Revolutionary Desire

March 4th: Unifying and Escalating the Struggle for Education in New York

Posted in Action by deterritorialization on January 30, 2010

Early in the morning of January 27, the Panel for Educational Policy, 8 out of 13 members of which are appointed by Mayor Bloomberg, voted to close 19 schools in New York City. Many of these schools had been deliberately underfunded by the Department of Education in a deliberate policy to attack working-class and largely Black and Latino schools. As if these attacks—which would leave many teachers jobless and many students schoolless—weren’t bad enough, they are being rubber-stamped right while Metropolitan Transportation Authority plans to terminate its program of free and reduced-cost Metrocards for K12 public school students. Now, the students who need transportation the most and whose neighborhood schools are being closed, will be forced to pay to go to school.


The New School Reoccupied has a leaflet which argues "THIS IS NO TIME FOR ANOTHER RALLY" and says "OCCUPY EVERYTHING". Occupations will be a major part of the struggle for education in NY, but demonstrations can also be useful as they can be quickly escalated into militant actions like occupations, pickets, blockades and strikes.

The deepening capitalist depression is having similar effects around the world, but not everyone is standing for it. Across Europe, dozens if not hundreds of schools have been occupied in the last year. Recently in Glasgow, Scotland, parents took the initiative to occupy a closing school and demand it stay open. New York parents, students, teachers and workers should look to their leadership. Occupation can not only keep a school open, it can be used to open a space where general assemblies could be held to plan strikes and spread the struggle around the entire city. Since the schools closing in New York will not be immediately shut but rather gradually phased out over a period of years, occupation as a tactic to immediately continue the schools’ operations would be forced, in order to survive and win, to open its doors and become a general assembly for the launching and coordination of occupations, strikes, walkouts and other militant actions against the cuts. Students desperately need a general strike in order to unite against the attacks, and an occupation could be an effective way to launch one.

Despite the dire situation faced by students in New York, a number of factors have held down mass struggle so far. First and foremost, the bureaucracies of the teachers’ union, the United Federation of Teachers, and the Transit Workers Union Local 100, have prevented their unions’ vast resources and mass memberships from struggling against the cuts to student Metrocards—perpetrated by the MTA—and the school closings by the DOE. The union bureaucrats talk tough but fail to live up to it. Bureaucrats will be bureaucrats—we must expose them and attack them when they fail, pressure them to act whenever we can, and most importantly, act over their heads and without their support to spread a militant struggle against all the public sector cuts.

Mulgrew and Barron

Charles Barron, right, says "SHUT DOWN TWEED" to stop the school closures. UFT President Michael Mulgrew, left, applauds. Let's hold them to their threat! Image credit: Grassroots Education Movement

City Council member Charles Barron, a former Black Panther, talks fiery but does not follow up with militant action. Still, many workers look to his populist anger and genuinely believe that he represents their interests. So when Charles Barron says that if the cuts are approved, which they have been, we should “shut down Tweed” (the city building which houses the DOE), we should hold him to his word. The same goes for UFT president Michael Mulgrew, who applauded Barron’s remarks. Mulgrew is not serious about fighting the cuts, but we must call him to task for his militant language. UFT members should fight to mobilize their union’s resources to build demonstrations and strikes against the cuts. There is no need to wait to elect Mulgrew out of his union post—just like waiting for Mulgrew to replace Weingarten was a rotten strategy, UFT members cannot allow Mulgrew to support the fight in words only. Mobilizing buses for the PEP meeting and rally at Brooklyn Tech High School was good, but it was only a first step. Now we need to mobilize for our own meetings, not to rubber stamp school closings but to immediately continue the fight through militant actions against the cuts and closings. Teachers, encourage your students to walk out while you pressure your union leaders to fight for a strike.

Meanwhile, there have been demonstrations against the school closings, primarily at each individual school but also at the PEP meetings and at Bloomberg’s house. Parent involvement is probably one of the most important factors in making these demonstrations happen despite limited support from the UFT. The UFT has mobilized mostly token shows of support to these demonstrations, but its use of around 50 buses to send people to the January 27 PEP meeting shows the potential if the UFT was used as a tool in a real struggle against the attacks. Students have also mobilized strongly for the demonstrations against school closings, despite their limited size and decentralized locations, as well as against the cut to students’ Metrocard pass for transit to school. Reportedly, 100,000 students walked out in December against this cut. Since then, the only demonstration called was on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a day when no students have school. Walkouts, rather than something which makes us look bad’ for the media, are a weapon which show that we are serious about our fight and not just sending a ‘message’. We are fighting to win, and walkouts show that business as usual cannot continue. Students should spread walkouts via Twitter, Facebook, and text-messaging. With a million students in the city, a mass walkout could be spread by students very rapidly, and it could be turned into a strike against the cuts which could shut the entire city down. Students should organize walkouts, and teachers should also encourage their students to walk out, especially by promising no disciplinary measures against students for participation. Moreover, students are not bound by the repressive Taylor Law which makes it illegal for public school teachers to strike. Students have an enormous amount of power.

The situation in the UFT shows the need not only for students to mobilize independently but for teachers to do so as well. In a pamphlet, Teachers for a Just Contract, an opposition coalition which aims to win UFT elections, calls out Mulgrew for his sellout strategy:

UFT President Michael Mulgrew encourages each targeted school to try to save itself, and to protest at the Jan. 26 meeting of the Public Education Panel (PEP). But the PEP is just a rubber stamp for Mayor Bloomberg. Mulgrew’s strategy accepts that some schools must be closed “as a last resort,” and accepts the PEP decisions as final. So his strategy is just too weak to protect UFT members, our students and communities, against school closings.

