How teachers can prepare for a COVID strike

Michael Mochaidean, a teacher and member of the West Virginia Education Association, explores different scenarios for organizing a teacher strike in response to directives to open schools. (Image is from the March 2018 WV teachers’ strike.)

If you work in a school, chances are that last school year ended without students in them. In March, as COVID-19 spread rapidly across the United States, district after district reverted to distance learning programs. By April, few students were physically present in schools anymore. Some cities and states chose to remain closed for the rest of the school year, whereas others pushed back reopen dates once every two weeks until summer arrived. COVID-19 fundamentally changed the nature of education within a single month.

Now, as Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos threatens to withhold federal funding from states that refuse to reopen schools physically, educators are scrambling to protect themselves. Refuse to Return, a group dedicated to continuing remote learning until there are no new cases of COVID-19 for fourteen days, has mobilized petition-signers with weekly days of action. National Educators United and their state affiliates are hosting town halls on the dangers of COVID-19 in schools. A national day of action has been called on August 3rd to disrupt plans to reopen hastily.

Superintendents in the country’s largest school districts have begun to take notice of the trend and have taken actions to prevent students and staff from contracting the virus. Los Angeles Unified announced on July 13th that a physical reopening will not be feasible in August and has moved to remote learning. New York City is partially reopening with students but less than five days a week. Columbus recently announced that they, too, will be moving to online learning as cases in Ohio rise.

For hundreds of thousands of other teachers, though, it is still unclear what will happen to them. Districts that don’t shut down physically, and have no mandatory mask requirements, could reopen to dangerous conditions. The CDC announced that one in four health-compromised teachers will contract COVID-19 if schools reopen as planned. Those educators closest to retirement could choose to retire early for fear of contracting the deadly disease. This in turn will make the process of finding substitutes all the more cumbersome.

Dozens of unanswered questions remain, but one in particular is especially important now more than ever: What would it take for a nationwide teacher strike to occur?

This is not an insurmountable task. The 2018-2019 Red for Ed strikewave provided a blueprint for educators willing to take risks, and its lessons are important for those whose states and cities did not participate in these strikes. Below are a list of scenarios and organizing advice for such an event.

Scenario #1: You live in a right-to-work state, there are no collective bargaining rights for public employees, and your union is toothless

The first scenario is common in many southern states where right-to-work laws are the norm and teachers’ unions are treated more as associations. Years of acting more as insurance agents than bargaining agents have left southern NEA and AFT locals without the wherewithal to organize members for direct action. Too often, as well, state laws and court cases have made striking illegal for public employees in these states. Unions here are far less likely, with their smaller membership base, to risk heavy fines in the event of an injunction.

In this scenario, it’s incumbent upon the members to take the risks themselves without formal association with union leadership. This was the blueprint that West Virginia and Kentucky educators used in the 2018 strikes to great effect.

In West Virginia’s case, pressure from a secret Facebook page agitated and connected thousands of teachers and service personnel to begin taking the word “strike” seriously. Union leadership began seeing the anger in this page and announced in January 2018 that they were aware that members wanted to take serious action to protect their health insurance. Continued discussions with other teachers in person and on the pages increased a sense of solidarity in their concerns and in one another. Red for Ed days took place weekly where educators would post pictures of themselves and staff wearing colors in solidarity with other teachers across the state.

The coal counties in the southern end of the state went on strike first, after a joint WVEA-AFT meeting where they informed union staff that the members would decide which actions to take and the staff would have no choice but to listen. This one-day strike showed other teachers that a unified action was the only way to protect themselves (“they can’t fire us all”), and by the end of February, the entire state was walking out. Superintendents cancelled schools in all fifty-five counties so a hard strike didn’t take place, after ongoing conversations between educators and their district boards of education. The platforms created to unify messaging and give members a democratic decision for how the strike would play out gave them the confidence and, most importantly, the ability to decide not to return back when a bad-faith deal had been struck.

In Kentucky, organizing against Governor Matt Bevin’s austerity measures likewise began with an online page for public employees (not teachers), to update them about a special session’s looming pension cuts. The public employees were joined by other labor unions in the state at a Lexington rally in November 2017 to pressure Bevin to cancel the special session. The page morphed into a larger one, dedicated to organizing teachers after the success of West Virginia, and likewise gathered contacts from across the state to share concerns and build towards a strike action. The fears of being unable to strike in a right-to-work state were alleviated somewhat due to their neighbor taking a statewide action only a month prior.

