The killing of Eric Garner and the failure of social justice unionism

Right-wing teachers show their support for the NYPD

Rather than providing a strategy for fighting racism, social justice unionism has led some union members to embrace the most racist institution in society for fear of alienating their co-workers.

The murder of Black people in the US by agents of the state has reached epidemic proportions. This epidemic has been an ongoing for hundreds of years, but white America and the mainstream media are finally sitting up and taking notice as Black people revolt against their brutal mistreatment.

In the latest incident, Eric Garner was suspected of selling loose, untaxed cigarettes on the streets of Staten Island when a group of New York police accosted him, tackled him to the ground and choked him to death. His crime was not selling cigarettes but being a Black man in New York City, even in its “forgotten borough.” The New York police do not become less racist just because they cross the Verrazano Bridge.

The widespread revolt against the killing of Michael Brown and now Eric Garner does not need to be recounted here. The crisis created by this rebellion is so severe that even mainstream sources like Time Magazine are defending rioting as a legitimate form of protest. There is another question, though, of what role workplace organizing can play in not only building solidarity with this struggle but deepening the social conflict with industrial action. We should not expect Time to take on this question, but we might hope the labor movement would.

Among the broad Left in the official US labor movement, there is a growing alternative strategy called social justice unionism. This strategy sees limitations in mainstream business unionism and seeks to broaden workplace struggles to take up social issues outside of the workplace, not only class issues like gentrification but also racism and the criminal justice system. The problem is, the failure of mainstream unionism to take on these issues is a result of their organizing strategy, which prioritizes alliances with management and the Democratic Party. Social justice unionism seeks to reproduce the same strategy, with little to say about the Democrats and concessionary bargaining but with a bit more rank-and-file involvement and a progressive political gloss. A recent incident among New York teachers around the Eric Garner case has shown precisely how limited this strategy is.

Shortly after Garner’s murder, Al Sharpton began organizing a march against the incident. It is a problem that all protest against police violence in New York has to go through Sharpton, who uses these actions to promote both his career and the Democratic Party. In return, Democratic Party officials promote him as he can assure them that the protests will not go out of the bounds of “responsible” action. In other words, he helps the Democrats put a lid on anything that might turn into a riot. It is a grotesque political operation that is built on the murder of Black men.

Sharpton showed himself to be no different in this case when he announced that a march in response to Garner’s death would not physically walk over the Verrazano Bridge but would take buses so as not to disrupt traffic. This was a result of pressure from Mayor Bill De Blasio, his new political patron. In spite of Sharpton’s role in helping the liberal establishment demobilize militant dissent, he is despised by racists throughout New York City as the official face of anti-racist politics.

Outside of Sharpton’s efforts, opposition to Garner’s killing was widespread and was even forthcoming from the official labor movement, in particular the United Federation of Teachers, the union representing New York City teachers. In response, an angry letter from the Police Benevolent Association (PBA), the NYPD police union, was sent to the reactionary New York Post attacking the teachers for taking a position on racist murders committed by PBA members.

That the UFT took this decision is surprising and even somewhat encouraging. What is discouraging, though, is the response from the Movement of Rank-and-file Educators (MORE), which bills itself as “the social justice caucus of the UFT.” That is, MORE is a group of teachers seeking to reform the union and win union office on the claims that the current UFT leadership is undemocratic and, presumably, uninterested in broader issues of social justice.

Unlike the UFT leadership, MORE refused to endorse the march, though this may have only been a procedural issue. More significantly, their statement on Garner made enormous concessions to the police. For example, they state that “MORE believes that due process is a right all workers should have,” a reference to the “due process” presumably deserved by the officer who killed Garner, who will get away with murder and continue harassing Black people just as the cops always do. We know this for a fact now, but it was obvious when the statement was written that this was the most likely outcome

Due process for the police is the first refuge of pro-police scoundrels. It is not the same as due process for other workers. It is a political call put out by the defenders of the cops who want to make sure that no quick decisions are made while tempers die down and nobody is held accountable. It is a defense of the right of the state to kill Black people and then investigate themselves as though there might be a neutral outcome. No radical who has ever been involved in organizing against police killing would ever call for due process for the police any more than they would support police unions–more on that below.

