Why the NEA should not support Obama
In a huge step forward for the labor movement, the International Association of Fire Fighters announced in April that it would suspend contributions to federal Democratic candidates out of frustration with the party’s lackluster fight against budget cuts and antiunion legislation.
When you look at budget fights from California to Oregon, from Illinois to New York, from Massachusetts to Washington D.C., it should be apparent that not only are Democrats refusing to fight, but they are taking an active role in pushing austerity. Unfortunately, it seems unlikely the rest of the labor movement will follow the firefighters example.
I am a high school social studies teacher and a member of the National Education Association (NEA), the largest union in the United States. In 2008, the NEA spent more money and had more of our members working on the Obama presidential campaign than any other union. So it should be no surprise that on May 5, the NEA Political Action Committee voted to recommend endorsing Obama for reelection in 2012. The membership will be voting on this recommendation at the NEA Representative Assembly meeting in July.
In announcing the recommendation, NEA President Dennis van Roekel asked:
Will we allow Congress to gut Medicare, slash education and cut Social Security, and continue to make it just fine for hedge fund managers and corporations to sidestep paying taxes?…It is time to stand strong for what we believe in and what is right for students and families, schools and the nation. President Barack Obama has proven he deserves a second term.”
Did I miss something? How does defending Medicare, education and Social Security and wanting corporations and hedge funds to pay taxes lead to a vote for Barack Obama?
Obama just helped to pass the biggest single-year budget cut in history–$38.5 billion–much of which came from education, labor and health care programs. These cuts will devastate low-income communities across the country. They include cutting $390 million from a program that provides heating assistance for low-income people and $600 million from community health clinics. Another cut ends Pell grants, which provide financial aid for college students, during summer school. Another eliminates $3 billion in bonuses to states that have increased the enrollment of uninsured children in Medicaid.
Obama has also proposed a plan to reduce the deficit by $4 trillion over the next 12 years, largely through more cuts to essential services. As Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, this plan includes $360 million in cuts to Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. How exactly is supporting a President who is championing cuts to Medicare and Social Security preventing those programs from being gutted? And how is endorsing a President who proposes draconian cuts to programs that help the most vulnerable standing strong for students, families and schools?
What about taxing corporations and hedge funds? While it’s true that in a recent speech Obama promised to end the tax loopholes for corporations, at the same time, he proposed to lower the already absurdly low corporate tax rate from 35 percent to less than 30 percent and possibly as low as 26 percent. These proposals come at a time when U.S. corporations are making record profits. Furthermore, why should we believe that Obama would actually close the loopholes when he has a long track record of breaking promises that would benefit ordinary people and not billionaires?
Additionally, there is no evidence to indicate the Obama administration has any desire to curb the extravagant profits of hedge funds. Along with the NEA, hedge-fund managers were huge donors to Obama’s campaign in 2008. In fact, Wall Street donated $10 to Obama for every $7 they gave to McCain. And while the hedge fund titans may be giving more to the GOP in 2012, you can bet they’ll also have plenty of cash left over for the “world’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party.”
Unlike the NEA, Wall Street actually gets something for the money they spend on elections. The bailouts and the array of programs Barack Obama and his economic advisers continued or concocted as the first priority of their administration amounted to the largest transfer of wealth in U.S. history from taxpayers to Wall Street. Back when the Democrats had complete control of Congress (since it seems like we’re trying to forget that they still control the Senate), they passed a financial “reform” bill that does nothing to prevent banks from making the same risky decisions that led to the financial meltdown and subsequent bailout.
What should be apparent is that if we want to prevent politicians from gutting Medicare, slashing education and cutting Social Security, if we want them to change the regressive corporate and income tax structure and bail out Main Street rather than Wall Street, we will need a much better strategy than simply reelecting Obama and a Democratic Congress in 2012.
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IN ADDITION to these backwards priorities, Obama has presided over some of the harshest attacks on public education in decades. As education scholar Diane Ravitch has pointed out, when it comes to education, Obama’s presidency has been like Bush’s third term.
In fact, Obama’s Race to the Top program, which asks states to compete for a limited pool of cash, is a neoliberal privatization scheme Bush probably wishes he had come up with. It dangles money in front of cash-starved state governments and only lets go if they end restrictions on charter schools (almost all of which are non-union) and tie teachers’ pay to students’ standardized test scores.
