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Arizona teachers win some added education funding

Friday, May 4th, 2018

On the sixth day of their walkout, Arizona teachers have won a partial but real victory, as the state legislature pass and Republican Gov. Doug Ducey signed a bill including a substantial pay raise for many teachers and an increase in education funding. The increase, though—$100 million in what Ducey calls “flexible dollars to improve our public education system”—falls far, far short of what teachers were calling for:

“The people down here, a lot of them, don’t listen to our voices,” said Noah Karvelis. He is one of the organizers of Arizona Educators United, the group that crafted the #RedForEd movement that, along with the Arizona Education Association, organized the strike that began last Thursday.

“They don’t respond,” Karvelis continued. “If they did, we’d have $1.1 billion for education in this budget.”

Legislative Republicans brushed aside Democratic efforts to include school support staff in the teacher pay raise, to require one counselor for every 250 students, to limit class size, and to pay for increased education funding by “phasing out some tax exemptions and eliminating the ability of individuals and corporations to divert some of what they owe in state income taxes to help children attend private and parochial schools.”

Many teachers expressed disappointment about what isn’t in the bill. And they should. The additional funding still leaves Arizona schools behind where they were in 2008, and lawmakers didn’t establish solid, responsible revenue sources for school funding. But it’s still a win in the sense that, without teacher activism, there would have been zero progress.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on May 3, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

3 states where teachers could go on strike next

Wednesday, May 2nd, 2018

As thousands of teachers in Arizona and Colorado mark their second day of walkouts Friday, there are also rumblings of possible strikes in other states, with educators throughout the country demanding more funding and higher pay.

Teachers in Arizona will brave 98-degree heat to march to the state Capitol for the second time this week. In Colorado, educators will also march to the state Capitol and they’re using their personal days to do so, leading roughly 30 school districts to close as a result. Only one school district in Colorado voted to officially go on strike, but they cannot take action until the state’s education agency decides by May 4 whether to try to broker a resolution with teachers.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey (R) announced a proposal earlier this month to raise teacher pay by 20 percent by 2020, but teachers have said that amount is insufficient. Ducey said on Wednesday that he won’t offer the educators anything more, according to the Arizona Daily Star. “And it’s time to move on,” he said.

Meanwhile, in Colorado, Republican lawmakers introduced a measure that would forbid public school teachers and unions from going on strike and threatening them with fines, jail time, and termination if they violate the terms. The measure has little chance of becoming law, but its introduction alone highlights the hostile environment in which teachers find themselves.

Following teacher actions in West VirginiaJersey CityOklahoma, and Kentucky in recent weeks, Colorado and Arizona have become the latest battlegrounds for education funding. But they likely won’t be the last. Louisiana, North Carolina, and Nevada are all experiencing disputes over education funding. As ThinkProgress’ Casey Quinlan previously reported, in most of these states, school funding is still far below what it was before the Great Recession of 2008.

Here’s a look at where walkouts and strikes could happen next:

North Carolina

Nearly 800 teachers in Durham have requested personal leave on May 16 to travel to the state legislature to call for higher school funding, pay raises, and reductions in class size, local NBC affiliate WRAL reported Thursday.

The Durham Association of Educators said they would request that the Durham Public Schools board cancel classes on that day.

A 2017 report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) listed North Carolina as one of seven states which, since the Great Recession, not only cut general funding — which supports elementary and secondary schools — but also enacted income tax rate cuts costing the state $3.5 billion a year, making it “nearly impossible for North Carolina to restore these education cuts, let alone make new investments.”

Today, North Carolina ranks 40th in the country when it comes to education funding, 43rd when it comes to per-pupil funding, and 35th when it comes to teacher salaries, with average pay only recently breaking the $50,000 mark long promisedby state lawmakers.

Louisiana

The Louisiana Federation of Teachers is currently surveying its teachers to determine their willingness to go on strike to win “significant pay raises.” The results of the survey are expected to be released next month, but many educators have already expressed frustration over their salaries, which ranks as one of the lowest in the country.

According to the CBPP, per-pupil funding in Louisiana dropped more than 12 percent from 2008 to 2015. Like North Carolina and other states, tax cuts are largely to blame. Former Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) cut income taxes and increased corporate tax breaks, leading state revenue to drop dramatically.

The state consistently ranks last in the country when it comes to quality of public education.

