Can You Really Blame Us?

The Rhode Island labor movement made a sweetheart deal with the bosses over 75 years ago and the chickens are coming home to roost. Since the end of World War II, unions helped their majority-white membership gain access to cheap credit, low-interest mortgages, and quality housing with great schools in redlined neighborhoods.

Meanwhile Black, Indigenous, and others of Global Southern national extraction were left to fend for themselves in an urban core where every African American lives within five miles of one another. The Building and Trade Unions were happy to build the “correctional facilities” at the end of the school-to-prison pipeline, the teacher unions never put up a concerted opposition to “zero tolerance” disciplinary measures when they were originally rolled out during the Reagan-Bush-Clinton era (let alone fostered even a milquetoast anti-racist political education module), and RI AFL-CIO President George Nee would drop dead before disaffiliating the various cop and correctional officer unions from his Federation. If the largest membership constituency of the national AFL-CIO is African American women, what kind of economic solidarity is this?

Thanks in no small part to the shift in cultural discourse brought about by Dr. Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, educators are talking about the humanitarian catastrophe of the school-to-prison pipeline. As part of this shift, Former Supt. Christopher Maher created the Student Dean position several years ago, a unionized position wherein faculty members implements Restorative Practices in disciplinary matters. Ryan Connole, a teacher at Del Sesto Middle School and VP of Middle Schools on the Providence Teachers Union (PTU) Executive Board, took one of those positions. “I had always thought of going into [non-unionized] administration but would much rather work with the kids. I thought it could be a very helpful position for kids,” he said. “Instead of getting kids into trouble, it was designed to get them out of trouble.” Up until the COVID-19 pandemic led to an ongoing alteration of the school schedule, including alternating A-B Day schedules with different student cohorts in the building on different days, Connole had done exemplary work reducing statistical tendencies that feed into the pipeline. “The year before the position was created, we had over 900 suspensions in a school of about 1,000 students. That’s not a good number. We did it little by little and, two years ago, we were just over 200 suspensions. Last year, before the pandemic, we were on pace to be under 200.”

Union President Maribeth Calabro, who has quite admirably grabbed the bull by the horns and begun addressing racial justice issues as a union issue, pointed out in another interview that, while the district administration advocates for charter school expansion in order to help minority students escape the school-to-prison pipeline, in fact the disciplinary methods of the charter operators are quite carceral. Several years ago, State Sen. Sam Bell toured the Achievement First charter school and offered these reflections:

In the classrooms, it was constant discipline. The teachers spewed a stream of punishments, and I often couldn’t even see what the students were doing wrong. The students kept losing points or getting yelled at for things like not looking attentive enough. I can’t imagine what it would be like as a child to be berated constantly, to be forced to never even think of challenging authority. It was, of course, overwhelmingly white teachers berating students of color. (The walls, of course, were plastered with slogans of racial justice.)

Cindy Robles, another member of the PTU Executive Board, is a Latina teacher and Providence resident whose two children have attended public schools. One of the cudgels repeatedly used in the news media over the last year has been lack of diversity in the faculty. “I think that this is a strategy that they are trying to use to break the union,” she says. “Growing up, I didn’t have a lot of teachers of color. To be honest with you, I don’t think that had an effect on my decision to go into education and there are several reasons why. I had people of color in the other aspects of my life, church, community groups, sports, those sorts of things. But also, when I look at it as a teacher of color, I feel like when I am asked what I do, I say I am a teacher. It doesn’t matter if I am a teacher of color, a white teacher, a gay teacher, a straight teacher, I’m a teacher.”

“My children have had amazing teachers. They have had amazing white teachers, they have had amazing teachers of color, and they have never come to me and said that they felt discrimination,” she said. “They have never said anything about a teacher not getting that they are children of color. Does this not happen? Absolutely not. But, my point is, my children in my opinion as a parent who happens to work in the distrct, have recieved a phenomenal education. If that had teachers who maybe were not the best, it wasn’t that they were white or Black or Brown, it was that maybe they weren’t the best teachers. You will find that in any district, not just the inner city. If you are a good teacher, you are a good teacher. If you are an effective teacher, you’re an effective teacher. If you are not a great teacher, you’re not a great teacher. I personally don’t feel that the color of your skin is going to make you more or less effective.”

Should a teacher’s contract pivot upon their responsibility for benefiting from generations of systemic white supremacist racism? That’s the near-Manichaean standoff that African American Providence Supt. Harrison Peters has constructed in the news media. Should the faculty take the blame for a system that they inherited? Can the administration seriously blame us? The current district leadership mobilizes these issues in order to justify exponentially expanding charter schools in a fashion that would do tremendous harm to students (primarily ELL, special education, and other “unacceptable” students who statistically are predominantly from high-poverty Black/brown populations). As Dr. Shawgi Tell recently wrote in a Dissident Voice column:

Privately-operated charter schools are notorious for over-promising and under-delivering on many commitments and assurances. The chasm between charter school rhetoric and charter schools reality has always been large… Only systematic research and analysis can arm a person to see and appreciate this persistent gap between charter school words and charter school deeds… The public has been repeatedly told that charter schools are a silver bullet that will deliver a bigger bang for the buck and be more accountable than public schools. Instead, corruption, fraud, arrests, poor performance, school closures, shady real estate deals, scandalous headlines, and more have increased alongside the surge in charter schools. More segregated charter schools run by unelected individuals has meant more problems for everyone, including charter schools themselves… Privately-operated charter schools have not reduced poverty, inequality, or structural racism. They have not closed the “achievement gap” or stopped the school-to-prison pipeline. They have siphoned money from public schools and intensified segregation, controversy, de-unionization, secrecy, and competition. Cyber charter schools in particular have taken fraud and scandal to levels not seen in even the most irresponsible large corporations.

