Monday, January 21, 2019

3166. Two Speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

By Martin Luther King, Jr., Against the Grain, March 1968 and December 1964

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke about race, segregation, poverty, militarism, and nonviolent resistance in two talks that he gave in Hollywood, in March 1968, and in London, in December 1964. Pacifica Radio Archives. To listen click here





3165. To Freeze the Thames: Geo-Science, Social Risk and Climate Struggles

By Troy Vettese, Socialist Project, January 20, 2019

Is advanced-industrial capitalism capable of finding solutions for the environmental devastation it causes? Or are the logics of capitalism and environmental sustainability inherently and irreconcilably at odds? This session explores the economics and politics surrounding natural geo-engineering—re-wilding agricultural land, freed up by compulsory veganism—to replicate the hemispheric cooling of the Little Ice Age. It features Troy Vettese, whose article "To Freeze the Thames" was recently published in New Left Review (Debating Green Strategy). Umair Muhammad and Gordon Laxer will respond to Troy’s article and presentation. Introduced by Greg Albo. Presentations by: * Troy Vettese is an environmental historian at New York University, whose dissertation is on the relationship between the tar sands industry and market-based environmental regulation. * Gordon Laxer is the founding Director and former head of Parkland Institute (1996-2011) at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, a Political Economist and professor emeritus at the University of Alberta. He is the author of After the Sands: Energy & Ecological Security for Canadians and several reports including “Act or Be Acted Upon: The Case for Phasing out Alberta’s Sands.” * Umair Muhammad is a Ph.D. student at York University, whose research focuses on the political economy of the environment. Umair is the author of Confronting Injustice: Social Activism in the Age of Individualism, and he has been a community organizer for nine years.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

3164. Poetry: When You Stand

By Jamie K. Reaser, Bless This Day, January 2019
Photo: Jamie K. Reaser
May your feet, here now, know the support of the Earth, 
the mother of your mother’s mother’s mother and all 
the mothers before her.
May, in this light, you know the guidance of the Sun, 
the father of your father’s father’s father and all 
the fathers before him.
May you know the sisterhood of women who 
will embrace and hold space for your soul’s seed 
to break and who, in their own way, pray that because 
of this necessary breaking there will emerge and grow
something that serves others without demand 
of reciprocity.
May you know the brotherhood of men who stand 
beside you as you stand beside them, 
all familiar strangers, dedicated to protecting 
the ache of uncertainty, difference, and belonging 
so that we may liberate the fears that otherwise 
divide, diminish, and destroy otherness.
May you stand in the presence of my gratitude.
Thank you for showing me where blessings are needed.
© 2019/Jamie K. Reaser
From "Bless this Day" (a work in progress)
Photo: (c) Jamie K. Reaser
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3163. Book Review: Red-Green Revolution: The Politics & Technology of Ecosocialism

By Martin Empson, Resolute Reader, January 17, 2019

The scale of the environmental crisis is absolutely terrifying. So I was very pleased to read Victor Wallis' new book Red-Green Revolution which aims to both explain capitalism and environmental destruction and offer a clear strategy for building a movement to challenge both. Wallis takes up this point early on:
To puncture the resulting sense of helplessness, we need an approach that is at once immediate (short-term) and comprehensive (long-term). A comprehensive approach is a radical one. It embraces every aspect of reality. Without such a panoramic sweep, we cannot even begin to counter the multifold scale on which the threats to life present themselves - whether in the form of war, hunger, pollution, illness, repression, insecurity or insanity.

Wallis uses the term ecosocialism to argue for a "synthesis of ecology with socialism". But, and its an important but, he doesn't argue that socialism (or indeed Marxism) has never had an ecological component. He notes the work of writers like John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett who have drawn out an ecological core to Karl Marx's work and shows how other revolutionary thinkers and activists have also understood the destructive dynamic at the heart of capitalism; and the potential for socialism to resolve the contradiction of a society dependent on the natural world that simultaneously destroys it.

