My latest at City Journal California looks at the United Teachers Los Angeles's "Occupy LAUSD" demonstration.
"Until recently," I wrote, "it's been tough to pinpoint precisely where Occupy Los Angeles ends and public-employee union activism begins." UTLA's "occupation" was as much about exploiting the zeitgeist to pressure district officials on pending contract talks as anything. But I also think the "99 percent" rhetoric coming from the union's hard core casts a useful light on the split between the public education establishment and a fairly diverse coalition of education reformers.
Well, the political street theater in Los Angeles is a picture of serenity compared with what's going on up north in Oakland. But unlike the hard-left UTLA's demonstration against the conventionally liberal "1 percent" who run the Los Angeles Unified School District, Oakland's teacher union and Oakland Unified officials are virtually as one in their struggle for more money and power.
A bit of background: The East Bay "occupation" last week degenerated into street brawls with police and a cowardly and medacious response from community organizer-turned-Mayor Jean Quan. (You know you're in trouble when none other than Willie Brown calls you out.)
In the wake of last Thursday night's row, in which Oakland police used teargas and other less-than-lethal weapons to disperse protesters trying to rebuild a camp, the Occupy movement called for a citywide general strike.
The local unions have been enthusiastic participants in the Occupy Oakland (and San Francisco) demonstrations. Naturally, they're happy to endorse this week's general strike.
But notice how carefully calculated the union's endorsement is. According to the Los Angeles Times (What? You were expecting the Oakland Tribune?):
Unions, including the California Nurses Assn., SEIU Local 1021, the Oakland Educational Assn. and the longshoreman's union have also expressed support without vowing to strike; walkouts could violate their labor agreements. (Emphasis added.)
Well, of course they would! For the same reason, UTLA endorsed, organized, staffed and provided a steady stream of propaganda on behalf of "Occupy LAUSD." But the union did not stage a walkout, and the teachers who camped out if front of district headquarters at 4th and South Beaudry dutifully showed for work or else took personal time. Chanting and marching may be fun and all, but this is business.
Business is business in Oaktown, too. Oakland Education Association President Betty Olsen-Jones put out a statement over the weekend announcing and explaining the union's support for the general strike:
In a unanimous vote on 10/28/11, the OEA Executive Board endorsed Occupy Oakland's November 2 "General Strike/Mass Day of Action" and is urging members to participate in a variety of ways, including taking personal leave to join actions at Frank Ogawa Plaza, doing informational picketing at school sites, and holding teach-ins on the history of general strikes and organizing for economic justice.
Faced with growing class sizes and dwindling resources, school closures, and the ongoing attempts of charter management companies to entice Oakland schools to convert to charters, it is critical that we link our struggles with those of the 99% of Americans fighting for social and economic justice. It is simply wrong that banks and corporations are bailed out and continue to reap huge profits, while schools and social services suffer.
Which is worse: shutting down some miserably-performing schools for a one-day general strike, or keeping them open to indocrinate students in the "history of general strikes and organizing for economic justice"?
Unlike "Occupy LAUSD," the union has no particular dispute with their district bosses. Have a look at the "FAQ" that follows Olsen-Jones's statement. In it, union officials respond to questions from teachers about the dos-and-don'ts of participating in Wednesday's strike.
Q: Dennis asked: "What are potential employment consequences for wildcatters?"A: Unauthorized striking may result in no pay for that day, and possible discipline. OEA would work through any problems employees encounter with the district. OEA has met with OUSD on this particular action, and OUSD said they will recognize use of personal days to support this action, provided a substitute teacher is secured.
Union and district, working hand-in-hand. Should they not, therefore, bear a fair measure of responsibility--and blame--for how the protests play out?
(By the way, regarding those awful charter management companies and their "ongoing attempts" to "entice" other schools to break free from the union stranglehold: The highest-performing schools in Oakland Unified, and three of the best-performing schools in the entire state of California, are American Indian Public Charter School, American Indian Public Charter School II, and American Indian Public High School.)