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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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

How A Vote Saved California Schools

California 17,000 Teachers Laid  Off in 2009.

Four years ago California voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition 30, the emergency ballot measure that Governor Jerry Brown and state education leaders had argued was needed to rescue public schools and community colleges from the fiscal free-fall of the 2008 Great Recession.
The good news, according to the California school teachers and officials, parents, college professors, health-care advocates and economic researchers interviewed by Capital & Main for this series, is that the initiative not only performed as advertised, but it may be the most spectacularly successful ballot initiative in the state’s notoriously uneven history of direct democracy.
Proposition 30 averted thousands of new teacher layoffs during the Great Recession.

By raising income taxes on the wealthy and the sales tax on everyone, Prop. 30 dramatically stabilized school funding in the wake of the recession, averting thousands of new teacher layoffs while beginning the work of restoring the jobs and programs lost during the first years of the crisis. It was also instrumental in allowing the state legislature to balance its budget for the first time in years without slashing social programs.
About This Series

Together with a recovering economy, the temporary tax measure has to date reinvested more than $31.2 billion in preschool, K-12, and community colleges. By boosting per-pupil funding by more than 14 percent, Prop. 30 bumped the state’s Great Recession-battered national ranking from dead last in 2010-11 to 40th among all states at $10,493 per student in 2016-17. It’s still a far cry from California’s long-ago position as a top funder of public education, and a 2016 report estimates that merely moving California to the average funding level of the top 10 states would require roughly a doubling of current state funding under Prop. 30. Continue reading

Enough Blame to Go Around

by Michael Hirsch

 Steier cover

Review of: Richard Steier, Enough Blame to Go Around: The Labor Pains of New York City’s Public Employees. Albany, New York: Excelsior Editions/State University of New York Press, 2014. 304 pp. US$24.95  (paperback).

Two things I know to be true about Richard Steier. He is the best full-time reporter on the New York City labor beat. He is also the only full-time reporter on the New York City labor beat.

That is no mean praise. Sure, The New York Times’ Steve Greenhouse does yeoman work as its national labor reporter, and the city’s union doings are covered sporadically by the dailies, but with the Times and the tabs, if it does not have a business angle or a political angle or a sports angle or an education angle or does not prefigure a strike that threatens to close the city down, it is not news.

It is to Steier, who thinks that what happens to working people on the job and in their unions is well worth knowing. It is Steier who knows union leaders and their industries, knows elected union officers sometimes act heroically, if rarely. It is Steier who unfailingly listens to what workers say. Like James Thurber’s description of the good newshound, Steier “gets the story and writes the story.” That skill and that sensitivity are amply on display in his There’s Enough Blame to Go Around: The Labor Pains of New York City’s Public Employees Unions. The book is a selection of his writing from 1996 to the present. With the exception of an introduction, conclusion, and section updates, all first appeared in his must-read and widely circulated weekly The Chief, which he edits. Know that the book is no simple cut-and-paste job, but shows the utility of covering closely the progression of stories over time.

And what stories! They have the quality of a Grand Guignol, as Steier captures a real-life demimonde inhabited by thieves and poseurs who prey on the poor, whether they be union leaders running the table and stealing the chairs or elected public officials who think smart budgeting means shilling for the city’s already undertaxed corporate elite by instituting austerity programs whose savings come from either contract takebacks or employee layoffs. In the extreme case of former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, that meant layoffs only for workers whose locals failed to endorse him, something even Michael Bloomberg never tried.
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Building power- the role of teachers and their unions

Building power beyond elections: The unique
role of educators and their unions

 By Joshua Pechthalt, President, California Federation of Teachers

The Republican victory in November reminds us that organized labor and the progressive movement can’t rely on elections to advance our agenda. Our power to improve the lives of members and community allies flows from our ability to organize the kind of powerful labor-community alliance that can demand change from politicians.

In spite of the national drubbing inflicted on Democrats, there were a few bright spots. The reelection of Tom Torlakson as state superintendent of public instruction demonstrated once again that mobilized educators can beat a multi-million dollar, anti-teacher campaign.

Significant victories across the country suggest that voters are not necessarily moving to the right on key issues. Voters passed measures to raise the minimum wage, legalize marijuana, and protect a woman’s right to control her body. In California, Democrats won every statewide office and continue to hold strong majorities in both the Assembly and Senate. They also picked up one congressional seat.

Electoral support for the Republican Party reflects the public’s deep uncertainty about the economy. While there has been consistent job growth for months, the majority of Americans worry about their current situation and the future.

Economic disparity is greater now than at any time since the Great Depression. Real wages have stagnated for years, job growth is primarily in the low-wage service sector, and for young people, a college education is expensive and no longer guarantees a decent middle-class job.