Wallis argues then, that there must be a multi fold strategy. The first stage is exposing the limitations of capitalism. Too many proffered solutions to environmental crisis are based on making capitalism better, or greener. But simultaneously Wallis argues we must put forward alternative models:
Token green measures may bring some relief, but they fail to challenge the power that keeps the toxic practices going. How can people be persuaded to target that power and build a political force capable of supplanting it?.. It entails on the one hand exploring the sometimes indirect arguments whereby the green-capitalist... approach is upheld. On the other hand, it requires attention to positive models, both actual and potential, of societies, movements, institutions, or even individuals that embody a cooperative rather than an aggressive/competitive approach to work and life.
Returning to this theme, Wallis notes that Marx understood that a future, sustainable socialist world, would be one based on democratically organising and controlling the means of production. He notes though that we should not ignore the reality that not all socialist approaches (or societies that described themselves as socialist) have behaved like this. Wallis emphases the limitations of what he calls "first-epoch" socialism, the Soviet Union and Chinese society for instance, and argues that "the notion of workers' control offers, from within socialist thought, the basis for a thoroughgoing ecologically-oriented critique of the legacy of first-epoch socialist regimes."

With this in mind I was enormously pleased to see Wallis defend and promote the concept of "planning" as part of his solution. Wallis makes it clear that he doesn't mean the top-down planning of the Soviet variety, but a bottom-up approach that involves mass involvement. If we, as socialists, are to offer concrete solutions and strategies one of the most powerful tools we have is a vision of how a sustainable world can work - and the idea of democratically planning production is one that is unique to the revolutionary tradition. Simultaneously it allows us to show how the great wealth we are capable of producing can be used in a sustainable and equitable way. Too few socialists (eco or otherwise) put this forward and I think it an essential argument for our alternative.

Wallis also discusses technology with this same approach. Technology he argues, is not neutral within society, but is determined by the dominant political and class dynamics. Thus technological solutions to environmental destruction serve the interests of those whose wealth and power implements them - which can in turn exacerbate the wider problem. Socialist technology must be marked by a "commitment to social equality and to ecological health" - it should also be democratically controlled, and the result of democratic decision making in contrast to the way that capitalists simply deploy new technologies to make profits.

I do have two slight linked disagreements with the book. The first is about context, and doesn't really undermine Wallis' wider argument. Among his criticisms of first-period socialism lies an argument that the ecological limitations of those societies arose because they favoured taking and maintaining state power, over the "transforming production relations". I am not sure I entirely agree with this. In the case of Russia in the aftermath of 1917 I think the problem was far more that the devastation of the working class core to the revolution in Civil War and famine destroyed the basis for real workers control. The failure of the German Revolution in turn left Russia isolated and encouraged an inward turn; the development of a bureaucratic class and finally the rise of Stalin's counter-revolutionary interests.

Secondly, I thought that while Wallis was excellent on showing how building a revolutionary ecologically aware socialist movement required strategies for the here and now, as well as a longer term goal, I felt that he missed out having a serious discussion on the nature of the capitalist state and the way it would organise to protect and defend its own interests. Here I think we still have much to learn from Lenin and his understanding of how revolutionary movements can simultaneously smash the capitalist state and create the basis for a new, workers' state.

But these are not points of departure they are places to begin a debate. All in all I found Red-Green Revolution a deeply stimulating read, that tackled important issues without simply regurgitating tired old formulae - the chapter on intersectionality and class was particularly good in this respect. I'd recommend Victor Wallis' book both to environmental activists who want to better understand revolutionary socialist ideas and other, longer standing socialists who want to think through how to engage with the growing ecological movements.

3162. Interview: To Take Down Fossil Fuels, We Must Abandon Capitalism

By Anton Woronzuk, Truthout, January 15, 2019
Dahr Jamail
Dahr Jamail, a staff writer at Truthout, has been writing about the global emergency of climate change for nearly a decade. In his new book The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Destruction, which is being released today, Jamail shares his firsthand accounts of returning to beloved spaces in the natural world. He observes the drastic ways in which they’ve been destroyed due to humanity’s relentless burning of fossil fuels and mourns over how many of them are unlikely to recover over the duration of human existence.

