Socialist Alternative

Teachers Union Threatens Strikes against Unsafe School Reopenings

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On July 28, at their biennial convention, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), one of the two main teacher unions along with the National Education Association (NEA), passed a resolution “supporting local and/or state affiliate safety strikes on a case-by-case basis as a last resort.” If school boards and corporate politicians do not provide proper health and safety protocols for reopening schools, the AFT is advising its members to “use every action and tool available.”

The AFT has outlined a reopening plan consisting of comprehensive safety measures based upon the latest public health science. This includes remaining under thresholds of community infection and transmission rates; utilizing effective disease surveillance, contact tracing, and isolation. It also calls for ensuring safeguards and practices including physical distancing, face coverings for students and staff, access to hand-washing facilities, resources and staffing to clean and sanitize facilities, and necessary updates to ventilation and building systems.  

While we agree with AFT president Randi Weingarten’s statement that “remote instruction is no substitute” for in-person learning, we would go further. The March shutdown of schools exposed what a disaster remote learning is for the majority of students.  The fact that schools are not safely reopening five months later is first and foremost an indictment of the Trump administration’s incompetence in handling the coronavirus crisis. Furthermore, it is an indictment of the capitalist system that has systematically staved public education for generations, robbing public schools of resources.

The AFT statement reflects the lack of confidence the majority of people have in a Trump-led federally coordinated reopening of schools. It also shows that working people don’t have much faith in local governments and school boards to adhere to the best available public health science in creating guidelines for a safe reopen. 

Finally, it shows that the AFT leadership is under pressure from rank and file teachers as well as parents who are understandably extremely apprehensive about the situation, and that large numbers of teachers are willing to walk out to ensure their health and safety as well as that of their communities. It is very positive that the AFT leadership has taken this position in the face of overwhelming sentiment but it is still remarkable given their long history of holding struggle back..

Acting as a brake upon teachers’ struggle is not unique to the AFT leadership. The teachers revolt of 2018/9 was driven by rank and file teachers and some progressive teacher union locals. The AFT and NEA leadership did virtually nothing to develop and extend this struggle. In an August 6 Education Week interview, newly elected NEA president, Becky Pringle, hedged on whether or not the NEA would support safety strikes. Instead of officially backing and explicitly using the term “strike” — the most powerful weapon workers have to ensure safe and equitable schools — Pringle chose to focus on the dead end tactic of lobbying Congress. 

Rank and file teachers represented by the NEA should begin filing resolutions promoting the use of the strike tactic to prevent dangerous reopenings and to demand fully funded, safe reopening plans. 

In Covid-19-ravaged Arizona, where some 100 teachers and staff organized a sickout prompting the J.O. Combs Unified School District outside of Phoenix to shut down its reckless reopening plan. In 2018, Arizona witnessed the rank and file moxie of their teachers who organized statewide pressure that forced the Arizona Education Association (affiliate of the NEA) to back their strike action which eventually won important gains. This same militancy will be needed from coast to coast to overcome the conservative NEA leadership’s refusal to back the teachers’ struggle to resist unsafe reopenings. This is not lost on Arizona kindergarten teacher, Kelley Fisher who said, “I’d love to see a nationwide sickout.”

We have already seen the impact of the threat of strike action alone. Just days apart, United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA) and the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) — both AFT affiliates — used the threat of strike action to pressure their respective school boards to halt the physical reopening of schools for the fall term. In both cities, a safe reopening is not possible at this time and with the existing policies. Furthermore, UTLA has negotiated a more equitable remote learning protocol than was offered by the school district. 

This “green light” to strike from the AFT should also empower rank-and-file teachers to resist bad faith efforts on the part of regional or local union affiliates to negotiate hasty reopening agreements with the bosses. 

Deciding to Strike and the Necessary Tasks

The question of how to reopen safely affects every school district in the country. Educator unions should call for school and district-based community meetings to unite families and educators. To ensure widespread community support and to present a united front, building-based health and safety committees of educators, health experts, parents, and students must be set up to decide how schools reopen. These will need to be connected to local and statewide coordinating bodies. This approach will be critical to building support if a strike becomes necessary.

In communities rushing toward unsafe school reopenings, teachers should use the AFT resolution to put forward strike resolutions in their union locals. Rank-and-file leaders shouldn’t wait to start organizing among coworkers, parents, and community members. We can take inspiration from the courageous example of the West Virginia 55-county strike that ignited the teachers’ strike wave of 2018-19. 

Email and phone communication can be supplemented with social media to gauge the mood and to begin to organize for strike action. Editorials in local newspapers can set the tone and build the foundation of the strike argument in public discourse. But educators cannot and should not go it alone. They should at every stage discuss with parents and students the strategy to prevent unsafe reopenings and how to win a safe physical reopening.

Decades of Education Cuts

After decades of closing schools and increasing class sizes, a safe reopening requires drastically smaller class sizes, which means more space and hiring more teachers. This can include commandeering other unused spaces or building temporary structures outside. There must also be an urgent drive to put proper ventilation systems into all schools.

Furthermore, the unique social and emotional challenges faced by students under the strain and anxiety of pandemic reality requires the hiring of more specialized staff including counselors and social workers. What we are talking about is fully staffed, fully resourced schools. This means fully funded schools! 

Sections of the political establishment will try to cynically pit parents and educators against one another in order to distract from what is in the best interests of both groups: a massive investment in public schools paid for by taxing the rich. As Socialist Alternative has argued previously, educators and families will need to fight together for a complete overhaul of our public education infrastructure, for a moratorium on charter schools, and for a tax on the billionaires and big businesses in their respective areas.

UTLA and CTU continue to lead the way by their involvement in a coalition called Demand Safe Schools. One of the demands from this coalition is a tax on billionaires and Wall Street. While this call is for a federal tax, this demand can and should be taken up on the state and local level, as well. For instance, UTLA has also raised the demand to tax Los Angeles’ hundreds of billionaires and millionaires. Such a demand is a model for all AFT affiliates and for all of organized labor.

Courageous AFT locals and the class solidarity of community safety committees are crucial, however, there is another piece to this fighting equation.

Winning Safe Reopenings With Fully Funded Schools Requires Labor Solidarity

Politicians from both parties are prioritizing the interests of big business when it comes to reopening plans. Organized labor must fill the leadership vacuum and prioritize the safety of working people. The AFT has taken an important step in this direction. This official go-ahead to strike if necessary is a significant development in organized labor giving leadership to working people amidst the COVID-19 and economic crises, but the call must be taken up by more unions and across more sectors.

It will be up to the rank and file and genuine leaderships of national and local unions coast to coast and across all sectors to build the labor solidarity necessary to win our demands. Unions with members in the public education sector like AFSCME and SEIU must be prepared for solidarity actions should teachers’ unions strike. Nurses, flight attendants, and transit workers should continue their recent militancy by throwing their weight behind such a movement. Organized labor should prepare to back teachers and call for a billionaire tax to fully fund public education, safe reopenings in all industries, a green jobs program, and the building of social housing. 

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