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Chicago Teachers Are Threatening To Strike Against New Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Here’s Why.

Thursday, August 8th, 2019

kari-lydersen

In 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) took to the streets with thousands of supporters in a seven-day strike that was ultimately seen as a victory against “Mayor 1%” Rahm Emanuel.

A lot has changed since then. The recent wave of teachers strikes and walkouts across the country—from West Virginia to California—has won significant gains, not only in compensation for teachers but also in student resources and overall respect for public education. Back in Chicago, Emanuel and his hand-picked corporate school board have been replaced by Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a black lesbian whose campaign platform on education largely mirrored the CTU’s agenda, and a school board comprised largely of educators and community leaders.

Still, after months of negotiations with Chicago Public Schools (CPS), the powerful teachers’ union may again go on strike in the fall, with the union demanding Lightfoot make good on her promises. Union leaders say that contract talks have changed little since Emanuel’s departure, with the Lightfoot administration continuing a “unilateral” approach, in CTU President Jesse Sharkey’s words, even when taking positive steps like announcing the hiring of hundreds of more nurses and social workers.

More nurses, counselors, social workers, librarians and paraprofessional staff such as clerks and teachers’ aides are among the key demands of the union, which wants those changes quantified and enshrined in the contract. In a system with over 500 schools, the union notes that there are only 128 librarians, down from 454 in 2013, and schools with a full-time librarian are concentrated on the wealthier, whiter North Side.

There are only 108 school nurses, and most schools have a nurse present only one day per week, according to a fact-finding document produced by the union as part of the contract negotiations. The National Association of School Nurses recommends one nurse for every 750 students, according to the document, while CPS has one nurse per 2,859 students. School social workers similarly handle five times as many students as recommended by the National Association of Social Workers. The union says the recently-announced hiring will only make a small dent in the school system’s need, and that the move needs to be negotiated and codified with the union.

“As a candidate, Lori Lightfoot put out a bold vision for transforming public education in Chicago, one that was largely cutting and pasting from the work we’ve been doing over the last decade,” said CTU Vice President Stacy Davis-Gates. “The mayor though has not set up the infrastructure to make that happen. Her team at the negotiating table is the same team that Rahm Emanuel had at the negotiating table. I think it’s pretty impossible to have a transformative lens but employ some of the same people who have been responsible for closing 50 schools and dismantling special education services.”

Most of the union’s key demands are aimed at bolstering the quality of public schools and students’ experience, including by increasing the budget for school sports and trades programs as well as improving special education. The union is also demanding CPS take a stand on larger issues that affect students, parents and educators, by curbing charter school expansion, supporting campaigns for affordable housing policies and officially designating the school system a “sanctuary” for undocumented people. The CTU gained sanctuary school provisions in contracts this year at a number of charter schools the union represents, after striking at three different charter networks.

The Lightfoot administration, which did not return requests for comment, has so far largely ignored such issues in its offers and its write-up to an independent fact-finder meant to inform the negotiations. That fact-finder is expected to release its official report on Aug. 26.

The administration has emphasized what it frames as generous raises for teachers. However, the union says the proposed raise of just under 3 percent per year is unimpressive, noting that the administration’s proposal would also force union members to pay more for health benefits, partially negating the impact of the raise. Thanks to a state law that changes funding formulas and other sources, CPS has about a billion more dollars available annually than in recent years, according to the union, which cites a study by the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability and a July 2018 school board financial outlook presentation. Yet students and teachers have not seen benefits from the additional funds.

CPS teacher compensation has lagged behind all other comparable large districts in the nation, according to data in the union’s report for the independent fact-finder. The report cites a 2012 study by the University of Illinois showing that CPS teachers work on average 58 hours a week, including prep time in the evenings and on weekends. The median salary for CPS teachers stands at $75,180.

