Interviews for Resistance: Why Teachers Unions Are the Best Bet To Transform the Labor Movement

Sarah Jaffe

Teachers around the country are organizing against privatization, and gaining support from parents and students. (mitchell haindfield/ Flickr)

Wel­come to Inter­views for Resis­tance. In this series, we’ll be talk­ing with orga­niz­ers, trou­ble­mak­ers, and thinkers who are work­ing both to chal­lenge the Trump admin­is­tra­tion and the cir­cum­stances that cre­at­ed it. It can be easy to despair, to feel like trends toward inequal­i­ty are impos­si­ble to stop, to give in to fear over increased racist, sex­ist and xeno­pho­bic vio­lence. But around the coun­try, peo­ple are doing the hard work of fight­ing back and com­ing togeth­er to plan for what comes next. This series will intro­duce you to some of them. 

Pub­lic schools have been a bipar­ti­san bat­tle­ground for years now, with teach­ers unions tak­ing attacks from elect­ed offi­cials at all lev­els as part of a broad­er move­ment to improve” edu­ca­tion by hand­ing con­trol over to pri­vate com­pa­nies. Don­ald Trump’s nom­i­nee to run the edu­ca­tion depart­ment, Bet­sy DeVos, is a stal­wart of this pri­va­ti­za­tion dri­ve, nev­er hav­ing met a pub­lic school she liked (and bare­ly, as many have point­ed out, hav­ing met a pub­lic school at all, since she nei­ther taught in any nor attend­ed them nor sent her own chil­dren to them). But teach­ers around the coun­try are orga­niz­ing against pri­va­ti­za­tion, and gain­ing sup­port from par­ents and stu­dents. We talk to one of those teach­ers, Jesse Hagopian.

Hagopi­an teach­es high school in Seat­tle and is an edi­tor for Rethink­ing Schools mag­a­zine. He is also active in his union with the Social Equal­i­ty Edu­ca­tors.

Sarah Jaffe: The school where you teach in Seat­tle, Garfield High School, has had a lot of activism from stu­dents, as well as teach­ers, in the past, hasn’t it?

Jesse Hagopi­an: It has a lega­cy of activism. It was the school where Mar­tin Luther King spoke when he made his only vis­it to Seat­tle. Grad­u­ates of our school found­ed the first chap­ter of the Black Pan­ther Par­ty out­side of Cal­i­for­nia, here in Seat­tle. It is a lega­cy we are proud of and that we are see­ing revived.

Ear­li­er this year, our foot­ball team, the entire team took a knee dur­ing the nation­al anthem in protest of police abuse. Then, it spread to the girls’ vol­ley­ball team and the girls’ soc­cer team and the cheer­lead­ers, even the march­ing band. Every­one was tak­ing a knee to raise aware­ness. Then, after Trump’s elec­tion, there were some 5,000 stu­dents across the dis­trict, or more, that walked out, includ­ing large num­bers at the school. It is excit­ing to see a new rebel­lion amongst young peo­ple today.

Sarah: I have been hear­ing from teach­ers who are hav­ing a hard time fig­ur­ing out how to talk to their stu­dents about Trump’s elec­tion. Can you talk a lit­tle bit about what it is like being a teacher in this moment, talk­ing to your stu­dents about what is going on?

Jesse: The first exam­ple I want to use is from my son’s school. The day after the elec­tion a young Mus­lim girl came in and she hadn’t yet heard that Trump won the elec­tion, so she found out there at school. When she found out, she fell to the ground and was pound­ing her fists into the ground and cry­ing. She was just ter­ri­fied about what could hap­pen to her and her fam­i­ly, whether they would be split apart or fears of vio­lence. I am so proud of what my son’s teacher did. She decid­ed right then and there to gath­er all of the class­es at the grade lev­el and bring them togeth­er, and all the fam­i­lies who were there for drop-off, and hold a dis­cus­sion, allow kids to dis­cuss their fears and their thoughts and let them know that this is going to be a safe place for them.

That is an exam­ple that I try to use, to have my class­room be a place that facil­i­tates dia­logue, that allows the kids to dis­cuss the fears and anx­i­eties that they have when they hear Trump’s plans for ban­ning Mus­lims, for deport­ing immi­grants, all of his atro­cious sex­u­al assault exploits, his fear-mon­ger­ing and hatred and big­otry of all kinds. The stu­dents need a place to talk about it. I try to facil­i­tate that, as well as let­ting them know my class­room is a safe place. On the door, all the teach­ers on my hall­way have put up signs that say, This is a safe place for our stu­dents and a place where we will oppose homo­pho­bia and sex­ism and racism and xeno­pho­bia and Islam­o­pho­bia.” We want to com­mu­ni­cate that mes­sage clear­ly with our students.