Furthermore, Peters has decided to eliminate the Dean’s position next year. “Out of everything in the district, I thought Dean positions were going to be safe. We have the data, it shows that it works, and the principals know what we do. Everything that we do is something that they don’t have to do,” says Connole. “Honestly, it was my dream job, I loved it. You go from 950 suspensions to 200, something is working. That’s hard data that you can look at!”

The answer is that “blame” is anathema to the solidarities, both explicit and implicit, that our social safety net depends upon for success. Instead, accountability and reparations as long term projects are required to rebuild the alliances that organized labor will depend upon for success in the future economic landscape. But these are complicated matters. We are grappling with an entire economy predicated upon systems of oppression. When we honestly glimpse a Providence where teachers and students are both accorded more dignity, we are seeing the shadows of another world entirely.

Members of the faculty are hesitant to embrace the social movement unionism paradigm, instead yearning for a simpler time when the white collar business unionism promulgated by Albert Shanker was adequate. While I disagree with the sentiment, I also understand it. The political education and introspection catalyzed by racial justice politics is challenging. Interrogating the social contract the union is predicated upon as part of contract negotiations is extra work than business-as-usual negotiations. Connole, who has over 19 years of experience in the profession, offered useful insights. “For me, the primary reason we have a union is to protect jobs, benefits, and working conditions. But because of everything that has been going on, they forced the union to get involved in other things the union historically wasn’t involved in as much, a lot of social issues and things like that,” he says. “A lot of people in the membership aren’t happy about that. They say ‘I want a contract, I want my job. All those other things are nice but…’ Not that they are against these causes but they ask if that is really our role. It is a question that needs to be answered. I bring it up all the time.” Besides the moral imperative, this rejection is nearsighted in tactical terms. “This is a different world we are in right now and if the union doesn’t address the social issues going on right now, that’s not going to look good either,” he says.

The success of the Superintendent and Education Commissioner against the union is predicated upon building up their case with the community. It would be a foolish step not to take that arrow from their quiver. Any chess player can tell you to predict the next three moves of your opponent and act accordingly. Nor is this a novel unionism paradigm. In 1964, Harry Bridges, longtime leader of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (which also has a closed shop in Providence’s ports), used union funds to create a racially-integrated and affordable housing cooperative in San Francisco’s St. Francis Square. Social movement unionism not only is not just an old paradigm, it is precisely the paradigm utilized by John Lewis and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) during the Great Depression when union membership grew exponentially. Contra the older crafts-based paradigm of Samuel Gompers and the American Federation of Labor (AFL), Lewis understood success depended on organizing the entire workplace with the entire community’s support. As a result of embracing racial and economic justice seeking to raise living standards for the entire community where the workplace was located, labor entered a halcyon era.

I am a Providence teacher writing using a pen name because I fear retaliation from my employers, something that has already happened to multiple colleagues this year when they have spoken out in the media regarding the health and safety of students, contract negotiations, and other workplace circumstances. This is in direct contravention of a recent National Labor Relations Board ruling regarding Elon Musk’s Tesla factory. In a decision dated March 25, 2021, the NLRB wrote:

The Board acknowledged that “Section 7 generally protects employees when they speak with the media about working conditions, labor disputes, or other terms and conditions of employment” and that a rule would be facially unlawful if employees would reasonably interpret it to infringe on their…right to express their personal opinion about those topics to the media.

In other words, Supt. Peters, Chief of Operations Zack Scott, and their “Network” subordinates, including individual Principals that harass organizer teachers doing union business, are directly violating the law. The fact I feel compelled to use a pen name is itself a demonstration of this violation! With a new White House administration that allegedly prides itself upon its connection to the labor movement, it would be worthwhile for the NLRB or another labor law enforcement agency to penalize this egregious series of violations.

POST-SCRIPT: As I was completing this dispatch, Supt. Peters was forced to resign. On April 20, his subordinate Dr. Olayinka Alege, who was superintendent in charge of the middle and high schools, was arrested at a Warwick gym on charges of simple assault for giving an unwanted foot massage to a youth. Dr. Alege had previously been documented engaging in similar behavior while an assistant principal at a Tampa high school, calling students with bad grades into his office for what he called “toe popping” sessions where he squeezed their digits. This clearly is a form of youth grooming that is totally inappropriate contact between youths and adults. As teachers, we are legally required to serve as mandatory reporters who must immediately report to the police if we suspect a youth is being subjected to any form of child abuse. On May 12, Peters wrote in an email to the entire district “Recently I learned that police were investigating a concerning incident in Warwick involving Network Superintendent Olayinka Alege. Due to the sensitive nature of the allegations, the district immediately placed Dr. Alege on leave. This week, charges of simple assault and battery were officially filed. As soon as more details emerged—including the fact that there is video evidence supporting the authenticity of the claims—I asked Dr. Alege to resign, and he complied with that request, effective immediately.” On May 17, Peters admitted in testimony to the State Senate that he had been aware of this behavior in Florida when he hire Alege. This led to a storm of controversy culminating with the Superintendent’s resignation. Resignation entitles Peters to a severance package of $169,118, which he negotiated with Commissioner Infante-Green in the following week. Meanwhile, on a Florida Facebook teachers group, someone posted “Toe popper strikes again!” It’s hard to miss the eerie ways the conversation about the controversy edges close to very old and noxious stereotypes about ravenous Black male sexuality that fueled thousands of lynchings in the last 150 years. But it also is a clear-cut case of a cynical district administration putting union busting over child safety, which has been a trend since the start of the school year and COVID-19 safety precautions. When you enter a realm of neoliberal identity politics and antilabor sentiments being prioritized above student lives, we’re entering a theater of depraved absurdity. In a future report I shall further examine these issues.