RebLaw Day 2

screen_shot_2013-05-02_at_1-44-55_pm_t500x309See my summary of the first day of the conference here.

After the amazing first day of the conference I was not sure that level of radical knowledge could be sustained, but I was very wrong. The second day, despite not getting into the first session I wanted to because of overcrowding, was just as good.

Session 2 – Building the Solidarity Economy for a Post-Capitalist Future

The “new economy” or “solidarity economy” is a term that I both recognize as useful but also am cautious about using. After all post-capitalist is a term defined by what it is not rather than what it is, and I have a lot of reservations about prioritizing “local control.” But once I saw that Kali Akuno of Cooperation Jackson and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement was involved, I knew that it was definitely worth attending. Also on the panel were Renee Hatcher, Paul Chander, and Julia Ho.

Hatcher is the Director of BELAW, a community economic development law clinic at the John Marshall Law School-Chicago. She skillfully handled the roles of both moderator and participant, and introduced the talk by establishing 5 elements of a solidarity economy: (1) solidarity, (2) equity, (3) participatory democracy, (4) sustainability, and (5) pluralism. She explained that originally she had helped small businesses and done other traditional community development work but began to ask more and more who was actually being conferred the benefits of this development.

Chander explained that he arrived at his work with the Center for Community-Based Enterprise by growing disillusioned with the other means of empowering working class people – first through Democratic Party politics, then through public benefits work, and even through the labor movement. He realized more and more that the goal needed to be workers controlling capital through economic democracy and social solidarity. He explained that social solidarity was the decolonizing of social hierarchies, a necessary measure to obtain the cooperation needed for economic democracy.

Not originally from Detroit, Chander had chosen the city because it represents the failure of capitalism and that failure has made the populace more willing to consider alternatives. Detroit has gone through all the waves of late stage capitalism: first the tax break incentives to try to bring businesses back to the city, then electing a “diverse” (read: neoliberal) leadership, and even the emergence of a radical labor movement were all unable to stop the de-industrialization of the city. But the city’s radical history does inform the current innovations, and Chander particularly paid homage to Grace Lee and Jimmy Boggs and Charity Hicks, recommending the book Collective Courage for anyone interested in learning more about the Black history of collectives and cooperatives.

Julia Ho, founder of Solidarity Economy St. Louis, explained that her connection to this work was a bit different, having grown up with solidarity economies in her Taiwanese immigrant family. While this economy was called “making it work” rather than solidarity, it nonetheless had a focus on sustainable food and working in harmony with nature and with people. Ho also addressed the difference between the solidarity economy and the “sharing” economy, pointing in particular to the Delete Uber campaign and how that has exposed that the “sharing” economy is really about consolidating power in the name of convenience.

Ho grew up in Texas but moved to St. Louis because of its intense segregation. As she noted, it is not a coincidence that the large uprisings against police murders of Black people have happened in Baltimore and St. Louis. She explained that St. Louis city and the surrounding counties were actually split to facilitate white flight, which was also a flight of the city’s tax base. Ferguson is just one of 91, which means 91 police departments and a complex debtor prison system (which was the subject of a session the day before).

Ho stated that the city’s economic development has been centered around multi-national corporations like Monsanto and Peabody Energy. Even a lot of the community gardening in the city is funded through a front group by Monsanto. St. Louis was also the first city to establish a land bank, but that has been more focused on recycling land for the purposes of these corporations rather than the benefit of the community. Nevertheless, the resistance to both police murders of Black people and this one-sided development has led to a cultural and political renaissance in the city, and Ho’s work is oriented towards supporting that renaissance without co-opting it.

Kali Akuno told his personal story of coming to the movement, his experience as a teacher in Oakland and Sacremento for 10 years where he helped to run the School of Social Justice and Community Development. This school focused on preparing youth on probation and parole for college. Akuno described having a panic attack towards the end of this work – what was the point of getting these young people into college when that college degree was not going to get them a job? He felt like he was setting them up to fail and realized that what was needed was a total transformation of the means of production. It was not just about expanding economy, but also expanding the social ecology.

Akuno also explained why Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) has focused so much of their attention on Jackson, Mississippi. After Hurricane Katrina, the group realized on a stark personal level just how climate change is connected to the disposability of Black people. In response, they took a study on political forces, hoping to create a solid model through one city, and that led them to Jackson. The city does not have much industry besides transportation, so there was quite literally room to build. The city has a large population of Black workers and an unusually high rate of Black land ownership. The city also has a heightened political consciousness – 1/3 of Black electeds in the United States are in Mississippi.