Not all unions

The statement notes that some members of MORE were not going to the protest “due to the concerns surrounding the sponsorship and organization of this march.” These concerns were not only over Sharpton’s self-promotional maneuvers but also that participating made them appear to be “anti-police”–as though there is anything wrong with that. “Rather than allowing these issues to divide us,” they write, “we encourage the leaderships of the UFT and PBA to find ways to work together and unite us.”

The PBA is one of the most reactionary institutions in New York City. After the grand jury announced that they would not indict the cop who killed Garner, the PBA held a press conference blaming Garner for resisting arrest and thus causing his own death. The PBA is the front-line defender of racist police killings and every politician in New York has to tip-toe around their vile outbursts if they want to get elected. If any politician criticizes the police, the PBA will issue a racist rant that will send them running for their career because they are afraid of appearing to be “anti-police.”

Sharpton needs De Blasio, who in turn needs the acceptance of the PBA, and this informal unholy alliance is partly to blame for the ongoing status quo in New York, a liberal city with deeply racist attitudes toward millions of its citizens. If union activists cannot develop a strategy to break this unholy alliance, or weaken it, or build an alternative to it, then they cannot achieve much at all. This is the real problem, not whether the leadership of their union gives paper support for social justice.

The UFT does not need unity with the PBA, rather it needs to wage an all out political battle with the people who harass and beat and jail their students and their own members. Unionists who are afraid of appearing to be “anti-police” and want to work with the PBA are not serious fighters for anything remotely like “social justice.” In the post-Occupy, post-Oscar Grant, post-Michael Brown era, this hardly needs patient explaining. There must be plenty of teachers who are prepared to act boldly and that would be the basis for a far more powerful alliance–if somewhat smaller–than any cobbled-together group who happen to like the “social justice” label.

If social justice unionism means tiptoeing around the reactionary pressures coming from within the caucus, then it means nothing at all. This is not a strategy to fight for social justice, but it might ultimately be a successful strategy to win the next union election, which is precisely the problem. Union members who slap the label of social justice on their organizing, then carry out the same old unionism in slightly newer, shinier bottles, come away surprised that their efforts end up in the same place as every reform effort before. They too are unwilling to challenge the backward ideas among their members as that would be an obstacle to winning the next election. The next election–not union reform, much less total societal transformation–then becomes the new goal, with every concession to this goal making their efforts less and less worthwhile.

We might ask whether it is possible to read too much into MORE’s statement, as the real question is why MORE has not taken bolder action against the killings of Garner and others. The answer lies in the statement itself. MORE is unwilling to challenge the reactionary views in their own caucus and will allow the right-wing to dictate the terms of the alliance. If the radicals in MORE are not willing to oppose calls for an alliance with the PBA, it should hardly be surprising that they are not prepared to take industrial action around these issues.

Not all teachers

At the same time as MORE floundered in the face of their own backward membership, pro-NYPD teachers faced no restrictions of their own. A group of New York City teachers publically advertised their support for the cops by wearing NYPD t-shirts to school. This was widely seen as a jab at UFT’s endorsement of the march against Garner’s killing, and the photo of what appears to be an all white group of teachers must have been terrifying to students throughout the city.

This incident briefly drew national attention and MORE was uniquely positioned to respond to it, not only with words but with actions. Their students certainly would have appreciated seeing adults close to them assert that they were opposed to the police beating up and killing them. Yet, MORE provided no visible response, seemingly eager to put the whole thing behind them.

When the reactionaries are prepared to run roughshod over the dignity of the students and the communities that they are supposed to serve, but “the social justice caucus” is muzzled by its own members, we can see why the labor movement is in such a deep crisis. Nobody is better positioned to take on the blowback in the UFT than the radicals in MORE–and yes there are many self-styled radicals in MORE, including in the leadership–and yet they are handcuffed by the limitations of their coalition.

