around the contract campaign and run a successful election run.  Additionally, some within EDU opposed the idea of raising a strike openly within our campaign for fear of alienating members and getting trounced in the elections.

Those of us in favor of running a full slate did not counter-pose a contract campaign to an election run but saw them as intimately connected to the political task of making the case to the membership about the need for building a union that was willing to fight concessions; and that building for a strike was the best tool for doing so.  We argued that members would not take our message seriously unless we posed both a clear organizational and, more critically, political alternative to the current leadership.

Socialists and radicals in unions have often worried that contending for formal leadership within our union can pull us away from the rank- and-file. This is true if radicals and socialists run a campaign that focuses narrowly on changing the leadership as a basis for reviving our unions and hide their politics while doing so.

The fact is that decades of low class struggle aren’t just a result of poor leadership. Business unionism as an organizing model combined with record-low strike levels have conditioned workers to tolerate defeat and to systematically lower their expectations of what is possible.
If we are to build a fighting union, our membership will need to be directly engaged and challenged about what is possible if we struggle and the need to construct our organizations (unions, coalitions, political parties) to do so. This means working class politics must be at the center of any reform campaign. The question of who runs for election in a reform caucus is important, but not nearly as important as what politics the caucus runs on.

EDU would not just be running a campaign to change the leadership. We would be using the elections to make the case to the membership that we don’t have to accept concessions, but that we ALL would need to be prepared to strike in order to win. EDU ran as the leadership prepared to lead UESF in a fight if the members were prepared to wage it. We asked members to vote for us on this basis: a vote for EDU is a vote for you to fight in your own interests and we are prepared to lead that fight.

EDU pushes from below and above

In the last contract round in 2010, PLC was unwilling to survey members saying it would only be ‘divisive’ in the context of accepting cuts.  But this time, EDU pushed early with an October leaflet to UESF members calling on school sites to poll their members for their top three contract demands. EDU also called on UESF to survey all members in preparation for our contract fight. EDU used this leaflet to introduce UESF members to our position on furloughs, class size, standardized tests, benefits and wages and the need to make strike preparations in order to win our demands.

By the end of November UESF began surveying members. Even though they rushed the process and gave us only two weeks to do the surveys (which EDU pushed to 3 weeks), over 1500 members returned their surveys and gave us all a glimpse of the desire of members to have their voice heard this time.

In January, as we got closer to bargaining EDU officially initiated its election campaign when it put forward its Executive Officer slate (President, Vice President, VP for Substitutes and Secretary) and called for members to vote for us on the basis that EDU rejects all furloughs and layoffs, as well as any concessions on our work conditions.

EDU also called for a raise for paraprofessionals and Child Development workers (who don’t make a living wage in our bargaining unit), and an increased health care contribution from SFUSD for our members with families. Most significantly, EDU called on UESF to begin now to make preparations for a strike in order to win these demands; citing the spirit of the Occupy movement and the specific example of educators in Tacoma who waged a successful fight against concessions with a militant 10-day strike.

When SFUSD launched its attack on our members by demanding 495 layoffs, EDU called for a rally at the Board of Education as a response to the district’s attack. The PLC called such an action ‘premature’ and likely to provoke SFUSD unnecessarily. Though few members came to the Board meeting, EDU’s action signaled to the leadership that we would not be waiting for the PLC to give us permission to act.

In February, when SFUSD revealed the full scale of its attack on our contract and that SFUSD was sitting on millions of dollars in reserve (up to $75 million), UESF leaders had no strategy for countering the district.  They seemed to make no effort to inform UESF members of the scale of the attack or the fact that SFUSD actually had the money to avoid most of the cuts they were proposing. EDU pushed UESF to get the information out and urged the UESF bargaining to team to take a position of “No” to any-and-all cuts proposed by the district. This position was supported by the UESF survey of the membership that showed that members were looking for a pay increase and a raise in benefits and were very reluctant to accept more furloughs or further increases in class sizes.

By the end of February, the PLC still did not have a strategy for fighting the district and told members that SFUSD bargaining team was in ‘disarray’ because Superintendent Garcia was preparing to step down. This ‘disarray’ did not stop SFUSD from bypassing seniority in the layoff process, skipping over schools in the “Superintendent’s Zones” leaving other schools to face more layoffs. This was a blatant attempt to use layoffs to divide and bust our union.

In the face of this obvious escalation, EDU called for another mobilization to the Board of Education and proposed initiating the strike vote process as a response to the provocation. UESF leaders supported EDU’s call for mobilization but ruled EDU’s call for initiating the strike process (or even discussing strike) “out of order” because SFUSD would see such discussion within UESF as ‘bargaining in bad faith’. Still, the March rally at the Board of Education was successful and EDU had a large visible presence at the action.

By the end of March, the UESF bargaining team declared at the Assembly that they would not be accepting any of the proposed cuts and would be demanding an across the board pay increase of 2%.  At that meeting, UESF President Kelly told the Assembly that this position meant we would likely need to be choosing between striking in the spring or the fall.

By this time, UESF had adopted many of the major points that EDU was running its election campaign on. It had become clear within EDU and to our supporters that PLC was feeling the pressure of both an intransigent school district on one side and EDU’s campaign to win leadership, push for “No Concessions” and prepare for a strike.  The constant pressure from EDU at Executive Board meetings, Assemblies and while appealing directly to the membership during our campaign was pushing UESF leadership to move.

Near the end of March, EDU formally started its site visits to talk to members about why we were running, why they should vote for EDU, and why they should prepare to strike. These site visits were a critical part of our campaign and proved the linchpin to connecting EDU election run to the contract fight within our union, building internal pressure for a fight and build a more democratic, rank-and-file run union.

