Right now, in the midst of COVID-19, we have a President, a Secretary of Education, and a capitalist class that is desperate to ignore the growing epidemiological threat that COVID-19 presents, and specifically the threat presented by re-opening schools full time in the Fall. This neglect could be a ploy to direct funds away from public education and into private schools, while at the same time putting teachers, staff, students, and their families and loved ones at risk. But not going back to full time, in-person school hasl material impacts — we lack any semblance of basic social democracy, so we don’t have sufficient subsidized child care for working parents and we won’t have sufficient unemployment income support for parents who have to stay at home because their kids are at home. Because that kind of subsidization and support is expensive, the brutal logic of capital prevails: re-open the schools, no matter how many more may die.
Like everything else about the COVID crisis, the contradictions reveal themselves and sharpen. We saw, a few years ago, an inspiring round of anti-austerity teacher’s strikes. Imagine a nationwide teacher’s strike on these demands. Imagine a nationwide strike, not just teachers, on these demands. Teachers’ unions are not interested in turning their schools into abattoirs and charnel houses for their members and charges. Organized teacher and staff labor strategy under this pandemic is a complicated issue, especially because the paramount demand — don’t open up schools in-person — if met creates massive economic harm and material consequences if not accompanied by demands for massive public spending on childcare and income assistance. But, we know the power workers, and teachers in particular, can wield when they strike. It is a massive, almost unimaginably difficult thing to accomplish. And these demands directly link to other vital demands to ensure basic social safety and health: M4A and social housing and rent control. It is enormously tricky for striking workers to coordinate the immediate need to avoid the danger of re-opening in-person school, the need for state action to replace public schools’ vital role in our meager social safety net (as they provide students food, social services like counseling, and childcare in addition to education), and the broader social demands that would blunt the harms of both this pandemic and capital in general. A nationwide teacher’s strike, if it could happen, won’t work unless parents support it. It is one thing for parents to deal with the inconvenience of teachers striking for a few days or weeks, it is another for them to support a strike to keep schools closed indefinitely. Perhaps demands must broaden further: bigger schools to make social distancing effective, hiring more teachers to reduce class sizes, hiring more staff to ensure regular disinfection, etc.
I’m a parent, so I think about this dilemma a lot. Given the absurdity of our federal system, we have thousands of different state, county, municipal boards of health, governors, mayors, city councils, school boards, making ad hoc and ill-advised decisions and rules on COVID, while the federal government’s response has been at turns incoherent, incompetent, and savage. Gavin Newsom is held up like a hero by liberals, and while less homicidal than many other governors, he’s too chicken shit to even make a proclamation on whether or how youth sports should be conducted. Parents are worried about how they can work if this crisis continues, and there is no coherence, no movement at the school level, much less at the county or state or nationally.
Now, it is clear that absent a mass popular movement pressuring the state, nothing like M4A or any of these other demands will happen. But the current crisis cannot wait for a realignment or a break, dirty or a clean, from the Democrats, nor can the protections and support students need be accomplished through electoral campaigning, because we are talking about a matter of months before schools ostensibly re-open. Regardless, the Democratic Party, institutionally incapable of working through its own contradictions, can only be pushed from the outside on these demands, because it will close ranks internally to make sure anything like M4A is off the table. The demands required of this crisis are potentially even bigger than M4A. The ruling class will oppose them more viciously than ever, because the demands require massive and unacceptable redistribution. But, the alternative is more dystopia, more failure, a deadly malaise. How can we organize a movement for a humane future?
John R. Parker, Jr.
(Maximas gratias ago to Bob Hodges for his helpful suggestions on this.)