Then, we also have to do it in the cur­ricu­lum. It is so crit­i­cal that our cur­ricu­lum is talk­ing back to the text­books, which too often just glo­ri­fy Amer­i­can his­to­ry with­out engag­ing kids in crit­i­cal think­ing about the real chal­lenges and forms of struc­tur­al oppres­sion that have been per­pet­u­at­ed through­out U.S. his­to­ry. We have to allow them to dig into the cur­ricu­lum and into the his­to­ry to fig­ure out how we arrived at a moment like this. It’s real­ly cru­cial to help­ing sup­port them right now.

Sarah: The Seat­tle Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion had a strike fair­ly recent­ly and I believe one of the issues at stake there was racial jus­tice, in par­tic­u­lar, in the schools?

Jesse: Absolute­ly. Last year we went on strike for five days. One of the main demands was about hav­ing racial equi­ty teams in every school. The dis­trict opposed us and didn’t want to add any racial equi­ty teams. We want­ed them in every school build­ing. By the end of the strike, we had nego­ti­at­ed 30 racial equi­ty teams across the dis­trict, which was real­ly crit­i­cal to advanc­ing social jus­tice edu­ca­tion in Seat­tle for a num­ber of reasons.

One, it brought us togeth­er with the com­mu­ni­ty. Some of the key lead­ers in the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment signed onto a let­ter sup­port­ing our strike because of our desire to fight for racial jus­tice in our schools. Then, this past fall, this Octo­ber, we were able to build on that vic­to­ry. We actu­al­ly built a mon­u­men­tal action. It was called Black Lives Mat­ter at School Day. It start­ed with a few teach­ers, but it mush­roomed into an action that some 2,000 out of 5,000 teach­ers in Seat­tle wore Black Lives Mat­ter shirts to school. Many hun­dreds of teach­ers taught lessons about struc­tur­al racism and the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment that day.

It real­ly helped to expose the fact that there are a major­i­ty of us in the school dis­trict that see a much big­ger pur­pose for edu­ca­tion than just prepar­ing our stu­dents for a low-wage job or ship­ping them through the school-to-prison pipeline, that we want edu­ca­tion to be about empow­er­ing our stu­dents to cre­ate a bet­ter future.

Sarah: The Seat­tle strike was one of sev­er­al teach­ers strikes in recent years. Can you talk about what has been going on among teach­ers unions nation­al­ly and the chal­lenge to the attacks that pub­lic schools have been facing?

Jesse: The assault has been bru­tal on teach­ers unions across the coun­try. It has been bipar­ti­san. It hap­pened with an increased strength against our unions under George W. Bush with the No Child Left Behind act. It only accel­er­at­ed under Oba­ma and his Race to the Top scheme that would fur­ther link teacher eval­u­a­tions and pay to test scores, desta­bi­liz­ing the work force.

Now, we just see the attack unabat­ed with Don­ald Trump’s new pro­posed edu­ca­tion sec­re­tary, Bet­sy DeVos, and we know that every­thing she has in store for our schools is absolute­ly wrong and we have to build a vig­or­ous oppo­si­tion to her.

I think that this attack is so strong because the rich­est 1% in this coun­try know that teach­ers unions are the biggest unions left in Amer­i­ca. They are one of the most con­cen­trat­ed sources of orga­nized labor. They have the abil­i­ty to real­ly trans­form the labor move­ment and our com­mu­ni­ties, to make ties with par­ents, stu­dents, and teach­ers, and because of that source of strength they have also become a target.

Sarah: When Bet­sy DeVos was nom­i­nat­ed I was struck by the fact that she is a fig­ure that is very asso­ci­at­ed with school vouch­ers, which in recent years had kind of fall­en by the way­side in favor of this real­ly big bipar­ti­san push for char­ter schools. Can you talk a lit­tle bit about those two things and these waves of privatization?

Jesse: I think pri­va­ti­za­tion is the cen­tral aim of the cor­po­rate edu­ca­tion reform­ers. The Democ­rats, over the last eight years under Oba­ma had worked very hard to give char­ter schools a lib­er­al gloss and make them seem as if they were part of a civ­il rights move­ment to res­cue inner city kids, black and brown chil­dren, from a fail­ing school sys­tem, when in real­i­ty these char­ter schools often under­per­formed the pub­lic schools. They func­tion to siphon off mon­ey from the pub­lic school sys­tem to pri­vate­ly-run schools.

