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Garment Factory Workers in Southern California Are Calling for a Boycott of American Apparel

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2016

Mario VasquezThe General Brotherhood of American Apparel Workers (GBWAA), a union for garment workers at American Apparel’s southern California manufacturing facilities—one of which, its downtown Los Angeles location, is the largest garment-making factory in the country—has called for a boycott of the brand’s merchandise, pointing to mass layoffs and reduced compensation and benefits that have intensified since new management in January 2015 began a process of post-bankruptcy restructuring throughout the corporation.

GBWAA is currently awaiting a certification election date from the National Labor Relations Board, and workers with the union say they are calling for the boycott because American Apparel consumers must know corporation is not the high-wage, sweatshop-free company once marketed itself to be, especially since Paula Schneider replaced American Apparel founder Dov Charney as chief executive officer of the corporation.

Schneider’s appointment was approved by a corporate board that had been mostly hand picked by the hedge fund Standard General, who effectively had control of the company after a failed bid by Charney to regain control. Previously ousted as CEO amid reports of alleged sexual misconduct, Charney saw millions of his voting shares go to Standard General. When the company filed for bankruptcy in October 2015, claiming its debt was insurmountable, complete ownership went to the company’s principal debtholders: Goldman Sachs Asset Management, Monarch Alternative Capital, Coliseum Capital, Pentwater Capital Management and Standard General (famous for their previous alleged hostile takeover of Radioshack), who kept on Schneider as CEO—much to the dismay of Charney and workers at American Apparel production sites that had already began organizing.

Union president Stephanie Padilha dos Santos tells In These Times, “If you’re used to buying American Apparel and think that the company is great and that the whole concept of paying fair wages in [the garment] industry was what made the company a huge success, then we invite you now to boycott the brand because it is no longer sweatshop-free.”

Padilha alleges that the company has been outsourcing production to other “sweatshops” around Los Angeles, while reducing the once relatively high wages earned by production workers at the company, which were the highest in the world, according to the company.

American Apparel did not respond to requests for comment by In These Times.

Meanwhile, in another round of layoffs, over 500 workers are reported to have been laid off this April as part of what Schneider has called a “redesign of [their] production process.”

Victor Narro, Project Director at the UCLA Labor Center, says that American Apparel was famous for providing high-wage garment jobs that are seldom seen for the immigrant communities typically doing the work in Los Angeles. “These garment workers are not going to be able to find a similar type of workplace in the industry,” Narro says.

Padilha says that after being abruptly let go with little notice, “All the dignity that the company provided [the laid-off workers] will be gone and they’re going to have to go back to the poor reality of the garment industry.” In the past, GBWAA has led work stoppages over decreased conditions and has filed dozens of unfair labor practices against the company since Schneider took over. Padilha believes a union can put a check on further layoffs and stabilizes the free falling wages and hours for the garment workers. American Apparel did not respond to requests for comment by In These Times in regards to GBWAA claims.

The company, however, has stressed that “the GBWAA could not fairly represent the interests of its near 4,000 production workers, even if elected” because of Charney’s appearances at union functions throughout 2015 “Mr. Charney has used every tactic imaginable to claw his way back to the head of the company—including organizing workers to demand his return as CEO,” says a letter by American Apparel legal representatives, asking a U.S District Court to force Charney to appear at NLRB hearings to provide testimony as well as submit documents relating to GBWAA in its appeal of the union’s petition for election. The appeal centers on the claim that GBWAA is a Charney-created entity.

Nativo Lopez, an organizer in Los Angeles who has worked with American Apparel workers over issues of immigrant rightssince 2009, says that the company’s allegations are “absolutely false.” Lopez says that garment workers active in Lopez’s immigrant rights advocacy organization, Hermandad Mexicana, helped lead organizing, with Lopez serving in a voluntary advisory position. Thus, GBWAA is claiming it is an independent union—not a product of Charney.

Workers, he says, only focused on the return of Charney to company leadership initially because “working under him, in his administration, [they were] enjoying above-minimum wage and benefits that they had never previously experienced in any other apparel company where they had been employed.”

