Will the BTU fight?
BOSTON--Six days before a scheduled rally against budget cuts and layoffs, leaders of the Boston Teachers Union maneuvered to overturn a previous membership vote to endorse the demonstration.
The rally will still take place at the State House on May 19 at 4:30 p.m., but without the backing of the BTU.
The motion to pull union support for the protest came from executive members, who have been actively attempting to undermine the rally since it passed overwhelmingly at a meeting in March, with members greeting the outcome with loud applause. Unfortunately, at the May 13 meeting, members voted 134 to 86 to go along with the executive board motion against the protest.
The original enthusiasm for the proposal made by a group of teachers is how urgently a fight is needed.
In Boston alone, a district of only 7,000 teachers, school nurses, paraprofessionals and substitutes, the School Committee approved cuts of 536 positions, of which at least half are teaching and other direct support services for children. Although this number has been reduced, layoffs and non-renewals (non-permanent teachers who will not be rehired due to budget cuts) are imminent.
Each layoff means larger classes, fewer services and resources for students. The rally was aimed at bringing teachers together teachers with students, parents and community members to stand up to cuts and layoffs.
But the BTU leadership carried out a campaign to portray the protest as a doomed effort that would be an embarrassment to the union because nobody would show up and teachers would be portrayed as greedy for opposing the cuts. Union leaders refused to e-mail blast the membership about the rally, advertise it in the union newspaper or post information about it on the BTU website.
When a local newspaper reporter called the BTU number on the bottom of a flier to ask about the rally, secretaries told him they didn't know anything about it, he was given the run-around. When he finally spoke with the union president, Richard Stutman, he was told the protest might be canceled.
At the BTU membership meeting in April, the political director of the union made a motion to cancel the protest unless we could collect 2,000 signatures of teachers who would definitely attend. This motion was voted down after a heated debate. Since then, however the executive board of the union has refused to make funds available for the rally.
ALTHOUGH THE BTU has pulled its endorsement of the rally, we should convince our co-workers, union members, parents, students and other workers that it is necessary and possible to wage a struggle against budget cuts--in fact, our livelihood and futures depend on it.
The basic arguments of union leaders--that no one would attend a rally, that teachers would be perceived as greedy, and that teachers have to accept that concessions will happen--are wrong.
First, when people have had the opportunity to express their anger at budget cuts, they have. For example, more than 600 teachers, parents, students and community members showed up to protest the cuts at a budget hearing in March. Local organizations have expressed interest in helping organize for the rally.
Second, the belief that the public thinks teachers are greedy relies on the acceptance of the idea that there isn't enough to go around in this crisis, and therefore we need to share the sacrifice.
This needs to be taken head on. With Mayor Thomas Menino and Superintendent Carol Johnson lambasting the union for not taking a wage freeze in exchange for a vague promise of "fewer" layoffs, the BTU needs to link arms with parents and students, and point the blame in the right direction--at the local, state and federal politicians who are starving the public school system.
If more revenue is needed, how about a Boston millionaire's tax? Or a property tax on the "not for-profit" higher education institutions and teaching hospitals that make up 53 percent of Boston property that isn't subject to property taxes? Yes, that's right--Harvard, Boston University, Northeastern, Mass General Hospital, Brigham and Women's Hospital, etc., aren't required to pay property taxes, although they rake in millions in profits. Mass General alone recorded a $355 million profit in 2006-7.
Finally, in order for teachers, parents and students to resist the cuts, we need to use our collective power to pressure the politicians. There is confusion about how to address the budget cuts, and the BTU, the largest public-sector union in the city, had the opportunity to take the lead. Other unions look to us to put our foot down and say that one layoff is too many.
During an economic crisis, the BTU could shift the landscape in Boston and make a case for an organized, fighting and confident union movement. And even though the BTU won't endorse it, the State House rally on May 19 could be a first step in that direction. Teachers, parents, students and community members who are committed to fighting for more funding and more services for public education should come out and protest.