Unions and the reopening of schools

16 August, 2020 · News> North America> USA

The reopening of schools in the USA is proving to be disastrous in terms of contagion and spread of the pandemic. In response, thousands of teachers are leaving their jobs and refusing to go to school. School bus drivers, janitors and cleaning staff are following them in an attempt to protect their own health and that of their families. In school districts like J.O. Combs, Arizona, plans to reopen were delayed after 109 school workers announced that they would be absent on the first day of school. Elsewhere, a flood of retirement requests is taking place.

Shortly after Trump announced that schools could reopen at the height of the pandemic, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) published a Plan to safely reopen America’s schools and communities. The document recommended implementing measures of social distancing… until the speed of the increase in new cases slowed down for at least two weeks. In other words, its goal is not to reopen when it is no longer dangerous, but to reopen as soon as possible in the hope that the danger will become more manageable“. They explicitly admit this:

Although predictions vary, we are likely to be at least a year away from a widely available vaccine. Compliance with physical distancing protocols has flattened the curve, showing the first signs of a reduction in the number of new cases. Flattening the curve is no panacea; it does not mean that there will not be additional cases. Its aim is to reduce the number of new cases, to reduce the number of infections to ensure that the healthcare system is not overwhelmed by critically ill patients.

The plan focuses on the operationalization of school buildings in particular, because…

…the safe reopening of public school buildings means that students can go to school, and parents, who work outside the home, can go to work. That’s the key to reopening the economy in general.

In other words, the goal of the union’s school reopening plan is the same as Trump’s: schools must reopen now so that everyone can get back to work as soon as possible. To put it bluntly: it is about forcing workers to risk their lives and those of their loved ones in order to make national capital profitable again as soon as possible.

What is the difference? The unions want to make the plan more participatory so as to involve workers, trade unions, parents and communities in it. The idea is that the discussion about how to reopen – with more or less measures, with more or less diagnostic tests – should conceal and push into the background the main discussion: what price in lives will this reopening cost?

Trump announces his plan to reopen schools.

For the unions, linked to the Democratic Party, the main problem with the Trumpist plan has nothing to do with the fact that it puts our lives in danger. Not at all. The whole problem would be that it’s not well planned and it’s not a real plan. They point out that there’s a danger that the workers might distrust it and refuse to carry it out. In other words, it may cause too much social instability, as it is beginning to happen in regions like Florida where the epidemic keeps spreading. Therefore, the aim of the unions is to embellish the reopening plan with complementary measures to restore confidence… and maintain the final goal of reopening the schools no matter what.

Effective communication depends on a high degree of trust. Without the trust of workers and community stakeholders, the implementation of reopening plans will be challenged… We must remember that our communities are anxious to regain a sense of normalcy, as they are feeling the pain of losing loved ones, economic insecurity due to loss of jobs and income, and prolonged isolation.

That is, for workers to put their lives and those of their families at risk, some by going back to school, others by sending their children, they must be treated with compassion: first they will tell us that they understand our situation… then they will send the children to school and make us all go back to work!

Pediatricians, “experts” and Democrat head honchos

Randi Weingarten president of the AFT

After the release of this document, the AFT joined the American Academy of Pediatrics (APP) in a joint effort to convince us of how safe it can be to reopen in the midst of the pandemic. On June 26, the APP released a Reentry Guide to School, which openly stated that all considerations should be based on the goal of having students present in school.

Throughout the document, the authors carry out an analysis of costs and benefits, arguing that there are cases in which the educational benefit of a risky activity exceeds the cost of the infection risks associated with it. Based on the analysis, they classify each possible way of reducing the risk of infection as a high or low priority.

For example, for the APP, the benefits of reducing the risk of infection, a risk that can be reduced by reducing the number of children in primary school classrooms, are less than its costs, i.e. the difficulty of doing so. For this reason, reducing the number of children in each classroom is placed in the category of low priority, while keeping the desks at a distance of one meter, on the contrary, would be of high priority. Similarly, reducing interaction between students is also classified as a strategy of low priority“.

On July 10, the AFT published a joint statement with the APP stating without hesitation that:

Our organizations are committed to doing everything possible so that all students have the opportunity to safely resume face-to-face learning.

In addition to working with the APP in telling us that everything will be fine if we have a good plan, the AFT organized a Virtual Roundtable for the Reopening of Schools with Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts Democratic Senator, former primary candidate, and Dr. Jill Biden, Joe Biden’s wife. In it, participants unabashedly stated that teachers don’t want to wait for the vaccine to reopen schools because they know that school attendance is vitally important to our children. They touted reopening as a social justice measure because disadvantaged communities, such as black and brown communities, suffered from school closures. And to top it off, it tells teachers concerned about their safety and that of their families that they should do something about their concern and frustration. What? Vote for Joe Biden. Surprise!

In short, unions, Democrats and Trumpists all share the same goal: open up at all costs. The only difference is that trade unions and Democrats use the rhetoric of social justice and safe reopening. And they all agree on something even worse: they minimize the importance of the most basic measures for preventing contagion in order to reduce monetary costs and administrative difficulties.

The safety strikes

West Virginia, USA. 2018 teachers’ strike.

Both sides’ rhetoric, though overwhelming in its deployment, fails to break down the school workers’ resistance. It’s not just resignations. Many claim to have sick relatives – a common occurrence – or to be among the population at risk in order to be exempted from giving on-site classes. Others organize sick-outs with other teachers, claiming to be sick in order not to go to work. The tension grows by the day and the possibility of collective struggles outside trade union control increases. The generalization of this type of response is causing the attitude of the unions to shift. The AFT raised the possibility of conducting safety strikes” to delay reopening and demand improved safety measures. On July 28, Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, stated that:

if the authorities do not protect the safety and health of those we represent and serve… there is no strategy that cannot be considered. …nor protests, negotiations, litigation…nor even, if necessary and authorized by a local union, as a last resort, the use of safety strikes.

So now the AFT officially recognizes the legitimacy of certain strikes , safety strikes that the union would authorize -and therefore legalize- as a last resort after studying them on a case-by-case basis . In other words, they could allow spontaneous strikes where the number of cases would grow to unbearable levels. The aim would be to prevent a mass exodus by forcing workers to work in schools where the number of cases would be more manageable.

And meanwhile, the reality is that in not a few counties, teachers who cannot teach on site because they have tested positive in Covid or because they have family members suffering from the disease, are being threatened by the trade unions. The fact that the unions are more than willing to risk lives by reopening schools, even if classes can be delivered over the Internet, shows what the priorities of capital are.

After a sustained policy of cutbacks in the education system implemented by both Democrats and Republicans, which has reduced school funding by 20% in less than ten years, it is ridiculous for them to argue that the rush to reopen is because of their commitment to a higher quality education. It’s not about quality. The aim is to free parents up for work, reduce unemployment costs and re-increase demand for labor so that wages drop and investments can quickly pay back.

The desire of school workers to protect their health and that of their families is a universal human need. The trade unions’ arguments however come back again and again to the fact that reopening schools is the key to reopening the economy in general. Their priority is to save the profitability of investments rather than to ensure the protection of workers’ lives.

The fight against the reopening of schools is a struggle between two social classes that uphold two antagonistic principles. Under the struggle and resistance of the workers it is not difficult to see the perspective of a world organized to meet universal human needs. Under the demands of capital, defended by trade unions, democrats and republicans, is the logic of the world as it is organized today, a dictatorship which naturalizes and justifies the sacrifice of everything, even life, to maintain the profits of capital.

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