“The ‘Save American Apparel’ slogan has been changed to ‘Boycott American Apparel,” Lopez says, predicting an entire offshoring of American Apparel’s domestic manufacturing to low-wage countries, joining the approximately 97 percent of apparel brands in this country who do not produce their clothing in the United States. Onlookers from the finance world havesaid the same elsewhere. “It’s no longer the same American Apparel,” Lopez tells In These Times.

The last public union campaign at American Apparel garment factories occurred in 2003, when UNITE (the garment workers union that soon after merged with HERE to form UNITE HERE) tried to organize workers in the downtown manufacturing hub. Charney was not supportive, according to Stephen Wishart, a senior research analyst with UNITE HERE at the time, whosaid of the campaign:

The company’s activities included holding captive meetings with employees, interrogating employees about their union activities and sympathies, soliciting employees to ask the union to return their union authorization cards, distributing anti-union armbands and T-shirts, and requiring all employees to attend an anti-union rally. The company’s most devastating tactic, though, was threatening to shut down the plant if the workers organized.

Charney, speaking to the Los Angeles Business Review in 2004 about the unsuccessful union organizing campaign, called unions an “obstacle”:

The concept of a union is a check against greed on the part of the employer. If I really wanted to be motivated by greed alone and pay the lowest possible wage, I wouldn’t be working in this factory. To say, “Let’s appoint a union to represent the workers even further” may put into disequilibrium the delicate balance that I’ve created between all the parties.

Narro says that although wages were high at American Apparel, the benefits of union collective bargaining agreements have always been sorely lacking and it remains evident in its current restructuring process. “If he had worked something out with UNITE back in 2002, and they agreed to a union contract, [then] these workers would have had a lot of protection right now. Nothing is guaranteed, but they would not have been as vulnerable to the bankruptcy and the downsizing and the management decisions.”

“Union contracts would create mechanisms to protect workers as much as possible,” says Narro. Organizing amid the corporation’s restructuring is “harder to do now because there’s nothing to enforce,” he adds.

For now, GBWAA hopes the boycott will bring to the light the urgency they feel is required in its certification efforts, especially as predicted further layoffs loom. Padilha says the NLRB needs to act now, telling me, “As soon as a hedge fund takes over, the company goes into bankruptcy. Workers getting laid off, having their rights ripped apart, and they make no money. Everything is changing; outsourcing production. There [are] enough reasons why this election is what workers need right now.”

This blog originally appeared at inthesetimes.com on May 3, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Mario Vasquez is a writer from southern California. He is a regular contributor to Working In These Times. Follow him on Twitter @mario_vsqz or email him atmario.vasquez.espinoza@gmail.com.

UAW Overrules Academic Workers BDS Vote Against Israel Despite Finding Strong Turnout, No Misconduct

Wednesday, January 6th, 2016

in these timesOn December 15, 2015, the United Auto Workers (UAW) International Executive Board (IEB) nullified the resolution passed last year by members of UAW Local 2865, the 13,000 teaching assistants and student-workers at the University of California system, that called on the International to endorse the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel by withholding their financial investments in companies “complicit in severe and ongoing human rights violations as part of the Israeli oppression of the Palestinian people.

The decision to nullify the BDS resolution, which had made Local 2865 the first American local union to endorse a boycott, was the outcome of an appeal filed by a member of Informed Grads, a group of local union members who opposed BDS. Stephen Brumbaugh, a Local 2865 member at UC Los Angeles, took his case up with the International’s executive board after Local 2865 had previously dismissed it in May 2015, failing to find merit in its claims.

The IEB went through a period of fact-finding, gathering testimony and evidence from Informed Grads and Local 2865 before issuing the decision. While UAW IEB admitted that the December 2014 vote on the BDS measure was democratic and free of any misconduct, producing a turnout higher than previous elections held by the local, the IEB concluded that in its view the resolution violated the International’s constitution by “lead[ing] to a direct economic deprivation for members of the UAW, as well as other organized members by, categorically interfering with the flow of commerce to and from earmarked companies” at Boeing, Caterpillar, General Electric, Lockheed Martin, ITT, Northrop-Grumman and Raytheon, the firms targeted by BDS advocates.

