Teachers’ Strikes, Catching Fire

From Oregon to Minnesota, school is out unless teachers and communities are heard.

Sarah Jaffe March 26, 2014

In Medford, Ore., teachers protest on February 1. (via Medford Education Association)

Con­ven­tion­al wis­dom holds that it’s hard to gar­ner sym­pa­thy for rel­a­tive­ly well-paid pub­lic work­ers at a time when few­er and few­er peo­ple have jobs that make ends meet. So the so-called age of aus­ter­i­ty” has seen unions of teach­ers and oth­er pub­lic-sec­tor employ­ees accept cut after cut. Teach­ers in par­tic­u­lar have been tar­get­ed by an edu­ca­tion reform move­ment that posits union­ized edu­ca­tors as a threat to children’s learning.

Yet in spite of that, teach­ers are begin­ning to win some bat­tles — by win­ning over hearts and minds in the com­mu­ni­ties they serve.

I think we’ve reached the point where it’s very clear to teach­ers that we can’t give [stu­dents] what they deserve under the cir­cum­stances that we find our­selves in now,” says Eliz­a­beth Thiel, a high-school Eng­lish teacher at Madi­son High School in Port­land, Ore. Par­ents and stu­dents have also real­ized that end­less stan­dard­ized test­ing and demands for account­abil­i­ty” from teach­ers at the same time that bud­get cuts swell class sizes and reduce ser­vices is a recipe for dis­as­ter, not success.

Thiel’s union, the Port­land Asso­ci­a­tion of Teach­ers (PAT), came with­in days of a strike before reach­ing an agree­ment Feb­ru­ary 18 with Port­land Pub­lic Schools that includes the hir­ing of 150 new teach­ers to reduce class sizes and cur­tail­ing the extent that teacher eval­u­a­tions hinge on stu­dent test scores. In Med­ford, Ore., a 16-day strike end­ed Feb­ru­ary 21 when the dis­trict con­ced­ed to many of the teach­ers’ demands on pay, ben­e­fits and work­ing time. And in St. Paul, Minn., the dis­trict agreed to a deal on Feb­ru­ary 21, the last work­ing day before the union was due to take a strike vote. In all three dis­tricts, strong com­mu­ni­ty sup­port helped the teach­ers win a stronger con­tract. A year and a half after the Chica­go Teach­ers Union revived the strike with a sev­en-day work stop­page that became nation­al news, teach­ers unions around the coun­try are show­ing a will­ing­ness to fight, and are doing the orga­niz­ing nec­es­sary to win com­mu­ni­ties to their side.

“[The dis­trict] didn’t believe that we would go out on strike, and they didn’t believe that after 11 days we’d still be every sin­gle one of us strong,” Cat Brasseur, the com­mu­ni­ca­tions chair of the Med­ford Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion, tells In These Times.

The Med­ford and Port­land school dis­tricts seemed to be count­ing on the aus­ter­i­ty ide­ol­o­gy to hold sway as they demand­ed roll­backs” from the work­ers: 118 sep­a­rate demands for con­ces­sions in Med­ford, 78 in Port­land. Both dis­tricts called an end to direct bar­gain­ing after the min­i­mum amount of time man­dat­ed by law and then declared an impasse after the min­i­mum 15 days of medi­a­tion. But teach­ers called their bluff, and the com­mu­ni­ty was on their side. It turns out that mak­ing con­di­tions in schools, not just wages and ben­e­fits, cen­tral to col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing is pop­u­lar with the pub­lic. In Ore­gon and Min­neso­ta, the unions built rela­tion­ships with par­ents and stu­dents that helped con­vince the school dis­tricts that they should accede to some demands.

Med­ford teach­ers pro­tect­ed their prepa­ra­tion time from pro­posed cuts and lim­it­ed the stu­dent-to-teacher ratio. Port­land teach­ers won an increase in their prep time and the hir­ing of new instruc­tors to shrink class sizes. In St. Paul, teach­ers secured an expan­sion of the city’s pre-kinder­garten pro­gram and small­er class sizes in high-pover­ty schools, in order to allow teach­ers to give indi­vid­ual atten­tion to stu­dents who need it the most. Accord­ing to Nick Faber, a 28-year St. Paul teacher and an offi­cer in the St. Paul Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers union (SPFT), fam­i­lies are fac­ing more eco­nom­ic chal­lenges than ever, which means stu­dents are com­ing to teach­ers with more prob­lems that require clos­er relationships.

Bar­gain­ing for poli­cies that help teach­ers deep­en their rela­tion­ships with par­ents is not new to the SPFT: Their last con­tract won fund­ing for a project that trains teach­ers to make home vis­its. In addi­tion to main­tain­ing that pro­gram, which has now trained more than 400 teach­ers, Mary Cathryn Rick­er, pres­i­dent of the SPFT, says that the new con­tract allows schools to change how par­ent-teacher con­fer­ences work. In the past, she says, con­fer­ences had been mod­elled on a gen­er­al­ly white, mid­dle-class mom who could find time to stop by after school got out and vis­it with her teach­ers.” But today, more chil­dren come from sin­gle-par­ent homes or those where two par­ents work, and sched­ules can be errat­ic. And so, Rick­er says, St. Paul teach­ers suc­cess­ful­ly won the flex­i­bil­i­ty to design con­fer­ences in ways that bet­ter suit com­mu­ni­ty needs.

Medford teachers protected their preparation time from proposed cuts and limited the student-to-teacher ratio. Portland teachers won an increase in their prep time and the hiring of new instructors to shrink class sizes.

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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