Back to school and straight to the picket line

The empowering effect of this strike is being felt by first-year and veteran teachers alike.

SOURCESocialist Worker
Image Credit: Young Kwak

Teachers in six school districts in southern Washington state were on strike in late August and early September to demand wage increases needed to bring their pay up to the level of other educators nationally.

Predictably, school officials are claiming that giving teachers a raise would force them to cut important programs for students.

But this stock response is particularly absurd because a recent Washington Supreme Court ruling in the McCleary case – which was the result of the state’s failure to live up to its obligation to provide quality public schools under the state’s constitution – has triggered extra funding in the state budget, including $2 billion specifically earmarked for teachers’ salaries.

Instead of agreeing to the wage increases, however, district administrators have been hoarding the cash, which sits in a bank account accruing interest.

In addition to shining a light on this hoarded gold, the strike has also exposed the fact that superintendents in Clark County make a stunning amount of money. Nearly all get six figures every year – the Vancouver school district superintendent makes more than $300,000.

Many children joined their teachers and parents on the picket line. Among parents unable to attend, many were able to continue childcare arrangements that they had made for the summer.

For those in need of care, part-time staff at many of the schools offered childcare services to the community. “Which is amazing,” one teacher explained. “Because they aren’t getting paid at all during this time.”

As has been the case in other teachers’ strikes this year, community members in southern Washington banded together to ensure that students who rely on school for meals are still being served. Teachers partnered with food pantries to arrange donations and set up numerous locations for families to pick up food during the strike.

The striking districts in Clark County are Vancouver, Evergreen, Battle Ground, Washougal, Ridgefield and Hockinson. While the districts’ teachers send videos of support to each other, they are bargaining independently of each other. (To keep track of all the potential, upcoming and concluded strikes in Washington state, here’s a handy summary.)

Union bargaining teams in these districts have reported negotiating sessions that last 14 to 20 hours. Districts have sent representatives to the table with no bargaining power and have been releasing intentionally misleading information about their offers.

In addition to stalling negotiations, the districts have attempted to intimidate striking teachers and pit parents against the teachers.

Vancouver Public Schools (VPS) District Superintendent Steve Webb announced in an August 28 statement that if the strike continued past September 17, the district would have “no choice” but to suspend teachers’ health benefits.

The previous day, VPS filed an injunction ordering teachers back to work, claiming that a strike would cause children to suffer “irreparable or substantial harm.” The Evergreen school district used a similar tactic in 2016, successfully convincing a judge to issue a temporary restraining order requiring teachers to stay on the job.

This time, when word of VPS’s injunction spread on social media, a meeting place was arranged for parents to sign a declaration in opposition to this ludicrous claim. Nearly a thousand parents mobilized to sign the declaration, which only needed 20 signatures.

According to teachers in Evergreen and Vancouver, community support has been overwhelming. Secretaries, custodians, paraprofessionals, parents and even the staff at the local Boys and Girls Club have joined the teachers on the picket line, donated snacks and provided other forms of solidarity large and small.

But it doesn’t stop there. Also on the picket line were students, alumni and parents; plus delegations from Jobs With Justice; unionized nurses and steelworkers; the Vancouver Firefighters Union; International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 4, Service Employees International Union Local 49, Letter Carriers Vancouver Branch 1104 and Joint Council of Teamster 37.

Community members came from all over southern Washington, as well as from Portland, Oregon, just across the Columbia River from Vancouver.

UPS drivers are refusing to deliver packages to any of the schools while teachers are out on strike. Restaurants such as Seize the Bagel, Revive Espresso & Tea, Relevant Coffee, Albina Press, Twilight Pizza, Hula Boy Charbroil, Jimmy John’s, Ice Cream Renaissance, Starbucks and more donated food and/or coffee to strikers. Cascadia Construction donated Portajohns, and Fourth Plain Church of the Nazarene lets picketers use their bathroom.