This ought to have been the moment of triumph for MORE, in which they could have shown themselves to be the fiercest defenders of the oppressed against the New Jim Crow and laid out a path for how labor can lead the battle against it–if that is what they actually wanted. Instead, they have shown themselves incapable of taking on precisely the fight that many people would have thought to be exactly why they exist in the first place.

Deep racism has been exposed by the killing of Garner, from the vile comments of the PBA to the inexplicable support of the NYPD by racist teachers to the inability of the liberal mayor to deal with his own police department. Every institution of society is shown to be dripping with racism, but rather than helping to expose the rot, MORE seeks to cover for it so as not to risk its stature among their fellow teachers. The blind alley that this strategy leads down could not be more clear.

MORE has accepted a position that might keep the caucus together, but at what cost? Conceding to these pro-police views within their caucus and calling for cooperation with the PBA is accepting an evil–not a lesser evil but a greater evil–if the goal is to fight for social justice. No radical should accept this decision, nor do they need to be quiet about it any more than the pro-NYPD teachers felt the need to be quiet about their own awful opinions. Union activists are fooling themselves if they thinks that making concessions to these views will lead toward, rather than away from, the abolition of racist policing.

Comments

Steven.
Dec 8 2014 09:26

Good article, thanks for writing/posting.

That photo of the teachers, above is awful. How horrific to be a student in one of their classes and know that they would support a violent racist murdering you and getting away with it

Chilli Sauce
Dec 8 2014 12:51

Presumably, that pic is from the group of pro-police teachers? Lotta white faces in that crowd...

Makes me f*cking ashamed to work in education in any case.

OliverTwister
Dec 8 2014 15:10

Interesting report.

I don't think it's right to say that

Quote:
The murder of Black people in the US by agents of the state has reached epidemic proportions.

since you acknowledge in your next sentence that this has been an epidemic for hundreds of years. It has become more visible, perhaps, with the rise of cameraphones, and the complete approval of the "justice" system has become more blatantly apparent, but I think it would be hard to show statistically that the police are murdering significantly more Black men this year than they were last year.

A big part of why it's become publicly visible is because people rebelled in Ferguson, so let's remember to give them credit for that.

Anyways, who are the radicals in MORE who have allied with the right wing? ISO, or someone else? I agree that this is shameful, but I don't think that it completely invalidates "social movement unionism", especially in education. The Chicago Teachers' strike might be the most significant in the US since the '97 UPS strike.

It would also be good to see more discussion of what radical teachers could do, for example struggling around the militarization of schools. A teacher strike might not be able to get murdering cops indicted, but it could get cops off of school campuses.

Scott Jay
Dec 8 2014 18:35

The ISO is a prominent part of MORE, I believe Solidarity may be as well but honestly I am not sure. The high point of social justice unionism, and one of the high points of unionism in general in the US over the last decade, was the Chicago Teachers Strike. Since then, however, the leadership has collapsed into the Democratic Party and is attempting to become a part of the city's political machine. Sadly, social justice unionism has no answer for what to do once your leaders become superstars. Taking up broader issues is great, but if it is just in the service of building a better labor bureaucracy, it is not going to get terribly different results.

petey
Dec 8 2014 23:41

"The PBA is one of the most reactionary institutions in New York City."

the PBA leadership is one of the things in life that makes my blood boil.

Gregory A. Butler
Dec 9 2014 05:43

New York City's public school teaching workforce is disproportionately White, a tendency that's accelerated under mayors Giuliani, Bloomberg and De Blasio

Also, a LOT of New York City public school teachers are married to New York City police officers - I suspect most of the teachers in this pic are cops wives

fingers malone
Dec 9 2014 18:41

That's really interesting, I was talking to a co worker and she said that she felt the teaching profession here was becoming a lot more white and middle class recently. It's really bad because teachers can potentially be an important source of support for people in the face of things like police violence. Also means working class people and black people are being forced out of a job they find rewarding.

OliverTwister
Dec 9 2014 20:52

One factor might be the 6000 Teach for America teachers in NYC. I'd bet that hiring of new teachers has decreased since that program began, so there is probably a whole generation of new teachers missing.

I know in New Jersey some districts have laid off teachers and had TFA come in afterwards.