The key tips to take away from both strikes:

Communication networks are key when you can’t know everyone in your state/district. In both West Virginia and Kentucky, it was impossible for everyone to know many teachers outside of their districts. A Facebook page was one way to connect everyone together and build informal contact lists rapidly. When people begin to comment on certain posts, you get a sense of where others are at personally with decisions like going on strike. It’s easier, then, to directly contact those individuals with certain “asks,” such as Red for Ed days or giving presentations at faculty senate meetings.

These pages are good for mass communication once they reach a certain threshold (several thousand is a good start), but they often become unwieldly. To facilitate democratic engagement on these pages, having page admins post polls is a good way to publicize where everyone’s mind is at. In West Virginia, an informal poll was posted after a bad-faith agreement was struck between the state’s education unions and Governor Justice. The poll showed an overwhelming amount of support to continue the strike. Those who saw this could then rightfully return to their districts and county pages to push for meetings with local leaders and superintendents, explaining that they weren’t alone in their decision to wildcat. This lowered the fear that many had about returning and allowed West Virginia to succeed in their walkout.

Part of the reason why it took so long for these state unions to strike was in part because striking is illegal for educators in both Kentucky and West Virginia. Union leadership has always been reluctant to take this type of action out of fear of injunctions and fines. Instead, both states opted to work with superintendents to help shut down schools and prevent a full-blown strike that could mean loss of pay and potentially one’s teaching license. Keeping up the pressure in these times of crisis can sometimes mean working with sympathetic superintendents to keep schools closed out of fear of safety for students and staff. If enough superintendents begin to close schools, it can provide cover for those more reluctant to close.

Lastly, given that membership in many southern state unions is voluntary, it’s important to leverage this when making demands of your union leadership. The phrase “You are the union” rings true when your union’s membership base is entirely voluntary and without a district or state contract. Leadership that is otherwise reluctant to take action understands the threat of a loss in dues-paying members if they become inactive. The consequences of not taking action can sometimes be worse for them than the potential for litigation.

Scenario #2: You have a certified bargaining unit, but your union is toothless

Denver’s 2019 strike perhaps best symbolizes the problems in this scenario. In 2017, as one Denver high school teacher explains it, she and her coworker would sit in negotiations, “watching as our union’s negotiators accepted concession after concession from the district.” Denver’s high schools were consolidated from seventeen to three over a decade as salaries and school funding declined. By 2018, however, when the contract was being negotiated, rank-and-file educators decided enough was enough. They chanted “strike” but knew they had to prepare for the worst.

Riding the wave of the four major strikes the previous year, Denver educators could rightfully understand that the time for action had come upon them. As Moira Casados Cassidy, a Denver educator recalled, “The strike wave was a lesson to us not to underestimate the power of workers organizing ourselves and taking initiative, even when our union’s leadership is flat-footed or conservative in pushing for limited demands.”

The Caucus of Today’s Teachers, an affiliate of UCORE, ran for union office in 2017 and elected Christina Medina as Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) vice president and won almost half of the seats on the executive board. Membership in the union rose from almost fifty percent to sixty-eight percent in the span of half a year. The union old guard were rightfully fearful that if they refused to back a strike, they could lose their positions. They had already accepted decades of concessions from the Denver public school system, leading to the rank-and-file upsurge only a year prior. In February 2019, Denver teachers voted overwhelmingly to strike.

Denver educators won an 11% pay increase with salary scale changes emphasizing experience and degree status that wouldn’t pit teachers against one another as previous contracts had done with outdated salary scales. The victory provided much-needed compensation changes to a teaching workforce that had half of their staff quit within the first five years. However, the strike didn’t address the need to open new high schools and provide more funding to the deteriorating Denver public school system.

The key tips to take away from this strike:

Find the pressure points in your union, where they’re weakest, and separate your group from their inactivity. In the case of the Denver strike, caucus members wanted the union to negotiate a contract with far better provisions than they were ever willing to do. Their weakness came from a low membership and a series of increasingly poor, incremental pay raises. The Caucus of Today’s Teachers, however, was able to increase membership and push for more than bread and butter issues. In future elections, they’re in a better position to highlight this contradiction among membership.

Relying on the things your union membership gives you to make organizing easier is a plus, such as legal aid, membership information, and contacts with building representatives. This provides you with a ready base of potentially likeminded educators and answers to legal questions about striking in your district. With Denver teachers, those reluctant to strike could readily contact building representatives who had a direct line to the union’s legal counsel for such inquiries. Though the DCTA has its flaws, membership in it provided organizers with many of the tools necessary for beginning and continuing their strike action.