Brumbaugh’s attorneys on the appeal are associated with Gibson, Dunn, & Crutcher, a global law firm known for providing for big business, including Walmart in a 2011 landmark civil action discrimination suit. “We are very pleased by [the UAW] International Union’s forceful rejection of BDS, which sets a powerful precedent for other labor unions and national organizations,” said Scott Edelman, a partner at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, in a statement by Informed Grads.

At one August hearing, Brumbaugh and his attorneys introduced several letters sent by “prominent labor union advocates” to UAW International to condemn BDS, including Randy Cammack and Rome A. Aloise, both International Vice Presidents with the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, and J. David Cox, Sr., National President of the American Federation of Government Employees.

“We would find it difficult to ask our members to support your union in a labor dispute with the University of California so long as you are engaged in activities that are fundamentally hostile to their interests,” Cammack and Aloise say in their letter. “Unlike the members of your union, who are graduate students and therefore union members for a short period of time, our members are working in jobs that must support them for a lifetime and it is our job to protect them for all of their working lives.”

Another letter submitted by Brumbaugh came from Jonathan D. Ginzel, the Director of Labor & Employment Relations at Caterpillar (one of the corporations targeted by BDS resolutions for its alleged role in the demolition of Palestinian villages), who tells a UAW International executive that the company “outright rejects any suggestion that Caterpillar is engaged in or complicit in any human rights violations anywhere in the world” and asks the International to “void this Resolution and take whatever additional steps are necessary to confirm that the UAW does not support an effort to divest from Caterpillar or Israel.”

Kumars Salehi, a UAW 2865 member and BDS caucus member at UC Berkeley, calls the IEB’s claims of potential economic deprivation a “model of business unionism,” the union model that eschews engagement with broader social issues beyond its members’ day-to-day needs.

“This is clearly an argument that is from the perspective of the employers rather than of workers. This is the sort of argument that could be used against any boycott,” Salehi says. “There are people within UAW and the labor movement in general that critique the assumption that the interests of employers and ‘the flow of commerce’ are the same as the interests of workers.”

The IEB uses these letters later in their report to support their conclusion that by passing the BDS resolution, Local 2865 broke its constitutional obligation to work together with other unions for the “solidification” of the labor movement. But UAW members claim that their local began organizing around BDS after a call for boycott was made by Palestinian trade union confederations in July 2014 in the midst of the 50-day assault waged by the Israeli military that left 2,100 Palestinians dead.

“Citing ‘the solidification of the labor movement’ in order to justify negating the will of our members is pretty sinister and hypocritical,” says Salehi, adding that in the eyes of the IEB, it seems the rule is that Palestinian trade unions are not a part of the labor movement.

The IEB also ruled in favor of Informed Grads on the charge that the BDS resolution violated the union constitution’s ethical code, saying the resolution was “suggestive of discriminatory labeling and a disparagement” of its Israeli and Jewish members.

“The local union’s attempt to address the predicament of the Palestinian people appears to be accomplished through biased targeting of Israeli/Jewish UAW members, and the scorning of the state of Israel and all alleged entities complicit in actions against Palestine,” the IEB said in report of the decision.

David McCleary, UAW 2865 Northern Vice President, speaking on behalf of UAW 2865 Executive Board, told In These Times, “We firmly reject accusations of antisemitism, and the evidence presented during the appeal process clearly supports this view. As one of many Jewish members of UAW 2865 who supported this divestment campaign, I can say that the accusation is personally hurtful and I expected better of our International Executive Board.”

“While this decision nullifies our non-binding resolution, it does not erase the voices and efforts of the countless rank-and-file members of our union, passionate about equality and justice for Palestinians,” McCleary added.