So MXGM created the Jackson-Kush plan. Akuno summarized the plan as comprised of three major objectives: (1) building people power through local assemblies, (2) building political independence by working both within and outside of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, and (3) building the solidarity economy. Akuno explained that while the state is 40% Black and 58% white, Jackson is 80% Black and 12% white. But the concentration of wealth is at apartheid levels in Jackson, with only 4% of the wealth in the Black community. Therefore they are seeking to break up the plantation, with the current political objective being the election of Chokwe Antar Lumumba (the son of the late Mayor Lumumba).

Returning to the solidarity economy, Akuno talked about MXGM’s Community Production Initiative. The group is not against technology, just against the disposability that modern technological development facilitates, so they are attempting to separate the two. One such project is building an eco-village using 3D printed houses that are eco-friendly and energy efficient, made out of compacted soil rather than timber. They also are creating small compost bins with the goal of every resident of Jackson having one to fight against the depletion of the soil quality wrought by modern agriculture.

Hatcher then asked the panel that, if the ultimate goal of the solidarity economy is to become the dominant economy, what are the contradictions in that process and how are they solved. Chander responded that there are historical tensions along the lines of race, that if you have never been afforded full access to capitalism that being told it is antiquated can seem privileged. He explained that they facilitate a subtle sort of expropriation by convincing business owners to sell the business to their workers, not by some sort of argument for communism but rather playing on ideas of maintaining what they worked to build and social responsibility to the community. Chander also highlighted the importance of explaining to unions that the solidarity economy was the “next generation” of good jobs. Solitary cooperatives tend to die, whereas networks of cooperatives with union support like CUCI grow strong together.

While not disagreeing with Hatcher, Ho did caution that the solidarity economy cannot “scale up” out of its problems, and gave us an adage to stop counting people and instead build up people who count. Particularly she evoked the generally understood aspect of privilege – having room to “fuck up” – and asked how do we create that ability for working class communities.

Akuno said that lawyers have an important role in this process since the general strategy is to build it and ask permission later, and lawyers were needed to defend those projects. He also talked about the need to organize the white working class as well and the difficulties of making inroads into rural communities and how you cannot just throw dollars at the problem to solve it. The best they have been able to do so far is a grocery store in West Jackson that works with farmers in the Delta, and rooting the outreach in addressing direct needs rather than abstract goals. He also recommended looking to the work that has been done in Appalachia.

Lastly, Akuno responded to a question about how the sudden death of Mayor Lumumba affected their work. Losing his leadership and control of the mayor’s office did set back their agenda on that front, so they moved focus towards the solidarity economy through Cooperation Jackson. Akuno stated frankly that the State will assassinate our leaders or do even worse than that, so there needs to be development of the depth of membership with political education.

Session 3 – Labor Militancy Against Corporate Education

This panel featured Joe Burns, Jeremy Cohan, Jia Lee, and Barbara Madeloni.

Barbara Madeloni, President of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, wasted no time by coming out and saying that the privatization of education is about making profits, not just for private companies but for charter nonprofits as well. And to garner these profits, the charter school movement are utilizing land grabs, gentrification, and union busting. She also set a tone of scorn for the political establishment by pointing out that progressive Democrat Elizabeth Warren, despite all her grandstanding opposition to Betsy Devos, has supported charter schools in her own state of Massachusetts.

Madeloni explained that the success of the charter school movement has come from “shocking” the system (re: Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine). The public education system in Massachusetts is underfunded by $1 billion. The only thing testing regimes reliably produce are socio-economic stratification. Charter schools often set up shop in the very buildings where public schools once were. And the work has become profoundly alienating. Madeloni said there are two types of teachers in this country: those who cry before work or those who cry after work. Part of this alienation has been from corrupt leadership. So Madeloni brought in a new regime to the Teachers Association based in rank-and-file militant unionism.

That strategy was quickly tested by a ballot measure last November to raise the cap on charter schools that would have led to the dismantling of what public education is left in the state. The previous leadership would have struck some sort of deal with the charter movement and government, especially since the charters and their allies threatened to pour $18 million into the fight. Instead, the Teachers Association opposed the measure. With the backing of the National Educators Association, they formed a grassroots campaign in coalition with Jobs for Justice and the NAACP. Teachers did door-to-door canvassing. Not only was this an effective tactic for the campaign, but it restored confidence and pride in the membership as they realized that the public still valued teachers regardless of the pro-charter school propaganda they had been fed. The charter movement and their hedge fund backers actually wound up spending $25 million in the campaign, but they were defeated.

The lesson learned from this campaign was that people really value public education. When they talk about the problems at public schools, they are doing so because they want them to be fixed, not because they want the schools shut down. And Madeloni ended by saying that one of their most important objectives now was to build democratic workplaces for teachers to restore their pride in the work they do.

Joe Burns, labor movement veteran and Director of Collective Bargaining at the Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, started his talk by pointing to the recent trend of “right to work” laws that directly attack the finances of unions, with some judges even preventing them from collecting dues. Burns predicts that the Supreme Court will probably try to impose “right to work” on the entire public sector and then extend that to the private sector. The fight against public education, he pointed out, is part of a larger fight to destroy the entirety of the public sector and commodify everything. And he pointed out that unions in general would not be enough to stop this as too many are not democratic or militant.

