Despite Backlash, Teacher Strikes Are Spreading Across Country

Teachers in Colorado, Virginia and Oakland, California, were newly emboldened this week as they watched teachers in Los Angeles return to their classrooms after a successful six-day strike with an increase in pay and support staff. Now, they too are making their demands for fully funded schools known, with some moving closer a strike of their own.

The L.A. strike has reverberated strongly in northern California, where educators face many of the same issues, including ballooning class sizes and meager support staff. The Oakland Education Association, whose members have been without a contract since July 2017, began a four-day strike authorization vote Tuesday.

The last of the union’s 3,000 members will vote today, and an authorization could lead to Oakland teachers’ first strike since 2010. The authorization votes come on the heels of hundreds of Oakland teachers calling out sick January 18 in a wildcat “sickout” action to rally and march for school funding.

A Strike Brews in Denver

About 1,200 miles east, teachers in Denver have also reached their limit as negotiations with the school district have remained at an impasse over teacher compensation for more than 14 months. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) was gearing up to strike last Monday, but the school district thwarted the plan with a request for state intervention.

The 3,000-member union must now wait up to 10 more days for Colorado Gov. Jared Polis to decide if he will intervene — which could delay the strike another 180 days as the negotiations enter into a fact-finding phase. Teachers, guidance counselors and nurses could face civil fines and even have their licenses revoked if they were to strike during this period.

However, DCTA President Henry Roman tells Truthout that the union has crafted its proposals after years of information gathering and studies into the district’s operations and budget. “We have done a ton of that stuff already,” he says.

Denver teachers’ compensation is set up under a system called ProComp, which offers teachers incentives for working at a school that attains high test scores. While the district touts the system, the union argues it is overly complicated and creates frustration and uncertainty among educators about their pay.

The union is demanding increased base pay in a state that ranks 31st in the nation for teacher salaries, and is taking issue with the district’s above average administrative spending compared to the rest of the state. The district and union are also haggling over the district’s scheme to incentivize teachers using bonuses, rather than give them a predictable salary schedule like other districts.

“You cannot financially plan your future when you have that kind of variability in pay,” Roman says. This lack of reliable pay is driving what he calls Denver’s “teacher turnover crisis.” The union wants a traditional salary schedule that matches that of most other school districts. Moreover, he says, the district spends exorbitantly on bonuses for “people who are already well-paid”: its administrators.

In its legal response to the district’s request for intervention, the union argued that the district “has resorted to shameful intimidation tactics against its own workers,” including simultaneously threatening to report its immigrant teachers to immigration officials and school nurses with corrective action if they participate in any forthcoming strike.

Despite the district’s official apology, the threats “have created a climate of fear among educators,” Roman told Truthout. “You can’t, on one hand, say, ‘I’m going to throw you out of the country, but we really value the work that you’re doing, and we look forward to working collaboratively.’ It doesn’t create the right school environment…. It’s inexcusable.”

According to the district’s most recent statement, its latest proposal would add an additional $11 million to teachers’ base pay. The proposal also “invests more money in predictable annual salaries and less in one-time bonuses,” according to the statement. “We are working hard together to have some constructive dialogue,” said Interim Superintendent Ron Cabrera. “Our end game is to provide a really substantial compensation package for our teachers.”

Denver’s teachers were among the first blue-state educators to join the #RedforEd movement last spring after teachers in the red states of West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona walked out of their classrooms. Last April, Denver educators closed schools across the district for three days as thousands protested for fully funded schools at the State Capitol building.

Virginia Teachers Plan Next Steps After Massive Protest

Another 1,660 miles east, thousands more public school teachers demonstrated in Richmond, Virginia, on Monday to demand state lawmakers increase funding for public education, in what they say was the largest single demonstration of educators in the state’s history.

As the rally unfolded Monday, state legislators in the House of Delegates Finance Committee agreed to include Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s proposal for a 5 percent pay increase over two years for teachers and school staff in their next budget, which is expected to be released Sunday.

But Virginia Educators United, the grassroots group leading the #RedforEd movement there, says the raise does not meet the coalition’s other major demands, and is an attempt to silence the coalition’s “demand for a comprehensive re-envisioning of our school funding models.”

