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Ocasio-Cortez and the LA teachers strike are doing the impossible – bringing socialism back to America

With organised labour’s declining power has come skyrocketing inequality and stagnant wages. But those conditions have also produced a renewal in class politics, in a country long thought immune to them

Micah Uetricht
Wednesday 23 January 2019 11:39
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Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says she believes a system that allows people to become billionaires is 'immoral'

Los Angeles teachers union president Alex Caputo-Pearl told a roaring crowd of 60,000 striking teachers last Friday to imagine they were a boxer whose blows had just dazed their “opponent”: the city’s school district leadership. “Do you know what you do when your opponent is stunned? You double down and keep on punching them more, and you try to end it right there.”

This is unusually strident rhetoric from teachers. But American educators are restless these days. They’re in the mood to fight.

Members of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) ratified a contract agreement on Monday, ending the union’s weeklong strike – the latest in a wave of teachers strikes throughout the United States, in the country’s second-largest school district. It won’t be the last teachers strike in the near future.

The Los Angeles strike was characterised by its broad social justice demands. Rather than simply fighting for higher compensation (although they did win a 6 percent pay rise), Los Angeles teachers struck for “the schools LA students deserve”.

Often picketing in the pouring rain, they demanded better learning conditions for students (caps on massive class sizes, more librarians, full-time nurses for all schools) and fought an ascendant model of billionaire-backed privatisation of education through the expansion of charter schools, which are nonunion, avoid traditional schools’ rules, and provide new opportunities to introduce profit-making into schooling.

They did all this against the wishes of leaders of the Democratic Party, long seen as labour’s best political allies, in one of the country’s most Democratic states. One poll found overwhelming public support for the strike. And by nearly all accounts, LA teachers have won.

It was the latest show of teacher militancy sweeping the country. Chicago teachers walked off the job first in 2012. But in 2018, the strikes exploded, reaching West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, North Carolina, Kentucky, Louisiana, charter schools in Chicago, and elsewhere.

And they’re still spreading: Oakland teachers have struck in illegal wildcat strikes twice in the last month and are on the verge of a citywide strike. Virginia teachers appear close to going out. Denver teachers announced yesterday they will too strike.

These actions are remarkable for many reasons, not least because they come at a time when the American worker has been beaten and bruised.

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Only 6.4 per cent of private sector workers are unionised. Public sector union rates are higher, 33.4 per cent, but the Supreme Court ruling in Janus v. AFSCME last year will soon deal public sector unions a severe blow. With organised labour’s declining power has come skyrocketing inequality and stagnant wages.

Such conditions have brought misery to the wealthiest country in the world: poverty, drug addiction, despair. For teachers, they have also meant crumbling schools, crushing work conditions, and low pay.

But those conditions have also produced a renewal in class politics, in a country long thought immune to them.

In his 2016 presidential campaign, Senator Bernie Sanders decried inequality and the “rigged” system of US politics, and argued for social democratic goods like free public healthcare. The majority of Americans supported the idea. He spoke of a conflict between the worker’s hand and millionaire and billionaire bosses on the other. His message resonated.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 29-year-old democratic socialist from New York City, whose shocking House of Representatives victory last year and sharp social media presence quickly made her a star, is winning support for left-wing ideas like a 70 per cent marginal tax rate for annual income over $10 million – almost as fast as she can articulate them.

Beyond elections, the country has seen an explosion in groups like the Democratic Socialists of America (of which I am a member), which exploded in membership since Trump’s election from around 6,000 to 58,000. Members have become key organisers in working class struggles throughout the country – including in teachers’ strikes like West Virginia’s.

Americans haven’t gone in search of class struggle politics in recent years. But with conditions worsening for workers, class struggle politics have found them. Workers like Los Angeles’s teachers increasingly feel like their pay and conditions are so intolerable that they have nothing left to lose by striking.

Don’t be surprised, then, when more educators and other workers decide to walk off the job in the months and years to come. Without drastic changes in the US economy soon, US workers will have a lot of fighting to get out of their system.

Micah Uetricht is the managing editor of Jacobin and author of ‘Strike for America: Chicago Teachers Against Austerity’

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