Unted Electrical Workers (UE) and the Connecticut AFL-CIO have followed Local 2865’s lead on a BDS endorsement over the course of the past year but have met opposition. UE’s resolution has been challenged through the National Labor Relations Board by an Israeli non-governmental organization on the grounds that it amounts to illegal secondary boycotts (aproduct of the Taft-Hartley Act). In California, as Glenn Greenwald has written for the Intercept, UC administrators and state lawmakers have been vocally supportive of expanding hate speech definitions to include criticism or “demonization” of Israel, which would conceivably limit BDS activism at least in theory.

“No letter from the IEB can erase the educational and organizational work we have done over the past year—work we will continue to do, energized no doubt by the IEB’s undemocratic, business-friendly attempt to nullify this vote,” the BDS caucus says in a statement. “We are part of a growing movement for union solidarity with the people of Palestine and for a democratic and visionary U.S. labor movement.”

At New York University, graduate worker and UAW member David Klassen, says he was “excited” about the BDS campaign in California because it was everything he felt was missing in the UAW: “a long period of education, open debate” followed by “an open referendum in which members can actually decide what the policy of their union will be.”

Klassen is a member of the Academic Workers for a Democratic Union within UAW, a new wave of graduate student workers who say they aim to reform the International in more progressive directions, and says he is invested in ensuring that UAW has “venues in which people can forward their voices and have open debate” rather than important union decisions being made “quietly, in backrooms.” Klassen says that the nullification decision is the “perfect example” of closed-door decision-making that the International needs to break from.

While the IEB may have halted the BDS resolution from Local 2865 for the moment, Klassen says that AWDU members have learned from the effort in California and have launched their own BDS campaign at NYU. While he admits the common assumption is that members would want to shy away from a “controversial” or “divisive” issue, he says members have seemed to prefer democratic debate over the issue.

“People want to know that their union is a place where they can have debates about the world that they live in—that collectively, they can negotiate not just for [their] narrow, material interests at work, but also the world in which they live.” he says.

This blog originally appeared at InTheseTimes.com on January 6, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Mario Vasquez is a writer from Santa Barbara, California. You can reach him at mario.vasquez.espinoza@gmail.com.

Stop Freaking Out: The Union-Backed Minimum Wage Exemption Isn’t About Paying Union Workers Less

Monday, June 22nd, 2015

Mario VasquezOn June 13, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti signed the city’s landmark $15 minimum wage into law. Although the city’s workers won’t be seeing that full figure until 2020, the new law will bring billions of dollars into the pockets of at least 36% of the workforce, and should be seen as the culmination of grassroots action supported by a coalition of labor groups such as Raise the Wage and Fight for $15.

But in the aftermath of its initial approval a few weeks ago, right-wing pundits, with help from mainstream news outlets, succeeded in pitting minimum-wage activists up against labor leaders, drumming up charges that the unions were acting to actually undermine the minimum-wage-increase movement. Rusty Hicks, the head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, had to save face after he led a failed last-minute push to include a clause into the city’s minimum wage ordinance that would allow employees the option of having their collective bargaining agreement supercede the local minimum wage policy.

Opponents have argued that the provision potentially allows for unions to negotiate contracts that include wages below the minimum, and that unions would use the wage carve-out to offer a kind of carrot to employers in exchange for allowing the union to gain new members—assumedly leaving new union members earning, in total, less than the minimum wage.

Mostly due to the inability of Hicks or anyone else in the city’s labor movement to offer a strong and convincing rebuttal to these charges, this talking point has largely taken hold. With labor at the front of Fight for $15 battles in Los Angeles and across the country (Hicks himself has been a leader in Los Angeles’s Raise the Wage coalition), pundits on Fox News have spread the idea that “big labor” could be trying to get around the minimum wage that “they tried to impose on others.”

“They want to make unions basically the cheapest labor and have more money for themselves—that’s what this is all about,” libertarian journalist Michelle Fields told host Eric Bolling on the conservative network on May 30.

