Rhode Island Labor Will Not Be Defeated

Providence Public Schools have been under attack from neoliberal education de-formers for a long time. The latest crew of cynical apparatchiks, trained by Jeb Bush’s education privatization mill Chiefs for Change, are RI Education Commissioner Angélica Infante-Green and Providence Superintendent Harrison Peters. The two should be investigated by the Department of Children, Youth, and Families (DCYF) for creating unsafe conditions for students and families during the COVID-19 pandemic. The conditions in the school have been dangerous and, if we look at other states and countries, it didn’t have to be so. They just made it that was to serve their disaster capitalism model of business.

This disaster capitalist mode of operations, outlined by Naomi Klein’s classic The Shock Doctrine, is militantly and viciously anti-labor. Infante-Green and Peters are using a particularly cynical form of liberal identity politics to manipulate the public perception. They claim that the Providence Teacher Union (PTU) is a top-heavy, calcified organization that shelters racist wind-bag white ladies. Neither seems cognizant of the fact that, despite this contradiction, the AFL-CIO’s largest membership constituency is Black women. The public sector is the biggest Black employer in America. A defeat for any union in RI with such a large membership would have a detrimental impact on a systemic level that rolls out in waves to harm Black unionized employees. So there is their notion of equity.

The AFL-CIO of RI really needs to step up to the plate and do some serious work. For instance, in every Providence school building, there are three unions operating, one for the clerical staff, one for the teacher assistants (TAs) that support special needs students, and one for the faculty. I’ve been an undercover journalist in the schools and never once have seen these three unions hold a combined union meeting. Why not? School secretaries are often the important ambassadors between the school and the student families and they could play an essential role in building a united front to oppose this abomination.

Over the next several weeks, I will be posting reports for Counterpunch about how the district administration is trying to severely harm students, faculty, and staff to serve their paymasters on Wall Street. As other reporters have pointed out previously, there’s a direct link between the hedge funds that the former Treasurer Gina Raimondo invested the pension in and the charter schools now trying to destroy public education in the city.

For starters, I have a note provided by Ralph Fortune, a retired teacher and union activist who has some important words of wisdom.

To begin, let it be known that all workers movements need organization, and that organization grows out of struggle. This will try to illustrate how we must be willing to change our tactics as the struggle dictates, and that we have power in our numbers when we stay united in our battles.

Around 2005, two high schools in Providence were closed down and were merged into a new school. Del Sesto HS (short lived, 2 years) and Adelaide HS were consolidated into one. A new building was constructed (of poor quality, materials, and workmanship) on the grounds of former Gorham Silver Co., and later a waste dump at the end of Adelaide Ave. It was thusly named, Adelaide Ave. High School (later renamed Alverez). As 2 separate faculties were brought together, each coming in with its own Union Building Delegate (BD), the PTU leadership attempted to appoint the former Adelaide BD to be the new Adelaide HS BD.

As I was the BD from Del Sesto, I raised the issue with the BD from the other school. We quickly agreed that there should be an election, which we demanded from the PTU and got. The incoming union activists from both schools decided we should have co-delegates, but union leadership balked at that. So, we decided that I would run unopposed, and the others would be members of the Union Faculty Committee (UFC), a contractual committee made up of the BD and any other faculty who cared to participate. So, this was the beginnings of a strong and successful UFC and faculty. We had a brand new principal who attempted to run the school as a dictator. The faculty was made up of a very diverse population. There were petty differences in the early period between teachers from the 2 merged schools, but these things were resolved quickly by emphasizing that we are now one faculty and we have one common adversary.

Forming the UFC was easy because there was so much turmoil due to the principal constantly harassing teachers. We had about 5 regular members on the UFC, but we could call a meeting and 25 would show up. Or, we could call an after-school union meeting and everyone would attend!! This didn’t happen immediately. This happened during the course of struggle against a principal who believed he could make improper demands, intimidate teachers, and manipulated students against their teachers. We filed many grievances against him, winning most of them. Then something happened. Grievances were being dismissed at the first level by the union leadership. It seems the Administration decided we were writing too many grievances and were attempting to stem the tide. Keep in mind, as BD, I was not one to write and submit trivial grievances. When possible, I would always try to resolve issue in house with the principal before turning in the paperwork. As more grievances were being rejected, I had to go to the aggrieved teachers and tell them that their justified complaints weren’t good enough. This led to an upswing of harassment by the principal-confident now that our grievances wouldn’t be heard, he now felt he had carte blanche to attack.

So, the UFC got together to figure out what to do. We started out with our 4 or 5 regulars. We decided that each of us would go and talk with the other faculty members to see what they thought. The UFC met again, this time we decided that the next harassment incident would be met with a ‘class action’ grievance. Simply put, this meant that because everyone was suffering from harassment, everyone would sigh the grievance. This changed our world. By everyone signing on, the grievance couldn’t be ignored. The faculty was united as one. Both the union leadership and the admin had to pay attention. We won that grievance. The principal was called down to 797 and ripped a new one!! He backed off from his harassing ways. And future grievances were not taken so lightly anymore.

The point of this all is that, even when it seems we have been defeated, if we get together as a unified force and organize, take bold steps in our own interests, think outside the box that they imprison us in, we cannot only win victories, but we make ourselves stronger for the next battle-and there will be more battles.

What’s happening in Providence schools now is so important. People’s well being/health, even lives are being put at risk because short sighted “leaders” of education are more interested in carrying out the wishes of billionaires of private industry than they are concerned with the health of teachers, students, school staffs, and parents/relatives. This disregard for the well being of people-not even getting into the destruction of education-has to be stopped. Teachers, support staff, students, and parents, this is a time to get together in your common interests, unite as a powerful force, and demand that PPSD do the right thing. Think outside the parameters that box you in. Prepare to take radical action to force the issue. The attacks on public education by the private sector and carried out by their trained ‘experts’ at the DOE have been going on for decades. Life as a teacher has changed for the worse and, if we don’t get organized-inside and outside the union-it will continue to spiral downward. We have power in our numbers. We have a legitimate right to expect to be safe and healthy at work. We know we cannot rely on the system that is sloughing off our concerns to rectify them. Our future is in our hands-join them together with our allies and make it happen!