Teachers’ Strikes Past and Present

 by Andy Piascik

teachers strike
(AP Photo/Adam Beam)
Su Sheridan holds a sign protesting proposed cuts to retirement benefits for public school teachers on March 8, 2018 in Frankfort, Kentucky.

Momentum from the inspiring wave of strikes by public school teachers that emerged almost out of nowhere and swept the United States this past Spring has carried over into the 2018-19 school year. With the new school year not yet a month old, teachers in several districts in the state of Washington have won significant gains in pay, benefits  and school funding  through walk-outs. In Puerto Rico, teachers struck on the third pay of school in part to oppose school closures demanded by financial vultures who continue to ravage the island. And in Los Angeles, the country’s second largest school district, teachers have authorized a strike if their demands to prevent wage and benefit cuts and against school privatization aren’t met. 

         
   In addition to the strike and potential strikes, teachers in West Virginia have formed WV United, according to Labor Notes reporter Dan Dimaggio. WV United is a rank and file caucus made up of members of both of the nation’s major teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers and is affiliated with the United Caucuses of Rank-and-File Educators (UCORE). Teachers in West Virginia kicked off the strike wave in the Spring and were soon followed by teachers and other school staff in Arizona, Oklahoma, Colorado, North Carolina and Kentucky who held large-scale walk-outs that in some instances led to the statewide closure of schools for extended periods. Similar actions also took place in individual municipalities such as Jersey City, New Jersey.
A Spring of Unity and Militancy
           
In every instance, there was a tremendous degree of unity. Rank and file participation was robust, rallies were large and often quite spirited, very few teachers crossed picket lines in those places where schools weren’t completely closed and the public was highly supportive. A number of commentaries have noted that Donald Trump carried fa number of the states where the strikes occurred, where union members are generally a lower percentage of the workforce and have fewer collective bargaining rights.  
            
Among the many themes of the strikes, there were at least two that relate directly to their red-state hue. The first, widely commented on, is that reactionary state governments have been especially aggressive in their assaults on the living standards of the majority of their populations. In the face of dramatic tax reductions on corporations and the wealthy, attacks on workers and unions, and the undermining and underfunding of education and other public programs, teachers who have often not gotten raises for years while working conditions deteriorate, finally said Enough
Many Trump Voters Among the Strikers
           
Another theme was that people’s class allegiances emerge as struggle intensifies, and the fact that some of the striking teachers voted for Trump is almost irrelevant as they engage in actions like the recent walk-outs. The focus on whether the strikers voted for the worse of two horrible presidential candidates is certainly of great interest to the punditocracy but serves intentionally to obfuscate the fact that the struggle between the Super Rich and the rest of us will unfold primarily in workplaces and on the streets, not in voting booths.    
            There were fissures between union officers and some rank and filers who believe officers in Oklahoma, for example, were too timid in calling off a strike that had not yet achieved all of the teachers’ objectives. In West Virginia, teachers remained out in defiance of union officers who tried to end the strike. Efforts by nervous officers to curtail or even prevent strikes echo events in Wisconsin in 2011 when workers occupied that state’s capitol building before union bureaucrats shut down the protests and essentially told the workers to go home and find a Democrat to vote for.
The fissures in the teacher unions will not go away and a galvanized rank and file may emerge that can address that timidity. That much of the work in preparation for and during the recent strikes was done outside official union channels speaks well to the possibility for desperately needed changes in union structure and culture.
Another Teachers’ Strike 40 Years Ago
           
In the early stages of the neoliberal epoch in the 1970s, public school teachers in Bridgeport, Connecticut went on strike for many of the same reasons exactly 40 years ago. The Board of Education and the Bridgeport Education Association (BEA), the collective bargaining representative of the city’s 1,247 teachers as well as about 100 other school professionals, had been at loggerheads for months. Connecticut law forbade strikes by public school teachers, however, and many Bridgeporters were caught off guard by the picket lines on the first day of school.
           