They often have some of the most dra­con­ian dis­ci­pline poli­cies. We have seen that black and brown stu­dents are sus­pend­ed at much high­er rates in char­ter schools, from recent stud­ies. These schools were just the oppo­site of what the Democ­rats had promised, but they were able to cob­ble togeth­er a coali­tion for a while of peo­ple across the polit­i­cal spec­trum who were advo­cat­ing for these schools as an alter­na­tive to what they called fail­ing pub­lic schools.”

I think that action real­ly laid the ground­work for what we are see­ing now, with the revivals of vouch­ers, which are just anoth­er strat­e­gy for pri­va­tiz­ing pub­lic edu­ca­tion, giv­ing kids a lim­it­ed amount of funds to use to go to any school they want rather than actu­al­ly invest­ing in the pub­lic schools and mak­ing every pub­lic school a qual­i­ty one with the resources it needs to succeed.

We live in a coun­try that can find tril­lions of dol­lars to bomb peo­ple all across the world and can find tril­lions of dol­lars to bail out the banks who sab­o­taged the glob­al econ­o­my, but when it comes to our kids’ edu­ca­tion, they want to try to do it on the cheap. They want to actu­al­ly try to make mon­ey off of it rather than ful­ly invest in the schools that we would need to help our kids succeed.

Sarah: When Trump announced Bet­sy DeVos, I said, She has no idea what is com­ing her way,” because the move­ment around pub­lic edu­ca­tion has got­ten so big and so strong in the last cou­ple of years. I won­der if you can talk about the way that stu­dents and par­ents and teach­ers are real­ly com­ing togeth­er to fight for com­mu­ni­ty pub­lic schools.

Jesse: Absolute­ly. That is real­ly what we need. The advan­tage that peo­ple like Trump and the rest of the 1% have is their immense wealth. The advan­tage we have is our num­bers. Those num­bers are real­ly vis­i­ble around edu­ca­tion, because it draws in so many diverse groups togeth­er in one place. It brings togeth­er labor with par­ents from all dif­fer­ent back­grounds, and stu­dents. It has been a source of pow­er for com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing and social jus­tice ini­tia­tives around the country.

In Chica­go, I think they have bril­liant­ly orga­nized social move­ment union­ism strate­gies. They have orga­nized the pow­er of labor to get behind com­mu­ni­ty issues. Then, com­mu­ni­ty groups have come and sup­port­ed them when they are on strike. And with our recent action here in Seat­tle with the Black Lives Mat­ter at School Day, it just took us all by sur­prise. When we passed the res­o­lu­tion in our union to wear these shirts to school we thought maybe a few dozen social jus­tice teach­ers would wear these shirts and teach lessons. Then, the orders went through the roof and fam­i­lies began set­ting up tables at schools with mate­ri­als out front to pass out to oth­er par­ents about how to talk to your kid about race. We had a won­der­ful evening forum that was packed out and dis­played the tal­ents of our youth. I think that action is one that can be repli­cat­ed around the coun­try and already has been.

Last week, the teach­ers in Philadel­phia have launched Black Lives Mat­ter at School Week. The whole week, they had a dif­fer­ent theme every day, with­in the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, to high­light the dif­fer­ent inter­sec­tion­al iden­ti­ties with­in the black com­mu­ni­ty and teach lessons and hold dia­logues around those actions. That has already been a pow­er­ful exam­ple of bring­ing togeth­er fam­i­lies and labor in a com­mon struggle.

I could see this type of move­ment flow­er­ing across the coun­try, espe­cial­ly as police bru­tal­i­ty con­tin­ues unabat­ed. The next time we see a hor­rif­ic mur­der of a black or brown body, I think it will fur­ther con­vince edu­ca­tors in oth­er cities that we need to trans­form our schools into sites of resis­tance to every­thing that Trump stands for. I real­ly hope that is where our move­ment can go, because Trump embla­zons his name on every­thing he owns. He has the Trump Tow­ers, the Trump golf cours­es, the Trump Hotels. I would like to see our schools become pub­lic sites of resis­tance to all the big­otry that he stands for. The school read­er boards here in Seat­tle said Black Lives Mat­ter” at many of the schools on our day. I think if we keep at it, we can help to trans­form our schools to become these sites of resistance.