Anton Woronczuk: In bearing witness to the destruction of the natural world, you write about the severe impacts of climate change on several different kinds of ecosystems and landscapes. Instead of The End of Ice, you could’ve as easily chosen The End of Rainforests, The End of Coral or The End of Coastal Cities as a relevant title for your book. Why did you decide on “ice”?

Dahr Jamail: That’s exactly right … we are in an age of loss, and the book could have had any number of titles. I landed on “ice” for two reasons. First, because that is where I personally feel the loss the most, given how much time I spend in the mountains, and where the idea of the book originated. Having lived in Alaska and spent so much time on glaciers there while climbing, that is where I saw how dramatically climate change was already unfolding back in the mid-1990s. The second reason I chose ice was because as we lose glaciers and ice fields, literally hundreds of millions and even billions of people will be directly impacted by lack of drinking water, lack of water for irrigation for agriculture, and so much more. This is no small thing.

In your accounts about scaling glaciers in Alaska or snorkeling along the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, you reflect on how much has changed since you first visited them. Which was the hardest place to return to? Which was the hardest to leave?

All of it was heartbreaking, from what I see happening on Denali and other glaciers in Alaska that I have long-term relationships with, to the loss of the Great Barrier Reef. But certainly, the moment when I was out of the Great Barrier Reef, it was the last snorkel of the day, and time to head back to land when my heart broke. It really felt like it was the last time I’d see the reef, and I was saying goodbye. I wept. That year, 30 percent of the reef died from that coral bleaching event I was witnessing. The next year, another bleaching event took out 20 percent of the reef. So, in two years, half of the single largest coral reef on the planet was wiped out from climate change-induced bleaching. That’s why I wept, knowing that was happening and was only going to continue.

I’m wondering if even more significant changes have occurred in some of the places you’ve written about in The End of Ice.

I could write pages about that. I was updating my scientific reports in my citations up until my final deadline for publishing, and even then, struggling to keep pace with the changes. Since then, intensely dramatic changes have happened.

One example is a study published in Nature [that] showed that over the last quarter century, the oceans have absorbed 60 percent more heat annually than estimated in the 2014 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. The study underscored that the globe’s oceans have, in fact, already absorbed 93 percent of all the heat humans have added to the atmosphere, that the climate system’s sensitivity to greenhouse gases is far higher than thought, and that planetary warming is far more advanced than had previously been grasped.

To give you an idea of how much heat the oceans have absorbed: if that heat had instead gone into the atmosphere, the global temperature would be 97 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than it is today. For those who think that there are still 12 years left to change things, the question posed by a sea level rise expert in my book seems painfully apt: How do we remove all the heat that’s already been absorbed by the oceans?

Two weeks after that Nature article came out, a study in Scientific Reports warned that the extinction of animal and plant species, thanks to climate change, could lead to a “domino effect” that might, in the end, annihilate life on the planet. It suggested that organisms will die out at increasingly rapid rates because they depend on other species that are also on their way out. It’s a process the study calls “co-extinction.”

A common thread throughout your book is that the fate of our ecosystems and the many ecological sites you visited has been decided. This seems to be in marked contrast with mainstream wisdom, which says that humanity can prevent a climate-induced catastrophe as long as we make major changes within a decade or so. Why do you think this discrepancy exists?

Global capitalism, neoliberal economics and the power structure depend upon things continuing as they are. The only real chance at mitigation of the impacts from climate change that are now entrenched in the climate system, would have been to abandon capitalism and enact something akin to the New Green Deal back when NASA’s James Hansen sounded the alarm about climate change to Congress in the 1980s. A radical restructuring of the entire fossil-fuel based economy means those who have all the power today would be rendered obsolete. The current hierarchy would have to be obliterated. And so, in short, power never concedes power willingly.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

3161. Conservation Biology: Just Preservation

By A. Trevesa, F.J. Santiago-Ávila, and W.S. Lynn, Biological Conservation, 2019 

Related image
Graphic credit: https://thenatureofbusinessdotorg.files.wordpress.com/2012/12/ego-versus-eco.jpg

Editor's note: Below is the Abstract to "Just Preservation" (click on the hyperlink for the entire article in PDF format) which presents a much needed alternative view of conservation to the existing anthropocentric views.  Julie Callahan. 

