Frann Michel reads about recent teachers' uprisings, including an article by Lois Weiner from Jacobin Magazine, "Labor Renaissance in the Heartland."
Images by firedoglakedotcom - Flickr: CTU Strike: Classrooms Should Not Be Sweatshops, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21293364; firedoglakedotcom - Flickr: CTU Strike: 'Public $ for Public Schools' Sign, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21357180
Over the last six weeks, statewide teacher walkouts have been making headlines across the country.
Teachers in West Virginia succeeded in defeating an expansion of charter schools, killing a proposal to eliminate seniority, scuttling a paycheck-protection bill (aimed at weakening unions), as well as winning a mechanism to fix the health-insurance crisis and a raise big enough to matter.
Now, teachers across the country feel emboldened, and teachers in Arizona, Kentucky, and Oklahoma have organized protests to advocate for state-level action.
Teaching in K-12 public schools is not a particularly well-paying job. Teachers in the U.S. are paid about 30 percent less than other comparably educated workers in the economy, and this gap is larger than most other industrialized countries.
Nationally, inflation-adjusted teacher salaries are down nearly 5 percent since the onset of the recession, and all of the protesting states have seen reductions of 6 percent or more from their peak.
Combining these salary reductions with increases in health insurance premiums and contributions to retirement benefits—both of which have fallen more on teachers’ shoulders over the last decade—means that most teachers have significantly less in take-home pay than they used to. In Oklahoma, some teachers health insurance costs exceed their take-home pay.
Though teachers have for a long time worked second jobs at a higher rate than other full-time workers in the economy, it appears that the pinch is inducing even more to moonlight.
In Kentucky, there's a proposal to phase out defined-benefit pensions for teachers and replace them with hybrid retirement plans that combine features of a traditional pension with features of the 401(k) accounts used in the private sector. which leave retirees vulnerable to the vagaries of the stock market. Teachers in Kentucky are not eligible for Social Security benefits.
But these economic questions are not all that is involved.
Teachers are angry, but their anger is about far more than how much they paid for their master’s degrees. They are angry because the work they do — and the way we define the nature and purpose of schooling — have been greatly changed by neoliberal reforms which took hold twenty years ago in this country, with bipartisan consensus. Standardized testing and mandates for “data-driven instruction” have made teachers’ work less rewarding and more stressful, reducing professional autonomy and curtailing opportunities for teachers and students to have meaningful personal interactions with students and colleagues. At the same time, as West Virginia strikers have pointed out, states have refused to fund teachers’ salaries, health care, and pensions adequately. These matter to teachers because they need the money, and also because wages reflect the value society puts on our labor.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities last fall reported on a "Punishing Decade for School Funding." It notes that states cut education spending in the wake of the 2008 recession, and cuts have not been made up.
In 29 states, total state and local funding combined fell between the 2008 and 2015 school years (the last for which data were available). This includes Oregon.
Federal funding for education has also been reduced. Federal spending for Title I — the major federal assistance program for high-poverty schools — is down 6.2 percent since 2008, after adjusting for inflation.
Seven states with the deepest K-12 funding cuts, have also cut personal or corporate income tax rates—this includes West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona
Meanwhile, Costs of state-funded services have risen since the recession due to inflation, demographic changes, and rising needs.
For example, there are about 1.4 million more K-12 students and 1.3 million more public college and university students now than in 2008, the U.S. Department of Education estimates
But although there are more students than there were ten years ago, there are fewer teachers.
At the same time, voucher and charter programs have redirected funds from public schools to private ventures.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities study looks at general operating funding, but capital spending—on things like building maintenance,--has also been cut in most states, and One can see some of the results in Oklahoma by following the images tweeted by teachers there , of broken chairs, leaking roofs, and moldy walls.
Weiner observes that
An array of conditions have created the perfect storm for militant protests. Foremost is the immediate model of West Virginia.... But the seeds of this movement were planted years ago. Teachers and parents became allies in many places in the struggle to stop standardized testing from controlling what students learn, reducing the curriculum to test preparation. The traditional “bread and butter” labor union narrative has obscured the work of grassroots organizations like Save our Schools Kentucky, an activist group of parents and teachers working together to push a progressive program for school reform that goes far beyond teachers’ pensions. For years, [activist groups of teachers ] have been working with parents in the “opt-out” of testing movement, in red states and blue, without support from teachers unions.
An important similarity between these walkouts is that they are organized outside [and sometimes in conflict with] the official unions ...— though these conflicts are wisely muted in public amid statements of solidarity.
Whether knowingly or not, these grassroots movements challenge the premises on which teachers unions have operated for four decades, a form of business unionism inflected by rhetoric about professionalism, and failure to mobilize or even educate teachers about the “reforms” that have made life in schools drudgery for students and teachers. However, a factor in the unions’ atrophy that still lurks as a problem in the current movement is teacher unionism’s historic failure to forge alliances with communities of color.
The recent walkouts borrow heavily from a collective bargaining strategy known as "Bargaining for the Common Good," first deployed by the Chicago Teachers Union in 2012. In that campaign, the CTU worked to develop alliances with parents and community organizations and to integrate input from those groups into its bargaining strategies and demands. In recent contract negotiations, the CTU has fought for and won a number of victories for students—caps on class size, mandated student access to medical and mental-health services, and expanded after-school programs.
One challenge for the red-state movement is how to discuss and act on historic inequalities in educational opportunity for students of color. Stating the need for “quality education for all” as do the unions — at their best — isn’t enough. ....
The Right has been able to erode union support through its control of media and politicians and its vicious union-busting, but public-employee unions have handicapped themselves in fighting these attacks by acting as if two decades of right-wing propaganda can be ignored.
...Coming to the aid of social movements is a moral imperative that’s also practical.
The only way for unions to win the support and trust of parents who feel estranged from schools, and often from teachers unions, is for the unions to be physically present in community struggles, like those against police shootings and deportations.
Though they may not see this — yet — these movements are rebuilding the labor movement in the South. To accomplish that longer-term goal, they need to present a truly progressive program for tax reform and provision of services like hiking the tax rates for corporations to fund schools; fighting for Medicare for all, not only reductions in health care costs for public employees. They may have to settle at some point for less than they’ve demanded, but it’s a losing strategy to focus on economic demands without embedding them in a social vision for making working people’s lives better.
One of the greatest contributions of this movement has been to redefine what it means to be a worker.
By demanding recognition and respect for their labor and the rights of their students, teachers are reviving the most essential element of labor unionism: respect for democracy and the dignity of work.