Marjorie Stamberg
Dec 10 2014 16:08

Scott Jay's thoughtful piece.

I'm in Class Struggle Education Workers, a Marxist tendency in the UFT and CUNY PSC, and we have been protesting MORE's terrible position, and talking about why a "social justice" caucus came to this impasse. And when the racist "NYPD t-shirt" photos came out, many in the MORE wanted to pull back from their position, but, as I told them, the racist T-shirts were just the logical extension of their position.

And now, as Malcolm X said, "The chickens have come home to roost." MORE was so concerned for "due process" for the killer cops who they considered their "brothers and sisters of the PBA" - now the absolutely predictable result has happened -- "due process" for cops means they walk!

Here is an article I wrote back in September when the crisis in MORE broke out.

Marjorie Stamberg
UFT teacher, delegate
Class Struggle cauus

MORE’s unspeakable statement refusing to support the August 23 Staten Island march against police brutality, particularly over the NYPD chokehold murder of Eric Garner last month (see http://morecaucusnyc.org/2014/08/21/the-march-for-justice-and-unity/) speaks volumes. Not only did you not stand with the thousands who came out to denounce this racist cop killing, you called instead for “unity” with the PBA, the voice of the killer cops

You wrote that many of your members would be there. How nice. But MORE as a caucus in the UFT would not. Claiming you are in solidarity with the Garner family is cynical hypocrisy when you wouldn’t march with them. How dare MORE call itself or pretend to be a “social justice caucus”? If you cannot even take a stand against racist police murder you have indelibly stamped yourselves as a social injustice caucus.

What’s more, you have shown that on the key issue of racism MORE stands to the right of Mike Mulgrew’s sellout UFT bureaucracy.

You have criticisms of Al Sharpton. I have repeatedly publicly criticized Al Sharpton since 1983 when he wore a wire for the feds. But your objections come from the opposite direction, from people who think he is “anti-police.” Nonsense, Al Sharpton has worked with the police for decades to “cool things out,” keep protests “under control” and divert struggle against racist injustice in alliance with the capitalist Democratic Party.

But this march was not about Al Sharpton. It was a referendum on racism. Even the UFT knew that. The NAACP knew that, and sent a big contingent. Countless other New Yorkers knew that. They came out, including unionists from SEIU 32 B-J, the New York Nurses Association, CUNY’s Professional Staff Congress, and numerous anti-racist and left groups across the city. Class Struggle Education Workers was there with a contingent.

The August 23 march was a time to stand up and be counted. If MORE was so blind to racial oppression that it couldn’t see that, all you had to do was look at the barrage of racist criticisms of the UFT for its stand. But, of course, you were well aware of those criticisms, and conciliated and even embraced them. What was needed on Saturday was a massive turnout of labor, blacks, immigrants and all defenders of working people and the oppressed against police terror. Thousands did turn out, but not MORE.

MORE claims to “stand against racism,” not to mention being for justice, unity and all good things, but when the moment came to show it, you were first tied up in knots, and then came down on the wrong side. Instead of linking arms with the family of Eric Garner, murdered by the racist NYPD, you put out a despicable call for “unity” with … his killers (“we encourage the leaderships of the UFT and PBA, to find ways to work together and unite” … “with our brother and sister officers”). Outrageous.

Far from being our “brothers and sisters,” the police are professional strikebreakers and enforcers of racist “law and order.” That’s their job for the ruling class. The victims of NYPD killer cops include Eleanor Bumpurs, Anthony Baez, Amadou Diallo, Patrick Dorismond, Sean Bell, Ramarley Graham, Kimani Gray and so many others. The list goes on and on of black lives snuffed out by the NYPD. But MORE wants to work together and unite with the murderers.
I might have said MORE’s statement was shocking, that it was incredible coming from a group claiming to be a “progressive” alternative to the sellout UFT bureaucracy of Mike Mulgrew and Randi Weingarten. In fact, it is not only credible but even predicable. It flows directly from MORE’s basic premise of “uniting” all and sundry against the Unity misleaders. It flows directly from its avoidance of all issues of race and class, the fundamental questions in this country.

