Needed: A national teachers movement

The teachers who led the occupation of Wisconsin's Capitol in February captured the spirit of educators who are fed up with being blamed for society's problems. The sick-in by teachers in the city of Madison soon spread statewide--and teachers from across the U.S. came to the Wisconsin capital to show their solidarity.

On March 13, however, members of the union that led the way, Madison Teachers Inc., ratified a contract with major concessions. These include a pay freeze at 2009 levels until mid-2013 unless the board decides otherwise; an increase in teachers' contributions for pensions and health insurance; and a longer school day to make up for the sick-out. The Madison agreement, like those in other Wisconsin school districts, was rushed to ratification to postpone the impact of Gov. Scott Walker's draconian anti-union law for a couple years. But while the Madison agreement retains automatic deduction of union dues, it gives the school district almost the same economic cuts contained in Walker's plan.

But despite this setback, the teachers' fightback in Wisconsin remains an inspiration across the U.S. Sarah Knopp, a University of Wisconsin graduate and member of United Teachers Los Angeles, describes her experience at the huge March 12 protest in Madison.

Educators march against Walker's attacks on their unions and rights (Carole Ramsden)Educators march against Walker's attacks on their unions and rights (Carole Ramsden)

I KNEW things had changed when my high school basketball coach from conservative, suburban DuPage County in Illinois told me that she had been sending a pizza every day to the protesters in Madison. "I have a lot of friends there doing great work," she said. "We need a national teachers movement."

When I went to Madison the weekend after Scott Walker rammed an anti-union bill through the Wisconsin legislature, overcoming Democratic opposition with a parliamentary maneuver, I met dozens of teachers from all over the state and country who were saying the same thing. As I went into the recently re-occupied state Capitol building, I saw retired teacher Jack Hill from New Jersey on the "people's mic," surrounded by probably a thousand people, talking about national teachers' solidarity. Turns out that he was the president of the Mullica, N.J., Education Association local for 25 years.

I asked Hill what teachers who are just starting out should know about teachers' unions: He replied:

Everything we've won in education has been a long, hard battle. The most important thing to know is that you can't just take a snapshot of this moment. They want some workers to look at the moment right now and say, "You have this, and I don't, you have a pension, and I don't." But in New Jersey, the state pension system was broken by the politicians. It ought to be illegal, what they've done.

New Jersey is known for having a strong teachers' union. But right now, they're playing on our weakness and fear, and trying to fracture us. I've been depressed about it. But this situation shows that people are waking up. Americans have been asleep for a long time, and we've gotten screwed.

It's going to change for young teachers--stick to it. If they tell you to take a pay cut to save jobs, they're playing chicken with you. It won't work. Call their bluff. Don't cave in to their fear tactics.

After I gave solidarity greetings from Los Angeles at the mic, Kristine, who's now a graduate student and teaching assistant at the University of Wisconsin, approached me to talk about what she'd learned since leaving K-12 teaching. Coincidentally, she had been a teacher in Los Angeles, too:

I wish it was easier to stay in teaching. I feel like some of the best ones leave. Because as teachers, we feel like we want to take on everything, but we can't. Those of us who want to actually do the job the way that it's supposed to be done realize that we're working under impossible circumstances.

I know teachers feel afraid about striking, but if we don't, we have to realize the long-term effect. Even in the short term, the benefit of us striking is for the kids. If we don't, people like Scott Walker are going to destroy their futures.

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OUTSIDE, A retired worker from the recently closed General Motors plant in Janesville, Wis., Eddie McIntire, was picketing with Beverly, a teacher from Fort Atkins, Wis., a community of 10,000. I assumed they were old friends because of the way they were talking, but they had just met that morning. They laughed at my confusion. "We're all together now," Beverly told me.

Eddie remembered about how teachers used to spend their summers working at the GM plant in Janesville to make ends meet, which is why he knew it was a lie when politicians talked about these teachers living high off the hog. So I thought he might have some advice for teacher unionists about how we could avoid going down the same road as the United Auto Workers--slow atrophy in the face of overwhelming attacks.

"The main thing is that you have people working on the line right next to each other--like me, I had maxed out at $28 an hour," he told me. "But the person next to me, the new hire, was making only $14."

This is due to a two-tier agreement that the UAW made whereby new hires had entirely different pay and benefit scales than workers who were in before the contract was signed. The whole "two-tier" concept reminded me of the conditions that charter school teachers are working under now, teaching the same kids that we have in public schools. "It worked to erode solidarity," Eddie said.

I asked him if he thought that it had been necessary to agree to such a contract at the time. "No, I don't think it was necessary," he said. "But I don't know what we could have done differently. Sales were dropping so fast, we felt like we had no bargaining power. I imagine state workers are in a better position to strike."

I told him that from the public sector, it often felt the opposite way--that we envied their ability to shut down production. This took us off into a discussion about the state of organization among workers in general.

But since I was testing out a theory from my old basketball coach--that there was an overwhelming desire for a national teachers' movement--I remembered to ask Beverly about what it has meant to her to have a teachers' union. She replied:

In Fort Atkins, where the population is around 11,000, we've never had a strong union, particularly. But when this passed, we all got together on the bridge to have a demonstration, and it felt like the whole community was behind us. Teachers always think, "Someone is going to come in and take care of me when I need it." But this shows that you can't count on it.

