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Fighting for More or Settling for Less?

To Strike or Not to Strike

by ADRIENNE JOHNSTONE and ANDY LIBSON

The threat of strike loomed over recent teacher contract talks in both Portland and St. Paul. Both settlements were reached without workers going out on strike. Yet the threat itself, along with rallies and actions to back up the threat, produced real contractual gains. The unions won reductions in class size and standardized testing in the face of the rollout of the new Smarter Balanced Assessment, and renewed debate about the impact of class size on educational outcomes. These developments have been hailed by labor activists and socialists across the board as victories for teachers, and for the labor movement more broadly.

Here in San Francisco, we also now find ourselves in the middle of a contract fight. Like many localities, our contract is being bargained in a changed economic terrain, one which is more favorable to positive outcomes for our union (United Educators of San Francisco – UESF). We have written several articles about our struggle that have repeatedly emphasized the necessity for our union to strike, and the need to begin preparations to do so now. The results in Portland and St. Paul will reverberate here in San Francisco and will surely be used to justify an approach to bargaining in which UESF will likely mobilize its members through t-shirt days, demonstrations at the Board of Education, rallies, and even a strike vote (which will be overwhelmingly favorable).

As in Portland and St. Paul, these events may culminate in a few weeks of furious strike preparations, all-day bargaining sessions, and an eleventh-hour tentative agreement. This agreement will be hailed as a major improvement for our members and our students, a victory for labor in general, and everyone will breathe a huge sigh of relief that a strike was averted. And given the current funding climate, there may actually be real gains for San Francisco educators (for example, raises, benefit improvements, possible class size reduction).

But should such an outcome be called a victory?

We would say, “it depends.” If you see unions as merely a tool for getting the best deal a group of workers can get from their bosses, you might celebrate. If “social justice unionism” is more of a slogan to create public support for unions than a call to transform the labor movement into a force to fundamentally change society, then you would likely be thrilled at contract improvements.

But socialists must have a different understanding of the final goal of all these struggles: the dismantling of the profit system (capitalism) in order to replace it with a system based on meeting human need (socialism). For that reason, we have a decidedly different assessment of contractual gains attained without class struggle.

The reasons for this are rooted in a debate that has run through the socialist movement for over a century. It is best encapsulated in a set of pamphlets written by a German socialist and revolutionary, Rosa Luxemburg, entitled “Reform or Revolution.” In these pamphlets, she challenges a vision of socialism put forward by a contemporary of hers, Eduard Bernstein, who framed his vision of socialism succinctly in the slogan, “The final goal, no matter what it is, is nothing, the movement is everything.” Bernstein’s emphasis was the surface transformation of society through laws and contractual gains. He saw such changes as the driving force on a slow, peaceful path to social transformation. Bernstein rejected the view that the road to socialism lay through class struggle and a necessary physical dismantling of both the capitalist state and its institutions by an insurgent working class.

In “Reform or Revolution,” Luxemburg argued that such a vision of socialism, emphasizing making surface changes to society without connecting them directly to the necessity of replacing capitalism with socialism, was not a more patient, more responsible means to the same end but, in fact, represented the abandonment of the end goal all together. She wrote:

Since the final goal of socialism constitutes the only decisive factor distinguishing the Social-Democratic movement from bourgeois democracy and from bourgeois radicalism, the only factor transforming the entire labor movement from a vain effort to repair the capitalist order into a class struggle against the order, for the suppression of this order – the question: “Reform or Revolution?” as it is posed by Bernstein, equals for the Social-Democracy [revolutionary socialism] the question: “To be or not to be?

For both Luxemburg and Bernstein, reforms were a means to the end goal of socialism. But unlike Bernstein, Luxemburg did not see the reforms themselves as producing the society she was fighting for. Nor did she set aside the final goal as some distant future aim. Luxemburg saw the fight for reforms as the class training itself how to win its demands. In evaluating reforms, Bernstein looked at the reforms themselves and asked how they changed the state, or how they changed the condition of work or life for the working class. Luxemburg was much less concerned about how reforms changed the state (since it is a fully capitalist institution) or a labor contract (as it merely sets boundaries on our exploitation and cannot eliminate that exploitation). Instead, Luxemburg asked how the fight for the reforms changed the working class itself and made it more fit both organizationally and ideologically to challenge the capitalist class for the role of running society. Bernstein asked how reforms changed laws and contracts; Luxemburg asked how the reforms changed the working class.

This is not just a question for some bygone era. Many labor activists see “social justice unionism” as encapsulating a vision of a labor movement that stands for more than just wages and benefits for its members. If this vision is to have any meaningful content today, and if we are sincere in our attempt to connect the labor movement to more fundamental change in society, then the debate between Luxemburg and Bernstein has direct relevance to the kind of world we are fighting for today.

Through Luxemburg’s lens, the results of Portland are seen much differently. The gains made in class size and prep time are undeniable; they are gains any union would want to repeat and expand upon. But the fact that these demands were achieved without a strike does not show the strength and boldness of the union — rather, it reveals its weakness and timidity. Despite the local news reports in Portland, it appears clear that Portland Association of Teachers (PAT) leadership did not intend to strike and demonstrate the power of organized teachers to improve education, but instead intended to mostly do what unions are now in the habit of doing: using the threat of strike as a bargaining chip. At the final bargaining session — a full two days before the strike was set to begin — the PAT bargaining team met with the district for 23 hours in order to reach an agreement. Before the membership had even seen the agreement, the bargaining team reported via email that a settlement had been reached and the strike would be called off. This does not look like a union ready to strike, but instead one ready to work at all costs to avoid a strike.

