The Wave Of Teacher Strikes Continues In Colorado And Virginia (Video)

Some believed, favorably or otherwise, that the landmark Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCMEcase the Supreme Court decided in June would signal the death knell for public sector unions.

That fear is not baseless considering the Court decided to strip bargaining power from America’s workers, undermining their ability to unify around better wages, benefits, workplace protections and standards for working families–basically turning the entire workforce into a “right-to-work-for less” sector, fulfilling a dream Republicans and right-wing groups have shared for decades.

But the American labor movement has famously survived attacks for decades.

Today is no different.

We need not look much further for encouragement than to America’s public school teachers.

After educators in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, North Carolina, Colorado, and West Virginia struck at the beginning of 2018 for better pay, better funding, and the rights they and their students have been denied too long, there have been more headlines focusing on public education in the age of Donald Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos.

Last month, Los Angeles teachers struck for the first time in 30 years for smaller class sizes, better pay, more nurses, counselors, and librarians, and have returned to their classrooms.

After six successful days of strikes, there will now be librarians and nurses in every LA school, and class sizes–although still too large–will be lower.

Denver, Colorado is next on the list.

Denver teachers are threatening to strike Monday, according to the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, over compensation, staff turnover rates, and unfilled positions since negotiations have reached a 14-month impasse.

Gov. Jared Polis stated he feels confident “parties are very close to reaching an agreement.”

Polis has agreed not to intervene, heeding a Colorado Department of Labor and Employment decision.

According to the Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA), 31% of teachers have worked at their schools for three or fewer years.

It argues $4 million in administrative spending should be alternatively invested in teacher salaries, and that salary schedules should be comparable to other districts.

DCTA President, Henry Roman, commented:

“You cannot financially plan your future when you have that kind of variability in pay.”

Last month, school administration threatened to report teachers with H-1B and J-1 visas work visas to immigration authorities, then apologized, stating in a letter:

“Our deepest apologies for any anxiety that was caused by this error.”

Denver teacher Sean Davis called the threat “absolutely sickening,” adding the district “constantly sends out communication on how much they value diversity and how much they will protect our immigrant students.”

Henry Roman added:

“You can’t, on one hand, say, ‘I’m going to throw you out of the country, but we really value the work that you’re doing, and we look forward to working collaboratively.’ It doesn’t create the right school environment. It’s inexcusable.”

Next on the list: Virginia.

In what is being called the single largest demonstration in the state’s history, teachers took to the streets Monday to demand more funding.

Educator and Virginia Educators United (VEU) strategy team member, Deanna Fierro, said:

“When things are bad in our economy, the first place [legislators] take money from is social services and things like education. We felt it in 2008, with the Great Recession, and those numbers just never went back up. It was convenient for the state to not get those numbers back up.”

One in five American educators works a second job.

Despite more qualified individuals entering the profession, teachers are getting paid 5% less than they did a decade ago, according to Michael Hansen, director at the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.

54% of teachers have master’s degrees, a 49% increase since the 2008 recession. The percentage of teachers holding doctoral degrees increased as well in that amount of time, from 2.5% to 4.5%.

Similarly educated professionals in other fields could expect 20% to 30% more pay.

That gap is wider than in any other developed country.

The Economic Policy Institute (EPI) reports that the relative wage gap (regression-adjusted for education, experience, and other factors affecting earnings) for public teachers, has ballooned since the mid-1990s. In 1994, the disparity was 1.8%; in 1996, it was 4.3%. In 2017, it hit a record 18.7%.

Thanks to strong collective bargaining, many school districts are offering better compensation packages than other professionals enjoy; however, those benefits are not enough to offset the expanding wage penalty. In 2017, the total teacher compensation penalty hit a record 11.1% comprised of an 18.7% wage penalty and a 7.6% benefit advantage.

Janus challenges public sector unions’ ability to collect fair share, or “agency,” fees–dues– from employees who receive representation and bargaining services unions are required to provide.

Now a reality, the assault is being elevated to the next level.

Conservative think tanks have been contacting union members via direct marketing campaigns to persuade them to stop paying their dues.

Fortunately, the unintended consequence of Janus is that, like Donald Trump’s election in 2016, it has mobilized Americans.

After public sector unions dodged a bullet with the Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association case, most engaged immediately to mitigate the damage they foresaw coming in the future.

According to a piece in In These Times:

“Public-sector unions have been hard at work to re-engage members and convince them not to opt out. These initial efforts have been successful, with far lower opt-out rates than feared, some below 1 percent. The unions are benefiting from a favorable climate: Approval of labor unions is at a 15-year high, and a majority of Americans view unions positively.”

CWA Secretary-Treasurer Sara Steffens boasts:

“I’d like to think this is backfiring on all the corporate anti-union forces that cooked this up.”

AFSCME president Lee Saunders added:

“Anyone writing our obituary is going to be sorely disappointed. We don’t believe we are going to get hurt nearly as badly as people thought by Janus.”

This doesn’t mean Janus is meaningless and we should ignore the damage it is still doing to union memberships in some instances. Some organizations did not anticipate Janus’ impact until they started losing members.

But if anything can be said for why the recent teachers’ strikes are so vital, it’s an indication that collective bargaining in America is still a force with which to be reckoned.

This is not a fight anti-union advocates will win.

Despite some Pyrrhic victories over the decades, they never have.

Image credit: Flickr

Ted Millar is writer and teacher. His work has been in featured in myriad literary journals, including Better Than Starbucks, The Broke Bohemian, Straight Forward Poetry, Caesura, Circle Show, Cactus Heart, Third Wednesday, and The Voices Project. He is also a contributor to Op-Ed News, Liberal Nation Rising, and Zoedune.