On February 22, the Providence Public School Department (PPSD) Superintendent Tom Brady and Mayor Angel Taveras announced the mass firing of all 1,926 teachers in Providence schools. It was approved in a 4-3 vote of the PPSD School Board. This can be and has to be characterized as nothing more than an attack on all working people of Rhode Island, particularly in an attempt to bust the unions, and, whether intended or not, an attack on Providence’s children and families.
Public school teachers play a vital role in both the educating and nurturing of the next generation. Day in and day out they go to work and perform their civic duty to the community despite the chronic lack of resources provided to public school classrooms. So why would they come under such an attack? The reason given by the elected officials, and the appointed (unelected) School Board, is that Providence is facing a budget crisis and a gap needs to be filled. According to Taveras, "putting Providence back on solid financial footing will require shared sacrifice across our community." However, it seems that the only people doing any sacrificing are teachers, families, other workers, and the poor.
Yes, teachers have relatively secure jobs, decent pay and benefits. One would think that we would expect such conditions for those who have such an impact on your children. But they also have fought collectively to get where they are through their unions. Because of this, it has been “in” to attack teachers and other public sector workers, and to blame them for Rhode Island’s and Providence’s fiscal problems. This line of thinking must be resisted and recognized for what it is—a strategy to divide and conquer that pits workers against workers. Attention needs to shift to those groups who are not being called on to sacrifice, and who have indeed been coddled during these rough economic times—corporations and the rich.
We need to remember that back in 2006, then Governor Carcieri and Democrats in the Assembly passed major tax cuts for the rich, promising that it would create jobs. Jobs were never created. RI continues to have one of the nation’s highest unemployment rates. Working people suffered before and after a major recession, while the rich got and continue to receive tax cuts, and now they want them to suffer even more. Furthermore, rich “nonprofit” institutions that hold 60 percent of the land in Providence, like Brown University, pay no taxes on this high-rent land. Remember where local funding comes from for schools? Property taxes!
If the Providence Teachers Union (PTU) is to be criticized, it should be for the so-called collaborating they have engaged in with the City over the past years, accepting “reforms” that only serve to weaken the union and the education system as a whole. In fact, union officials and some teachers were thrown off by the recent attacks because they thought that such collaboration would protect them. In reality it did the opposite.
This has led to a situation where workers are judging their victories by the wrong benchmark, and they are stuck in a reactive mode. At an energetic rally at Providence’s City Hall on March 2nd—of which I attended—about a thousand or so people gathered in support of the teachers. They crowd was comprised of teachers, students, parents, and workers and unions from other sectors. It was a great show of solidarity. However, the City Council members, union officials, and teachers who spoke all accepted the framework that teachers might have to accept some cuts due to the budget crisis, and argued if so, it should be done through negotiations not giving everyone a pink slip. And if teachers did have to be let go, they should be laid off not fired. The difference being that a laid off teacher would keep their seniority and would have to be rehired according to their seniority once a position opened up. A fired teacher would simply be a fired employee just like any other. Of course, this would be much better than the situation they are facing now. But there is no reason to accept any cuts
Changing the status of teachers from “fired” to “laid off” would be relatively better, but it is still a defeat. Closing ANY school is a defeat. Accepting pay cuts, or pay freezes, while maintaining jobs is a defeat. It is a defeat for teachers, students, and every working person in Rhode Island. For example, in a previous attack on teachers in Central Falls, RI, much of the fightback was only around reinstating the teachers; therefore when the teachers did get rehired, they had to accept all of the terms that were originally demanded of them by Central Falls Superintendent Fran Gallo.
So what should the response be?
They need to take inspiration from our sisters and brothers in Wisconsin. Teachers, students, parents, private sector and public sector workers need to demand that the attack on working people ends immediately, and they are going to have to be in the streets more. They need to make clear to Superintendent Brady, Mayor Taveras, and Governor Chafee that the rich need to pay for this crisis not workers and the poor. They need to make clear that the livelihoods of students are not something to play around with.
To their credit, all the speakers at the rally did a good job articulating the latter. They also expressed clearly that the latest attack on them was an attempt to weaken the union, and they were not going to let that happen.
Though, again, the teachers–and the parents, students, other workers, and other allies—need to challenge the framework that is controlling the conversation. So here are a few suggestions for the teachers and their union:
- The PTU needs to call the City’s bluff, and reject the notion that cutting working class jobs is needed to address the gap in the budget.
- They should demand the immediate rescinding of the pink slips.
- Not only should they be against the firing, they need to opposeall layoffs and all school closings.
- They should call for the cutting of top-level administrator salaries (which some of them have already done).
- The PTU needs to recognize the scope of the situation and the ripple effect it could have for the rest of the country (as the Wisconsin workers know), and should begin to build a movement against all austerity measures in Providence and in Rhode Island.
- They should call on Governor Chafee to repeal the Carcieri era tax breaks for the rich. The State should increase the taxes on the wealthiest 1%. New State revenues should then be used to assist the budgets of the Cities in crisis.
- The PTU, and all anti-austerity forces, should call on Mayor Taveras solicit larger payments from nonprofit institutions like Brown University. They occupy some of the highest valued property in Providence and do not pay their fair share.
- The PTU should not count out putting the threat of a strike on the table: “If one teacher gets laid off, we all stop working”
- Building off the last point, the people of Providence and Rhode Island need to begin to call for a federal bailout of the States. There is only so much States can do without receiving stimulus money from the federal government.
These are just a few suggestions, but if the teachers are going to beat back this attack they need to take a stronger stance than they are now. They also need to start addressing the larger political situation, or they’ll always be reacting to attacks instead of being proactive with solutions. Also, the rank-and-file of the teachers union need to be the driving force of these demands. They are the ones most affected. They cannot rely on those who are not to do their bidding.
. . .
The bottom line is that the mass firing of the Providence Public School teachers represents the escalation of attacks on the working class throughout the entire United States. They are particularly going after the most organized sector of workers–public sector unions. And speaking of lines, a line needs to be drawn in the sand. It is time that working people finally face up to the fact that those in power and those who occupy the highest strata of the economic hierarchy do not have the same interests as them. I know that on some level every worker knows this. But the time has come to bring this fact to the forefront. Workers need to stop giving concessions while the rich continue to receive handouts and profit from our hard work.
And maybe, just maybe, we can realize that if we truly want to solve the economic crisis facing Providence, facing Rhode Island, facing the United States, and facing the entire globe, we need to rethink the basic structures and values of our economic system. Why should be accept economic dictatorship every time we step into our workplace? (That’s literally what it is. Do you get a vote in anything that happens at work?) Why should we risk the future of our children by allowing the economic security of our communities to be threatened by economic crises caused by the rich?Why should we face environmental catastrophe because it is profitable for corporations to pollute? We can do better.
It is time to imagine an economy where workers control the work that they actually do. An economy where people truly receive fair incomes and have dignified work, replacing vast inequality and degradation. An economy where decisions about what is to be produced and consumed are made through a democratic and participatory planning process—not left up to a cruel and amorphous market. An economy that treats women, queer and transgendered people, people of color, immigrants, the disabled, all other groups who suffer from oppression in our current system, as equals. An economy that cherishes the earth not destroys it. We need a truly democratic and participatory economy. So, let’s fight and win our current battles. But let’s also set our sights high, and fight for a better and saner future.
John Cronan Jr. is a native of Providence, RI, now living in New York City. He is a long-time restaurant worker, and a volunteer organizer for the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York (ROC-NY). He is also a founding member of the Organization for a Free Society (OFS). John can be reached at [email protected]