If MORE cannot fight against our union endorsing the capitalist Democratic Party politicians that keep labor tamed and enchained, and who are leading the offensive against public education and teachers in particular; if it cannot take a firm stand against Common Core; if it cannot point out the racist nature of the school closings; if it was “missing in action” during the NYC school bus drivers strike last year; if it couldn’t march last summer against the NYPD’s “stop and frisk” of hundreds of thousands of African American and Latino youth; if today it can’t bring itself to mention the racist cop killing of Michael Brown in Missouri, MORE has demonstrated that it is in no advance over Mulgrew’s bureaucratic Unity Caucus.

While the MORE Caucus of the UFT has been lionized by many on the left, we in Class Struggle Education Workers have characterized it as a case study in opportunism. Opposing racist police repression is a litmus test. Today people throughout the U.S. are confronted with the basic, urgent need to take a stand with African American targets of murderous racist repression and military occupation. This is ABC for any decent unionist or opponent of oppression.

Trying to dodge this with a gazillion words about “teacher priorities” is obscene. What are we as educators if not advocates for our students who are stopped and frisked in the streets every day, and sometimes shot?
After MORE’s vile statement, how can any self-respecting leftist, anyone with a shred of anti-racist consciousness (or conscience), not to mention class consciousness, remain in MORE? This is not a mistake, it is a betrayal of the first order.

--Marjorie Stamberg
UFT member, delegate D79
Class Struggle Education Workers

Gregory A. Butler
Dec 11 2014 01:56

That sounds about right - with all the charter schools and Teach for America, teaching here has stopped being a career job for concerned New York professionals of all races and is becoming a short term job for middle class Whites from other states seeking to move to New York to get ahead in the corporate world.

The students - most of whom are Black or Latino - have definitely suffered as a result.

fingers malone
Dec 13 2014 11:23

I found some interesting accounts of actions by the teachers' union in East London thirty years ago which were impressive but also upsetting, as it really made me feel how deep the neoliberal victory is. The difference between then and now is painful, not just because of repression but because teachers now so rarely see the world this way.

In 1979 the local NUT branch adopted a policy of non co-operation with the police, in response to police racism and mistreatment of pupils and the death of Blair Peach. In 1985 they produced a pamphlet titled Police out of Schools giving examples of police brutality to black pupils. An example is also given of a teacher arrested and charged with assault when trying to protect pupils being harrassed by the police on the way home from school.

Other examples from the time are teachers who collected money for families who had suffered police brutality after the 85 riots.

I would like to say that I know plenty of teachers now who put the hours in trying to defend their students from police and state brutality, but they are much more vulnerable and more isolated, and are not able to organise openly.

Caiman del Barrio
Dec 13 2014 11:32

Fingers do you have any links?

fingers malone
Dec 13 2014 11:39

The info is in a book called 'Policing in Hackney 1945-84' by the Roach Family Support Committee, written after the death of Colin Roach in 1983 in Stoke Newington Police Station, but sadly I think it's only in the pre- internet world of paper books. However there is one copy in my living room if you would like to read it.

fingers malone
Dec 13 2014 11:51
Gregory A. Butler
Dec 14 2014 13:34

Also, I should point out, every one of New York city's 1,000 public schools has a full time New York Police Department School Safety detachment stationed in it every school day.

The officers are known as "SSAs" - CitySpeak for School Safety Agents - and they're employees of the police department, Unlike regular NYPD Police Officers they don't carry guns, but they do have arrest authority. In many schools, students have to be searched by SSAs every time they come to school.

Fozzie
Jan 13 2015 17:28

Hi all - just seen this.

The full text of the Hackney NUT document "Police Out of School" is available here:
https://hackneyhistory.wordpress.com/2013/10/30/police-out-of-school/

along with a great Youtube video from the time.

It is indeed inspiring stuff.

Fozzie
Jan 13 2015 17:31

I think it is also worth pointing out that there was an NUT banner from a local branch at the vigil for Mark Duggan outside Tottenham police station in early 2014...

But yes I do agree that the difference between the 80s and now is painful.