Nevada

Talks of rallying in Nevada have started gaining traction, with at least one school district calling on lawmakers to find a solution to the school’s poor funding and low salaries.

While strikes are illegal in Nevada, teachers at the Clark County School District in Las Vegas were frustrated during a press conference Thursday, asking state officials to use extra funding from the state’s recreational marijuana tax to fund higher wages. Currently, that money goes to the state’s “rainy day” fund, and not to the schools.

“In states such as Arizona, Oklahoma and Kentucky, teachers associations are rallying and protesting to the governors and legislators at state capitols because that’s where the money for raises comes from,” said Linda E. Young, of the Board of School Trustees, according to a local NBC affiliate. “It’s time for us to rally together in Nevada to give our teachers and other employees the raises they deserve…”

Nevada is one of six states that drastically cut capital spending used to build, renovate, and equip schools with resources. Between 2008 and 2015, Nevada cut capital spending by a whopping 82 percent, according to the CBPP. The state’s student-to-teacher ratio also rose during that time, from 18:3 to 21:2. Per-pupil spending in Nevada ranks in the bottom 10 in the country.

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on April 27, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Elham Khatami is an associate editor at ThinkProgress. Previously, she worked as a grassroots organizer within the Iranian-American community. She also served as research manager, editor, and reporter during her five-year career at CQ Roll Call. Elham earned her Master of Arts in Global Communication at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and her bachelor’s degree in writing and political science at the University of Pittsburgh.

Colorado Republican bill would jail teachers for walking out

Tuesday, April 24th, 2018

Colorado teachers are getting ready to join the wave of teacher walkouts to fight for pay raises and increased education funding—and two Republican lawmakers want to jail the teachers for their activism.

The bill, SB18-264, would prohibit public school teacher strikes by authorizing school districts to seek an injunction from district court. A failure to comply with the injunction would “constitute contempt of court” and teachers could face not only fines but up to six months in county jail, the bill language reads.

The bill also directs school districts to fire teachers on the spot without a proper hearing if they’re found in contempt of court and also bans public school teachers from getting paid “for any day which the public school teacher participates in a strike.”

Presumably state Rep. Paul Lundeen and state Sen. Bob Gardner have not read the polls showing widespread support for teacher walkouts and an even more widespread sentiment that teachers are underpaid. Or maybe they have read the polls and they just don’t care how unpopular their jail-the-teachers bill would be.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on April 23, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

Arizona teachers could be next to go on strike

Tuesday, April 17th, 2018

Arizona teachers will begin voting on whether to strike on Tuesday. The voting will go on for three days.

Although Gov. Doug Ducey (R) announced a proposal to raise teacher pay by 20 percent by 2020, which state lawmakers will debate this week, teachers say his proposal doesn’t address education cuts over the past decade or large classroom sizes across the state.

Teachers are leaving the state for higher salaries and smaller classroom sizes and there are too many teacher vacancies as a result, teachers told ThinkProgress’ Elham Khatami last week. Last year, there were 8,600 teacher vacancies and 62 percent of those vacancies were vacant or being taken by people who couldn’t qualify for a teaching certificate, according to the Arizona Republic.

Arizona had the most devastating cuts over the past decade, according to a 2017 Center for Budget and Policy Priorities report on education funding since the Great Recession. State funding per student fell by 36.6 percent between 2008 and 2015, more than any other state.

On April 11, thousands of teachers participated in a statewide walk-in to ask for more education funding and higher salaries. In addition to the 20 percent raise they requested, they want to implement a permanent salary structure, offer competitive pay for educational support staff, stop new tax cuts until the state’s per pupil funding reaches the national average, and restore education funding to 2008 levels.

Arizona Educators United, a coalition of teachers, administrators, and education support professionals, organized the vote. Derek Harris, a member of the coalition’s leadership team and a band teacher at Tuscon Unified School District, said the group wants to see support from all over the state, according to Tuscon.com.

He said organizers want something more than a simple majority, but they don’t have a firm threshold for a vote. Teachers will vote before and after school hours. One of the members of the coalition leadership team, Kelley Fisher, a kindergarten teacher at Las Brisas Elementary School, showed teachers how to make a secure ballot box in a video on the group’s Facebook page.

“I am a creative arts teacher so I had to include some glitter but that’s not required,” she added.

