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Strange Attraction

On July 4th , National Education Association Representative Assembly delegates, local leaders from all over the USA, voted 5,414 to 2,102 to endorse the demagogue, Obama. Most of those opposed to the endorsement only sought to delay it, hoping to “send Obama a message,” about the Race to the Top.

That vote count is a far wider margin than most observers predicted and, if 95% of the delegates actually voted as they usually do, it means that NEA has nearly 1500 less delegates at the convention than last year, and last year was down from the usual 10,000 or so. Even if NEA lost 30,000 members the past year, as their own figures indicate, that couldn’t account for the notable drop in delegates.

In any case, keep in mind that on February 14th of this year, bosses from the NEA, AFL-CIO, Change to Win, and some national community groups held an extraordinary meeting at NEA’s headquarters. NEA, the nation’s largest union with more than 3.1 million members, isn’t affiliated with the bankrupt AFL-CIO, nor CTW, although NEA’s leadership has sought affiliation for 25 years, a move repeatedly rejected by NEA members?wisely so as the only people the AFL-CIO is good at fighting are their own members.

The February meeting grew out of labor tops’ worries about the nascent risings of students (especially in California and New York), school workers, and others–some drawing inspiration from accelerator events in the Middle East.

Their worries were somewhat justified. A class conscious movement dedicated to direct action in work places and communities would make the labor bosses irrelevant as their key project is to sell labor peace in exchange for dues income (the sole remaining definition of “collective bargaining” is, now, “send us the money”).

The concerned union overseers formulated a plan to surround, divert, and demolish any movement that might truly challenge US capital, their feed trough.

The scheme involved guaranteeing that mention of imperialist wars, capitalism, and direct action in workplaces or at schools was off the agenda, as was sharp criticism of Obama. The solution the united Quislings resolved was more than predictable: herd people into voting booths, add a few fake small-issue demonstrations to let off steam, then re-elect Obama and Democrats.

They re-dedicated themselves to fund-raising for the Democratic Party. Indeed, NEA alone plans to spend about $60 million backing Obama’s campaign. The NEA delegates voted overwhelmingly for a measure to increase ballot contributions.

In addition, the RA also passed a convoluted motion that appears to allow in standardized testing for teacher evaluations, an anathema to teachers who know this as a sure route to merit pay and a new system for staff cuts.

The opportunistic delegates (favoring the few over the many, “what’s in it for me?”) rejected an anti-war motion by another vast majority. In the 2010 RA, I witnessed the delegates vote about 9,000 to about 100 not to discuss the wars.

The crux of the case NEA’s mis-leaders made for Obama was that he saved teachers’ jobs. It is, then, ok by NEA’s delegates if Obama conducts perpetual war, which invariably will not only demolish lives outside the US, but will rebound inside, not only in sheer cost, but a rising culture of unnoticed militarized barbarism where war means work.

It’s ok with NEA if Obama’s bi-partisan backers use schools as illusion factories where kids are taught lies using methods so obscure that children learn to not like to learn, where they are taught loyalty and subservience, pre-war, pre-prison, pre-Walmart, pre-jobless schooling?as long as teachers’ jobs are preserved.

It’s ok if millions of homeless and unemployed people wander the streets, as long at those teachers keep their jobs?for now, jobs that are being shaved off year by year, a projected 227,000 in 2011-12.

Obama does not save jobs. Neither does following US labor hacks. How the delegates failed to recognize a process of becoming instruments of their own, and their members’, oppression is a small mystery.

The NEA Black Caucus weighed in for Obama saying, ” … he has promoted equity, including by appointing NEA President Dennis Van Roekel to an Equity Commission designed to examine disparities in meaningful educational opportunities that give rise to achievement gaps.” Laughable.

Teachers, seated in what is now the centripetal organizing point of North American life, schools, bear particular responsibility for the fact that Americans, as Chalmers Johnson said, know so little history that they cannot connect cause and effect. It follows they blissfully accept the declining bribes of empire, allow deepening racism in schools and out, and adopt the individualism that may fail completely in a nation whose economy was, not long ago, rooted in two-thirds consumerism, but whose indebted and befuddled people can no longer shop. A mass, multi-pronged, popular fascist movement is not hard to envision here.