Abstract: We are failing to protect the biosphere. Novel views of conservation, preservation, and sustainability are surfacing in the wake of consensus about our failures to prevent extinction or slow climate change. We argue that the interests and well-being of non-humans, youth, and future generations of both human and non-human beings (futurity) have too long been ignored in consensus-based, anthropocentric conservation. Consensus-based stakeholder-driven processes disadvantage those absent or without a voice and allow current adult humans and narrow, exploitative interests to dominate decisions about the use of nature over its preservation for futurity of all life. We propose that authentically non-anthropocentric worldviews that incorporate multispecies justice are needed for a legitimate, deliberative, and truly democratic process of adjudication between competing interests in balancing the preservation and use of nature. Legitimate arenas for such adjudication would be courts that can defend intergenerational equity, which is envisioned by many nations' constitutions and can consider current and future generations of non-human life. We urge practitioners and scholars to disavow implicit anthropocentric value judgments in their work – or make these transparent and explicit – and embrace a more comprehensive worldview that grants future life on earth fair representation in humanity's decisions and actions today.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

3160. Beloved Poet Mary Oliver, Who Believed Poetry 'Mustn't Be Fancy,' Dies At 83

By Lynn Nearby, NPR, January 17, 2019
Mary Oliver



Much-loved poet Mary Oliver died Thursday of lymphoma, at her home in Florida. She was 83. Oliver won many awards for her poems, which often explore the link between nature and the spiritual world; she also won a legion of loyal readers who found both solace and joy in her work.
Oliver got a lot of her ideas for poems during long walks — a habit she developed as a kid growing up in rural Ohio. It was not a happy childhood: She said she was sexually abused and suffered from parental neglect. But as she told NPR in 2012, she found refuge in two great passions that lasted her entire life.
She said, "The two things I loved from a very early age were the natural world and dead poets, [who] were my pals when I was a kid."
Oliver published her first collection, No Voyage and Other Poems, in her late 20s. She went on to win the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. But writer Ruth Franklin believes such recognition probably wasn't that important to Oliver. "I always had a sense of her as somebody who was just interested in following her own path, both spiritually and poetically," she says.
In a New Yorker article about Oliver's 2017 book, Devotions, Franklin wrote that Oliver wasn't always appreciated by critics, but she was still one of the country's most popular poets. And there's a reason for that.
"Mary Oliver isn't a difficult poet," Franklin says. "Her work is incredibly accessible, and I think that's what makes her so beloved by so many people. It doesn't feel like you have to take a seminar in order to understand Mary Oliver's poetry. She's speaking directly to you as a human being."
Oliver told NPR that simplicity was important to her. "Poetry, to be understood, must be clear," she said. "It mustn't be fancy. I have the feeling that a lot of poets writing now, they sort of tap dance through it. I always feel that whatever isn't necessary should not be in the poem."


Oliver lived for many years in Provincetown, Mass., with the love of her life, the photographer Molly Malone Cook. There, she continued her habit of taking long walks, which often inspired poems. She wrote about one such walk in her poem "The Summer Day":
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
Many of Oliver's poems are a joyful celebration of nature, but she also wrote about the abuse she suffered as a child and her first brush with death from lung cancer. Ruth Franklin says her work is infused with a deep spirituality. "The way she writes these poems that feel like prayers, she channels the voice of somebody who it seems might possibly have access to God. I think her work does give a sense of someone who is in tune with the deepest mysteries of the universe."
In her poem "When Death Comes," Oliver wrote this about the inevitable: "When it's over, I want to say all my life/ I was a bride married to amazement."