It’s an easy talking point to run with, and admittedly the optics of it are pretty bad. But those trashing the union’s attempt to insert the provision have failed to realize the nuances of the situation. Glancing at the data of union workers’ compensation in cities that already have such wage exemption provisions on the books, as well as applying a bit of logic in thinking about why a worker would vote to join or choose to stay in a union, show that such provisions haven’t and won’t result in unionized workers earning below the minimum wage, and in fact can serve to protect minimum wage increases from legal challenges from business interests.

Why do workers organize?

To explain why this is the case, let’s examine some of the arguments against the provision. The U.S Chamber of Commerce, often labor’s foe, outlined a modern history of minimum wage policy and the union carve-out in a study they published last year. The study suggested that what the Chamber calls the “union escape clause” is nothing more than a ruse to gain “new members, new dues revenue, increased political clout, and, most likely, increased payments into its pension fund.”

The Chamber’s study points to hotel worker union UNITE HERE’s explosive growth in San Francisco (where minimum wage ordinances have typically included “union escape” provisions) as an example of a “real-world correlation” between the provision and labor’s supposed self-interest:

UNITE-HERE Local 11, which represents hotel workers in Los Angeles, California, saw its membership and revenues jump after the city included a union escape clause in a minimum wage hike on hotels. Local 11’s membership increased from 13,626 in 2007 to 20,896 in 2013, while its revenue increased from approximately $7.5 million per year to nearly $12.7 million. … When San Francisco, California, passed a citywide minimum wage ordinance with a union exemption in late 2003, membership in UNITE-HERE Local 2 rose from 8,000 in 2004 to more than 14,000 in 2013. Notably, these increases occurred as union density nationally declined from 12.9% of the workforce in 2003 to 11.3% in 2013.

Reading the Chamber’s study, you would think that the principal reason UNITE HERE membership in LA and San Francisco grew during this time was the wage carve-out. But that’s absurd, and doesn’t reflect the way workers join unions or how union membership grows in general.

In case the Chamber has forgotten, workers are the ones who choose to join unions, either through a secret-ballot vote or through a “card check” process. And if they don’t like their union, they can vote to decertify it. If workers joined a union and paid dues to it every month but continued earning a wage below the minimum after they joined, why wouldn’t they vote to leave the union? They would have no financial incentive to stay, and assumedly UNITE HERE’s membership would be tanking rather than growing as workers realized they were getting a raw deal and voted to leave the union.

But of course, rather than seeing their compensation tank, hotel workers are seeing their wages and benefits increase as union members. UNITE HERE says that its members in San Francisco—remember, a city with the minimum wage carve-out for union workers—earn, on average, an hourly wage of $20.94. The deal also gets sweeter for those members when quality-of-life benefits like secure hours and compensation packages are included.

In Los Angeles, where the union’s members are also allowed to have their collective bargaining agreement supercede local wage ordinances, union workers earn slightly less, $16.47 plus benefits. Still, union workers’ wages alone are higher than the $15.37 wage floor enacted for hotel workers last year; when you include the benefits those workers typically receive through their collective bargaining agreements that most minimum wage earners do not have a right to, the total compensation becomes even higher.

Beyond hotel workers, the numbers make it clear that union workers earn on average considerably more than the minimum wage, even in cities that have these carve-out provisions. A 2014 study by the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at UCLA reports that, when adjusted for cost of living, hourly earnings for union workers in Los Angeles stand at $20.35, whereas their nonunion counterparts earn $16.13. Clearly, few union members in the city earn less than minimum wage.

Hicks remarked at a recent press conference, “Unfortunately, too many in today’s society do not have the benefit of being a part of a collective bargaining opportunity or experience, so it can be confusing.” The confusion might have been cleared up, however, with a few concrete facts showing how collective bargaining helps put money in workers’ pockets—far more money than any minimum wage.