Burns then referenced his book Strike Backexplaining how despite the prohibitions on striking in the 1960s public employees went on strike anyways and won. Labor law did not determine struggles – militancy did. There were actually more strikes when it was illegal, and Burns said that a lot of collective bargaining could more accurately be described as collective begging. He then turned to his other book Reviving the Strike and talked about how the labor movement should be confronting the law rather than confining itself in it. Burns explained that public employee strikes were necessarily political because they lack the economic leverage of private strikes, since governments actually save money when their employees strike.

And in response to a question by myself about injunctions and Boys Market, Burns said the current political realities meant that legislation was cut off as a remedy and only defiance would be successful. He referenced a strike in Washington of teachers at Evergreen where there had been an injunction against the strike and the union’s president and a number of interim presidents were jailed for disobeying the injunction. So the union grabbed a change of clothes and a toothbrush and all went down to the court to tell the judge that they were all in defiance of the injunction and should be jailed. The judge was confounded and the strike wound up being successful.

Jia Lee is a member of the United Federation of Teachers in New York and a parent member of Opt Out. While she now has a certain amount of autonomy in her teaching work, she started her career during the implementation of the No Child Left Behind program, which forced scripted curriculum and perpetuated the mythical notion of an achievement gap literally programmed in to the evaluations of the schools.

Lee then explained an exercise she does with both her membership and students. First, she asks them what their grievances about work are. These are usually pretty basic – better supplies, better wages, etc. Then she asks what their vision is for a better school. And both the students and teachers agree that they wish they had more space for the students to explore their own interests.

Unfortunately there is a major stumbling block to that vision – NYC public schools are owed $3 billion. There was literally a court order about this deficit but Governor Cuomo has been defying it. Lee pointed out the stark racial disparity off 53% of Black students being in schools that are closing as opposed to 2% of white students. Another stumbling block is the union leadership which counts on compliance with a Democratic Party that actively undermines them. And then there is the charter school movement, which Lee summed up with a quote from Bill Gates saying that when the tests are properly aligned there will be a system of customers buying products. She said that Global Education Futures, the international arm of this movement, is like a virus that is infecting every country. They have a timeline to systematically dismantle public education. And unfortunately the UFT has gone along with it, refusing to support campaigns like Opt Out.

Jeremy Cohan, a PhD Candidate writing his dissertation on the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), began by referencing the union’s response to the election of Donald Trump: “We’ve been there and done that.” Cohan explained that CTU had been a sleepy business union, getting so bad that their president was referred to as nothing but “an expert in the health plan.” When there was regime change that led to a rank-and-file militant movement, it became pitted against the “Billionaires Boys Club” comprised of groups like Stand for Children, Commercial Club of Chicago, Presidents Bush and Obama, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. A major hurdle for the union was the School Amendatory Act, which gave the mayor executive control of the school system, allowed for the creation of charter schools, and restricted Chicago’s collective bargaining. Other laws extended the school day without additional compensation and raised the requirement for strike authorization to a 75% vote in favor.

In the previous regime this would have been met with concessionary bargaining, not just by the president but by the vice presidents. They were referred to as the “Where’s my sandwich?” guys because of their receipt of sandwiches for holding the position. Under the new regime, they were transformed into strike captains. The union started holding Red Fridays, where the teachers would wear their union red t-shirts to create a “sea of red” expressing solidarity. They strategically used the word of the law against the spirit of the law, taking the 75% authorization requirement as a challenge and obtaining 90% vote in favor for their 2012 strike. They made collective bargaining a public activity, abandoning the idea of unions as just another special interest group since they could never compete on that level with the more highly funded charter school movement.

Unfortunately the changes have not been able to always secure victories. The contract that came out of the 2012 strike did not prevent the closings of 15 schools. And while the 2016 contract secured $340 million in tax increment spending to fill a hole in the public school budget, the contract overall was weak on pay, evaluations, class sizes, and school closings. Ultimately Cohan argued that these gaps were a result of the union avoiding rather than confronting injunctions, echoing the argument made earlier by Joe Burns.

RebLaw 2018?

There were probably some panels at the conference (judging from some feedback I have received) that were not quite as exciting or informative as the ones I attended. There’s also worthwhile critiques to be made about the conference happening at one of the most privileged law schools, where it is free for their students while charging other students from much less privileged backgrounds. And while far more diverse than the usual legal conference, there is still enormous racial disparities in the attendees. Certainly any of these critiques and more should be shared to make improvements. But I would really encourage other law students, lawyers, and organizers to consider attending or participating in the conference next year simply for the opportunity to meet incredible people on the forefront of radical legal practice.

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