As this issue goes to press, organizers with the Portland Association of Teachers, or PAT, are engaged in some very important union arithmetic. They are doing the nose counts that will tell them whether or not the rank and file is ready to strike.
Its a practice common to most unions. After all, calling and losing a strike vote pretty much means the game is up at the bargaining table. So union staff and leaders go around to work sites quantifying the resolve of members the steadfast are ranked as 1s while the strongly opposed receive a ranking of 4 (in some unions the latter are referred to as FOADs, shorthand for the members response: Fuck Off And Die).
For PAT, its essential they get the numbers right since theres never been a teachers strike in Portland before. Its uncharted territory for all concerned. The vast majority of strikes end in defeat for the women and men on the picket line. That makes it important that with all the unknown variables PAT members face that they dont play a traditional game here.
At present, the Portland School District seems to be rehashing the same offer at the table: a 24-day pay cut, a rollback on what the district pays on health insurance premiums (from just short of $800 per month now to $615 per month by the contracts third year), and increased administrator control of teacher transfers and job assignments. The District appears to be working hard at the bargaining table to make the teachers appear selfish when the entire education system is in crisis. They seem willing to risk public sentiment to turn against the teachers or an outsider arriving with pockets stuffed full of tax dollars for the District.
Thats a strategy that may seem ridiculous in light of the dismal leadership the District has exhibited over the past decade or more. But public support can evaporate overnight. As judgement day draws closer, PAT members could find themselves working without a net as they stick to their guns over economic demands from a District that is truly broke. Solidarity among bourgeois parents and teachers is not impervious to self-interest in the final analysis.
Which is why teachers or their union cant afford to play a traditional game here. The primary function of trade unions is to protect the working class from capitalisms predatory nature. A part of that is improving economic conditions for workers through better wages and other compensation. But the bigger picture is about building long-term power for workers (as well as class consciousness).
For teachers facing their first strike against a cash-strapped school district, that might mean a willingness to compromise on some of the economic issues in return for greater gains elsewhere. Such compromises should, of course, ensure that the lowest-paid workers take the smallest hits. But the current crisis could be an opportunity for teachers to redefine and democratize their work. The union could leverage the high standing they now enjoy within the community to bring the community and students into such a democratized environment to tackle curriculum development, resource allocation and other important issues. This could be the opportunity to truly re-think our schools.
Attacks on power issues will, of course, draw even stronger resistance from the District. That is why it is also important that teachers pursue this strategy, including a strike, in new ways, too.
Students are already calling for community meetings for the purpose of organizing free schools during the strike. Combining free schools with militant, coordinated student-teacher actions that bring down more pressure on the District and the School Board is essential. Also essential is militant action in alliance with community coalitions like Portland Jobs with Justice and progressive churches that are either allying themselves with Jobs with Justice or forming informal pro-worker coalitions of their own.
Lastly, the teachers must continue working with parents, pushing them to consider a broader analysis than provided by elected officials and the mainstream press. The relationships built through this struggle could carry PAT forward for years to come, making teachers, students and the community winners in what now seems a very bleak scenario.
Our phones were ringing off the hook the week prior to Feb. 15. Do you know whats happening in Portland on Feb. 15? Why isnt a big rally planned? How come you guys screwed up on an international day of action?
These were just a few of the calls we received even though we arent involved in organizing these events.
Unfortunately, our local peace movement found itself in a damned if you do, damned if you dont situation on that weekend. Having listened to calls for more outreach and something more substantive than another march through downtown Portland, organizers put together a number of events for the 15th intended to take the peace campaign into the community. An impressive list of vigils, teach-ins, workshops and other activities were planned.
Unfortunately, publicity for these events was not very good, leaving most people unaware anything was happening. It should also be noted that with the exception of the Womens International League for Peace and Freedom, events largely took place in the usual locations, raising questions about how far organizers were willing to go to increase participation beyond the usual suspects.
Im sure the organizers are feeling the strain by now something akin to an altered state of consciousness. That was the primary reason for not pulling off a march on an international day of action. People should be a little more understanding. Even better, they should be offering to help rather than sounding like cranky consumers.
The organizers should also try to make things easier on themselves by announcing at the next major march that people should gather the second Saturday of the month at a specific location unless war breaks out (in which case, the standing plan is gather at Terry Schrunk Plaza the same day if war breaks out before 3:00 p.m. and the following day if it happens after 3:00 p.m.). Dont worry about speakers, permits, stages and sound systems. Once 30,000 or more people gather, most the rest can be worked out on the scene or becomes unimportant anyway.
The Portland Alliance
2807 SE Stark Portland,OR 97214
Last Updated: April 14, 2003