Much like the strikes in 2018, there was widespread public support for the teachers. Hundreds of supporters, including students and their parents, joined the picket lines. At one site, members of a neighborhood group played an especially active role in urging students and parents to either join the picket line or go home.
National Teacher Strike Wave
           
Like the 2018 strike wave, the walk-out in Bridgeport was one of many that September. Teachers in Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, Seattle and numerous smaller cities and towns saw schools closed because of strikes, and some of those actions lasted for several weeks. It was the Bridgeport walk-out, though, that was the longest and the most contentious, as teachers faced a local power structure determined to crush the strike.
          
  In what were the early stages of the austerity agenda of the business class, Bridgeport’s teachers had seen wages and benefits lag and classroom sizes grow in the years leading up to the 1978 strike. They had accepted a concessionary contract in 1975, causing salaries to fall all the way to the bottom in Fairfield County (as they are today) and among the lowest in the state. There was also a growing exodus of teachers from Bridgeport to higher-salaried jobs in nearby school districts, another trend that remains in 2018. 
           
From the outset, the 1978 strike was highly successful. Only 36 teachers, or less than 3%, reported for work on the first day of school and that number dropped in the days that followed. The Democratic mayor and the Democrat-majority Board of Education kept elementary and middle schools open at first by utilizing a small number of teaching aides, substitute teachers and accredited, unemployed teachers, but only 10% of students showed up. The city’s Parent Teacher Association, meanwhile, supported the strike by rejecting a call by the Board that they volunteer in schools and assist scab teachers.
Mass Arrests and Imprisonment
            Arrests began just days into the strike and State Superior Court Judge James Heneby began levying fines of $10,000 per day against the union. As the strike continued, Heneby ordered the union’s officers jailed. The first jailings occurred on September 12th, the fifth school day of the strike, when thirteen teachers were handcuffed and carted off, the men to a prison in New Haven and the women to one in Niantic some 60 miles away. Those arrested endured degradations such as strip searches and being doused with lice spray. Adding further insult, Heneby imposed individual fines of $350 per person per day on the arrestees.
            Angered by the arrests and the teachers’ subsequent treatment, treatment that one arrestee later called the most humiliating event of her life, the strikers turned out to the picket lines in ever larger numbers and with greater determination and militancy. One result was that the city and school board were forced to abandon efforts to keep any schools open. With all 38 schools closed, another 115 teachers were arrested in the next few days. In all, 274 were arrested during the strike, 22% of the total in the city. As prison space became scarcer, many of those in the later waves of arrests were packed onto buses and taken 70 miles to a National Guard camp that was converted into a makeshift prison.
Standing Firm to Victory
            As the confrontation continued into late September, and with all of the other strikes around the country settled, the mass arrest and imprisonment of Bridgeport’s teachers was drawing international attention and causing local elites and city residents as a whole great embarrassment. Despite the arrests, jailings, fines and some tense scenes on a number of picket lines, the teachers stood firm. Finally, on September 25th, after 14 school days, the teachers union and Board of Ed agreed to accept binding arbitration. All teachers, some of whom had been locked up for 13 days, were released from prison. The final terms of the agreement were largely favorable to the teachers.
New Legislation: A Setback?
In the strike’s aftermath, the Connecticut legislature passed the 1979 Teacher Collective Bargaining Act that mandates binding arbitration when teachers and the municipalities they work for are stalemated in contract negotiations. While some observers saw the law as a victory for teachers, it was still illegal for teachers in Connecticut to strike, as it remains today. In addition, a number of changes to the law since 1979 such as one that allows municipalities but not unions to reject the decision of an arbitrator, have weakened the bargaining position of teachers.  
Chicago 
No militant strike wave or reinvigorated workers’ movement followed the strikes of 1978. Rather, it was capital that escalated its offensive, one that continues to this day. Probably the most noteworthy strikes by teachers since 1978 came in Chicago where teachers walked out for nine days in 2012 and for shorter durations several times afterwards. The Chicago actions gained significant victories and illustrated to a country where strikes have become rare that they can be incredibly effective.
The 40 years from the Bridgeport strike to today precisely cover the period in which we have seen the most radical upward redistribution of wealth in human history. There is much gut-level support for radical change on many issues including the state of education and the conditions teachers work under. The wave of strikes may be an important turning point.
Moving Forward
           