Given the large scale decline of the U.S. labor movement over the last 40 years, it may be hard to imagine the strike as anything other than a threat, a regretful last resort, something we are forced to do. “I don’t want to strike, but I will,” the slogan used in Portland, captures this posture. But during the height of the labor movement, the 1930s through the 1940s, the strike was not a threat. It was a promise, and it is still the most effective tool that workers have to vastly improve wages and working conditions in industry after industry. The strike was used to control the terms of work, to expand unions and, in effect, to better the living conditions of the U.S. working class as a whole. In this way, strikes fostered real solidarity throughout our class. They also provided conditions under which the class learned the limits of the unions. Luxemburg explained the relationship:

…we say that as a result of its trade union and parliamentary struggles, the proletariat becomes convinced of the impossibility of accomplishing a fundamental change through such activity and arrives at the understanding that the conquest of power is unavoidable….From the view point of a movement for socialism, the trade union struggle and our parliamentary practice are vastly important insofar as they make socialistic the awareness, the consciousness, of the proletariat and help to organize it as a class.

The absence of strikes has eroded both solidarity and class consciousness over the last several decades. Nonetheless, PAT built real bonds with students and the community in the run up to the contract deadline. Student-led walkouts and an important school board demonstration played a role in the teachers winning what they did. The support among students and families was visible. But the new contract comes far short of the goals put forward in PAT’s “Schools Portland Students Deserve” statement. By not going on strike for this vision, PAT missed an opportunity to test the school district administrators — to see how far they could be pushed in order to reach the goals set by the union, students and community supporters. More importantly, by not striking, PAT missed the opportunity to forge real solidarity between the union and the community, solidarity tested by actual struggle and through the heat of a media campaign that would have surely criticized the union for striking and attempted to forge splits within the coalition. The decision to accept the best agreement achievable without a strike concedes to the lie told by school districts everywhere that a strike by teachers hurts students and parents, and would be an attack on the community. Crucially, Portland students had already rejected this lie. A strike would have tested that solidarity, providing us with the opportunity to see what it will take to advance a collaborative vision of a better education and a united working class. The solidarity that will build the labor movement in the future is not one of words, but one of refusing to cross a picket line so workplaces can be effectively shut down and the essential role of the work we do everyday is made clear. Without us, school does not happen.

In addition to the solid organizing that was done in the run up to the contract agreement, two other features led to a favorable contractual outcome for PAT that must be taken into account, because they are not terms that can be counted on next time.

First is the favorable economic picture. The Portland school district had an additional $29.9 million dollars in its budget. A closer look at this ‘windfall’ shows it comes as a result of cuts to the statewide Public Employee Retirement System. A similar dynamic is at play in San Francisco, where much of the new money coming into public K-12 education from Sacramento is a result of a boost in capital gains taxes collected by the state of California. In both instances, Portland and San Francisco, it needs to be understood that any redistribution of wealth into our classrooms is happening largely at the expense of workers and families around us. The ruling class has recovered profitability at our expense and is now making choices to direct some of that stolen money back to specific social services. It is a dubious proposition at best to claim victory without exposing this theft, and without waging the kind of struggle that might point the way to other workers on how they must fight.

Second, the current round of contract negotiations comes on the heels of the recent strike in Chicago by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU). For the time being, school districts will be loathe to repeat the experience of Chicago where the schools were shut down for 8 days in a 2012 strike that garnered broad support. What Portland teachers were able to secure in this new contract was largely due to the influence of the CTU strike. The strike is still strong in all our memories, but with unions starting to once again settle without striking, the effect of the CTU strike will soon fade for workers and administrators alike.

Waging a struggle for immediate gains without a vision of how the struggle for those gains transforms our class into one capable of making greater change is a recipe for future defeat. As Luxemburg wrote:

As soon as ‘immediate results’ become the principal aim of our activity, the clear-cut, irreconcilable point of view, which has meaning only insofar as it proposes to win power, will be found more and more inconvenient. The direct consequence of this will be the adoption by the party of a ‘policy of compensation,’ a policy of political trading, and an attitude of diffident, diplomatic conciliation. But this attitude cannot be continued for a long time. Since the social reforms can only offer an empty promise, the logical consequence of such a program must necessarily be disillusionment.

Those who believe that the labor movement must be connected to a more thoroughgoing movement to replace capitalism with socialism cannot assess any contract through a simple balance sheet of pros and cons to determine the winner. History shows that any revolution that would bring about the transformation of society and rid us of the oppression of capitalism must be an act of the working class itself. So when we assess steps forward or backward for our class, they must be measured against this yardstick: do these events bring our side, the working class, closer to seeing itself as a class, to seeing the power it potentially wields in this system, and to learning how to wield that power? If so, socialists should support it. If not, socialists should point to another way.

For educators in Portland and St. Paul, these issues are largely settled and they will need to find a way to prepare for a more resolute struggle with their bosses in the next round. But for educators in San Francisco, these questions are still up for grabs. Do we settle without a struggle and declare victory, or do we wage a more protracted fight, demand more from both our employers and ourselves, and find out what real class struggle and solidarity are capable of delivering? The prospect may appear frightening, but the prospect of allowing capitalism to shred our communities and world through austerity, gentrification, war, and environmental destruction is surely orders of magnitude worse. In taking action now to fight for the kind of world we want tomorrow, we have nothing to lose but our chains.

Adrienne Johnstone is a fifth and sixth grade math & science teacher at SF Community School and Executive Board Member for United Educators of San Francisco (UESF). 

Andy Libson is a high school science teacher at Mission High School and member of UESF. Both are members of the reform caucus Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU).