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Teachers’ Strikes, Catching Fire (cont’d)

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In St. Paul, teachers held listening sessions and formed book groups with community members. They read Alfie Kohn’s The Schools Our Children Deserve, from which the union took the title for its report, “The Schools St. Paul Children Deserve.” The Chicago Teachers Union had issued a similar report with a similar title in 2012, and Portland, too, adopted that framing in the preamble to its bargaining demands.

Such community outreach has helped teachers overcome the rhetoric of “selfishness” leveled at them. Faber says that parents independently started a Facebook group to support the teachers, which grew to around 1,500 members before the district chose to settle. In Minnesota, where union bargaining sessions are covered by open meetings law, the SPFT began encouraging not just rank-and-file teachers, but parents, too, to come watch negotiations. “Suddenly we had parents and community members coming,” says Ricker. “We started gaining their trust.” This year, she says, when the district moved to mediation, a process closed to the public, parents were angry at being shut out.

But even while teachers scored victories in each of these cities, the contracts also contained concessions. Ricker says that the class sizes in St. Paul are still not where the teachers want them to be—while they managed to lower the maximum number of students in some classes by two or three, that still leaves teachers, in many cases, with more than 30 students. But watershed moments like the Chicago strike, she notes, are built on incremental momentum; so she sees the new contract as progress.

Teachers around the country are part of something that’s beginning to look like a real movement. Teachers in Portland felt connected to Chicago when the strike happened there. Teachers in St. Paul, Ricker says, came to her excited to hear that issues in Portland were so similar to their own. Conversations that happened online, at conferences, and in face-to-face meetings are helping teachers to connect across the country, to become part of something bigger.

“We need to be looking at issues related to poverty and education and class all together,” Thiel says, “and making huge coalitions that don’t treat each of these issues as separate fights but part of a much bigger goal of creating more equality for everybody.”

Sarah Jaffe is a former staff writer at In These Times and author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt , which Robin D.G. Kelley called “The most compelling social and political portrait of our age.” You can follow her on Twitter @sarahljaffe.

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