If that is to be the case, continued organizing and coalition-building is essential. Striking teachers in 2018 did not face anywhere near the state repression as those in Bridgeport in 1978; there does not appear to have been as much as a single arrest during the strike wave. But entrenched power will push back hard and fast on all fronts, as it always does. The recent strike wave presents a real opportunity for catalyzing the large scale but mostly diffuse discontent among workers toward something more cohesive and better organized. That is an exciting possibility and the thousands of teachers and other school workers who stepped forward in recent months are well-positioned to make that possibility reality.
           
It is of great significance that in the West Virginia strike at least, teachers refused to accept a demand by the governor that improved pay and benefits would be paid for with cuts in much-needed programs for the working class as a whole. Mainstream commentators who regard union workers as nothing more than a special interest group exclusively focused on their own well-being had no idea what to do with that one. Also of note is that, in large part because of the insistence of the teachers, the contractual gains won by some of the strikes included all other school workers and that non-union supervisors in at least several states overwhelmingly supported the strikes.
For those who recognize increased class consciousness as essential to long-term social change, the teachers’ rejection of West Virginia elite efforts to conclude the strike by driving a wedge between themselves and the other workers was an important step. Among the challenges now are further development of that consciousness and the further strengthening of the class unity it represents.
One other challenge facing the burgeoning motion among teachers is the fact that the underfunding of education has proceeded at a higher and faster pace in places with higher percentages of students of color, particularly African Americans. Seriously addressing this point and developing strategies accordingly through their unions, in the networks they’ve established and in coalitions they join will go a long way in determining how broad, militant and effective all of those organizations will be. Events of recent week indicate that teachers and other school staff are determined to build on the terrific start of the Spring and may be on the cusp of reinvigorating the labor movement with much-needed militancy.  
 
Bridgeport native Andy Piascik is a long-time activist and award-winning author whose most recent book is the novel In Motion.  He can be reached at andypiascik@yahoo.com.

 

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Judging Janus: What Happens to California’s Progressive Legislation?

California’s 1.4 million-member public-sector unions are the key force that has pushed the state toward increasingly progressive policies. The Supreme Court could seriously diminish that force.

Gabriel Thompson,

http://prospect.org/article/what-will-become-californias-progressivism-if-court-sides-janus

Capital and Main

American Prospect

 

 

 

http://prospect.org/article/what-will-become-californias-progressivism-if-court-sides-janus

Capital and Main

Teachers’ Union Helps Immigrant and Refugee Children

Pages from im_uac-educators-guide_2016The American Federation of Teachers provides Tools and Resources to help protect immigrant youth and their families in case of ICE, immigration, raids and enforcement efforts.
Prepared by the American Federation of Teachers.
Excellent resources.
Downloadable copy  at aflcio.org/immigrationresources.

Unions Resist Trump

It’s been just one month since President Trump was sworn in, and already we have seen attacks on working people, women, Muslims, the press, immigrants… and the list goes on and on.

But Americans are standing up to fight back in a way I’ve never seen. The day after the inauguration, we marched with millions of women and men in Washington, D.C., and around the world to stand up against Trump’s agenda—and we’ve stood again and again to oppose Trump’s outrageous policies.

People are standing up—and resisting and persisting is working. But with the GOP leadership bent on giving the wealthy steep tax cuts while cutting funding from vital programs like public education and stripping Americans of their rights and their healthcare, the pressure on Congress is absolutely imperative if we hope to stop the worst of Trump’s plans. Continue reading

Defend Public Schools: Defeat DeVos

The Senate education committee just voted to advance Betsy DeVos’ nomination for secretary of education. Next she’ll face the real test: a vote of the entire senate. It’s taken almost a month for her nomination to get this far, and the fight isn’t nearly over yet.

