Teachers need workers control for schools to open safely

By John Studer
August 10, 2020

A debate is raging among the capitalist candidates over whether schools should be opened this fall or students consigned to desocializing “learning-at-home.”

But the real question isn’t whether they should be open. It’s how they can be opened to be safe for workers and students alike. The answer is for teachers and other school workers to use their unions to take control of how the schools are opened and run, to ensure they are safe to work and study in.

Teachers have recent experience fighting local governments and administrators to improve wages and conditions. Beginning in February 2018 one of the most significant strikes in decades broke out in West Virginia, in the heart of coal country. Some 35,000 teachers, janitors, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other public school workers walked off the job, and closed down every school in the state. They demanded reversal of decades of government decisions to slash funds for schools and workers alike.

By relying on themselves, their power in numbers, and putting their stamp on their unions, they made progress. Most importantly, many said they saw what they were capable of when they organized and relied on themselves. Their fight took on elements of a broad social movement, fighting for the interests of the entire working class.

As word spread across the country, teachers in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and elsewhere set out to follow their example. “Don’t make us go West Virginia on you!” became their battle cry.

These battles are something school workers can build on today.

As the strikers showed, nothing is gained by appeals to the government, whether run by Democrats or Republicans, to do the right thing. It will take a powerful working-class fight to open and run schools that are safe and well provisioned, and where school workers are assured their jobs and pay.

Workers control of school conditions

The National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers, as well as other unions of school workers, need to join together in mobilizing — along with parents, students and other working people — to fight for workers control over conditions in the schools and how they are run. It is only the workers who truly know what they confront — from the danger of coronavirus inside the schools to the blight of not enough staff, lack of needed supplies, nurses and librarians, and other necessities to do their work.

This is more true in the schools than in the mines, mills and factories, where the same challenge exists. At least in these workplaces the bosses care about production, as workers’ labor power is the sole source of the profits they crave. Schools don’t make anything the bosses and their governments can profit off of. They lose nothing if the schools are closed down, no matter how many crocodile tears they shed for the “poor little schoolchildren.”

How can the buildings be reorganized so there is sufficient space between students, the heating and cooling systems rebuilt, and all the other changes needed to assure safety? How many more workers are needed to have a workable student-teacher ratio and to guarantee that every school has nurses, librarians and other essential workers? How can work be reorganized in cafeterias, school buses, sporting events and more?

Schools can be opened safely if workers take control over the conditions there. Much of this will require more facilities and a crash construction program to build them. It’s a question of social priorities.

Taking these steps will help thousands of workers thrown out of work by the capitalist economic crisis, exacerbated by the government shutdowns of production, trade and retail justified by the coronavirus epidemic. A government-funded program to rebuild the schools, and to build more of them to allow for greater spacing and more programs, can create sorely needed jobs at union pay and help unify the working class.

This will take a serious fight, because it runs against the grain of the way the dog-eat-dog capitalist rulers organize society based on only one thing — profit. The rulers don’t care about “education,” for them schooling is class-divided. For the “educated,” the goal is to convince them you’re part of the system, different than the “deplorable” working people.

Education under capitalist rule

It just isn’t true that the capitalist rulers need workers to be educated. They need for us to be obedient, not to be educated. More than anything else, they want to discourage us from having any ideas about ever playing a role in making history.

Allowing workers to make a living and to do so in a safe environment is a working-class fight. This is the only road forward. As the 2018 teachers strikes showed, school workers and their unions can organize and fight to accomplish this. We can’t start by asking the bosses and the government to do this. They won’t. Just look at their record of cuts to school funding.

This fight has to be linked to making a sharp break with the two parties of capitalist rule, the Democrats and Republicans, and organizing an independent working-class political party, a labor party, to mobilize millions to fight for what working people need.

The transformation of learning requires a powerful working-class battle that can only be won by a fundamental change in society.

We need to fight to take political power out of the hands of the capitalist class and its hangers on, and put in power a government of workers and farmers.