Teachers on the coalition’s leadership team named the reasons why the governor’s proposal is not sufficient, such as the lack of detail on where funding for the raises will come from. Teachers also said a proposal should include more education funding to improve students’ quality of education.

“My students deserve to have repairs on their building and working plumbing and holes in walls patched,” Harris said in the group’s Facebook video published on Monday.

Harris laid out a plan for teachers over the next week for the voting process and next steps over the weekend, such as community organization meetings across the state.

“You will be breaking into canvassing teams, organizing house meetings, and really moving into the next step to get the community on our side,” Harris said. “So this week, let’s try to stay very attentive to what’s going on. We’re saying this week is #RedAlert, because if the legislature does something funny we want to make sure that you’re paying attention and ready to do anything that may need to be done.”

This article was originally published at ThinkProgress on April 17, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Casey Quinlan is a policy reporter at ThinkProgress covering economic policy and civil rights issues. Her work has been published in The Establishment, The Atlantic, The Crime Report, and City Limits

Most Americans think teachers are underpaid. Here's the graph that shows how right they are.

Friday, April 6th, 2018

Are teachers underpaid? Teacher pay has been in the news recently as a wave of teacher walkouts and strikes has hit red states like West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and a recent CBS News poll found that most people say yes. Overall, 68 percent of people said teachers were underpaid, but there were striking regional differences, with just 60 percent of people in the northeast agreeing while 76 percent in the south said so. Turns out, whatever state you live in, if you think your state’s teachers are underpaid, you’re right. An Economic Policy Institute analysis shows that:

Over the last two decades, teachers are contributing more and more toward health care and retirement costs as their pay falls further behind. Teacher pay (accounting for inflation) actually fell by $30 per week from 1996 to 2015, while pay for other college graduates increased by $124. In short, the teacher pay gap—the difference between what teachers earn in weekly wages compared with similarly educated and experienced workers—has widened significantly. Even when accounting for benefits, the teacher compensation gap increased by 9 percentage points, to 11.1 percent over that same time frame.

Teacher pay gaps vary considerably across the United States as indicated in the figure.1 The figure below shows within-state ratios of public school teachers to other college graduates. The ratio for the overall United States is 0.77, meaning that, on average, teachers earn just 77 percent of what other college graduates earn in weekly wages. Arizona (0.63) has the lowest ratio (the largest pay gap), while Wyoming (0.99) has the highest ratio (the smallest pay gap).

Check out how your state’s teachers are doing on the graph below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on April 5, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

The Oklahoma Teachers’ Strike Is a Mutiny Against Austerity

Thursday, April 5th, 2018

Oklahoma teachers proudly marked themselves absent from school since Monday, and they had an excellent excuse: They made themselves present in politics instead, with a historic march on the Capitol in hopes of finally capturing the legislature’s undivided attention

Lawmakers thought they could eke through another austerity budget with the last-minute addition of a $6,100 wage hike. But an estimated 30,000 educators stopped work starting Monday to force some 200 schools to shutter, in order to send the message to elected representatives that their gesture is insufficient. The planned raise paled against teachers’ demands for a fully funded school budget, as part of a $3.3 billion package to restore massive cutbacks across state agencies, as well as the basic dignity of a living wage for all state workers.

Following a decade of bruising austerity, the numbers still don’t add up for Oklahoma schools. They lead the nation in annual budget cuts, and rank 45th in funding equity levels and 46th in academic performance, according to recent national rankings. With pay scales for teachers statewide frozen since the recession, salaries have declined in real terms to rank near dead last in the country.

Cathy Benge, a library media specialist at Longfellow Middle School in Enid, calculates the average age of a book in her library’s collection is 40, while many textbooks are 10 to 12 years old. This leaves her middle schoolers with crumbling textbooks about as old as they are. “Our services are being cut to the core,” she said.

As a 15-year veteran educator and a parent of three herself, Benge notes that, while teachers appreciate the short-term bonus, they’ll accept nothing less than real long-term security, including parallel raises for school staff and cost-of-living adjustments for pensions. And fundamentally, their rebellion isn’t about wages, but respect for themselves and the young people they educate. “We are walking to advocate for our students,” she says. “Our students are being robbed of a properly funded education.”

