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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Teachers’ Unions in a Post-Janus World

Excellent piece.  Concrete suggestions.

https://rethinkingschoolsblog.com/2018/06/26/transforming-teacher-unions-in-a-post-janus-world/

Harvard Will Bargain with Grad Students Union, Other Boston Area Students Encouraged

by Paul Garver

Harvard University will recognize and bargain with the Harvard Graduate Students Union-United Automobile Workers.   The union is now electing its bargaining committee and will base its demands upon in-depth surveys of the members of the bargaining unit. By creating a broad bargaining committee representing all sectors, the union hopes to overcome its relative weaknesses in some fields and professional schools.

The HGSU/UAW won the representation election on 18-19 April. Of the ca. 5000 eligible Harvard graduate students/research assistants and teaching fellows 1931 voted for union representation to 1523 against.

The union had narrowly lost a previous election held in November 2016.  The election was rerun in response to an appeal to the NLRB from the UAW because Harvard had violated the Excelsior rule by failing to supply with union with accurate eligibility lists.

The No vote remained constant between the two elections, but the Yes vote gained 500.   According to an extensive exit poll conducted by the staff of the Harvard Crimson, most new voters voted yes.

The exit poll revealed results that were both expected and surprising.

The strongest pro-union votes came from graduate students in arts and humanities (91% in favor), social sciences (88.5%), and the professional schools of government (91%), education (90%), public health (89%), law (88.5%) and design (81%).

Fewest yes votes came from engineering/applied sciences (28%), medicine (38.5%) and sciences (49.7%).   Students from the overall Graduate School of Arts & Sciences voted 66.4%, while those from Harvard College only 48.5%. Older students voted more pro-union than younger ones (83% if 29-33, 66.6% from 23-28, 47.5% from 18-22).

President Drew Faust and Provost Alan Garber announced willingness to bargain with the union over employment-related issues, while maintaining strict control over academic issues.  (In practice these issues are closely intertwined, and by insisting that these employees are primarily “students” Garber indicated the University could be intransigent on most sensitive bargaining issues.)

Nevertheless Harvard is breaking with elite private universities like Columbia, Yale and Chicago who are refusing to bargain with unions of graduate students, in the expectation that the Supreme Court will overturn the 2016 NLRB ruling that graduate students could form a union and bargain collectively.  Successful completion of a collective bargaining agreement at Harvard could set a valuable precedent.

Harvard has bargained decent contracts for several decades with its union of clerical and technical employees, and may choose to follow a responsible course with its graduate student employees as well, even if the Supreme Court rules it does not have to do so.

In early 2018 some national unions trying to organize graduate students withdrew representation petitions (e.g. U Chicago) in fear that the Supreme Court will profit from a challenge to a representation petition by ruling against NLRB protection of student employee organizing.

However other graduate student organizing efforts in the Boston area have redoubled efforts to organize and bargain, correctly assessing that formal law is not their ally.   The Boston University grad school organizing group (BURGER) is promoting mutual support networks with other area student organizing  a concerted push to profit from a positive outcome at Harvard.

Two hundred graduate employees at Brandeis Univ. have joined SEIU 509’s organizing drive. They held a militant May Day March to demand Brandeis bargain in good faith.

kreider

[Ed. note pg – I am particularly delighted by the union victory at Harvard.  50 years ago we formed an association of graduate students and teaching fellows at Harvard to oppose the Vietnam war, and participated in the 1969 strike.  Although we did not demand collective bargaining at the time, Harvard did unilaterally boost our teaching stipends by some 40% in an unsuccessful attempt to resolve our grievances.  I applaud the new generation for following the union organizing model for more lasting results.]

 

 

 

 

Before the Chalk Dust Settles: Building on the 2018 Teachers’ Mobilization

MAURICE BP-WEEKS, STEPHEN LERNER, JOSEPH A. MCCARTIN, & MARILYN SNEIDERMAN 

From The American Prospect.  APRIL 24, 2018

ARixo

By bargaining for and with the larger community, teachers are reinventing collective bargaining.

Why are we walking?” asked Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association. “There are 700,000 reasons why: our students. And they deserve better. … They see broken chairs in class, outdated textbooks that are duct taped together, and class sizes that have ballooned.”

While labor’s overall circumstances are certainly dire, we’re at an exciting time of renewed energy in the labor movement. Leading the way this time around are the teachers of West Virginia and Oklahoma (with teachers in Kentucky and Arizona not far behind). All of these states, like most of the country, have seen systematic defunding of public services, and nowhere is that pain felt more than in the classroom. School funding has been shown to improve the outcomes not only for individual students but also for the overall community. If we truly want a strong economy where everyone (most especially black and brown students) can thrive, funding public education is the way to get there.

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of this latest round of teacher labor power is that their demands are broad and inclusive. Even though the teachers who have gone on strike or are considering it are paid well below the average and have terrible benefits, they have put the focus of their demands on their students’ needs, on improving classroom quality and increasing classroom resources. In doing so they made clear that winning a raise for themselves would be insufficient—they have demanded a significant investment in children as well as a win on the “bread and butter” issues. This type of focus helps defeat the false narrative that teachers are just greedy individuals who don’t care about children.  Continue reading

Teachers’ Strikes in Arizona/Colorado

arizTEACHERS WALK OUT IN ARIZONA, COLORADO: “Thousands of teachers in Arizona and Colorado walked out of their classrooms on Thursday to demand more funding for public schools, the latest surge of a teacher protest movement that has already swept through three states and is spreading quickly to others,” Simon Romero and Julie Turkewitz report in the New York Times.