Safety in Supersession  

Hicks had a lot of material to work with to beat back the anti-union rhetoric that he didn’t use. But his press conference did mention what is apparently the foundation for collective bargaining supersession clauses that have been included in other minimum wage laws of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland and Chicago, among others: The provision is actually intended to provide a safeguard for union workers against potential legal challenges to minimum wage laws.

Herb Wesson, Los Angeles’ City Council President, has admitted as much, with his spokesperson telling KPCC, a local NPR affiliate, that Wesson “continues to have questions about the policy as it relates to exposing the city to legal liability.” The concern, KPCC reported, is that “federal labor laws could be interpreted as preventing cities from interfering with contracts between employers and unions.”

James Elmendorf, deputy director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, a progressive policy group affiliated with the city’s labor movement, told the Los Angeles Business Journal last year upon the passing of the hotel wage ordinance that “in a previous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court recommended that local and state laws and regulations of private businesses contain such exemptions.”

The provision actually ensures that collective bargaining will trump any local statutes. If any wage increase ordinance is challenged in court (as they frequently are by industry groups), local collective bargaining agreements that were formed while new “imposed” wage floors were in place would be protected from legal challenges through the supersession clause.

When combined with the fact that employees will earn higher wages and benefits when unionized, it easy to see why this provision makes business interests and their allies jump at the chance to turn the tide in a war of sound bites.

While the $15 minimum wage ordinance became official on June 13 without the “collective bargaining supersession clause,” the ordinance may be expanded by the time it takes effect next July. The expansion could include the supersession clause, as well as two other provisions that the union fought for during the legislative process: 12 days of paid sick leave and banning restaurants from keeping bogus “service charges” rather than considering them workers’ tips.

The boost in the minimum wage will undoubtedly help improve the quality of life and economic situation for masses of non-union workers in the city. But rather than undermining those gains, Hicks’s provision would have helped protect against potentially damaging legal challenges to the real benefits and increased wages that come with unionization.

For now, one can only hope that LA’s labor leaders will speak out for the provision and get organized labor past an embarrassing and largely untrue spate of headlines to convince low-wage workers that unions are not the villains Fox News and the Chamber of Commerce are attempting to portray them as.

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on June 18, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Mario Vasquez. Mario Vasquez is a writer from Santa Barbara, California. You can reach him at mario.vasquez.espinoza@gmail.com.

30,000 Teachers Walk Out in Protest of Big Class Sizes in Washington State

Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015

Mario VasquezOn Tuesday, May 19, thousands of demonstrators marched through downtown Seattle to support a rolling strike by public school teachers across Washington state. The teachers are protesting what they say are unacceptably high class sizes and low pay, stemming from their state legislature’s failure to fully fund public education.

Six thousand teachers and supporters from Seattle Public Schools and the nearby districts of Mercer Island and Issaquah shut down intersections for blocks in the largest coordinated action since the rolling walkout began on April 22. In total, at least 30,000 teachers in 65 striking school districts have participated in one-day strikes.

Washington Educators Association (WEA), the statewide teachers union (a National Education Association affiliate), has pointed out that the state has the sixth-highest student-teacher ratio of any state, at 19.4, according to NEA data from 2013. The union calculates that an additional 11,960 teachers would be needed to reduce the student-teacher ratio to the national average of 15.9. Class sizes are typically about nine or 10 students larger than the student-teacher ratio. Teachers say that big class sizes in Washington state result in poor working and learning conditions.

The strike is unusual in that the teachers are not pressuring their respective school districts, but rather targeting the state legislature for its unwillingness to fund education enough to decrease class sizes and increase teacher compensation. Popular signs at rallies across the state have read “Educators care for our kids every day – It’s time the legislature cared” and “On strike against legislature – stop blaming teachers – start funding schools.”

On the class size and funding issue, union members say they have both the courts and the voters on their side. In 2012, the state Supreme Court ruled in McCleary vs. Washington that the legislature had failed in its constitutional duty to “amply provide for the education of all children within its borders” and ordered it to implement adequate funding increases by 2018. Last September, the Washington Supreme Court found the legislature in contempt of court for failing “to provide the court a complete plan for fully implementing its program of basic education,” warning lawmakers that the legislature would be “sanctioned” if it did not develop a plan by the end of the legislative cycle.

