Govs. Raimondo, Cuomo Bicker While Coronavirus Disaster Capitalism Scores Big Education Win, Unions Also Gain PR Boost

Bada Bing Bickering!

A recent foreboding COVID-19 policy development was Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo’s public spat with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Raimondo ordered the police and National Guard to track down anyone who was traveling into the Ocean State from the Empire State to immediate 14 day self-quarantine, a clear violation of several Constitutional protections that failed to recognize the multitude of Rhode Island residents who commute into the Big Apple weekly for work. Cuomo threatened to sue so the proposal was retracted.

Lost in the noise generated by two bickering Italians with almost identical fiscal policies was the historical context. As Naomi Klein detailed in The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, neoliberal governments always take advantage of catastrophic events to justify the evisceration of civil liberties, financial deregulation, privatization of public sector resource infrastructure, and increased capital injections into the coffers of the ultra-rich at the expense of the rest of us.

While there is a tremendous amount to learn from the Chinese public health system and its mandatory quarantine of virus clusters, the key factor forgotten by many is how the Communist Party buttressed its lock-down on freedom of movement with a substantial social safety net program that has included government-delivered food packages to its people.

By contrast, the closest that Providence is coming to this materializes as distribution of free school lunches in Grab-n-Go packaging. Home delivery of groceries is maintaining a section of the trucking and retail sectors in the economy but by no means resembles what China has done.

Disaster Capitalism Cash Cow in Classroom

Over the past two weeks in Rhode Island, the entire state has converted to computer-based remote learning, with thousands of Google Chromebook laptops and internet subscriptions to Cox Communications delivered to student homes.

This is a massive accomplishment for corporate education “reformers” that seek to privatize public education, in particular Gov. Raimondo, Education Commissioner Angélica M. Infante-Green, and Providence Superintendent Harrison Peters (the latter two are alumni of the Jeb Bush privatization project Chiefs for Change). Silicon Valley is a major patron of the charter school industry and one can certainly hear the champagne corks popping over this.

None other than the Rhode Island Libertarian Party’s Coalition Radio show said it out loud on Twitter in an exchange with Providence Teacher Union President Maribeth Calabro.

But simultaneously the social media world has been filled with parental statements of solidarity with teachers.

The contradictions inscribed into public education and its preservation are quite immense. The analysis of the school-to-prison pipeline demonstrates readily that teachers unions would profit little from fighting for a return to the status quo predating the epidemic.

Furthermore, an advantage has been granted the unions they would do well to utilize. If our educational infrastructure is willing, when push comes to shove, to transform and redeploy itself within a matter of days, this shows that its flexibility can be acted upon again by the unions in a fashion that redefines public schools for the better at a future date. Within the course of seven days, the state has made a gargantuan investment that it can make again. In the first instance, it was compelled by a public health event of a magnitude unseen in generations. In a future instance, that compulsion could be catalyzed by union solidarity with the student and families community, namely implementation of the Community Schools model the national union has been promoting for years.

A month ago, I attended a daylong forum at a Providence high school, held by the PTU and featuring as keynote speaker American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, that was framed as an attempt to begin fostering dialogue between the faculty and community.

It was a good start but parental distrust was palatable and openly stated during a Q&A session. Regrettably, one of the long-standing functions of any white collar business union is protecting the jobs of members regardless of their racial politics and that has justifiably left a bad taste in many mouths in the past several decades. The union has to demonstrate that it is willing to sacrifice white racial solidarity in exchange for genuine class solidarity.

The desegregation of public education was one of the monumental victories of the struggle against state-sponsored white nationalism in America. The charter schools project seeks to reverse that and crush public education unions in the process. That convergence of interests is one that would appear on its surface to be a no-brainer. But such collaboration requires a substantial level of internal political education combined with building viable alliances.

And the COVID-19 moment presents us all with a moment we have no business sacrificing. One of the points Klein made in the tour for her book was that progressives are responsible for failing to offer their own alternative policy proposals during these crises. The closest we have come to this is the recent speech by Sen. Bernie Sanders, which had some decent ideas but is far less substantial in form than what finance capital is proposing.

As Rob Urie pointed out in a recent column, “For the second time in a generation, the President and Congress are creating an economy under the guise of ‘saving the economy… Rank and file Democrats have by-and-large taken the claim that the Federal government must ‘live within its means’ at face value, even as they bore the brunt of austerity policies, as they are about to do again… If Democrats had held the Obama administration to account for the Wall Street bailouts, they would have standing to criticize Donald Trump in the present. But they didn’t.’” [Emphasis added]

Our side needs to make demands for something far larger, and soon, or we are going to have a major mess on our hands that will last long after the COVID-19 moment ends.

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