Teachers strike against austerity

2018 has been the year of the teachers’ strike. West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma teachers have walked off the job and won major victories for public education.

On April 26, teachers and education support employees in Arizona and Colorado joined the strike movement.

In Arizona striking teachers and their supporters marched through downtown Phoenix to the state capitol in 100 degree weather to demand more funding for public education.

Defying a threat of arrest, Colorado teachers walked off the job and rallied in Denver, the state capital, for more funding for public education.

Teacher strikes haven’t been confined to the US. On April 16, teachers in Tunisia began a strike that affected the country’s high schools and colleges.

Tunisian teachers are also demanding more funding for the country’s public schools.

These strikes and the ones that came before them have one thing in common: they are all demanding an end to their governments’ austerity policies that for the last ten years have cut public education funding and funding for other public services.

In Arizona, teachers created the #RedforEd movement to restore public education funding.

Wearing their red t-shirts, an estimated 75,000 teachers, school support staff, and public education supporters flooded the streets of Phoenix on their way from a downtown baseball field to the state capitol.

They came to town to demand that Arizona Governor Doug Ducey and state lawmakers restore more than $1 billion cut from the state’s education budget over the last ten years.

In a letter to Gov. Ducey, the Arizona Education Association and Arizona Educators United describe some of the challenges their students face because of the state’s austerity measures.

“Our classrooms go without updated textbooks, basic supplies, and technology,” states the letter. “We have among the highest class sizes and school counselor ratios in the nation making it difficult to meet the individual needs of students.”

In addition, school buildings and school buses are not being repaired creating dangerous conditions for learning.

Since Arizona began cutting its education budget, spending per student has dropped to $7500 per student, the third lowest rate of spending per pupil among all states in the US.

Teachers want Gov. Ducey to increase education funding per pupil, so that it rises to the national average.

Cuts to the education budget have also resulted in stagnant teacher pay causing an exodus of qualified teachers, and a dearth of new teachers to take their place, leading to a teacher shortage and overcrowded classrooms.

Teachers are demanding a 20 percent pay increase, so that local school districts can retain experienced, quality educators and attract qualified newcomers to the profession.

Additionally, they want a competitive pay raise for school support staff, whose services play a vital role in the education of the state’s children.

Before the strike began and after teachers announced their decision to strike, Gov. Ducey tried to dissuade them by offering teachers a 20 percent pay increase.

Teachers rejected his proposal because it wouldn’t do anything about lowering class sizes or fixing local districts’ dilapidated infrastructure and because the governor proposed to funding the raises by taking money from state programs that serve low-income children and their families.

Like the #RedforEd movement in Arizona, the Colorado teachers’ #WeAreRed movement is fighting to restore money slashed from education budgets.

According to the Colorado Education Association, (CEA) these cuts have resulted in an $828 million under funding of Colorado’s public schools this year.

This year’s education funding deficit isn’t unique. For year, the state has scrimped on funding education.

As a result, teacher pay has not kept up with increases in the cost of living. CEA reports that over the last 15 years, teacher pay has been reduced by 17 percent when adjusted for inf lation.

Teachers in Colorado are also mad at the attempt by some lawmakers to undermine their pensions.

Legilslation was introduced this session to expand defined contribution retirement plans at the expense of teachers’ more traditional defined benefit pensions.

A mass mobilization of teachers and other education employees eliminated this proposal from pension legislation being considered by lawmakers, and the mobilization resulted in an infusion of $225 million to shore up the pension fund.

When Colorado teachers announced that they planned to strike, some lawmakers introduced legislation to make teacher strikes an illegal offensive that could result in jail time for those participating in strikes.

That threat didn’t keep thousands of Colorado teachers from walking off the job both Thursday and Friday resulting in school closures in at least 27 districts.

In Tunisia, secondary and college teachers on April 16 began an indefinite strike to stop cuts to public education being proposed by the government.

The teachers’ union, the FGESEC, blamed the government’s cuts on the International Monetary Fund, which has insisted on a number of austerity measures including cuts to education in return for a loan that the government requested.

The union is demanding wage increases for teachers, retirement at age 55 after 30 years of service, more progressive schools, a democratic education structure that benefits all children, teaching of the national culture, and an end to privatization of government resources including schools.

