US and World Politics

Like West Virginia, California Teachers Need Statewide Strike Action

By Bob Mandel

“Our working conditions are your kids learning conditions.” The Red State strikes demanding massive funding increases are trying to make public school learning viable again. Outdated books, jam packed classrooms, lead-lined water pipes and grinding poverty are the daily reality of classroom life across the U.S. Lurking in the background is fear of police violence against minority youth and the school-to-prison pipeline of mass incarceration. America today seeks to repress far more than to educate. California, the fifth largest economy in the world, the motor of the U.S. economy, is number-one in spending on jails, 41st on educating its youth.

Just three years ago Oakland teachers waged a prolonged, victorious battle with the support of Pulitzer Prize winning author Alice Walker against the police trying to dictate school curriculum. Had the police been successful, it would have posed a huge threat nationally to young people’s right to study uncensored. A School District website that included a lesson comparing Mumia Abu-Jamal’s writings with those of Martin Luther King had been taken down under pressure from the Fraternal Order of Police. Oakland had been in the FOP’s sights ever since the teachers union-organized 1999 Teach-in on Mumia and the Death Penalty, which was so controversial that it broke a decades’ long media blackout on Abu-Jamal’s case.

This case embodies the issues for which NFL players have taken the knee and NBA players are protesting racism and police murder in Sacramento. In jail 37 years for a crime he didn’t commit (another man confessed,) framed because of his relentless radio reporting exposing police brutality, former Black Panther Abu-Jamal was in court April 30th trying to win his freedom. A new court date has been set for August 30, 2018. A recent Supreme Court ruling, Williams vs. Pennsylvania, opens that possibility. The Court decided that a prosecutor who was involved in a case cannot later sit in review of the case as a judge. That is what happened in Abu-Jamal’s case and involving exactly the same Pennsylvania prosecutor-turned-judge, Ronald Castille. Demonstrations demanding Mumia’s freedom were held around the globe April 28th.

The struggles against police brutality and for full public education funding are intertwined and critical for the future of the young people of this country. In Mumia’s case it has long been clear that justice can only be won in the racist corporate-controlled courts through massive protest on the outside including labor action. The 1999 Oakland Teach-In followed by the Longshore (ILWU) Union’s coastwide shutdown demanding his freedom helped overturn his death sentence.

Similarly, it should be clear that the teachers’ fight for sufficient funding can only really be won by taking on both major corporate-controlled political parties. Democrats and Republicans alike have slashed and burned public education over the past three decades—Obama and Company just as deeply as any Republican President.

It speaks volumes that Blue State California builds jails not schools, while Oakland, already having among the highest proportion of charter schools nationally, is aggressively expanding them while attacking the teachers in contract negotiations.

Like West Virginia, we need statewide strike action for full education funding. If such strike action also demanded the jailing of killer cops, California teachers would lead in addressing the needs of the country’s youth. West Virginia has shown that California teachers can win by organizing from the bottom up, making their unions follow.

Bob Mandel teaches ESL in the Richmond Adult School. He is a union organizer and former member of the Oakland Education Association Executive Board.