Even with the proposed pay hike, teachers’ salaries are still devastatingly low, despite being years into the economic “recovery.” With the 15 to 18 percent salary boost offered by state lawmakers, a typical teacher’s pay would reach the $40,000 tier only after eight years. That still trails the estimated annual living-wage income for a family of four with one working parent in Tulsa County, according to the MIT living-wage calculator. By comparison, workers in the construction and extractive industries often earn about the same amount. But while school budgets have bled nearly $200 million since 2009, the fossil-fuel industry receives special protections and subsidies, including rock-bottom tax rates.

The state’s austerity axe delivers daily punishment to a struggling student population: The proportion of special needs and English-language-learner children has soared in Oklahoma in recent years, according to the OEA, and the majority of kids are so impoverished they need subsidized lunches.

Not even educators like Rae Lovelace are spared. “If I didn’t have a second job, I’d be on food stamps” she told CBS at the Capitol. To cover her family’s basic needs, the English teacher splits her class time between third graders at her northwest Oklahoma school and the distance-learning students of an online charter school. The state’s extraordinarily high teacher turnover rate shows that many are opting to leave their job to for higher-paying sectors or teaching jobs in other states.

Benge witnesses this grim civics lesson playing out locally in her small city of Enid. Her library’s budget, after shrinking for several years, was just zeroed out. Understaffing in paraprofessional support staff across the public school system, she adds, leaves teachers overwhelmed with classes often exceeding 30 students. And the students are coming from households facing parallel deficits in welfare and healthcare supports, due to state’s massive divestment from family social services, on top of education cuts.

No wonder many other civil servants rallied in solidarity with this over-stressed, mostly woman public workforce. Schools are on the front lines of so many overlapping unmet needs, Benge explained. “If [children] have trauma going on in their lives at  home, and [Department of Human Services] doesn’t have enough case workers or foster care to help them out,” she said, “then they’re not in place where they’re prepared to learn the next day.”

Noting that her colleagues have stretched their paychecks to buy students the shoes or eyeglasses they otherwise could not afford, Benge says, “I cannot in good conscience sit and not do anything. Do I have to feed them? No, I don’t, but I can’t not.”

Lawmakers should have seen the revolt coming. Weeks ago the OEA published online polling results showing that if the state failed to provide living wages and full funding “for education and core government services,” organized school closures and mass walkouts to the Capitol would be supported by overwhelming majorities of teachers, students and parents.

The Oklahoma rebellion caps a wave of mass mobilizations in the past few weeks, including similar wildcat actions in West Virginia and, more recently, Kentucky, with potential strikes brewing in Arizona. The uprisings evoke a decades-old tradition of teachers’ labor militancy. Yet the latest eruptions signify a bold new anti-austerity resistance, fueled by an undercurrent of simmering left-wing backlash in Trump Country.

Weak union power and overarching right-to-work policies in Republican-dominated Oklahoma mean any mass political action carries risks, especially given the sensitive nature of schools’ role in the community. Teachers’ strikes are essentially “wildcat” in Red States like West Virginia and Oklahoma, where educators are legally restricted from striking and have anemic union protections. The political constraints on workers’ collective actions—which may presage the gutting of public-sector union protections in the upcoming Janus Supreme Court case—could have a radicalizing impact. When the rules can’t contain them, teachers have no choice but to write their own, including grassroots work stoppages.

Meanwhile, some teachers are even schooling political elites: A major progressive surge in last September’s special election launched Oklahoma educator Jacob Rosecrants from the classroom to the State House in a key swing seat.

“A lot of teachers and educators that I listened to today feel like we are being pacified, or patronized, or placated—any of those wonderful ‘P’ words,” said Benge. “They’re patting us on the heads and saying, ‘Okay, here you go. Now be happy and go away.”

But unlike many legislators who budget year-to-year with a cynical eye toward voting cycles, Benge takes the long view on educational investment. “The students that have these gaps in their education, it’s going to take a long time to fill those gaps, if we’re fortunate enough to make it up,” she says. “They haven’t been in school ever in Oklahoma with a fully funded education program.”

In this year’s budget battle, Benge adds, “The pay raise is much appreciated, but it is one block of accomplishment in a marathon of problems.” The rallies at the Capitol this week just mark one step in teachers’ long march toward equity.

This article was originally published at In These Times on April 5, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

Teacher strikes close schools across Oklahoma and Kentucky

Monday, April 2nd, 2018

The red-state teachers rebellion that started in West Virginia continues to grow, with teachers in Kentucky and Oklahoma walking out on Monday after the Kentucky teachers shut down schools in nearly two dozen counties on Friday. In Oklahoma, dozens of school districts have announced closures for Monday, and many Kentucky schools are closed as well.

