Teachers’ Struggle: Workers Need to Make Solidarity Real
A recent incident among teachers at New York City high school demonstrates clearly that workers in the U.S. are making the first attempts at putting aside the divisions imposed by capitalism, in this case those divisions that pit the ‘senior' workers against the younger, more recently hired workers. In this sense, New York City workers are totally part of the resurgence of class militancy and solidarity we have been witnessing over the last three or four years worldwide. Just as our class brothers and sisters across the world are relearning that one of the most important tools the working class has to organize its struggles is the spreading of solidarity amongst its ranks, so too are workers in the U.S. beginning to come to grips with solidarity and unity in struggle.
This small moment in class struggle for the New York teachers occurred in the context of the same issue that is faced by hundreds of thousands other workers: the threat of lay offs. As usual, the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the teachers' union, was trying to make use of the built-in-the-contract seniority rules to divide the teachers in two categories and then pit one against the other during a meeting at high school in Brooklyn. The UFT has always spread the lie that these ‘seniority rules' give the more senior teachers greater job protection. In reality, these rules are intended to discourage the more senior workers from engaging in a unified struggle by creating the illusion that they will either be spared the attacks or bear a lesser brunt, and thereby isolate the least senior teachers from their more experienced class brothers and sisters and create distrust between them. With this tactic of divide and conquer, the UFT has been a loyal arm of the ruling class' attempt at breaking workers' solidarity.
As the general economic crisis deepens, however, it opens up the perspective for workers to understand the total bankruptcy of capitalism. Teachers, as well as all other workers, are beginning to see that no one is spared and that the only course to follow is the one that leads to the unification of the struggle, the better to confront the common enemy. In a word, it raises the question of solidarity. Thus, at the recent meeting in question, the UFT's attempt at ‘reassuring' the more senior teachers that in the face of the threatened lay-offs the most recent to have been hired would be the first to be laid off, was openly denounced and rejected. There was a strong and clear reaffirmation of the need for solidarity, as expressed by a teacher who intervened to say, "An injury to one is an injury to all" and went on to explain that solidarity was not only a matter of family or friendship ties, that it was not just that the recent hirees might be the younger sisters, or daughters, or grand-daughters, or neighbor's son, but that solidarity was the only way to defend everybody from the common attacks. This intervention also argued that the working and living conditions would continue to deteriorate even for those who remained on the job as the attacks would then be enforced more easily, once the spirit of solidarity had been broken.
These comments were received with cheers and applause in the other workers, young and old, obviously showing that what this worker said expressed the sentiments of many others. The necessity for solidarity was again expressed at a subsequent meeting, where the young, newer workers were openly invited to participate and speak their minds. The UFT obviously did not just stand by idly. Understanding the importance of what was said, it has already tried to occupy this terrain where class consciousness has a potential for development, and is calling for meetings and inviting teachers to give an input for the agenda of items to be discussed! Never heard of before! It is clear that the UFT will try and diffuse workers' anger and discontent and divert the attention to less burning issues, in the attempt at drowning teachers' rising militancy and consciousness. Along with all other unions, the UFT will be forced to take center stage as the class reaches out for real solidarity among its ranks, across categories. The rally called on March 5th by the UFT, DC 37, 1199, and a host of other unions exemplifies how this apparatus of the bourgeois state quickly mobilizes when workers show they have a willingness to fight back. The rally attracted some 70,000 workers, according to UFT accounts. This clearly shows that workers across categories are deeply concerned with the present situation and what it means for their future. But at the rally these workers from different categories were unable to discuss with each other, and nothing was set up for them to secure that discussions will happen or continue in the future. Obviously, the unions' job will be to try and pre-empt any attempt by the workers at self-organization and the spreading of solidarity.
Teachers clearly feel the same needs other workers feel, and they are calling for wide participation at meetings, they want to meet and discuss. There is the beginning of a recognition that it's only by taking matters into their own hands, by extending the struggle, and by uniting it through solidarity that a profound reflection over the fate of humanity can find expression, and that the first answers to the burning questions of what future capitalism can offer, and what we need to do in its face, can be offered. At the next meetings, teachers, like all other workers worldwide, need to continue to pose the necessity of the widest possible discussions at the widest possible meetings, the general assemblies, and the need for reinforcing and spreading solidarity, and unifying the struggles across generations, ethnicities, and any other artificial division that the ruling class and its unions tries to throw up as an obstacle to unity.
While we don't want to exaggerate the impact of this modest development, it is important to understand that it is not an isolated event, but a reflection of a general, worldwide tendency towards the development of consciousness and strengthening of the working class's response to the economic crisis. From the French students' and workers struggles of 2006 to the SEAT workers strike in Spain the same year, to the German automobile workers wildcat strikes, and, very recently, again the students in Italy, France, Germany, and Spain, to the Greek students and workers massive protests against the unprecedented wave of attacks on working and living conditions, in the last three years the European working class has shown a tremendous ability to express, develop, and channel its militancy and anger against the conditions of impoverishment it suffers because of the worsening crisis of capitalism. The working class has begun to say no to the unprecedented violence of the attacks the ruling class is forced to try and impose on the workers as a result of the crisis of its system. In the U.S. in the New York City transit strike of 2005, and more recently the Chicago factory occupation in December 2008, we are seeing the echoes of this global trend. In this sense, New York City workers are totally part of the resurgence of class militancy and solidarity we have been witnessing over the last three or four years worldwide.