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  April 13, 2018

Striking Teachers Targeted by Kochs

Women's March Organizer Tithi Bhattacharya discusses the teachers leading revolts across the nation are taking on their union leadership, and being targeted by a powerful network funded by the Koch and the DeVos money
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JAISAL NOOR: Welcome to the Real News. I'm Jaisal Noor with an update on the wave of teacher wildcat strikes that began in West Virginia and spread across the country in places like Arizona, Kentucky, and Oklahoma, where the teachers' union is calling for the end of a two-week walkout after the state's Republican-dominated legislature passed its first major tax hikes in decades, raising about 450 million dollars for education. But the teachers were demanding 600 million dollars. Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest.

ALICIA PRIEST: This fight is not over just because the school bell will ring once more. We have created a movement and there is no stopping us.

JAISAL NOOR: Priest says the union will continue to push for more fundin in Oklahoma, where teacher salaries are among the lowest in the country, averaging just 42000 dollars a year. Classes are expected to resume on Monday. In Arizona the Republican governor has agreed to a 20 percent pay raise for teachers by 2020, but educators are saying that's not enough. And in Kentucky, teachers are rallying at the Capitol today and tomorrow despite threats from the governor to protest a number of bills, including cuts to their pension which were just signed into law, and tax cuts for the wealthy, and inadequate funding for education. According to the nonpartisan Center for Budget Priorities, the tax cuts, backed by powerful interests like the Koch brothers, have shrunk state revenues, squeezing state general fund dollars, which means there's less money to fund education [inaudible] visited Kentucky and wrote the piece "Women are leading the wave of strikes in America. Here's why." Thank you so much for joining us. And can you just talk about your reaction to some of the latest news that's coming in from the states where we've seen, these red states where you've seen these unprecedented strikes demanding more pay, more funding for education, and to secure things like pensions as well as, you know, protesting the spread of privatized charter schools.

TITHI BHATTACHARYA: First of all, thank you, Jaisal, for having me here. It has been one of the greatest experiences of my life in the last few weeks to talk to these striking teachers from Oklahoma, Arizona, West Virginia, and Kentucky. I was in West Virginia. And I was just in Kentucky talking to teachers.

I guess I have three things to say, really, about this. One is that this is the first time in man,y many years that we are seeing a rank and file surge of activity of ordinary workers in this particular sector, despite the often cautious approach and sometimes actually negative approach of their union leaders. So in West Virginia the teachers defied their unions when they said oh, we've gotten enough, let's go back to work. The teachers said n,o we're here for our health benefit,s and we want to see that sorted. In Oklahoma a similar thing is happening. In Kentucky in particular this is, the teachers feel that the union just hasn't, that union officials, these are union teachers. They're all in the union and they've backed the union, but they feel that the union leadership has not done enough. So we're seeing the emergence hopefully of a new rank and file organizing, political organizing of rank and file workers that is increasingly beginning to reject the business unionism that has held sway in the labor movement in this country for a very long time.

The second I think is the sort of neoliberal consensus on cutting funding for all public services, teaching and health care being most prominent, and is being finally being challenged by ordinary people whose lives are most affected by these cuts. So that's a simultaneous development that is happening, so these movements are not just against the union officials, they're also against this entrenched neoliberal consensus of cuts to public services, and particularly public education. So they're definitely fighting on two very, very major fronts because in a lot of cases the neoliberal cuts to education and health is a bipartisan deal. You know, both Republicans and Democrats are involved in this. And for instance, in 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union went on this brilliant strike, and that was against the policies effected by their Democrat Mayor Rahm Emanuel. So I mean, it's a very, very bipartisan consensus to cut public funding. So that's the second thing.

And I think thirdly there is the immense pressure now from the corporate class. Having seen this kind of new upsurge developing, there is panic in the corporate class and a conscious effort to try and, and, and basically kill it at its very inception and nip it in the bud. I know many of you have seen the Guardian, recent Guardian article of this new, well, this new network that has come together which is called the State Policy Network, and it encompasses 66 right-wing think tanks who are basically creating a manual of how to talk about teachers strikes by sort of calling or basically showing that teachers as being greedy and not responsive or not caring enough about the welfare of their children in their classrooms, and this is how this is going to affect the poorest of families.

This is such a nefarious step forward because, I hope we get a chance to talk about this, how the entire time, and this is what I wrote in my Guardian article, as well, all of these strikes, which are 75 percent female teachers, these are not just teachers in the classrooms. Some of them are mothers, and their children are in these classrooms, too. But the primary focus of the teachers, as well as the parents who are supporting the strike, is we need to hold on for our students. The reason we're striking is because it is not so much our pensions. We care about, we do care about our pensions, but we care about the future of public education and we care about our students.

JAISAL NOOR: Does that show the real power of these teachers? Because they are, you know, they are putting the most powerful, most connected, you mentioned the Koch brothers backed them, but so does the DeVos family , from the Amway fortune. You know, the current Secretary of Education has spent millions of dollars funding these the same or similar policies around the country, and you know, I keep going back to the 60 Minutes interview where Leslie Stahl was able just to ask, you know, Betsy DeVos, like, look, these policies have been disasters where they've been implemented in your own state. And yet, you know, these same policies continue, as you mentioned, to be pushed, you know, across the country by Democrats and Republicans, this neoliberal consensus.

You know, I wanted to ask you, so now unions in many of these states now called off the strikes and said, look, we need to go to the ballot box, we need to go and vote out these, you know, these candidates, and voting our own candidates that actually support public education. What are your thoughts on that? Do you think that that is an effective strategy, or that grassroots pressure needs to be maintained through these protests?

TITHI BHATTACHARYA: A lot of these teachers are traditionally Republican voters in West Virginia, some of the most radical teachers I spoke with who were demanding that the gas companies be funded to fund public education, were saying the most beautiful things about why public education needs to be defended and needed to be funded, were Republican voters. So for them voting for Democrats is actually a very, very big step and they see that as a movement towards the left, towards progressive policies. Right. So this is very different from the experience of sort of blue states, and you know, large sections of the left who have a different assessment of the Democrats. But many teachers in the red state do not. And I think we need to be, we need to respect the process of politicization of this generation of class fighters at the moment. Right.

Having said that, I would also say that, as I said before, the neoliberal consensus is bipartisan, and one of the tragedies of the labor movement in this country is we do not have an independent labor party that can actually advocate for the needs of, the real needs, of the teachers, because all the union bureaucrats who are basically in state after state calling off militant action by the grassroots are all Democrat Party voters. And this is why, and they're, you know, they are Democratic party members. They raise funds for the organization, for the party. And they're very, very clearly sort of advocates for the party rather than being advocates for their own membership. So obviously the threat from real grassroots actions is a real threat to also the official union bureaucracy, because it means less of a hold on their members.

Now, you talked about Betsy DeVos. You know, there is a, the union bureaucracy may have realized this or may not. I can't speak for them. But there is a pattern here in all the concessions, so-called, that the governors have given to these strikes. And the pattern is to give in to some immediate demands of the teachers, but consciously block long-term funding for public education. So this is, you will see this in a pattern, this is what I want to write about, that this is a very clear strategy. Oh my gosh, you're striking. We just need to kind of put a safety valve on it and get some of that steam out. But we will continue on our path of defunding public education.

JAISAL NOOR: We're going to certainly keep following this story. Thank you so much for joining us.

TITHI BHATTACHARYA: Thanks for having me, Jaisal.

JAISAL NOOR: Thank you for watching the Real News Network.


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