“Widespread teacher protests have in recent months upended daily routines in the conservative-leaning states West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky,” the Times reports. “But the sight of public workers protesting en masse in the Arizona capital, one of the largest Republican strongholds in the country, and demanding tax increases for more school funding, spoke to the enduring strength of the movement and signaled shifts in political winds ahead of this year’s midterm elections.”

“Educators in both states want more classroom resources and have received offers either for increased school funding or pay, but they say the money isn’t guaranteed and the efforts don’t go far enough,” Melissa Daniels and Anita Snow write in the Associated Press. “Most of Arizona’s public schools will be closed the rest of the week, and about half of all Colorado students will see their schools shuttered over the two days as teachers take up the Arizona movement’s #RedforEd mantle.” More from the Times here and the AP here.

See also: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/27/opinion/teachers-arizona-walkout.html

In these states, teaches do not necessarily have a right to strike- the famous Right to Work States. Continue reading

Solidarity with Striking Oklahoma Teachers

Austin Democratic Socialists of America Statement of Solidarity

With Striking Oklahoma Teachers

As history has taught us, collective action is imperative in the fight to win a better world for working class people. For the last four decades, labor power has been on the decline as its strength has been continually eroded by capitalist interests. The current wave of teacher strikes is a reminder that even with unions weakened under Right To Work laws and a multitude of other attacks, we can win when we organize and fight in solidarity.

In light of this, Austin DSA fully supports the Oklahoma teacher and school staff shutdown of public schools. Teachers and education employees are standing together in unprecedented numbers to demand improvements in worker pay. They are also demanding additional investments for public education for their students.

The Oklahoma Legislature has failed to invest in teachers and in student learning. This disinvestment has created a crisis in the public schools in Oklahoma.  Due to lack of funds,schools in 91 districts are only open 4 days a week—a 20% reduction in classroom learning every week. Administrators from superintendents to principals have joined teachers and school employees in over 100 school districts to shut down the schools and head to the Capitol to demand change.

Oklahoma teachers have not had a raise in 20 years.  Oklahoma is ranked 50th in teacher pay. The abandonment of the public schools has been led by Republican majorities in the Legislature and the Governor’s mansion. But it is not just a Republican problem.  Democrats have failed to exercise leadership on progressive tax plans and haven’t been up to the task of addressing the growing education funding crisis in Oklahoma.

This disinvestment is similar to the conditions that led to the historic teacher strike in West Virginia in February.  Oklahomans are inspired by the lessons of the massive uprising, uniting teachers, school employees, parents,and the broader Oklahoma community. West Virginia teachers and their allies  demanded and won badly needed investments in public education in teacher/staff salary and in relief from skyrocketing healthcare costs. But it wasn’t just teachers out for themselves; West Virginia teachers demanded, and won, raises for every state worker in West Virginia

We support the OK teachers’ just demands for decent raises, not just for the current year, but the coming 3 years as well. The legislature needs to do more to invest in student learning, technology, and school facilities. To address critical levels of teacher turnover, teachers deserve a long-term commitment to fair pay.  A one year raise does not make up for 20 years of neglect. To pay for this investment we urge Democrats to work with unions and the rank and file teacher movement to raise revenue not through regressive taxation but through progressive taxes on the wealthy, increased taxes on the oil and gas industry, and the closing of business tax loopholes as well.

Finally, we believe that this is an important battle in the fight for labor rights, equitable quality education, and health justice more broadly.  This is a crisis in West Virginia and Oklahoma, but it’s also a crisis in Texas as well. In fact, it’s a crisis in the entire United States, and only by standing together in the face of capitalist disinvestment can we overcome the broader assault on workers.. DSA believes that pay raises aren’t enough, and pledge to work towards a broader solution including broad union rights, expanded access to quality public education, and a Medicare For All system in which everyone is provided the highest quality healthcare, free at the point of service.

– Austin DSA Co-Chairs Glenn Scott and Dave Pinkham

Continue reading

Working People’s Day of Action

Have you heard about the Working People’s Day of Action this Saturday, 2/24?

Join DSA’s Democratic Socialist Labor Commission to affirm the right to strong worker organizations and to protect the voices of workers on the job. You can find actions near you here. And there will be more on Monday, February 26.

So why am I asking you this now? On Monday, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the Janus v. AFSCME case. Our public sector workers’ rights to run their unions and bargain with employers are at risk. So we need to fight back together!

This case is part of an on-going attack on collective worker power through the expansion of so-called “right to work” laws. Since their implementation in the mid twentieth century, these laws have been used to pit workers against each other. You can read more about the racist history of these laws here.

As socialists, we must stand united against efforts to divide the working class. At our convention this summer, DSA members voted to affirm the importance of “a militant and powerful labor movement” to a successful socialist movement. That’s why West Virginia DSA chapters are standing together with striking public school teachers in their state.

Continue reading