Over a two-month period (March-April) as the contract fight was picking up, EDU candidates visited almost 30 of the 125 schools in SFUSD. This outreach was made possible, and necessary, because of the current crisis in education and the desire for members to hear an alternative.

It was also a result of the fact that EDU had been an active caucus for the three years since our first election run in 2009.  Had EDU been just an ‘electoral’ caucus that went to sleep between elections, we would not have built the relationships that got us into so many sites.

During our many visits to work sites, the response to the EDU message was positive; members raised many questions about what a strike would look like, what it would take to win, and if we, the membership, were ready to do it.  It would be a myth to report that EDU faced only agreement from members on our message, but at all sites we visited we sparked new conversations about the role of unions in defending public education, and the need for militant methods and radical ideas in shaping the course of our struggle.

The overall lesson from our visits was that there was a definite layer in ALL our schools that had been waiting for a group like EDU that was not afraid to take ‘extreme’ positions like “No Cuts!” and “Tax the Rich!”  A group that was not afraid to talk about strikes, and more importantly, not willing to ‘say anything’ just to collect votes.

In April, UESF launched the “Enough is Enough!” campaign. It called for a May 10th membership meeting, but refused to publicize it as a ‘strike vote’ meeting. While UESF leaders agreed it ‘might’ be a strike vote meeting, EDU pushed the leadership at every chance, made the May 10th date a focus of our campaign and informed all school sites we visited that they should be telling all members to ‘save the date’ and to consider it a strike vote meeting unless we were told it is not.

SFUSD’s response to rumors that UESF might have started the strike vote process was to declare impasse and end negotiations. This escalation forced UESF leaders to declare a strike vote. Caught between an intransigent school district and a radical and active caucus, they would have to act or else appear weak to both SFUSD and members about to vote in the union election. At the May 10th meeting, EDU passed out a flyer to all members denouncing the bullying tactics of the SFUSD and urging members to stand fast in our demand to reject cuts and get a 2% raise.  EDU called for a “Yes!” vote, urged members to be prepared for a second vote in the Fall and argued for immediate preparations for a potential strike in the Fall unless SFUSD backs down.

Five days later, the UESF elections were completed and votes tallied. EDU did not win the Presidency or Vice-Presidency (but lost by only 60 and 110 votes respectively).  EDU won the Secretary and Vice-President of Substitutes position. EDU also took all but a few of the Executive Board positions for which we ran. The one dark cloud for our union was the low voter turnout with only 800 of 6000 members submitting ballots to decide the union leadership. This low voter turnout (lower than last election) shows the apathy of many of our members toward our union and its leadership (whether it be PLC or EDU). Membership apathy and disaffection represent a challenge to any group looking to build a fighting union.

Next steps: strike and union reform

Still, for EDU, the results represented important gains. EDU was closing in on the existing leadership, and had pushed them to shift left and do things they had no intention of doing back in January.  We had also shown in practice what it means to build a democratic union by pushing for the member survey, putting forward our ideas at the Assembly and going to sites to directly engage members around our contract and our union.

By running an aggressive campaign that was a clear political alternative to the existing union leadership, EDU used its election campaign to begin to transform the debate about our union among UESF members. We talked with hundreds of members about the fact that fate of our schools is wrapped up with the fate of our union. In the process, we broadened our base of contacts at a number of sites throughout the school district. These sites will be central points of contact for continuing our contract fight next fall.

EDU has also become a stronger caucus over the course of the election.  The debates around the campaign that started in August were revisited over the course of the campaign as we discussed how to pitch our message to the members and how to talk about strikes in relationship to our campaign. There were definitely times when EDU was preparing to step back from running an aggressive, class-struggle campaign, but the debates we had throughout the year in which reminded ourselves of the political goals we set out in August were essential for the caucus to mature politically and organizationally.

For those of us in EDU who are socialists, we ran openly as such. That it never proved an issue among our members, within EDU nor among our election opponents says something about the ability to run on radical politics if you are willing to run on them boldly and openly – while still acknowledging and respecting voices within our union who disagree.

EDU’s campaign shows how running for office can be directly connected to reviving class struggle and how building a reform caucus around radical politics can push our unions to break out of their business unionism straight jacket.  We believe this work can be done in anywhere members are frustrated with their do-nothing unions, but we must start now. This means building reform caucuses across the country with the explicit aim of building for strikes and occupations (and other work actions) and putting socialist politics back into center of union debate and discussion. It is not enough to just raise the specter of social justice unionism; we must see our central task as reviving class struggle unionism as the best way to fight for social justice and the only means for making revolutionary change. Union elections and building reforms caucus centered on class struggle can be a part of that revival if we are prepared to put our politics front-and-center.

Within UESF, the way forward is clear. EDU must make all preparations in the Fall to push for a second strike vote and oppose any concessions demanded from SFUSD or the current UESF leadership (if they crack under pressure over the summer).  It also means opposing any ‘trigger cuts’ which ties our contract and work conditions to Governor Brown’s tax initiative.

EDU’s election run, and the strike vote it helped produce, has proven that there is a deep reservoir of support within our union that is prepared to reject any concessions and to draw a line in the sand to defend public education. Those members are prepared to strike! So are our sisters and brothers in Chicago. So are higher education teachers in the California Faculty Association. The ground is set this Fall for a successful strike wave that can finally take back what has been stolen from us and the families we serve.

Andy Libson is a teacher at Mission High School in San Francisco and Vice-Presidential candidate for EDU slate.