You’ve sent more than 1 million emails, and called senators more than 50,000 times, and believe me – they are taking notice. In explaining why she’ll vote no, Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) said that 95 percent of the people that contacted her office opposed DeVos. Ninety-five percent! At the vote this morning, Senator Murkowski (R-AK) said she is still undecided, and that she is listening to the serious concerns of the thousands of her constituents who have called. And they’re not the only ones. We’ve heard from senate staff that they’re getting more emails and calls from our members and allies about stopping DeVos than they’ve ever had about a nominee.

Trust me – you are making a difference. We have to keep the pressure on. Keep calling. Keep emailing. Keep telling your senators that Betsy DeVos cannot be put in charge of our nation’s schools.

Call 1-855-882-6229 to speak to your senators.
Click here to email them.

Our senators need to know that we will never back down when our students and public education are on the line. Let’s keep up the fight.

– Lily

Lily Eskelsen García
President
National Education Association

See posts below on DeVos

Betsy DeVos and Blackwater

devosBy Marc Norton

Blackwater founder Erik Prince, who has been called “America’s most notorious mercenary” by author and journalist Jeremy Scahill, has emerged as an influential advisor to the incoming Donald Trump regime.

Prince is also the brother of Betsy DeVos, who is in the process of being confirmed as secretary of education — and an advocate for the privatization of public schools.

The connection between these two reactionary political players is no secret, but is one of those barely-known facts that has remained mostly hidden in plain sight.  Despite significant press around the confirmation hearings for DeVos, the corporate media has not called the public’s attention to her relationship to Prince.  Plaudits go to the The Intercept for publishing an article on January 17 by Scahill about Prince’s connection to Trump, and highlighting his connection to DeVos.

Prince’s biggest claim to infamy is as the founder of Blackwater, a private security firm that hired mercenaries to augment US military forces in Afghanistan and Iraq, among many other places.  Blackwater, now transformed into a company called Academi, had an intimate relationship with the CIA, and was regarded by many as one of the CIA’s go to organizations when it wanted to contract out its dirty work.  Blackwater got into hot water more than once, particularly in 2007 when some of its mercenaries gunned down 17 Iraqi civilians, including a 9-year old boy, in Baghdad.

Scahill reports that trusted sources tell him Prince has been giving Trump advice on his staff picks for the Defense Department and the State Department.  Nothing like having friends in high places if you want work.

Prince is close to another Trump advisor, the racist Steve Bannon.  Prince has often appeared on Bannon’s Breitbart Radio.  Last July, Prince told Bannon that a Trump administration could and should create a new version of the Phoenix Program, the CIA assassination program during the Vietnam War that “neutralized” tens of thousands of alleged Viet Cong leaders.  The new assassination program would presumably target “radical Islamic extremists,” and who knows who else. Continue reading

Both Major Teachers’ Unions Oppose Betsy De Vos

Today was the first day of hearings. Republicans praised her and Democrats raised several important issues including her role as a leading opponent of public schools. The vote will be next week, perhaps Tuesday. Please contact your Senator today.

What will Betsy DeVos’ focus on school choice mean for public education?: Education secretary nominee Betsy DeVos has neither taught nor worked in a school system, but she and her family have used wealth and influence to create more charter schools and champion vouchers. As educators watch her hearing for an understanding of her views, William Brangham talks to Frederick Hess of American Enterprise Institute and Randi Weingarten of American Federation of Teachers.

http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/will-betsy-devos-focus-school-choice-mean-public-education/

The more we learn, the more we are certain that Betsy DeVos is bad for public schools and for kids.

When De Vos has to choose between quality schools and “the free market,” she chooses “the free market” of privatized choice every time. The best interests of children take a back seat.

And we know the DeVos endgame–shut down our neighborhood public schools, and replace them with a patchwork of charters, private schools and online learning.

We can’t let that happen and we need your help. Present and future generations of children are depending on us to act now.  We now know that some Senators have grave doubts. It is our job to make those doubts grow into active resistance to DeVos. Our senators are in district offices from 12/17 – 1/2.

Here are our three toolkits to help you do your part.

Toolkit 1. Call your senators’ offices. The toolkit with numbers and a phone script can be found here. It includes a link to phone numbers.

Toolkit 2. Send a letter to the editor of your local newspaper. You can find a model here. Continue reading