3159. Poetry: The Soft Animal

By Jamie K. Reaser, January 17, 2019
Photo: Jamie K. Reaser
Beloved poet, Mary Oliver, let go today. This poem is from my yet-to-be-published collection entitled, Conversations with Mary. It's a response to a line in her poem, Wild Geese. 
Journey well, Mary. Thank you for your guiding voice and spirit.
The Soft Animal
The soft animal of my body loves the deep
cup of the nest, but also the edge of the nest,
and the nothingness that is everything on the
other side. I am not built to love one thing or
one way, or limit myself to loving one world.
What is too small must be broken through or
left behind. At times, I’ve needed to do both.
Right now, right now, I just want to sit with
the last moment, the one, the last one, before
I completely let go.
(c) 2016-2019/Jamie K. Reaser (a work in progress)
From "Conversations with Mary"
Photo: (c) Jamie K. Reaser
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3158. How Plastic Bags Came to Pollute Oceans

By Christopher Joyce, NPR, January 16, 2019


To listen click here

Transcript


ARI SHAPIRO, HOST: 
For years, the oceans were filling up with plastic waste, but people couldn't figure out where it was coming from. Then research in 2015 showed that over half the waste was from a handful of Asian nations. NPR's Christopher Joyce went to one of these countries, the Philippines, and found that a big culprit is a small plastic package used to sell consumer goods. It's called a sachet.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE, BYLINE: To see how sachets worked their way into the fabric of Filipino life, I visit the neighborhood of Maysilo in the capital city of Manila. It's next to a swamp. Kids run between tin-roof shanties that hover a few feet above ankle-deep water.
NIMFA MANLABE: Hi, welcome my sari-sari store. I'm Nimfa Manlabe.
JOYCE: Nimfa Manlabe is a middle-aged woman who sells sachets from a sari-sari store, a tiny storefront in her tiny home. Think of it like a neighborhood pantry filled with shiny little packages, like the ones ketchup comes in at the fast-food restaurant.
MANLABE: Detergent powder, candies, milk, shampoo.
JOYCE: Stuff people use every day.
MANLABE: Sunsilk, Palmolive and conditioner.
JOYCE: There are more than a million sari-sari stores across the Philippines. Manlabe says this is how everyone here shops.
MANLABE: (Through interpreter) I sell sachets to people. They come back here every day and buy these small amounts because that's what they can afford.
JOYCE: But once it's empty, the sachet never goes away. You can see that by looking down underneath this elevated shantytown. You can't tell where the water ends and the land begins because it's all covered in shiny plastic. And it drives Nimfa Manlabe crazy.
MANLABE: (Through interpreter) I keep sweeping every day, but then the next day, I see the trash is back, just thrown on the ground again.
JOYCE: Self-employed waste pickers do collect and sell stuff that can be recycled. Sachets cannot, so no one picks them up. Manlabe says her neighbors resort to burning them to cook their meals or just to get rid of them.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Singing in foreign language).
JOYCE: It wasn't always this way. Sherma Benosa is with an environmental group called GAIA, and she says it used to be that people brought refillable glass or ceramic containers to the sari-sari store.
SHERMA BENOSA: I remember when I was a kid that when you go to the store and you cannot afford the one bottle vinegar, you have a container with you and give them to the saleslady, and they put whatever amount you're asking to buy. So there's no problem. Only when we had plastic things became problematic.
JOYCE: So where did all this plastic come from? Well, let's go back to the 1940s.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This is Tupperware - the airtight plastic containers that keep good foods fresher longer.
JOYCE: Plastic for consumers was growing in popularity. Manufacturers raced to find ways to fashion it into things people would buy. Plastic was lightweight, inexpensive, flexible.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Food stored in Baggies plastic bags always have the sound of freshness, and they always taste as fresh as they sound.
JOYCE: But much of it could not be recycled, and people in the industry knew that. At the first National Conference on Packaging Waste held in San Francisco in 1969, some executives wondered, where is all this plastic going to end up? One marketing consultant said that wasn't their problem. Difficulties with plastic waste, quote, "are not the responsibility of those who produce materials, fabricate packages or package goods" - unquote. Rather, he said, it's the consumer's responsibility. So manufacturers just urged people not to litter and kept pumping out new kinds of plastic with yet more uses.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