The Kentucky teachers are protesting a sudden retirement overhaul, while Oklahoma teachers are fighting for increased investment in their schools even after lawmakers voted them a substantial pay increase.

This package does not overcome a shortfall that has caused four-day weeks and overcrowded classrooms that deprive kids of the one-on-one attention they need,” Oklahoma Education Association President Alicia Priest said in a video posted on Facebook. “We must keep fighting for everything our students deserve.”

Arizona teachers, too, are calling both for pay raises and for increased education funding—and planning to take action if they don’t see improvements. Music teacher Noah Karvelis told NPR that he often has 40 students in a classroom with just seven pianos, and “The math just doesn’t add up. There’s no way to reach those kids. Every day you’re going home and you’re just feeling like, I failed. I failed these students. And that’s honestly the worst possible feeling any teacher could ever have.”

There’s a simple explanation for the education underfunding:

  • Arizona cut personal income tax rates by 10 percent in 2006, cut corporate tax rates by 30 percent in 2011, reduced taxes on capital gains, and reduced taxes in other ways over the last couple of decades.
  • Oklahoma cut personal income tax rates starting in 2004. The top income tax rate fell from 6.65 percent to 5 percent, with the latest drop taking effect in 2016 even as the state faced a $1 billion shortfall. Oklahoma also substantially reduced its severance tax on oil and gas, increased tax exemptions for retirement and military income, exempted capital gains income from taxation, and abolished the estate tax.

Disrespect for teachers is certainly at play in Republican-controlled states that pay salaries that leave teachers working second, third, and even sixth jobs, but it’s not just that. It’s also disrespect for students combined with short-term thinking that will harm people and economies. But hey, rich people will have really low taxes.

And that’s why teachers are fighting.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on April 2, 2018. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Laura Clawson is labor editor at Daily Kos.

West Virginia Teachers Are Now Out on a Wildcat Strike. The Labor Movement Should Follow Their Lead.

Friday, March 2nd, 2018

In a bright spot among an otherwise bleak landscape for labor, over 15,000 teachers and school support employees in all 55 West Virginia counties have been out on strike for seven days, as they and supporters from around the state continue to flood the capitol in Charleston, W.V., demanding higher pay and affordable healthcare.

Bucking a deal struck between the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA) and the state government, school workers have defied both union leadership and state law, which affords them no right to strike and does not recognize their right to collectively bargain. These restrictions haven’t stopped West Virginia educators from leading what may be one of the most important labor actions in years.

With “right-to-work” laws spreading across the country, and a Janus Supreme Court decision that could decimate public-sector unions on the horizon, striking teachers are offering a blueprint for how to win when the odds are stacked against labor: Strike, win and then keep striking to win more—no matter what union leaders say.

The walkout in West Virginia has now become what’s known as a wildcat strike: A mass work action carried out by the rank-and-file and without the express consent of union leadership. On Tuesday, after agreeing to a five percent raise for teachers and three percent raise for other public-sector workers, WVEA leaders declared victory. But the rank-and-file weren’t having it, breaking out into chants of “We are the union bosses!” and “Back to the table!”

As union members pointed out following the announced “deal,” the pay raise would not protect teachers from the rising costs of the state employee health plan, administered by the Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA). Plans have become increasingly expensive over the last several years, all while teacher pay has remained low, currently ranked 48th in the country.

Media outlets announced that classes statewide would be back in session by Thursday, but dissatisfied union teachers decided to stay out on strike. As of Friday, schools in all 55 counties in West Virginia remain closed, and the strike carries on.

In some ways, it makes sense that Appalachian workers may be showing the way forward to fight the boss in the era of Trump and Janus. While this is the first statewide action for teachers and school support workers, West Virginia has a long history of rank and file militancy—under conditions far tougher than those facing workers today.

In the early 20th century, miners in Appalachia faced some of the most dangerous workplace hazards in any industry. While many miners around the country were unionized, largely by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), West Virginia miners attempted to organize a union for years, only to be met with violence and blacklisting. By 1919, conditions at mines around the country had reached a breaking point, and the UMWA declared a national strike. The fact that West Virginia coal mines were nonunion limited the action’s impact nationwide, leading the UMWA to commit to making serious inroads into the state.