Monica Stonier, a state representative in 49th district and the vice chair of the House Education Committee, has also been an educator in the district for 18 years. Before attending a rally at her school site, Stonier explained, “[I] dropped my own kids off at the picket line at their school and told them their assignment today is to say thank you to teachers.”

After a week of striking, a sea of teachers descended on the main road in front of the Evergreen District office on August 31, as more than 2,000 red-shirted teachers and their allies rallied in a show of strength and solidarity with the Evergreen Education Association.

Picture the following: a picket sign that read “This would never fly at Hogwarts”; dogs in red bandanas; and a marching band made up of music teachers playing jams like “We’re Not Gonna Take It” and the foreboding music that accompanies the Death Star. For two hours, the celebratory protest filled six blocks, growing in size as teachers marched from their schools or arrived in cars.

Amy Hubbard is a parent of three children who have all attended public schools in the Evergreen school district. She had been out on the picket line to support teachers as much as possible over the past week.

“Teachers are being bullied by the districts,” she explained. “They are acting like they are running out of money but there is plenty of money.” Hubbard believes that most parents are very supportive of the strike. “Parents who don’t support the strike just don’t get it,” she said.

Around 1 p.m., the crowd marched into the parking lot of the Evergreen district office, chanting “Fair contract!” Principals, the district superintendent, secretaries and other staff all came out of their offices to watch the action, and negotiators thanked the picketers for providing inspiration as they entered into another long day of deliberations.

Leaders of the action ended with a rally near the entrance to the Evergreen district offices, telling members to “go rest their feet” and prepare for Labor Day weekend.

Bargaining continued through the weekend in the various districts. The Vancouver Education Association and Camas Education Association, which was preparing to strike today, reached tentative agreements with their districts on Sunday. Vancouver teachers are set to vote on an agreement today

No matter how long the various strikes go on, experienced organizers are seeing a positive impact and looking forward to future collaborative work with educators across the state in the tireless work of demanding the best for themselves and their students.

Marj Hogan, a member and organizer with Evergreen Education Association, discussed the hopes of the teachers and the radical possibilities for a more empowered union membership:

There are a lot of factors that will influence what “possible” means for us, among them our regionalization factor, the current contract, and of course the will of our membership as a strike lengthens. After a large action on Friday, members are feeling a lot of power…

For me as an organizer, the most valuable aspect of our current situation is the way it is empowering leadership at all levels of union engagement. In a different year, if fewer locals were facing a strike, we would have WEA staffing to manage our strike coordination. In this case, WEA help has been slow to arrive, and for that reason all of our zone leads, my position as strike coordinator, and our communications lead are from our membership, not WEA staff, although WEA staff have arrived and are now advising us.

In this model, the leadership we are growing now is something that we can carry into the school year…[H]aving experienced what active participation feels like, many of those leaders will be ready to think about what our responsibilities and capacities are as a local, beyond contract negotiations: What is our responsibility to our students’ families? To the struggle for fair housing and living wages in our communities? To racial and social justice in our schools?

I believe we will have the opportunity to tackle these questions together among membership, rather than relegating them to a social justice or community engagement committee, and I am excited about that.

The empowering effect of this strike is being felt by first-year and veteran teachers alike. Jennifer Voeller, a third-grade teacher at Illahee Elementary, is entering her 16th year as an educator. She had never been involved with a strike before, but when the opportunity arose to participate, Voeller said she “went for it” and volunteered to be picket captain.

Voeller recognizes that it is essential to demand fair pay, especially in fields dominated by women. “The nurses are about to do the same,” she said. “We feel this is a women’s issue. Women are not paid fairly, and with the high percentage of women being teachers and nurses, it seems obvious.”

Tondalea Downer spent her first day as a teacher on the picket line. Downer had recently transitioned from being a paraprofessional in schools to teaching. She made the switch in order to gain upward mobility and is hopeful that the strike will increase her pay as a first-year teacher.

“People want to be working,” Downer said, echoing the sentiment of all of the teachers on the picket line. “We want to be with the kids, but unfortunately, there’s no conversation,” she said of the districts’ early attempts to avoid realistic negotiations.


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