In Arizona, teachers were disappointed when Gov. Ducey refused to meet with them and  lawmakers adjourned and left town rather than meet face-to-face with angry teachers.

But the teachers weren’t deterred. They returned to the Capitol on Friday, and vowed to continue their fight.

“They ran from red,” said an AEA posting on its Facebook page referring to the #RedforEd movement. “But we’ll be back. We’re not giving up.”

Kentucky teachers close schools to protest pension ambush

Twenty school districts in Kentucky were shut down on Friday, March 30 as teachers poured into Frankfort, the state capital, to protest the passage of what teachers are calling an “ambush pension bill.”

Kentucky Education Association (KEA) president Stephanie Winkler said that KEA has planned a rally on Monday, April 2 to continue to protest the state’s leadership’s “blatant disrespect for the law and democracy.”

Winkler’s remarks came after Republican leaders of Kentucky’s Legislature inserted language that radically alters pensions for teachers and other public employees into a routine bill about sewer repairs, and then rushed the bill, SB 151, through both houses for a vote.

No committee hearings were held on the newly written bill and there was no analysis of the bill’s impact on the state or to legislators’ constituents. There wasn’t even a chance for lawmakers to read the 291-page bill before they voted.

Nevertheless, the House of Representatives at 7:30 P.M. narrowly approved the bill 49-46, and three hours later the Senate did the same and sent it Gov. Matt Bevin to sign.

The new bill eliminates pensions for newly hired teachers and other government employees and replaces them with a cash balance plan, which shifts much of the investment risks onto individual employees and reduces their pension benefit.

In addition to protesting the stealth attack on pensions, Winkler said that the Monday demonstrations will be about holding the governor and lawmakers accountable for education funding.

“We want lawmakers to vote for a budget that funds public education,” said Winkler at Friday afternoon media conference.

Winkler said that lawmakers need to increase state funding for classroom education, restore cuts to public school transportation budgets, and ease local school districts’ financial burdens.

Most school districts will be on spring break beginning April 2, but Winkler urged districts that are still open to close school on April 2 so that educators can come to Frankfort and make their voices heard.

As of Friday afternoon, at least three had announced that they will do so.

After passage of the SB 151, Gov. Matt Bevin, who enthusiastically supports SB 151, said that the bill solves the state’s pension funding problem, but it doesn’t.

For one thing, the bill provides no new funding to pay down the $26.75 billion unfunded liability of the state employees’ pension fund.

Gov. Bevin wants to divert more than a $1 billion from the teachers’ pension fund, which is in much better shape, into the state employees’ pension fund.

Winkler said that HB 151 is bad for public education because it creates an inferior retirement benefit that makes it more difficult than it already is to attract new teachers to teach in the Kentucky’s schools.

Making it more difficult to attract quality educators, Winkler said,  breaks a promise that the state has made to provide an equal and quality education to all public school students.

SB 151 leaves the pension of current teachers and other public employees intact, but the teachers who came to Frankfort on March 30 and plan to return on April 2 have every reason to believe that SB 151 breaks a promise made to them as well as to future teachers.

SB 151 leaves public pensions still seriously under funded, and there’s every reason to believe that in the not too distant future, Gov. Bevin won’t hesitate to use the pensions’ precariousness as an excuse to eliminate pensions for all teachers.

The stealth attack on public pensions comes after, Gov. Bevin’s original proposal to end public pensions in Kentucky, SB 1, appeared to be dead in the water.

Public demonstrations by teachers and other public employees had made lawmakers wary about supporting the bill.

Gov. Bevin’s antipathy toward secure retirements shouldn’t come as a surprise. He is an enthusiastic acolyte of the Koch brothers, whose political action committees lavishly support political candidates seeking to weaken public institutions including public education and public service.

Teachers from all over Kentucky recognize this threat, and that’s why they rushed to Frankfort on March 30 and will return on April 2.

And it appears that their loud voice has been heard by Andy Beshear, the state’s Democratic attorney general.

Beshear told an audience of teachers who packed the capitol’s halls on Friday that SB 151 violates the non-voidable contract the state has made to teachers and other public employees, reports the Lexington Herald Leader.

“While the (legislature’s) leadership broke their promise to you,” Beshear said. “I am going to keep my promise to you. I’m going to sue over this bill.”