JOYCE: Then in the 1980s, an Indian businessman started marketing products in single-use sachets - a day's worth of shampoo for people who couldn't afford big bottles of it. Sachets were aimed at the poor, but eventually, they became a symbol for a middle-class lifestyle.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Chik jasmine shampoo (foreign language spoken) active double conditioners (foreign language spoken).
JOYCE: Global companies followed suit. It was also great marketing, all those single-use packets, each with a brand and a logo. Sachets did offer some advantages for consumers.
CRISPIAN LAO: You have the health issue.
JOYCE: Crispian Lao is a former plastics executive. He now leads the Philippine Alliance for Recycling and Material Sustainability. It includes companies that make and package consumer goods, such as Nestle, Coca-Cola and Unilever.
LAO: The market needed something to deliver those products to the consumer safely, and that is where single-use packaging came in. You now have disposable cups, disposable bowls, disposable plates.
JOYCE: Lao says sachets offered quality control. You knew what you were getting. You didn't have to wash reusable containers, which could be risky in poorer neighborhoods where water quality is often suspect.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Foreign language spoken).
JOYCE: Today, sachets are everywhere, in poor neighborhoods like Maysilo but also in places like this - San Fernando, a thriving business community north of Manila.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Foreign language spoken).
JOYCE: In a gated suburb, a private team of workers wheels carts through the city every day calling for trash.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Foreign language spoken).
JOYCE: San Fernando has lots of money for trash collection, but it's still stuck with sachets of the plastic that cannot be recycled. Froilan Grate is with the environmental group Mother Earth Foundation. He shows me a pile of this stuff in a damp concrete room in the center of town.
FROILAN GRATE: This one, the next one, is like the soda cup that you typically get from fast-food chains like McDonald's.
JOYCE: The cup looks like it's made from paper.
GRATE: The problem with this one is that it's promoted as a better alternative because it's paper cup, but it has a plastic liner inside.
JOYCE: Recycling something like this, mixed paper and plastic, is expensive. It requires technology they don't have in the Philippines.
GRATE: So this entire thing, including the straw that they use, goes into the landfill.
JOYCE: So if people in the Philippines can't get rid of this stuff, who should? Grate says the companies that make it.
GRATE: I'm angry because those who have the power, those who have the resources and I'm talking about companies earning billions of dollars to actually do the right thing are washing their hands and saying you use it, that's your problem. So that is where the frustration is coming from.
JOYCE: Numerous companies - Unilever, Coca-Cola, Nestle and others - have pledged that by 2025 they'll use only plastic packaging that can be reused, recycled or composted. In fact, Unilever has a new chemical process to recycle sachets and a pilot plant in Indonesia to test it. In the Philippines, Crispian Lao's industry group is planning a research effort to make more plastic recyclable.
LAO: The idea right now is that how can we now, you know, together with the global partnership, redesign the product so it becomes more recyclable, look at recycling the existing products that are there? Because it's not going to disappear overnight.
JOYCE: Von Hernandez is skeptical. Hernandez is the global coordinator for a group called Break Free From Plastic working in an office here in Manila. His view is consumers shouldn't have to recycle their way out of this mess.
VON HERNANDEZ: If we cannot recycle or compost this material, then you should not be producing them in the first place. You should not be deploying them into commerce.
JOYCE: Both activists and the brands say they want the same thing - less plastic trash. But they're still far apart on how and when to make that happen. Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

3157. Why the LA Teachers Strike Matters

By Lois Weiner, Jacobin, January 2019
Student counselor Sandra Santacruz-Cervantes, center, joins parents, teachers, and students in a crosswalk to picket outside Hollywood High School during the second day of the UTLA strike. (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
The January 10 strike date announced by the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) has heightened tensions in an already contentious dispute with Los Angeles Superintendent Austin Beutner, who represents the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) in negotiations. However, far more is at stake in Los Angeles and for the rest of us than a traditional contract struggle.