When we strike, it definitely brings value to our students in terms of class size, as well as us as teachers. And for me, to have a union means that I can live my life with a little less worry. Some say it's a bland life, but I don't think it's bland. I just live within my means and love my job."

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MEANWHILE, STUDENTS from all over the city were staging walkouts and gathering at the Capitol. A group of students from Middleton High School had gathered at the Capitol, and I asked them why they cared enough to be out here. "We love our teachers," they said.

"Really?" I asked. "Like all of them?"

"Ninety percent of them are nice," Nicolaus told me. "We're learning English, so we need extra help. Ninety percent give us attention and don't act racist."

Ann Marchant from Stevens Point, Wis., was obviously the kind of teacher they were talking about. She teaches English as a second language, but they have so few ESL teachers in Stevens Point, despite a large student population, that she moves from school to school and teaches all grades, K-12.

"The big difference I've seen," she said, "Is in the community of the school. We have been marching in front of the school together every day for 4 weeks. I feel like I live in a community now instead of a bubble. I had always felt safe, like I'm an ESL teacher, I'm in demand, I'm going to have a job, security, retirement. Now I don't know, but I feel more connected to the union."

Ann reminded me of the situation of my cousin, who teaches middle school ESL in suburban Chicago. Her new superintendent had told all the ESL teachers to fill out applications to transfer to general education. This was a move on his part to segregate all ESL students in the whole district into one school. "I guess we pulled our own Wisconsin," she told me, because they all refused to sign the papers.

Later that day, about 2,000 students from all over Madison had gathered on Library Mall. Some organizers from Wisconsin Students Solidarity were speaking from the elevated platform--with a bullhorn, 1960s-style. I was glad to see that they were using statistics to back up their arguments, something I feel like I've been repeating in my classroom like a broken record every day for the past 11 years.

"When they cut $390 million from education," the organizer explained, "that means the total elimination of alternative education. It means the elimination of A.P. [advanced placement] programs. It means the elimination of Alcohol Prevention and Intervention Programs."

"Who the hell thought that was a good idea?" said the kid next to me. Eleanor from Madison East High School was circulating the crowd getting others to sign a petition, so I asked her why she was so passionate about standing up for public workers' rights, given that schools often seem below-standard. "I think that as students, we know that it's not teachers' fault," she said. "They aren't given the funds they need to succeed. And no one knows better than students that teaching is a really hard job. We need more money, but there's no way to get it."

People from all over the state marched all day. When I was marching with the No Cuts Coalition that included a lot of nurses, some of the favorite chants were: "How to fix the deficit? Tax, tax, tax the rich," and "The workers, united, will never be defeated." I remember seeing a 10-year-old girl in a purple jacket chanting that one with as much fervor and as I've ever seen anyone chant. As an economics teacher, I wondered how that would change what she learned in social studies classes from now on. And whether she would remember this moment when she was leading demonstrations in a few years.

Lynn Miyagawa from Orchard Ridge Elementary was crying at the end of the day. "I'm emotional because I'm surprised. I really didn't think that this would pass," she said of Walker's union-busting bill. Miyagawa said that she had also felt proud when the 14 Democratic state senators commended the crowd for standing up and leading. I decided to ask her about something uplifting, like the impact that this has had on her teaching.

"When you teach third grade like I do," she said, "fairness is a big concept. So what this struggle has done is to make the concept of fairness really multi-dimensional for them. It's also making the concept of democracy very multi-dimensional for them."

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I KNEW exactly what she meant. It seemed like everyone in the town was chanting (or honking) "Show me what democracy looks like? This is what democracy looks like!"

I had been wondering all day what people thought about that. Clearly at the beginning of the four-week explosion of protest, as the Capitol had been taken over, it meant "people's power." Now I wondered how many people were thinking about the dramatic irony of the trick that Walker played to pass the bill. That, too, is what democracy looks like in the U.S. in 2011. Both their democracy and ours were on display this week, and theirs seemed to be winning for the moment.

Thus, the question on everyone's mind was: Are we going to shut Wisconsin down? Most people thought that if they did, the teachers would take the lead. Lynn Miyagawa described how other unions had come into their Madison Teachers Inc. meetings and said, "Whatever you do, we're behind you." She felt like that was a heavy load to carry. It's not easy to have the eyes of teachers everywhere on you.

"Shutting down the state seems really scary to me," Miyagawa said. And yet, "when I'm in the Capitol, I love just walking around and talking to people from everywhere. The solidarity and camaraderie are amazing. You turn to your left, turn to your right, and you can chat with people who've come to support us from all over the state, and all over the world."

A staffer for the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) told me that when the teachers shut down Wisconsin schools for four days when the bill was introduced, activists and officers from each local had called all 98,000 teachers statewide.

Now, though, WEAC has shifted to an electoral strategy of recalling Walker (in almost a year) and eight Republican state senators now. "It's going to take us a little while to get organized again," a Blackhawk Middle School teacher told me. It's hard to imagine anyone other than a group of organized rank-and-file activists having the courage to call out such a risky action.

Nevertheless, the fact that teachers nationwide had their eyes on Wisconsin--with many of us hoping for a shutdown--is a good step by itself. Suddenly, a national movement of teachers, parents and students to defend the public sector seems like a vibrant and realistic idea to many.