Arne Duncan, Obama’s pick for Secretary of Education, made a name for himself in Chicago by pushing the corporate agenda and privatizing schools at a rate of about 20 per year. As Secretary of Education, he has touted the wholesale privatization of public schools and the breaking of the teachers’ union after Hurricane Katrina as “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.” He applauded, along with Obama, the firing of every single teacher at Central Falls, a high poverty high school in Rhode Island. And he has backed the most power-hungry, teacher-hating administrators, like Robert Bobb, who has helped push the Detroit public school system to the brink of financial collapse and is now asking teachers and students to pay the price.
Duncan has partnered with the most influential pro-corporate foundations–the Gates and Broad Foundations in particular–in crafting his business plan for America’s schools. As Joanne Barkan reports:
Duncan’s first chief of staff, Margot Rogers, came from [The Gates Foundation]; her replacement as of June 2010, Joanne Weiss, came from a major Gates grantee, the New Schools Venture Fund; Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali has worked at Broad, LA Unified School District and the Gates-funded Education Trust; general counsel Charles P. Rose was a founding board member of another major Gates grantee, Advance Illinois; and Assistant Deputy Secretary for Innovation and Improvement James Shelton has worked at both Gates and the New Schools Venture Fund. Duncan himself served on the board of directors of Broad’s education division until February 2009 (as did former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers).
It is for all these reasons that when Duncan tried to show his “appreciation” for teachers in an open letter praising our hard work, many teachers were appalled at the gap between his words and his actions. Teacher after teacher after teacher after teacher after teacher after teacher wrote brilliant, sarcastic and condemning letters in response. As Ravitch acutely observed, “Teachers reacted to the letter with outrage, as if it were addressed to the turkey community on Thanksgiving Day.”
At the very least, the NEA should listen to the voices of teachers across the country and refuse to support Obama’s reelection campaign until Arne Duncan and his corporate cronies are fired.
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YET I think the most compelling reason not to support Obama is the enormous struggle that erupted in Wisconsin over Gov. Scott Walker’s attack on public-sector unions.
Sparked by a teacher sickout in the capital of Madison that spread to other schools across the state, unionists, students and non-unionized workers occupied the Capitol for nearly a month. Not by electing Democrats, but by marching, by occupying the Capitol, by refusing to go to work, by building solidarity, Wisconsinites were able to shift the national conversation away from blaming public-sector workers. In doing so, they received support from workers across the country and around the world.
But the uprising in Wisconsin didn’t just change the political climate, it changed people. As ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher Ann Marchant explained about her changing work environment in Stevens Point, Wis.: “The big difference I’ve seen is in the community of the school. We have been marching in front of the school together every day for four weeks. I feel like I live in a community now instead of a bubble.”
As many teachers and students, including myself, reported after visiting Madison during the uprising, you could learn more by participating in a few days of struggle at the capitol than years of schooling would teach you. New York City public school counselor Leia Petty described the atmosphere many of us observed in Madison: “The sense of pride and dignity has returned to many who have never felt it in their life: proud to be union, proud to be a worker, proud to be standing up and knowing you’re not in this fight alone.”
All of this was accomplished with only vague and tepid comments of support from the Obama administration. Obama never visited Wisconsin during the protests despite having promised on the campaign trail to walk the picket line with workers if collective bargaining rights were ever under attack.
What the relentless corporate assault during Obama’s presidency has made clear is that we are in a fight for the very survival of public schools. In the last 12 months, nearly 100,000 public education jobs have been eliminated. It’s time to stop throwing away our money, time, and energy for candidates who turn around and attack us once they’re in office. It’s time to build a new political strategy for the labor movement–to draw our line in the sand.
If NEA President Dennis Van Roekel’s statement of support for Obama reveals the inadequacy of labor’s past, Wisconsin shows us the way forward. Rather than spending millions of dollars in union dues trying to counterbalance the massive sums of money Obama will be receiving from Wall Street, we should be using that money to hire laid off teachers as organizers. Rather than encouraging NEA members to spend countless hours phone banking and canvassing for Obama, we should be convincing them to initiate and help organize Wisconsin-style protests around the country.
I’m sick of watching the sinking ship that is organized labor desperately try to rearrange the deck chairs…and I don’t think I’m alone.
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I will be speaking on From the Moral Majority to the Tea Party: Understanding the Right in the US at this year’s Socialism 2011 conference over 4th of July weekend in Chicago. The Socialism conference is an annual summer conference that brings together activists and radicals from all over the US. Check out the website and register for the conference at socialismconference.org. It is always the highlight of my summer.