Given how many students LAUSD educates, the possibility of a strike by its union is huge news. LAUSD has 694,000 in its schools. The entire state of Oklahoma educates about that same number of students in its public schools.

The reforms LAUSD has demanded in Los Angeles schools are based on the bipartisan project to convert public education into a lucrative market for wealthy investors. Merrill-Lynch heralded this change in a 1999 report for prospective investors: “A new mindset is necessary, one that views families as customers, schools as ‘retail outlets’ where educational services are received, and the school board as a customer service department that hears and addresses parental concerns.”

Networks of wealthy billionaires and the foundations they create have advocated and imposed reforms nationally, even globally, we see today in LA schools: using standardized tests to control what and how children learn; creating charter schools to weaken neighborhood schools and undermine parent loyalty to public education; creating new revenue sources for corporations to profit from education; and weakening teachers unions. The “portfolio model” LAUSD has announced it will adopt fragments the school system into networks operated by private charter management organizations.

The explicit rationale for the portfolio model is enhancing “choice,” providing more and better educational options for low-income children of color. But research by scholars who work independently of think-tank funding documents that privatization has increased school segregation and racial disparities in educational outcomes. Its main achievement has been to “plunder” public education.

In New Orleans, Detroit, and other cities in which states have imposed the “portfolio model”, creation of charter networks may have given a small number of students increased educational opportunities, but as we have seen in the most extensive “experiment” in characterizationin New Orleans, the vast majority of schools and teachers receive inadequate funding and support. Schools that have become more racially isolated train students for low-paid jobs and “push out” those who are dissatisfied. A select number of elite and well-funded public schools are maintained in the richest and whitest parts of the city, and a few lucky working-class students of color find spots in these schools.

As teacher union influence has waned, especially among Democrats, who have adopted the pro-privatization views of their largest donors, teachers have become angry about their unions’ inability to stem deteriorating conditions in schools. A vibrant reform movement has formed in both national teachers’ unions, the National Education Association (NEA) and American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Activists are challenging the model of “business unionism” that NEA, AFT, and their state affiliates embrace. Reformers see the union’s strength in mobilizing members and making alliances with community, not relying on political “friends of labor” who will reward the union’s loyalty with economic improvements for members.

The current UTLA leadership campaigned and won office with ideas that put it solidly within the reform movement, where it is allied with the Chicago Teachers Union. Though the “red state” teacher walkout movement last spring was cast by media as a peculiarity of states that had exceptionally poor funding for schools and low teacher salaries, #RedforEd was actually a response to conditions that are national and have been festering for years. The conditions were felt first and most intensely in urban schools and sparked the formation of a reform caucus that won office in the Chicago Teachers Union, transformed it, and organized an electrifying strike.

Acting on principles of “social justice unionism,” UTLA has consciously built the union’s presence in the schools and has reached out to community groups, working to develop mutually respectful alliances that acknowledge racial and class inequality in the city’s schools. Hence UTLA’s current contract demands include reducing student-counselor ratios and lowering class size, as well as ending punitive disciplinary procedures that feed the “school to prison pipeline” and do nothing to improve school climate, essential for safe schools.

The battle between UTLA and LAUSD is over contradictory visions for the role of public education in a society that claims to be democratic. LAUSD wants a privatized “public” system funded by tax dollars that its supporters say will simultaneously boost profits and allow “the best” to succeed in a competitive system. UTLA sees a teachers union’s responsibility to its members and the society as creating a system of public education that is controlled democratically, empowering parents, students, and teachers to transcend the role of consumers to create “choices” that serve all elements of its diverse population equally well.

Though this seems to be a contract dispute, the battle between UTLA and Superintendent Beutner and the economic and political interests he represents is something far bigger. It’s a turning point for Los Angeles in deciding its future.