The union argues that the paraprofessionals it represents are particularly underpaid. Nearly a quarter of paraprofessionals make less than $31,980 a year and around two-thirds make less than $45,510 per year, the federal qualifier for free and reduced-price school lunches, respectively, for a family of four. And CPS has overseen massive layoffs of paraprofessionals in recent years, leaving teachers and the remaining paraprofessionals with heavier workloads.

The union is also calling for better pay and protections for substitute teachers, to help address a chronic shortage—especially in the most troubled schools, where difficult working conditions make substitutes reluctant to take assignments. A “use-it-or-lose-it” policy for teachers’ time off also exacerbates the need for substitutes, since teachers can’t be compensated for days off they don’t take.

And the union wants reform of evaluation procedures that tend to penalize teachers of color and teachers in the most economically challenged neighborhoods.

Dick Simpson, a former alderman and political scientist at the University of Illinois at Chicago who endorsed Lightfoot, sees the administration’s hardball approach as a “negotiating tactic” that “stems mostly from the Rahm Emanuel period.” He hopes things will change once Lightfoot herself switches gears from the ethics reform work she has prioritized so far and gets more involved in the negotiations.

“There just isn’t enough money to do things that you might have agreed to,” Simpson added. “The issue is going to be: Can they find a compromise position that recognizes the financial limits but at the same time makes the teachers feel valued and that they’re getting some financial help from the system?”

When the administration makes a final offer, the union will bring it to their members and potentially take a strike vote, with Sept. 25 the earliest date they could legally strike, according to Sharkey. The school year is set to begin Sept. 3.

Sharkey said that the administration is currently “on a collision course” with the union. Whether through a strike or not, he’s hopeful that Chicago will see the kinds of victories that teachers recently gained in other states, including in Los Angeles where aweek-long strike in January led to commitments to hire nurses and librarians, cap class sizes and raise salaries by 6 percent.

Davis-Gates added that the union’s current fight in Chicago is part of an ongoing national trend “because racism is a national trend.”

“Students are told to grin and bear it because we do not find value in their communities,” said Davis-Gates. “Teachers—because it is a profession dominated by women—are told to grin and bear it, because never in the history of our society have we respected the work women do. So I think yes, we will continue to see teacher rebellions across this country because sexism is still what it is, racism is still what it is. It’s my hope teachers everywhere continue to see their voice as an asset, and their ability to withhold their labor as their power.”

This blog originally appeared in Inthesetimes.com on August 7, 2019.  Reprinted with permission.

Kari Lydersen, an In These Times contributing editor, is a Chicago-based journalist and instructor who currently works at Northwestern University. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Chicago Reader and The Progressive, among other publications. Her most recent book is Mayor 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99 Percent. She is also the co-author of Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance Under the Gunand the author of Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover, and What it Says About the Economic Crisis.Look for an updated reissue of Revolt on Goose Island in 2014. In 2011, she was awarded a Studs Terkel Community Media Award for her work.

 

New Haven teachers strike drags on for a 14th day this week in the war on workers

Wednesday, June 12th, 2019

Teachers in California’s New Haven Unified School District have been on strike for 14 days as of Friday. They were considering the school district’s “last, best, and final offer,” which falls short of the pay increases teachers are calling for. The school district entered negotiations offering zero raise, meaning teachers would be falling behind as the cost of living rises.

A group of frustrated parents is attempting a recall of three school board members, saying, “We have witnessed a total and complete lack of willingness and ability of this board to lead us through these difficult times,” and, “Teachers in this school district deserve more from this board of education and administration. The students deserve more from all of us.”

The New Haven strike follows teachers strikes in Los Angeles and Oakland, California; Denver, Colorado; and West Virginia—all in 2019. Teachers in South Carolina; Nashville, Tennessee; and Massachusetts have also held significant protests this year.

This blog was originally published at Daily Kos on June 1, 2019. Reprinted with permission.

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

West Virginia Senate passes sweeping education bill to ban teacher strikes

Tuesday, June 4th, 2019

The bill would allow schools to fire workers for striking and withhold pay on strike days.