Sarah: Do you have spe­cif­ic tips from the work you have been doing in Seat­tle for edu­ca­tors in oth­er places who want to start talk­ing to peo­ple in their com­mu­ni­ty, their stu­dents and their stu­dents’ par­ents par­tic­u­lar­ly around issues of racism, but in gen­er­al around the issues that their com­mu­ni­ties are facing?

Jesse: One is, for fel­low edu­ca­tors, it is real­ly crit­i­cal to form a cau­cus inside the union to gath­er togeth­er like-mind­ed social jus­tice advo­cates in the union and begin to present your ideas to the broad­er union, to help make your union strong enough to fight back against the pri­va­ti­za­tion attacks and to help raise social issues like the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment inside the union. Often­times begin­ning with a study group is a good way to go, get­ting a book to read. In Chica­go, the social jus­tice cau­cus there that won the elec­tion and took over the union began by read­ing Nao­mi Klein’s book The Shock Doc­trine. It was just a small study group and now they have quite a bit of influ­ence in that city.

Right here, we recent­ly held a study group on Keean­ga-Yamaht­ta Taylor’s book From #Black­Lives­Mat­ter to Black Lib­er­a­tion. Find­ing a book that can bring peo­ple togeth­er to dis­cuss their ideas and then talk about how we want to imple­ment them in the union is critical.

Then, I think pick­ing a cou­ple of key issues that you can orga­nize around that will bring in par­ents, stu­dents, and teach­ers. Here in Seat­tle, one of the main issues that we are ral­ly­ing around right now is the fight for eth­nic stud­ies. I would add gen­der stud­ies, as well. I think in this time where our pres­i­dent dis­par­ages Black Lives Mat­ter, where our pres­i­dent is an open sex­ist, and is a proud sex­u­al assaulter, I think we need to teach our kids the truth about the con­tri­bu­tions to this coun­try of peo­ple of col­or and of women and the strug­gles that they have been through. We are launch­ing an ini­tia­tive with the NAACP here in Seat­tle to demand that every school include eth­nic stud­ies. A recent study out of Stan­ford showed huge ben­e­fits aca­d­e­m­i­cal­ly, for eth­nic stud­ies pro­grams, in rais­ing grad­u­a­tion rates. I real­ly think that is some­thing that needs to take off across the country.

Sarah: Bet­sy DeVos has not been con­firmed yet. Even some of the Democ­rats with­in Con­gress who have rub­ber-stamped most of Trump’s oth­er nom­i­nees are say­ing that they are going to fight on hers. Peo­ple who are fol­low­ing that, what can they do?

Jesse: We need to fight as vig­or­ous­ly as pos­si­ble against her con­fir­ma­tion because she has absolute­ly no idea what she is doing with pub­lic edu­ca­tion. She nev­er went to pub­lic schools, her kids didn’t go to pub­lic schools, her only asso­ci­a­tion with the schools is her attempts to pri­va­tize them with her foun­da­tion. Dur­ing her con­fir­ma­tion hear­ing they asked her ques­tions about her fam­i­ly foun­da­tion because her fam­i­ly foun­da­tion has giv­en mil­lions to the Repub­li­can Par­ty, but even more despi­ca­bly, has fund­ed things like gay con­ver­sion ther­a­py, which is a pseu­do-sci­ence that is an absolute atroc­i­ty in the way it psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly abus­es LGBTQ youth. She has no busi­ness being any­where near a pub­lic insti­tu­tion that is meant to nur­ture all of the kids in the Unit­ed States.

I think that we have to raise pub­lic protests. We have to agi­tate in our unions to make sure our unions are vocal­ly oppos­ing this and let­ting the politi­cians know there will be con­se­quences if they vote to con­firm her. Join­ing local ral­lies and demon­stra­tions against her con­fir­ma­tion is real­ly important.

Sarah: Last­ly, how can peo­ple keep up with you?

Jesse: My web­site is IAmAnE​d​u​ca​tor​.com. They can fol­low the work I do there or on social media. Most impor­tant­ly, I think get­ting a sub­scrip­tion to Rethink­ing Schools and bring­ing social jus­tice lessons into your class­room is the best way to stay con­nect­ed to the movement.

Inter­views for Resis­tance is a project of Sarah Jaffe, with assis­tance from Lau­ra Feuille­bois and sup­port from the Nation Insti­tute. It is also avail­able as a podcast. 

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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