At the NEA RA, Joe Biden was invited to play the good cop to bad cop Arne Duncan who was hugged on the platform at NEA RA’s in the past but went uninvited this year. Both Biden and NEA’s top boss, Dennis Van Roekel ($465,000 a year), made speeches citing their mothers’ profound concern for education. Union speech making has always been tub-thumping but this is a low even for NEA.

Obviously, the February scheme is working. Micro-resistance which ignores imperialism, capitalist exploitation, and urges a trip to the ballot box is going to fail. Who is fooling who when people march under their own enemies’ banners?

The wars, the financial bailouts, and the Race to the Top (nationalizing curricula, more high stakes exams, militarism, merit pay, attacks on tenure, layoffs) are all fully bi-partisan affairs indicating that on substantive issues crucial to class rule, elites in the US are united.

The bailouts, $12.9 trillion to the banksters, an extra-legal measure that cannot be reversed (unlike, say, the Patriot Act), cut the legs off America’s childrens’ futures and finalized what is in fact a corporate state in the US. In that state, the government serves as an executive committee and armed weapon of the rich.

There, they work out their real differences (finance vs industrial capital for example), then turn on the majority of people with a vengeance. Choosing which one of them will oppress us best, out of a field of increasingly terrible choices, makes no sense, nor does electoral work, now tantamount to urging people to church.

As Labor Educator Harry Kelber recently pointed out, no AFL-CIO union has mentioned the many wars, where children of the poor fight other children of the poor on behalf of the rich in their homelands, in their press in the last five years. How about NEA?

Labor tops like Dennis Van Roekel and his counterparts at the AFL-CIO and CTW know their privileges and pay comes directly from the empire’s adventures at home and abroad. Inside the US, each union seeks to protect its industry at the expense of the common good, a la the Steelworkers or Autoworkers deceptive “Buy American,” cries.

NEA’s “Save Public Schools!,” when the mostly suburban union did nothing about the ruin of urban education in the US runs in a similar vein.

The Michigan Education Association, representing nearly every teacher in the state outside of Detroit, an American Federation of Teachers local, stood aside as the Detroit Federation of Teachers oversaw the complete collapse of what was once seen as the finest urban education system in the US and, recently, DFT bargained the worst contract in teacher bargaining history, giving up $10,000 per member coupled with cuts in benefits as well?on the grounds that give-backs would save jobs.

The new boss of the school system, Roy Roberts from the failed General Motors Corporation, announced demands for $7500 more in concessions and 853 layoffs in late June. Then, the Michigan legislature, seeing no sharp resistance from school workers, passed laws that would obliterate tenure, bargaining over wages and working conditions, and more?demonstrating the old labor saw that an injury to one really does go before an injury to all, something MEA forgot.

Outside the US, as Kim Scipes and Paul Buhle have repeatedly demonstrated, labor bosses promote and personally profit from their connections with groups dedicated to destroying indigenous workers’ movements outside the homeland: CIA-connected operations like the National Endowment for Democracy and Education International which serves as a retirement center for former NEA and American Federation of Teachers presidents. Past NEA president Reg Weaver was paid $686,949 for his last year in office and is now at EI.

Quislings, these labor foremen provide cover for the necessary eradication of civil liberties in the US as the empire’s repressive tentacles inevitably reach back inside its boundaries.

The core issue of our time is the reality of endless war (six for the US by my count now, losing all), and booming color-coded inequality; met by the potential of mass class-conscious activist resistance.

What defeats men with guns? Ideas, reason connected to concrete reality and power–that get those guns turned around, in mass, at the minority of people who live off others. Educators, whose prime mission is the construction of reason, should take note of their counterparts in action around the world.

Good luck to our side.

Rich Gibson is an emeritus professor of education at San Diego State University.


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