Over the course of two years, the conflict between miners and mine operators in West Virginia escalated into what can only be described as a war. Some of the workers involved were fresh off of fighting in World War I, and applied their military training to form armed militias in order to ward off hired company security and industry-friendly local law enforcement. This period saw the Battle of Blair Mountain, a bloody conflict between coal miners, law enforcement and strikebreakers that became the largest labor uprising in U.S. history. The battle only subsided when federal troops were sent in, forcing both sides to lay down their arms.

On February 25, State Senator Richard Ojeda III—a vocal supporter of the teachers’ strike now running for a House seat in West Virginia’s 3rd District, which includes the state’s southern coalfields—wrote a long thread on Twitter connecting recent events back to West Virginia’s history as a site of labor struggle. Ojeda writes that the strike (known as #55strong, referring to the number of counties in the state) has become “a fight for the soul and spirit of West Virginia that started hundreds of years ago,” when “investors came to West Virginia and purchased most of the land for all but nothing.”

He notes the slave-like treatment that faced African Americans and immigrants who were brought in to work the mines, as well as the elaborate systems of debt peonage engineered by mine operators to keep workers dependent on their bosses. “So our miners decided they wanted to unionize,” Ojeda writes, “And they fought and died for that right in one of the largest labor uprisings in the United States.”

The same areas that were at the center of the mining wars—Mingo, Logan and Wyoming counties—are also some of the poorest in the state, and, as Cathy Kunkel writes at Jacobin, in early February they were among the first to stage one-day teacher walk-outs.

Throughout U.S. history, militant unionism and mass strikes have opened up the space for unions to make demands that reach far beyond the scope of the workplace. In the lead-up to the Battle of Blair Mountain, for instance, UMWA members talked excitedly about the prospect of shortening the workweek and nationalizing the mines. And it was the strength of organized labor—indeed, the threat of open revolt—that managed to put labor protections on the national agenda and get redistributive, worker-friendly programs enacted during the New Deal era and beyond.

While a slew of left-leaning candidates are running for office this year, it’s unlikely that progressive politicians alone will cleave open the space for transformative changes in the economy, or follow through on promises made on the campaign trail, without consistent outside pressure.

Teachers and nurses are two of the country’s most heavily unionized professions. They also stand to be hardest hit when right-wing politicians attack the public sphere. But even if the Supreme Court rules against labor in Janus, which could kneecap public-sector union budgets, strikes like the one being carried out by rank-and-file teachers in West Virginia can set a tone of militancy against austerity.

Such actions also have the potential to spur workers to lay out their own vision for a society that truly values working people, to which they can then hold politicians accountable. And they can help push union leadership to keep fighting, marshaling resources toward genuinely progressive ends rather than grasping onto whatever demands they can eek out of hostile state governments.

It’s not uncommon to hear union organizers say the most successful campaigns happen in the places where the fight is the hardest: where the bosses are jerks and the pay sucks. Under Trump and, likely soon, Janus, that may well soon describe the whole country. West Virginia workers past and present have offered one hell of a roadmap to navigate such a future.

 This article was originally published at In These Times on March 2, 2018. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Kate Aronoff is a writing fellow at In These Times covering the politics of climate change, the White House transition and the resistance to Trump’s agenda. Follow her on Twitter @katearonoff

West Virginia Teachers Are About to Stage a Statewide Strike. Here’s Why.

Wednesday, February 21st, 2018

Teachers and service personnel across West Virginia are planning to strike on Feb. 22 and 23 in an effort to boost pay and lower their increasing healthcare costs. It will be the first statewide walkout in nearly 30 years.

The strike was announced by the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia and the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA) during a weekend rally at the state capitol in Charleston that attracted teachers and other public sector employees and supporters. Hundreds also showed up at the capitol on Feb. 2, where they sang “Na, na, na, na, na, na, na, na, hey, hey, goodbye!” while Tim Armstead, Republican Speaker of the W.V. House of Delegates, gave a speech on the House floor. At this past weekend’s rally, WVEA President Dale Lee declared that all 55 of the state’s counties were prepared to stand united. “The entire state of West Virginia will be shut down,” declared Lee, whose union is an affiliate of the National Education Association.