Medford, OR teachers end strike, Portland teachers’ strike averted

Six hundred teachers in Medford, Oregon returned to work after what appears to be a successful 16-day strike for better public education.

In Portland, Oregon, a’ teachers strike scheduled to begin on February 20 was called off after the teachers’ union and the Portland School System (PSS) reached a last-minute tentative agreement.

In both cases, the school districts tried to impose a long list of concessions on their teachers.

And in both cases, the teachers  made improving public education the main goal of their new contracts, which won them crucial community support.

Members of the Medford Teachers Association (MTA) began striking on February 6 after 10 months of negotiations.

During negotiations, the Medford School District proposed a list of 118 concessions that it wanted from the teachers.

According to the Oregon Strike Insider, the school district showed little interest in negotiating a fair contract and took every opportunity to escalate tensions. The school district declared an end to direct bargaining, demanded a mediator, declared an impasse, and prepared to submit a final best offer.

The teachers were prepared to continue negotiations, but when it became clear that management and the school board had their own private agenda, the teachers struck.

MEA reported that 96 percent of the teachers walked off the job and stayed united throughout the strike.

The school district hoped that pressure from parents and the community would stampede teachers back to work.

But the teachers conducted an outreach effort to the community prior to the strike, and many parents and students sided with the teachers.

The school district tried to keep the schools open by using substitutes and probationary teachers, but that effort seemed to backfire.

“I don’t think that the quality is in the classroom right now,” said one parent as she walked with teachers on a picket line outside a school where replacement teachers were holding class.

That sentiment seemed to be shared by many others. School board members were bombarded with phone calls and emails urging the school district to return to the bargaining table and settle the strike. The district superintendent turned away parents who showed up at his office to demand an end to the strike.

Near the end of the strike, the school district negotiators tried to meet secretly at a local motel to discuss their next move.

But hundreds of demonstrators including teachers and parents gathered outside and told district negotiators to stop hiding and settle the strike.

“We’re here because basically at this point the district has closed their doors to parents,” said Kristen Robinson, a parent at the demonstrations. “They won’t give us any information. They’re not answering phone calls (or) emails.”

When negotiations resumed, the two reached a tentative agreement that union negotiators thought was fair.

The two sides agreed not to release details until the teachers and school board have a chance to review it.

On Sunday, February 22, the union held a meeting to discuss the agreement. The Medford Mail Tribune reported that it was well received by members and that schools would reopen on the 23rd.

“There was some give and take from both sides, and we were able to come to what (the union negotiating) team feels really good about (and) that our members will accept, not just that they’ve settled for something,” said Cheryl Lashley, MEA president to the Mail Tribune.

In Portland, the Portland Association of Teachers and Portland Public Schools (PSS) reached an agreement hours before the teachers were to go on strike.

PSS, which sought 78 givebacks from the teachers, pursued a strategy similar to the one used in Medford: drag out the negotiations, call in a mediator, declare an impasse, and ram through a final offer.

But while the teachers were negotiating with PSS, they were also organizing internally and reaching out to the public.

The union began its negotiations by including a preamble to its contract proposals.

The preamble, entitled The Schools Portland Students Deserve, laid out a list of objectives that the union hoped to achieve during negotiations–like smaller class sizes, a well rounded education that includes art, music, world languages, PE, library science, and electives for all children regardless of their parents’ income, education for the whole child that includes wrap around services such as counselling, less focus on standardized testing and more focus on letting teachers have more control over curriculum and instruction, and holding everyone in the education system accountable for providing a quality education.

The union then held a series of public forums to publicize these objectives.

The outreach work worked. The union had the strong backing of many parents and students.

When the union met to take a s strike authorization vote on February 7, hundreds of community supporters rallied outside of the meeting.

The Portland Student Union announced that if the teachers struck, members of the student union would walk the picket line with them.

The final agreement achieved many of the union’s objectives. Foremost, PSS agreed to hire 150 new teachers to reduce class sizes.

The teachers wanted to include language in the contract about the new teacher hires, but settled for a memorandum of understanding that put the number and hiring schedule in writing.

Teachers will begin voting on the tentative agreement on Tuesday, February 25, and votes will be tallied on Friday, February 28.