Class warfare

UFT High Schools VP Leo Casey (right) joins other UFTers at the Sept. 10 Labor D Miller Photography

UFT High Schools VP Leo Casey (right) joins other UFTers at the Sept. 10 Labor Day Parade. See this story for more parade coverage.

Forbes Magazine’s 10 Wealthiest Americans

  1. Bill Gates
  2. Warren Buffet
  3. Larry Ellison
  4. Christy Walton and family
  5. Charles Koch
  6. David Koch
  7. Jim Walton
  8. Alice Walton
  9. Robson Walton
  10. Michael Bloomberg

“Class Warfare.” That’s the title Steven Brill gave to his recent book on the state of American education.

With such a title, one might think that Brill’s book would investigate how the deep class divisions between America’s wealthy class and our poor and working class — a gap that has grown immensely over the last four decades — has harmed our schools and our students. After all, educational research has shown that the greatest challenge our schools face is the grinding effect of poverty on so many of the students we teach.

But Brill’s book embraces without question or qualification the diagnosis of the wealthy Wall Street hedge-fund managers who have driven much of the dominant “education reform” agenda: in their view, the educational failures of schools and students are the fault of public school teachers and teacher unions. This Wall Street scapegoating of teachers and unions is a profoundly self-serving narrative: for if it is poverty that, above all other factors, has the greatest negative impact on educational achievement, then we would be required to ask why, in the words of New York Times reporter Michael Winerip, “people like [the Wall Street hedge fund managers] are allowed to make so much when others have so little.” Winerip posed this question to Brill, who replied that he had not seen the “class warfare” in American education “as the rich versus the union guys, although now that you say it, I can see how you could draw that line.”

In fact, nine of the top 10 richest men and women on the Forbes Magazine list of the wealthiest Americans [see box below] figure prominently in open “class warfare” against teachers and unions.

The wealthiest American is Bill Gates, who in recent months has attacked teacher tenure, teacher pay schedules, seniority layoffs and smaller class sizes. The Gates Foundation provided significant resources to promote the anti-teacher, anti-union propaganda movie “Waiting for Superman.” (Gates appeared in the film as an “educational expert.”) Since the second-wealthiest American, Warren Buffet, does his philanthropy through the Gates Foundation, he is effectively aligned with Gates’ educational agenda.

Four of the 10 wealthiest Americans are from the Walton family, the owners of Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart is the leading violator of child labor laws in the United States and the most obstinately anti-union of American corporations. The Walton Family Foundation has involved itself in education with the goal of eviscerating teacher unions. Walton has supported campaigns to institute vouchers, promoted “Waiting for Superman” and provided financial support to anti-union forces within the charter school movement, as well as such anti-teacher organizations as New York’s “Education Reform Now” and Michelle Rhee’s Orwellian-sounding “StudentsFirst.”

Two of the 10 wealthiest Americans are the Koch brothers, Charles and David, who came to public attention first as the main financiers of the far right Tea Party movement, and then as the bankrollers of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his efforts to destroy his state’s public-sector unions — especially its teachers unions.

Forbes’ 10th wealthiest American is New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg who has campaigned over the last year for an end to seniority layoffs, a radical diminishment of teacher pensions and health care, and the transformation of teaching into de facto at-will employment, in which teachers can be fired for any reason.

Only one of Forbes’ 10 wealthiest Americans, Larry Ellison, is not engaged in active political warfare against public school teachers and their unions.

Teachers and teachers unions have not sought out this class warfare. To the contrary, the American Federation of Teachers made an effort to establish a dialogue with Bill Gates, inviting Gates to address our last national convention in Seattle. This overture had its critics, but it would be a serious mistake for unions to talk only to those who agreed with us. By the same token, we need to be honest about the results of our efforts at dialogue: Gates has become outspoken in his anti-teacher pronouncements. There’s not much left to discuss when he assumes such a posture.

In an unguarded moment, Warren Buffet bluntly communicated the reality that we now face. “There’s class warfare, all right,” Buffett said, “but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”

The realization that the class of the wealthy and powerful is waging war against teachers and their unions is a daunting one. We know that we will never be able to come close to matching their resources, dollar for dollar. But we are far from defenseless. In the words of the old union anthem “Solidarity Forever,” we possess “a power greater than their hoarded gold” in a resource they can never own: the ranks of teachers, unionists, families of public school students, working people and advocates of a rich and robust public square in American life.

What we face now has been faced by generations before us — in the labor movement, the civil rights and abolitionist movements, the feminist movement and the movement to establish public education. Those who came before us overcame the powerful forces allied against them because they had moral right on their side and appealed to what is best in America. They made the road, the freedom road that we now march down in their footsteps.

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