According to a 2017 study that ranked each state’s average teacher salary, West Virginia is the sixth worst in the country. On average, the state’s teachers make $45,477, compared to first-place-ranking Alaska, where teachers make $77,843. W.V. teachers want the state to fund the state’s Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA) and increase their salaries. The state’s House of Delegates has voted to give public school teachers 2-percent raises next year and a 1-percent raise over the next three years, while the state’s Senate has approved a 1-percent raise, every year, over the next five years. Union representatives believe these raises are inadequate, especially when considered alongside the rising costs of healthcare.

Kym Randolph, director of communications for the WVEA, tells In These Times that dissatisfaction has been brewing for years. “It’s a number of things,” says Randolph. “PEIA, lack of salary, years of neglect, anti-worker policies … healthcare that’s inadequate.” According to Randolph, lawmakers have become “entrenched” on the issue of teacher salaries and are difficult to persuade.

One of those lawmakers is Republican Gov. Jim Justice. He has proposed freezing PEIA for a year, effectively preventing health premiums from rising, and he doesn’t believe that the 1-percent raise, every year, over the course of five years should be increased in any way. “I think the prudent thing and the smart money is to fix PEIA like we’ve done, and the smart money is to stay at 1-1-1-1-1,” said Justice at a recent press conference. However, his critics point out that a PEIA freeze is merely a short-term solution for a problem that isn’t going away, and such a temporary action could give birth to even higher healthcare costs in 2019. The teachers are looking for a long-term plan that provides security while finally making salaries competitive.

In that same press conference, Justice said that a teachers’ strike would be a “crying shame.” He also dismissed a Senate Democrat proposal that would fund PEIA by raising the state’s severance tax on natural gas as “political grandstanding.”

West Virginia is often portrayed as a steadfastly Republican state where progressive developments are nearly impossible. Nearly 70 percent of the state voted for Trump, who promised to revive the floundering coal industry, and the state’s Democratic Senator Joe Manchin votes in line with Trump almost 60 percent of the time.

However, a deeper analysis of the state’s current politics reveals a slightly more nuanced picture. Bernie Sanders won all 55 counties in the 2016 Democratic Primary, and recent data suggests that support for Trump is actually dropping. Between January and September of 2017, Trump’s level of net support in West Virginia went down by 13 points. Last month, Paula Jean Swearengin, a progressive Democrat who is running against Manchin in the primary, told In These Times, “We have fought so many labor struggles and won. This nation and state deserve true democracy. … We all struggle and are going to fight like hell. I believe a new West Virginia is being born.”

Swearengin’s assertion will be put to the test in the coming months as the state’s teachers continue to fight, through the walkout and beyond. “I think what the Legislature is doing is just despicable,” a high school science teacher named Lisa Stillion told West Virginia Public Radio at last week’s rally. “We need to vote them out. Get your heads out of your rear ends; be thinking about who you represent. You work for us. We don’t work for you.”

This article was originally published at In These Times on February 20, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Michael Arria covers labor and social movements. Follow him on Twitter: @michaelarria

The Two-Tier Provision in the Chicago Teachers Union’s Tentative Agreement, Explained

Wednesday, October 19th, 2016

The tentative agreement that the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) struck with district management less than an hour before a midnight October 10 strike deadline has been hailed by many as a victory. Facing another round of concessionary demands, the union managed to extract $88 million from the mayor’s corporate slush fund to restore some badly needed funding to the school system. The union also managed to win an increase in compensation.

But the way that the compensation is structured—with current teachers keeping their current 7 percent pension “pickup,” and new hires receiving a salary increase in lieu of a pension contribution—has some critics decrying the deal as a solidarity-killing, two-tier contract. A pickup is the percentage of a worker’s pay that an employer puts directly into a pension fund.

The CTU’s House of Delegates meets Wednesday to deliberate over the tentative agreement and vote on whether to send it to the entire membership for ratification. If the deal is rejected, there is no guarantee that management will agree to more of the union’s demands—or even return to the table.

Two-tier contracts are an emotional subject in the labor movement. Beginning in the 1980s, employers used threats of off-shoring and sub-contracting, as well as their legal “right” to permanently replace striking union members, to force a wave of wage and benefit givebacks across many unionized industries. In order to make these cuts more palatable to the members who would have to vote on their ratification, unions negotiated agreements where current workers preserved most of their pay and benefits while future hires would bear the brunt of the cuts.