The West Virginia State Senate on Monday passed a sweeping education overhaul bill that would deem teacher strikes unlawful.

The chamber voted 18-15 to advance the measure — after Senate Republicans inserted an amendment during a special session Sunday that would ban public worker strikes, amid protests from teachers and workers in the chamber, the Charleston Gazette-Mail reported. The legislation also allows for an unlimited number of charter schools in the state.

Democrats, as well as the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, criticized the ban on strikes as retaliation for the teacher walkouts that took place earlier this year and last year. The bill would allow schools to fire workers for striking and withhold pay on strike days, as well as forbid county superintendents from closing schools due to strikes.

The legislation, known as the Student Success Act, now moves to the House of Delegates, which is scheduled to reconvene on June 17. It is unclear whether Gov. Jim Justice (R) will sign the measure into law should it reach his desk. On Sunday, he told the Metro News, “We’re at a very, very difficult impasse.”

Teachers protested at the state capitol all weekend. On Saturday, hundreds of teachers chanted, “Charter schools, no! Public schools, yes!” Protesters also singled out Senate President Mitch Carmichael (R), who has been a staunch defender of the bill and has framed it as the key to fixing West Virginia’s education system.

“We have been accused of not listening,” said GOP State Sen. Patricia Rucker during Monday’s floor debate, likely referring to teacher protests. “I have to apologize if I sometimes slip into teacher mode. But listening is not the same … as agreeing. We can listen and we can agree or disagree … I’m here to represent more than just the unions in West Virginia.”

Protesters also called the measure just another iteration of a bill the legislature killed in February.

In February, West Virginia teachers took to the streets in protest of a similar omnibus bill that would allow a few charter schools to operate in the state and allocate money toward private school vouchers. Teachers argued that charter schools could drain money from struggling traditional public schools, which are already largely underfunded. The two-day strike was successful, with the Republican-controlled House tabling the measure.

Last year’s strike lasted almost two weeks, focusing on higher salaries and better benefits, as well as concerns over staff vacancies and the state’s insurance provider. An agreement was ultimately reached to provide teachers and state employees with a 5% pay raise, a fivefold increase from the original proposed raise. That proposal, however, died with the February omnibus bill. Monday’s bill includes the 5% raise. West Virginia teachers are among the country’s most poorly paid, with teacher salaries ranked at 48th in the nation, according to the National Education Association.

“I get sick of hearing how bad West Virginia schools are,” said Sen. Randy Smith (R) during floor debate Monday. “This is a start … I feel we have to start someplace … We need to stop sitting on our hands … Starting over again isn’t the right thing to do.”

This article was originally published in ThinkProgress on June 3, 2019. 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.

L.A. Teachers on What Was Won—And Which Battles Are Next

Thursday, January 24th, 2019

Following a six-day teachers’ strike over inadequate public-school funding, United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) and the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) reached a tentative agreement Tuesday. While tallies haven’t yet been released, UTLA has confirmed that teachers voted in favor of the contract and, as of Wednesday, have returned to their classrooms.

The agreement, which was preceded by a nearly 21-month bargaining period, reverses some of the trends the union was protesting, including bloated class sizes, insufficient staffing of nurses and counselors, excessive standardized testing and a lack of resources for special education. (UTLA’s protests, including the strike, were largely the product of a reform movement among educational unions nationwide.)

It also calls for a greater reckoning with charter schools: publicly funded, privately operated schools boosted primarily by wealthy financiers and executives. UTLA members rebuke these schools for siphoning funding from public schools and view a pro-charter district agenda as the cause of the aforementioned problems.

The new contract would restrict school privatization, calling on California to establish a cap on charter schools. It also states that Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti will endorse the Schools and Communities First ballot initiative, which will ostensibly redirect $11 billion per year to California schools, community colleges, health clinics and other local institutions.

In These Times spoke to five teachers from five different LAUSD schools. While most of them contend that more could have been won, these rank-and-file members overwhelmingly consider the new terms an improvement and a testament to the power of strikes.