Conditions are ripe for the reemergence of a progressive political movement, yet none has developed. Democrats are not providing leadership; many people have lost confidence in them. They are unwilling to articulate a vision that puts people to work, rebuilds the nation’s infrastructure, invests in our schools and makes higher education affordable. Continue reading

Massachusetts Teachers Association Has a New Reforming President!

Ed. note:     The election of Barbara Madeloni  as President of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA demonstrates the commitment of the MTA to quality public education at all levels.  This excerpt from her first editorial statement speaks eloquently for itself.

Fighting for our vision of public education

Barbara MadeloniBarbara Madeloni
MTA President

This is my first MTA Today editorial, and I am writing it at a moment that is filled with promise and possibilities. I want to begin our conversation in these pages by saying what a great honor it is to be given your trust and the privilege of representing you as your president. I know that our new vice president, Janet Anderson, shares my excitement. Working with all of you, our members, we now have an incredible opportunity to build the MTA’s strength as an activist union so that we can reclaim our voices, our power in solidarity, and the hope of public education.

We come into office during tumultuous times — indeed, dangerous times. Corporate players, looking to privatize public education, profit from the public dollar and bust our unions, have imposed business ideology on public schools through high-stakes testing, charter schools and technocratic accountability systems. Their narrative of failing public schools and bad public school educators — along with lazy public-sector workers — has been accepted by a bipartisan legion of legislators and policymakers. Our great institutions of public higher education are subject to similar attacks and story lines.

This narrative denies the devastating impact of economic and racial injustice and shows disdain for the enormous achievements of our members. As a result, too many of our students remain in poverty, public-sector unions are threatened, and public education — the cornerstone of our hope for democracy — is endangered.

MTA members recognize that this is a critical period in our history. With the election of new leadership, members announced that we are ready to fight for public education, for our union, and for our communities.

More than 500 first-time delegates attended the Annual Meeting, buoyed by an understanding that the struggle we are engaged in needs activists, organizers and a commitment to win. Our members came to the Annual Meeting because they recognized that the MTA is each one of us, talking to each other and working together to create strategies that protect collective bargaining and due process, strengthen our union, and support the best education possible for every student in Massachusetts.

Ours is not simply a fight against corporate “reforms,” as some would frame it. Ours is a struggle for a vision of public education as a place for joy, creativity, imagination, empathy and critical questioning so that students enter the world ready to participate in democratic communities.

MTA members recognize that this is a critical period in our history. With the election of new leadership, members announced that we are ready to fight for public education, for our union, and for our communities.

In this vision, every child is exposed to a rich curriculum; every school is well-funded; all educators are given respect, autonomy and time to do our work; and parents, students and educators work together to assess and reassess our efforts. This vision must replace the dehumanizing data-driven madness that is choking the life from our schools.

Ours is a vision for economic and racial justice, a society in which every child enters the classroom from a place of material security and with the consciousness of being a valued member of our community with the same opportunities as any other child.

Ours is a vision in which higher education — public higher education — is accessible to all families and affordable to every student. Our colleges and universities are places of free inquiry and intellectual exploration of the highest order, as well as institutions that offer preparation for economic security and successful professional lives. Along with our schools, they help provide the threads that bind us together as a healthy and just society.

This fall and into the years ahead, MTA members will engage in a movement to create a more activist union and reclaim public education. The more members engage, the stronger our movement will be and the more we can do.This is a terribly important time for public education and union democracy. It is a time for struggle, but a time, as well, for the joy of solidarity and of being able to say, when asked, that we stood together for students, public education and democracy.

In solidarity, and in anticipation of many great things ahead,

Barbara

How Teachers Unions Lead the Way to Better Schools

Amy B. Dean

Amy B. Dean

by Amy Dean

Diane Ravitch upends the “bad teachers” narrative.

Part of what I object to is the assumption that somehow the problems in American education are all tied up with teachers. The teachers are causing low performance, and if we could just find the ideal teacher evaluation system, we would be the highest performing nation in the world. I think that’s a false narrative.

I have a concern: Teachers are getting pummeled. Too often, they are being demonized in the media and blamed by politicians for being the cause of bad schools. Right-wing governors, power-hungry mayors and corporate “reformers”—all ignoring root issues such as poverty and inequality—have scapegoated the people who have devoted their lives to educating our children. Moreover, these forces are seeking to destroy the collective organizations formed by educators: teachers unions.

The stakes for our country could not be more profound. The labor movement and the public education system are two critical institutions of American democracy. And they are two that go hand in hand. Teachers unions have played a critical role in advocating for public education, but you’d never know it from mainstream media coverage. Therefore, there is a great need to lift up this tradition and highlight the efforts of teachers to collectively push for top-notch public schools.

To figure out how we can push forward on this issue, I talked with Diane Ravitch, one of the country’s leading education historians and public school advocates. A professor at New York University, Ravitch is a former Assistant Secretary of Education and the author of several books, including 2010’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.

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