There are many epithets for this sort of thing, but the most common may be selling out the unborn. These ticking time bombs blow up years later, as the “new” hires become a larger portion of the bargaining unit and resent their veteran colleagues both for their more generous compensation packages and for the fact that the older workers signed away their younger colleagues’ right to enjoy the same. As the veterans become a minority in the workplace, there is an obvious financial incentive for supervisors to push them out through aggressive discipline. In such a situation, worker unity in future rounds of bargaining is hard to achieve.

To be clear, not all “two-tiers” are alike. The powerful New York Hotel and Motel Trades Council accepted a two-tier wage structure after surviving a 27-day strike in 1985. But the tiers only impacted workers during their first year of employment. By year two, all workers were earning the same pay rate. And, decades later, ending the tiered pay scale remained a union bargaining priority.

The United Automobile Workers (UAW) accepted a two-tier pay scale at Chrysler when the company went bankrupt in 2009. It was so severe that new hires earned only half the hourly wage of veteran employees. When members voted down a 2015 successor agreement that did not go far enough in reversing the double standard, the UAW was able to renegotiate a deal that brings newer workers closer to the traditional pay scaleover the course of seven years.

The CTU’s proposed “two-tier” is a bit more of a shell game than those concessions. The fight over Chicago’s 7 percent pension pickup has more to do with symbolism than anyone’s actual paycheck. Pension systems are complicated things that only accountants and union researchers fully understand. But basically, a pension fund needs a certain amount of money coming in every year in order to guarantee a livable retirement income for actual and projected retirees. Currently, the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund has set that target at 9 percent of every pension-eligible employee’s annual income.

Before the CTU won collective bargaining rights in the 1960s, teachers had most, if not all, of their pension contributions deducted directly from their paychecks. Over the years, the CTU was able to bargain for 7 of that 9 percent to be contributed directly into the pension fund, instead of paid as a salary increase and then immediately deducted as a personal pension contribution.

Obviously, the difference between putting 7 percent in pension contributions directly versus rolling it into salaries, and then immediately deducting it, makes no financial difference to the employer. But the 7 percent became a visible target for Gov. Bruce Rauner and Mayor Rahm Emanuel. It was money they could portray to the public and the press as “extra” compensation that teachers get that other workers don’t and demand that teachers give it up. (It should be noted that Chicago teachers aren’t eligible for Social Security, so their pensions are the only thing that stand between them and an old age spent subsisting on cat food.)

Under the tentative agreement the CTU is considering, the pay for new hires would increase by an additional 3.5 percent in two successive years. It’s not entirely clear how soon new hires would be responsible for paying the full pension contribution.

Teachers at charter schools also participate in the Chicago Teachers Pension Fund. Members of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (Chicago ACTS) at the UNO Charter School Network (UCSN) are currently bargaining over the very same pension pickup, and have set a Wednesday strike deadline.

I was a part of the bargaining team that negotiated the first contract at UCSN in 2013. Because we had a significant amount of bargaining leverage in the wake of a very public insider dealing scandal, we realized that those negotiations were our best shot to get the charter network to pay more than the whole lot of nothing that it had been contributing to teachers’ pensions.

We were successful. That 7 percent was a part of an overall compensation package we were going to win anyway. But by directing the employer to put it towards the pension, we politicized a different figure: the network’s starting salaries. Because charters compete in the same labor market as the district to recruit new teachers, the salaries they can offer are key. If that 7 percent had simply been rolled into base pay, UCSN would be able to quote starting salaries that appear to be larger than what the district offers, but really aren’t, giving the union leverage to raise wages in future negotiations. Now that starting salaries at Chicago Public Schools will appear to be 7 percent larger—if CTU members ratify the deal—the salaries that UCSN offers will appear even less competitive.

As for ratification of their contract, CTU members have to decide how important the symbolism of that 7 percent is and what impact it will have on future rounds of negotiations. The shifting of that 7 percent from one column in a spreadsheet to another strikes me as a last minute ploy to give Rauner and Emanuel a face-saving narrative that allows them to say they didn’t suffer a humiliating defeat in this round of bargaining.

“This is not a perfect agreement,” said CTU president Karen Lewis. “But it is good for the kids. And good for the clinicians. And good for the teachers, and the paraprofessionals.”

This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes.org on October 19, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Shaun Richman is a former organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers. His Twitter handle is @Ess_Dog.

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