“I am pleased with the agreement for several reasons,” second-grade teacher and rank-and-file UTLA member Traci Rustin told In These Times. “I think we started a conversation about charter schools among those members of the community and UTLA who had not previously given it much thought.”

Rustin and some other teachers, however, found the vote bittersweet, arguing that while they’re eager to return to work, the proposed terms should have included more aggressive changes. The agreement prevents the district from “unilaterally ignor[ing]” all class sizes and promises a gradual reduction of class size—which routinely exceeds 40—over the next four years, imposing maximums of 39 students for English and math courses in secondary schools. While the change marks an improvement, some remain frustrated.

“There are classes with 45 students in them. Do we really think that 41 students, three years from now will be acceptable? Absolutely not!” a kindergarten teacher in West Los Angeles who wished to remain anonymous told In These Times. “I am glad that the school district cannot come in and change that on a whim, like they were initially trying to do. … But the reduction isn’t enough.”

The 2019-2020 school year will see additional full-time teacher librarians and counselors for secondary schools, and nurses for all schools. By the 2020-2021 school year, theoretically, each school will be equipped with one nurse, five days a week. In the 2014-2015 school year, California ranked below all other states in student-to-librarian ratios, while nearly 40 percent of LAUSD schools were staffed with a nurse only one day a week, according to UTLA.

Still, the proposed staff-to-student ratios continue to worry some. “I don’t think that having a ratio of 500 students to one counselor is acceptable,” said the kindergarten teacher. “Yes, the district is giving us 17 more counselors to meet that ratio, finally, but a 500 to 1 ratio for mental health is not showing our students that we’re there for them.”

“It’s a little disheartening to realize that we’ve gained no ground on school psychologists and librarians for elementary schools,” added fourth-grade teacher Anavelia Valencia.

To address the issue of rampant standardized testing, UTLA has also vowed to establish a committee with LAUSD to cut testing in half—a move teachers overwhelmingly approve. Teachers will also receive a retroactive raise of three percent for the 2017-2018 school year, as well as an additional three percent retroactive raise dating from July 1, 2018. While educators emphasize that their salaries are a low-level concern, the raises come at a time when many California teachers can scarcely afford to rent or buy a home, yet don’t qualify for public housing.

The contract also ensures a number of changes designed to bolster students’ wellbeing. Schools will curtail “random” searches of students—a practice that has elicited strong criticism for targeting and criminalizing Black, Latinx and Muslim students. Schools will also plan to replace some of their industrial environs—bungalows, asphalt—with plant life, which has been shown to have therapeutic effects. Furthermore, according to the agreement, the district will provide an attorney for immigrant families as part of an Immigrant Defense Fund initiative.

While teachers find many of these changes promising, the circumstances surrounding voting were somewhat contentious. Because UTLA teachers learned of the contract the same day they were expected to vote, “several members were upset about voting so quickly,” said Rustin. “I wouldn’t have minded having an extra day to vote, but I also understand the need to return to work ASAP.” Relatedly, some organized impromptu meetings to discuss the contract and the merits of voting either way.

Whatever the outcome of the new terms, teachers agree much more work remains on the local, state and national levels—especially as educators in Denver and Oakland are preparing for potential strikes in response to public-school funding issues—and are returning to the classroom intent on keeping the struggle alive. In the meantime, they look forward to a fairer—and more galvanized—labor landscape. “The future of public education depends on making informed decisions about charter schools versus community schools,” said Rustin. “We were successful in calling attention to this.”

“Teachers have been beat down,” UTLA president Alex Caputo-Pearl said at a press conference on Tuesday night. “One of the things we’re most proud of is that this campaign… had our members say, ‘I deserve better.’”

This article was originally published at In These Times on January 23, 2019. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Julianne Tveten writes about the intersection of the technology industry and socioeconomic issues. Her work has appeared in Current Affairs, The Outline, Motherboard, and Hazlitt, among others.

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.
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