Recently, there have been several strikes by our public school educators, most notably in West Virginia. It even grabbed the attention of a neoliberal publication such as The Atlantic, which more or less said the WV teacher strike was a shot across the bow. Last week, Alia Wong wrote:
Even though the West Virginia walkout is over, however, observers suspect that it has jump-started a national movement that could have lasting implications for the country’s schools.
Evidence that the success of West Virginia’s roughly 20,000 K-12 classroom teachers is intensifying educator unrest nationally can already by seen. In Oklahoma, where the average teacher’s salary is even lower than that in West Virginia, educators are poised to stage a similar walkout, potentially in early April, to demand higher pay from the state legislature. According to the Los Angeles Times, the Oklahoma Education Association on Thursday plans to unveil a school-shutdown strategy; the teachers’ union said the vast majority of the 10,000 educators who responded to a survey supported shuttering campuses so they could strike. In Kentucky, a battle over educators’ pension benefits has raised the possibility of a teachers’ strike there, too. And other teachers’ unions throughout the country (and the world) have voiced their solidarity with their West Virginia counterparts through public statements, #55strong tweets, and pizza donations.
As we all know, Bernie Sanders supported the strike with this statement:
BURLINGTON, Vt., March 3 – U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) issued the following statement in support of the teachers on strike in West Virginia:
“Over a hundred years ago the coal miners of West Virginia helped lead the struggle in our country for fair wages and dignity on the job. Today, the teachers of West Virginia are carrying on that brave tradition. There is no more important work than educating our young people. The teachers of West Virginia, and teachers throughout our country, deserve decent salaries and affordable health care. I stand with the teachers of West Virginia in their fight for justice and dignity.”
This morning, NJ.com (h/t The Hill) reported that Jersey City public school teachers went on strike, the first time in 20 years. The city’s 4000 teachers had been without a contract since Sept 1, and teachers led vigorous demonstrations at various locations. Some students skipped class and joined the picket lines. Additionally, nurses, paraprofessionals, clerical staff, and guidance teachers joined the walk out. Signs which read “Respect” were carried. The crux of the issue: climbing healthcare premiums have cut deeply into their take home checks. One teacher participating in the strike voiced her concern this way:
“I’ve been in the system for 20 years and I’m finally making a decent salary and now I’m paying $1,400 a month for premiums,” a 53-year-old physical education teacher at McNair told The Jersey Journal this morning.
According to NJ.com, the Jersey City school district spent $98.9 million in 2017-18, in which the employee share of that was $19.9 million for health insurance. The district’s total budget is $682 million. Of course, now, other unions are considering a strike as well. Jersey City is still under going talks and it doesn’t appear to be resolved.
There has been some organizing as well among those who are employed as adjunct professors, lecturers, or underpaid graduate students working as TA/RA’s at universities. The GEO (Graduate Employees Organization) went on a strike at the University of Illinois at the Champaign-Urbana campus on February 26. Emboldened by the WV teachers’ strike, the walk out stretched out until March 8th, the longest in the campus’ history and garnered lots of support around the country. But before they did, the GEO was smart to find local partners for support. DSA was one of them, and a letter of support was sent to the Provost of the University.
Read our statement of support:https://t.co/lFfmW1ROdU
— Champaign-Urbana DSA? (@ChambanaDSA) February 11, 2018
Yours truly wrote the first draft, in which a few minor changes were made. My motivation had to do with seeing these graduate students every day and their efforts are immense, working long hours, competing for scholarships as well as other funding to do their research while learning the research process and taking classes. I work with them on their research processes, thus another vehicle of support.
Skyrocketing health care premiums along with stagnant pay and at will tuition waivers (as opposed to guaranteed waivers for any graduate student hired as a TA or RA, 20 hours or more weekly) were major issues among the GEO members. 2500 graduate students teach many lab or discussion sections of large lecture classes. Most undergrads undoubtedly receive high touch instruction by these employees, and Illinois was ranked 6th in the nation for grad student labor. They had been without a contract since August, but had started negotiations a year ago.
As a follow-up to a segment about the WV strike on Democracy Now, Amy Goodman mentioned on Democracy Now that the GEO was occupying the President’s office. (They also went to his house). I happened to catch DN when Goodman gave that shout out, and I mentioned it to one of the leaders in the picket lines. The GEO set up a fund in the event their pay would be docked or if the strike went on for more than a couple of weeks. That was wise.
Two of several leaders penned an article about their experience that was published in Jacobin yesterday, ” Learning On the Job“. Some of the details emerge about their strategy but also asked important questions:
We refused to enter picketed buildings where our classes were held and we withheld our labor by immediately halting all teaching-related duties. In contract negotiations, GEO prioritized progress towards ensuring financial stability for graduate workers in the form of tuition waivers, fair wages, fee waivers, and support for health and child care. During the strike’s last days, GEO members occupied the university president and chancellor’s offices. After twelve days, GEO reached a tentative agreement with the university administration and the strike ended on March 10, 2018, after 98 percent of the membership voted to ratify the new contract.
The question of whether graduate student workers are fundamentally students or workers had a simple answer during our strike: we’re both. This dichotomy between student and worker, however, has been a persistent issue throughout the history of graduate employee unionization. Decisions made by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) — both those prohibiting graduate students from collectively bargaining, such as Trustees of Columbia (1951), Aldephi University (1972), and Brown (2004), and those permitting graduate students to collectively bargain, such as Cornell v NLRB (1970) and NYU (2000) — have largely hinged on this conceptual question. Whatever the status of graduate student workers in the NLRB’s eyes, the reality of graduate education demands a synthesis of these identities.
What I didn’t tease out of the Jacobin piece but what is the catalyst behind many of these strikes is the case at the feet of the SCOTUS: Janus v. AFSCME. Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner was present in DC (since he used the state over it) when the case was presented to SCOTUS in February. To give you an idea of the crux of Janus in a nutshell, I borrow some language from AFSCME:
Under current law, every union-represented teacher, police officer, caregiver or other public service worker may choose whether or not to join the union — but the union is required to negotiate on behalf of all workers whether they join or not. Since all the workers benefit from the union’s gains, it’s only fair that everyone chip in toward the cost. That’s why 40 years ago a unanimous Supreme Court approved the kind of cost-sharing arrangements known as fair share.
The Janus v. AFSCME case is an effort by powerful corporate interests to outlaw fair share. … It actually began as a political scheme by Gov. Bruce Rauner, who shortly after taking office issued an executive order and filed a lawsuit trying to ban fair-share fees.
To give a little bit more information about Janus, CBS News had a summary about the case (of course under Money Watch):
Mark Janus doesn’t want to give money to a union. But because the Illinois social worker is covered under a collective bargaining agreement negotiated by the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, he’s legally required to pay a fee to cover the cost of representing him.
Janus is now the named plaintiff in Janus v. AFSCME, a case the Supreme Court is set to hear Monday and that that could fundamentally change the workplace for public employees nationwide. A court ruling against the union, an outcome many believe likely, could seriously dent public unions’ coffers by depriving them of a major source of these so-called “fair share” fees.
“It could be devastating to collective bargaining in government, and devastating to all employees who want union representation,” said Paula Voos, a labor professor at Rutgers University.
The point is that unionization is sometimes the only way to get better working conditions and salaries. The teachers have decided their work should be valued and compensated more fairly, especially with health care costs looming and they are rapidly decreasing take home pay. I would argue that if we had single payer or MFA, we could focus better on salaries as well as better working conditions. The money equation wouldn’t be quite as complicated.
But in the meantime, the ants are marching. And they are making gains. It’s a great time to be a progressive, being one of those ants.