Compounding this legal pressure is the binding initiative 1351 approved by voters in November 2014, which calls for a 20 percent reduction in class size and the hiring of 15,000 teachers over the next four years, according to advocates of the initiative.

While both legislatures have put forward proposals to fund class size decreases up to the third grade, none have proposed fully funding initiative 1351. Gov. Jay Inslee has called for two consecutive special sessions to address the funding issue and other budgetary matters before a July 1 deadline. If they don’t resolve the budget, legislators risk a government shutdown.

Jesse Hagopian, a history teacher at Garfield High, says that teachers’ “backs are to the wall,” necessitating collective action.

“The old strategy of supporting politicians and hoping that they will enact pro-education policies has not worked for so long that it has actually caused a state of crisis for our union as a whole,” he says. “It’s reached a level of absurdity. I think [lack of support from the legislature] made [WEA] leadership more willing to back some of our smaller locals that began this one-day strike wave in the state.”

The strikes have been primarily organized by teachers union locals, rather than by the statewide union. On the eve of the first strikes in late April, a WEA spokesperson told Washington’s News Tribune that it was up to locals to “decide how big the protest gets this year.” What began with eight districts has now swelled to 65.

The legislature’s unwillingness to go fully fund I-1351 and adhere to McCleary has galvanized teacher in a way that Susan DuFresne, a kindergarten teacher at Maplewood Heights Elementary, describes as “truly grassroots.”

“I place this strike wave at the tipping point in the struggle between progressive education reform and corporate education reform,” DuFresne says. “This struggle has a long way to go to educate and activate students, parents, teachers and community members—but this strike wave is finally bringing attention to this struggle in arenas we call the ‘non-choir.’ ”

Hagopian, who is part of the social justice-based reform caucus Social Equality Educators and last year came 45 votes shy of being elected Seattle teachers’ union president, says the political situation in Washington is “Robin Hood in reverse.”

“Lowering class sizes costs money, and to raise that money you would have to actually tax the rich,” he told In These Times. “We’re one of seven states in the nation that don’t have an income tax and one of only nine states in the country that don’t have a capital gains tax.”

Indeed, Washington has the nation’s most regressive tax structure, according to a study published in January by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy. The study found that the state’s top 1% contributes 2.4 percent of family income in state and local taxes while the poorest 20 percent contribute 16.8 percent, making Washington the “highest-tax state in the country for poor people.”

Meanwhile, the state’s largest corporations have received eye-popping tax breaks in recent years: In 2014, Boeing was awarded the single largest tax break a state has ever given a company: an $8.7 billion cut. Microsoft reportedly avoided $528 million in state taxes between 1997 and 2008 due to lax legislative oversight concerning the company reporting its revenue through its licensing office in Nevada, despite basing its software production in Washington.

At the same time, lawmakers have suspended voter-approved cost-of-living increases for educators every year since 2008. Washington’s teacher pay now ranks 42nd in the nation. Teachers also say that legislatures are undermining their job security by introducing legislation that would tie state standardized tests to teacher evaluations. This has helped push hundreds of educators and students across Seattle high schools to boycott the tests, placing the city at the vanguard of a larger emerging wave of test boycotts across the country.

WEA members say that if legislators don’t resolve funding issues by the end of the second special legislative session, rolling strike waves will begin again when school begins in September. Hagopian expects even wider support from teachers at that time.

“I can’t imagine that after feeling the collective power that we found in the streets on Tuesday when we walked out,  that teachers would just go quietly back into the classroom and submit to the humiliation of being in one of the richest regions the world has ever known and seeing kids come to school without basic supplies and ballooning class sizes,” he says.

This blog was originally posted on In These Times on June 1, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: The author’s name is Mario Vasquez. Mario Vasquez is a writer from Santa Barbara, California. You can reach him at mario.vasquez.espinoza@gmail.com .

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