Deanna Fierro, a member of Educators United’s strategy team who also teaches math at a Henrico County middle school, told Truthout a group of Educators United organizers plans to be at the state’s General Assembly Sunday to ensure the increases actually make it into the budget. The organizers will also be strategizing around the coalition’s next steps to pressure delegates to meet the group’s other key demands: restoring state education funding; recruiting more diverse, high quality teachers; repairing school infrastructure; and providing adequate support staff. Actions like sickouts are not off the table, Fierro says.

Virginia has seen a dramatic decline in education funding over the last decade. The state ranks 34th nationally in terms of teacher pay, and its per-pupil spending was 9.1 percent lower during the 2018-2019 school year than 10 years ago, according to the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a Richmond-based think tank.

Recent tax breaks for Amazon’s new “HQ2,” set to break ground in Virginia, were another instigating factor for the teachers. Education advocates argue the state should invest in its schools before investing so much in business development.

“When things are bad in our economy, the first place [legislators] take money from is social services and things like education,” Fierro says. “We felt it in 2008, with the Great Recession, and those numbers just never went back up. It was convenient for the state to not get those numbers back up.”

Educators United spent more than nine months planning the protest, according to Fierro, and worked in coalition with union and non-union members alike, as well as educators, parents, administrators and policymakers.

The grassroots group, she says, is meant to be more “inclusive of educators at all levels, so basically, anybody who works in the public school system, [or in] higher-education, … and anybody that is a parent, guardian or member of the community.” Virginia’s state statutes prohibiting collective bargaining and barring public-sector workers from striking, she says, have largely defanged the Virginia Education Association.

Red-State Strikers Face Retaliation

While the blue states of California, Colorado and Virginia are joining the #RedforEd fray, teachers in red, right-to-work states who have already walked out of their classrooms are now organizing to beat back new legislation designed to prevent any future strikes or walkouts.

Teachers in many of the red states that touched off the #RedforEd movement last spring already face restrictions that make it harder for them to strike — one reason why some of these states have utilized the language of the “walkout,” instead of explicitly calling their actions “strikes.”

Arizona lawmakers introduced legislation this month that would make it illegal to close a school for any kind of labor action. The bill would also apply to charter schools, which have also seen strikes in both Chicago and Los Angeles recently.

Lawmakers have also introduced a bill that would gag teachers from discussing politics, including labor issues, in their classrooms. If the bill passes, teachers who engage in labor organizing could be fired. The legislation is so broad that it would also ban teachers from “endorsing” particular legislation, judicial action or political events — almost certainly imperiling teachers’ freedom in civics classes. The bill also prevents them from taking on “controversial issues,” and citing one racial group as responsible for the “suffering or inequities” of another.

“Clearly, they didn’t hear the voices of the teachers last spring,” said Noah Karvelis, who teaches music at Tres Rios Service Academy in the Littleton Elementary School District in Tolleson and founded Arizona Educators United. “If you really care about students and schools, then you need to talk about solutions to Arizona’s $700 million education budget deficit, not ways to discipline and silence teachers.”

After a massive walkout last year, Arizona teachers now find themselves working to counter bills in the state Senate and House that would spend $150-230 million in new state revenue created by congressional Republicans’ 2017 tax bill, on tax cuts instead of education funding.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma lawmakers have also introduced legislation this month that would ban strikes and punish teachers for their labor organizing. Under House Bill 2214, any teacher who participates in a strike or walkout would see their wages withheld and their teaching license revoked.

“For us, [the April walkout] was such a positive event — we had community members and parents all coming together in support of their kids, our students, the future of Oklahoma — and it’s sad that a legislator would take that positive event, where we worked together in a democratic way, … and then write up a retaliatory bill that would try to silence the voice of all those people,” said Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association.

Priest remains confident, however, that the bill’s author, State Rep. Todd Russ, won’t find enough support to move his bill forward. The union, she says, has worked to make substantial changes at the capitol since their walkout last year, tripling the legislature’s educator caucus and “weeding out” those who voted against raises to education revenue last spring, while developing strong relationships with newly elected legislators.

“We’ve seen a decade of cuts to public education, … and that is, obviously, with these actions, not unique to Oklahoma. Not only has education faced cuts, but we’ve faced privatization and vouchers, and changes in our standards,” Priest told Truthout. “We’re using our collective voice and making sure that everybody knows that it’s time to take care of our students’ needs, and it’s time to make sure that our workers can pay their bills.”