Teachers for a Just Contract (TJC) believes the UFT needs to build a UNITED citywide movement that targets the real power: the Mayor and the City Administration. At the December Delegate Assembly, along with many other grassroots organizations, TJC advocated a citywide march and rally at Tweed and City Hall demanding: End School Closings! Mulgrew and his Unity Caucus rejected this idea. TJC then joined other groups in endorsing and building the January 21 demonstration at the Mayor’s residence.

It is great that TJC is fighting for demonstrations, especially on Tweed and City Hall. The problem with TJC’s perspective, though, is that in seeking to replace Mulgrew, they identify with him, assigning him the blame he deserves but remaining limited by their election strategy. This struggle cannot wait, however, because there is currently a militant momentum. To delay is to announce defeat to all those who are prepared to struggle now. TJC writes, “Mulgrew and his Unity Caucus will never mobilize the union into the fighting mode needed for us to end school closings and win a good contract. His cowardly and ill-conceived decision to be silent about Bloomberg’s education policies during the mayoral race has left us in a helpless position.” This, however, is simply not true. Mulgrew has already mobilized some UFT forces, sensing pressure from grassroots coalition forces like Teachers for a Just Contract, the Grassroots Education Movement, the Coalition for Public Education, and others. While he has done little to help, and in fact does all he can to sell out the struggle at every turn, Mulgrew can be pressured from the union rank and file into taking action now. It is not true that he has left the UFT and teachers “in a helpless position” because this is quite simply impossible. Teachers need to mobilize on their own and come to the only possible conclusion from Mulgrew’s inaction and betrayals: by avoiding a real fight he is working, even if unconsciously, in the service of our class enemies, the capitalists who perpetrate these attacks.

Grassroots student-teacher-worker organizing around education struggles nationwide presents us with a unique opportunity, however. Following the call of fighters in California—who have battled tuition hike over 30% at University of California and similar attacks at other schools through a statewide strike, mass demonstrations and many building occupations—a nationwide movement has come together calling for coordinated actions across the country on March 4th to defend education. That this will serve as a focal point for organizers to come together, join disparate mobilizations and draw national attention is quite important as it will likely help bring new people into the fold who want to join the struggle. However, one day is simply not enough; March 4th must not be a ‘starting-point’, because it is a month away and cuts are being approved now, and it must not be a goal or end because a day of demonstrations alone will only send a symbol rather than organize students and workers to put a real stop to the attacks on education. We must fight to escalate before March 4th, building demonstrations and actions that will bring masses into motion around the education battle, as well as during March 4th, fighting to use the day of actions as a launching board for escalated actions. This could be done through using an occupation to launch a general assembly.

Some in California are agitating for March 4th to be used to launch a strike. This is a wonderful idea, as is linking this battle to the broader struggle to build general strikes. Advance the Struggle has some interesting discussion of the tactics involved in the student-worker struggle and tension they encountered between occupation and general assembly at the San Francisco State University occupation:

The General Assembly is an important dimension in the campus-based anti-budget cut movement. But it is not the only or even the most important dimension. Synthesizing direct actions, strikes, and general assemblies are crucial. Baiting the first example of real direct action at SFSU for years as “un-democratic” is not the best way to build the needed synthesis, or to build trust amongst campus organizations.

Trotskyist groups involved in campus organizing fetishize the general assembly as the sole or by far most important site of organizing a community of students, teachers, and workers who can fight the cuts. On the other hand, the ultra- and/or anarchist left fetishize direct actions as the optimal forms of organizing struggle.

We don’t want to romanticize or dichotomize the value of either general assemblies or direct actions; our movement has more than enough room for both. Yes, we do have to, as La Ventana states, “step outside of the traditional organizing framework and create spaces for autonomous action,” but we also have to do traditional things like meet regularly, develop flyers and do outreach, and openly discuss next steps.

We need flexibility in tactics and commit ourselves to action, which anarchists and ultra-left marxists have done well in this wave of student uprisings. On the other hand, we need to include new people in on-the-ground organizing and broad discussion on strategy, which the Trotskyist Marxist groups bring to the table. Building March 4th should draw from both of these approaches.

That it is hard to synthesize these dimensions is understandable. After decades devoid of struggle, we are figuring out the proper approaches to organizing. Our experiences are offering invaluable material to study, reflect on, and debate. These are the rudimentary data that can provide the basis for new theories that will point the way out of a stale and impotent leftist morass.

It is definitely true that a variety of tactics will be proposed, tested and used by those involved in the movement. These tactics should be judged on their effectiveness, not only in terms of winning demands but also by how well they mobilize new layers of students, teachers and workers into struggle. Because this is a defensive battle and we are under serious attack by the capitalist politicians, we must seek to unite as many as possible into direct action. Only through militant struggle can we set the example that others will require to join us. In this sense, more demonstrations may only be a way for us to wear ourselves out, or they could be a staging ground for more powerful action. We should fight now to build an escalating struggle against all school closings—and not let the DOE get away with any divide-and-conquer strategies against us.


Students: Build walkouts to support March 4th actions!

Teachers: Fight to mobilize teachers for demonstrations and strikes, with and without the UFT!

Occupy closing schools and keep them open!

Build a general assembly to shut New York down!

Students and workers need a general strike!

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  1. uberVU - social comments said, on February 4, 2010 at 6:34 PM

    Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by machinicindices: March 4th: Unifying and Escalating the Struggle for Education in New York: #ism #nycedu #ouruni #ouredu…

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