Monday, August 1, 2011

The Lessons of History and the Save Our Schools March

The Lessons of History and the Save Our Schools March
Mark Naison
Fordham University
The Save Our Schools Conference and March was the most inspiring single protest I have attended in the last thirty years. To see public school teachers from more than 40 states rally in defense of their maligned profession, and to hear the most important education scholars of our time tear apart the business/testing model driving education policy in the country, made me feel that I was part of a movement that was not only going to change school policies, but reinvigorate justice organizing in a nation that had lost its way.
At the “Activism” panel at the Save Our Schools Conference, I had an epiphany which I want to share, not only with education activists, but all people committed to progressive political change. And it had to do with how we should relate to initiatives such as Teach For America and charter schools, which began with a progressive mission, but now are deluged with corporate money and seem to be committed to the business/testing paradigm which encouraging privatization of public education and degrading the teaching profession.
And my epiphany was this. If historic circumstances have moved these initiatives to the right, different historical circumstances can move them back to the left. And it could happen pretty quickly. If the current debt ceiling deal goes through, working class and poor communities are going to suffer levels of hardship unseen in our lifetimes, making the prospect of schools, reformed or not, elevating people out of poverty seem improbable, if not absurd. Cuts in food support, housing grants, health care, youth recreation and college access grants, all part of the debt reduction formula, are going to have heart rending effects on students in working class communities, putting incredible pressure on every school and teacher in affected communities.
To think that Teach for America Corps members and charter school teachers and administrators will be permanently immune to the rapidly escalating pain and hardship of students and families they work with defies common sense. Many will start to rethink the business/testing model of pedagogy they have been exposed to; some will become justice fighters for the communities they are working in. And when that happens, progressives, whether in teachers unions or not, should be right there with them, encouraging them to participate in the broad struggle for democracy in America and to use their position as educators to do help organize beleaguered communities to rise up in protest and demand a fair share of the nation’s wealth.
And impossible dream? Not really. Something like this happened 70 years ago during the heyday of the industrial labor movement During the prosperous 1920’s, the nation’s largest corporations such as Ford Motor Company, General Electric, and US Steel, organized company unions and employee representation plans to prevent their workers from joining trade unions. The strategy was so successful that no one major industrial corporation was unionized when the Depression struck.
But Depression conditions, leading to 1/3 of the labor force unemployed, and 1/3 working part time when Franklin Roosevelt assumed the Presidency, produced a rapid change in working class attitudes. Organizers for industrial unions, largely ignored by workers during the 1920’s found workers receptive to their message in the three most important open shot industries- steel, automobile and electronics- and began to quietly infiltrate company unions. By the time
the CIO was founded in 1935, company unions in the automobile and electronics industry began to affiliate en masse with the new CIO unions, giving them an immediate base in the heart of America’s largest companies. The great sit down strikes in the automobile industry, which led to the unionization of US Steel and well as General Motors, would not have happened
had not company unions in the automobile industry become part of the CIO and the same dynamic occurred in the electrical industry, where both Westinghouse and General Electric ended being organized by CIO unions.
If company unions, supported by the most powerful and wealth corporations of that era, could move in a progressive direction in response to rapidly deteriorating economic conditions, there is no reason to assume that the same thing could not happen to charter schools and Teach for American in the coming years, as the American economy goes into free fall and working class communities experience unspeakable hardship.
Given this, it behooves us, a progressive organizers and justice fighters, to keep lines of communication open to people in these organizations and be there to work with them if they
join us in resistance to policies which concentrate economic sacrifice among America’s poor.
Anything less than this would be selling our movement short. To stop the political juggernaut moving this nation to the right, we need to mobilize the broadest coalition of activists and organizers, including people we may have sharply disagreed with in the past.
Mark Naison
August 2, 2011

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