Vermont teachers show they won't back down

Nolan Rampy reports on what teachers in Burlington were able to gain from last month's strike--and what they'll need to fight for in the months and years to come.

Burlington teachers walk the picket line (Burlington Education Association)Burlington teachers walk the picket line (Burlington Education Association)

BURLINGTON TEACHERS overwhelmingly ratified an agreement for a two-year contract that brought a four-day strike--the first by the Burlington Teachers Association's (BEA) in nearly 40 years--to an end in mid-September.

The strike came after the school board broke off negotiations and imposed pay and working conditions earlier in the month, forcing the union's hand into striking to protect its bargaining rights.

The near-unanimous vote by BEA to authorize a strike stemmed from years of deteriorating working and student learning conditions due to budget cuts and increasingly disrespectful and authoritarian school management.

On pay and benefits, the settlement terms are marginally better than what the school board imposed. The contract meets new state-imposed requirements for raising health care contributions from teachers.

During the two-year term of this contract, teachers will receive a 2.5 percent pay increase for 2018 and a 2.75 percent increase the following year. The district will cover 81 percent of health care costs this year and 80 percent next year. Single teachers will pay a maximum of $400 in out-of-pocket health care costs, while teachers on a family plan will pay up to $800.

But the union insisted throughout that the strike was not primarily about monetary issues, but about professional respect, teaching conditions and arbitrary management. So despite their gains, many members feel that their struggle is far from over.

As one teacher posted after the settlement, "We are not suddenly working in a collaborative environment. We are not suddenly being heard. Roll up your sleeves, Burlington. Our work has just begun."

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IT WAS an important advance for the Burlington teachers to strike for first time in decades. There has been a direct correlation between declining union strength (shrinking union density and strike actions at an all time low) and increasing inequality, re-segregation of public school and cuts to public institutions.

While the gains were modest, they can help put the union and the fight for public education on firmer ground for the battles that are sure to come in a state that is moving towards a crisis in public education.

Years of reduced revenues have depleted Vermont's Education Fund, forcing increases in statewide property taxes to make up the difference. Even if districts held spending at the rate of inflation, the state would still face funding shortages. To make matters worse, districts have depleted their reserves last year in order to avoid penalties imposed by the state for exceeding mandated spending limits.

At the same time, Kurt Wright, a Republican state representative and former president of the Burlington City Council, and Republican state Sen. Joe Benning say they will introduce a bill to ban teachers' strikes in Vermont--the only state in New England where they are still legal.

Anthony Pollina, a state senator and chairman of the Vermont Progressive Party, wrote a recent opinion piece opposing the proposed ban.

"One has to see the effort to ban strikes as an attack on a fundamental right and an attempt to undermine the strength and existence of unions," Pollina wrote. "Knowing it is no coincidence that the weakening of unions has mirrored the rise in income inequality, stagnant wages and few benefits."

It's good that Pollina is taking a public stance in defense of the right to strike but we can't count on Progressives and liberal Democrats in the State House to save us. They have already shown that they are largely on board with Republican Gov. Phil Scott's neoliberal agenda, which means that it's very possible this bill could win enough bipartisan support to pass.

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PEOPLE WHO want to defend and strengthen public education are going to need to work out their own strategies for addressing the structural issues that are driving deteriorating working conditions. To do this, we'll need to have clarity on several fronts.

First, the change we need won't come from the Burlington School Board. Although the board has officially opposed some of the legislature's austerity measures, it doesn't have any influence in this arena.

Liberal board members like Liz Curry and Stephanie Seguino could have the best intentions, but at the end of the day, their job is to work within the economic and political constraints imposed by the state to keep schools running no matter how far conditions deteriorate.

In fact, the board's role as intermediary means that it is not only powerless to influence state-level decisions, but it is positioned as the frontline enforcer of the state's neoliberal agenda.

So if the school board really is just doing the best with what it's got, does that mean the teachers are unreasonable and we should back the school board? Absolutely not.

It is precisely because the school board is incapable of fighting back that we should support the teachers, because it's they who are uniquely positioned with both the interest and ability to fight for better schools for children.

This is why school boards are inherently hostile to unions: their ability to fight back against austerity through strikes is the single-biggest impediment to the board doing its job and carrying out the state's austerity agenda.

It's critical that we understand this relationship. At the local, state and national level, unions are the most powerful force standing in the way of more austerity and privatization. Their interest and ability to fight for better schools is rooted in their connection to the classroom, their students and the experience of working class communities--and, of course, their fought-for collective bargaining rights and ability to strike when necessary.

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LIZ CURRY wrote an opinion article before the strike about the "wide disparity between the academic performance of lower income students, students of color, and those on individual education plans (IEPs) and their white and middle- and upper-income counterparts."

In order to make progress, she argued, "all of our administrators and teachers need to work together to achieve better outcomes than we are seeing by centrally coordinating these heroic efforts occurring at all levels across the district."

Unfortunately, this wasn't an issue the union took up, and without a counterargument, the board was able to position itself as fighters for racial justice, even as it pushed a budget that would deepen the institutional racism that already exists in Vermont's public education system.

This is ground that is extremely important not to cede. Earlier this year, neighboring South Burlington High School faced considerable backlash following a successful campaign led by students of color to ditch its racist "rebel" mascot--180 years after the Civil War. Racists and reactionaries mobilized enough support to successfully defeat two subsequent budget proposals.

Just five years earlier, students of color walked out of Burlington High School to protest racist policies and teachers. Their grievances have been borne out by data showing that students of color have been disproportionately disciplined.

Teachers in many cities have linked fighting budget cuts with promoting wealth redistribution and combatting racism as integral parts of the project to win better schools for students and staff alike.

The Chicago Teachers Union, for instance, made addressing racism in the schools a central principle of its organizing in its vision of the schools students deserve, which enabled it to build multiracial support from parents and students.

The Burlington School Board, with a member exposed for racist Facebook posts, shouldn't be able to use a divide-and-conquer strategy around race in schools as it undermines the union and implements school austerity.

Even after taking account of the disappointments in this contract, the strike by Burlington teachers drew a line in the sand against school boards pushing through austerity on the backs of teachers and students--an example that other teachers' unions can follow.

Resisting these attacks means building a broader movement that can fight for the schools that we deserve.

In an inspiring display of solidarity, hundreds of parents, students and community members gathered in City Hall Park in downtown Burlington to support local teachers while they were on strike. This was an important step in building our side's strength and confidence, and in showing teachers that they aren't alone in this fight.

Now we need to protect the right to strike and win progressive taxation to fund schools. That will take a solidarity campaign that unites teachers, students, parents, unions and social justice organizations across the state. A statewide rally in Montpelier supporting teachers' right to strike would be a significant step in this direction. When we fight, we can win.