Lastly, the Denver teachers read the writing on the wall and fit their demands to the moment. The previous year’s wave of teacher strikes over pay and benefits shifted the terrain of what was possible in right-to-work states. Public support for teacher strikes was visible to many, making it clear that the public would support a strike over lower and lower salaries. Riding the wave of popular sentiment now during the Age of COVID can mean using examples of other states that have gone virtual for the Fall semester and explaining that these demands are not radical by any means – in fact, they’re the most sensible alternative to an educator needlessly dying.

Scenario #3: You have a certified bargaining unit and your union is actually pretty good

The 2019 Chicago Teachers strike with CTU and the Los Angeles strike with UTLA are good examples of this case. The recent CTU strike wouldn’t have happened had it not been for the 2012 Chicago strike, and the 2012 strike wouldn’t have happened without the efforts of CORE (Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators). After years of staring down the barrel of Arne Duncan’s consolidation in Chicago’s predominately black school districts, and a CTU that was feckless in the face of his austerity-driven policies, rank-and-file educators formed CORE to take over leadership and turn the CTU into a fighting union.

Once assuming leadership, organizers like Jesse Sharkey and Jackson Potter revamped staff practices. Teachers were drilled in the art of workplace organizing — gathering contacts, agitating against school closures, showing up to board meetings — with the knowledge that a city-wide strike was looming. Rahm Emmanuel had been elected mayor of Chicago in 2011, after serving a brief stint in the Obama White House, where Arne Duncan was currently serving as Secretary of Education. It was clear to many, then, that Duncan’s policies would continue under Emmanuel, and a strike would be the only option.

The 2012 Chicago strike’s successes allowed CORE to build off of this momentum and catapulted Jesse Sharkey into his current position as president of CTU. When contract negotiations started in the Summer of 2019, CTU and SEIU Local 73 (representing school service personnel) banded together for a fourteen-day strike over both bread-and-butter issues (compensation and benefits) and social services (wrap-around services, librarians, nurses, and class size). Bargaining for the common good, working alongside other unions, and the grinding work of revamping an entire union from the ground-up took years of work, but it paid off.

Likewise in Los Angeles, the progressive caucus Union Power, which came to power in 2014, commands the 35,000 members of UTLA. Members voted 98% to strike in August 2018 over class sizes, need for nurses and librarians in every school, and a cap on charter schools in addition to salary. The January 2019 strike was successful because Union Power had capitalized on the nationwide movement for more education funding, worked to make demands on behalf of the families they served, and built connections with other unions to support the strike as well.

Chicago and Los Angeles school districts have both announced that schools will not reopen physically in the Fall this year due to COVID-19. This is in stark contrast to states and cities that did not witness a major strike action between 2018-2019, where union democracy and a history of striking by educators may be non-existent, and where significant concessions were won as a result.

The key tips to take away from these strikes:

Building wall-to-wall, industrial solidarity is key to keeping schools closed and preventing scabs. In Chicago, working with SEIU Local 73 added another layer of security for the strike itself. The Chicago School District could not reopen schools with a skeleton staff of service workers to prop up the façade that schools were still open and functioning normally. Striking together prevented the divide and conquer tactics that Mayor Lightfoot later used, because SEIU Local 73 saw in their struggle a common fight alongside the CTU.

Using your power as an educator to make demands on behalf of families will also increase popular support. UTLA’s strike won a nurse in every school and a librarian in every middle and high school. Class sizes were reduced to decrease student-teacher ratios and provide more time with individual students. Likewise, the CTU won wrap-around services for students and smaller class sizes in addition to better pay. Working families that rely on the school system for social services were willing to support a temporary halt in those services knowledgable that a union victory would also benefit them.

The progressive caucuses that run UTLA and CTU are comprised of formerly rank-and-file members with an oganizing-driven mindset. This has influenced the operations of their union locals and how they seek to win popular demands. However, the build-up to both strikes was long and arduous. For example, UTLA was in contract negotiations for 20 months before their strike began. Furthermore, the time and energy devoted to taking over leadership was a drawn-out process that encompassed years of dedicated work. Since that isn’t as feasible with schools set to reopen across the country next month, it is easier instead to use this moment to build the unions we want to see flourish when this pandemic is over. The networks we establish and the demands we make now aren’t only meant to keep schools remote in the Fall, but to create the apparatus for a similarly organizer-driven union in the future.

As we continue to see COVID-19 ravage cities and states across the US, it’s increasingly harder to make the case that schools should reopen physically, when many will likely see them shut down services once cases rise. Making demands on behalf of families that rely on the school system for childcare in order to work will increase support among parents, many of whom have been stuck without many options since March.

Michael M

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