Why bluegrass teachers are seeing red

April 5, 2018

Pranav Jani tells how Kentucky teachers mobilized to fight back, with contributions from Destiny Gowdy, Will Myers and Emily Shaw reporting from Frankfort.

TEACHERS AND education workers are on the move--thousands and thousands of them, starting with the victorious strike in West Virginia and continuing with an ongoing walkout in Oklahoma, and rallies and work stoppages in Kentucky.

The workers themselves, hailing from states that are dismissed by the mainstream media as bastions of conservatism, are quite conscious of this electric moment.

The convergence of educator-led protests have even the corporate press talking about a "red-state revolt"--but the reason it's happening is because a new generation of activists has learned not only what it means to rebel, but what it means to lead.

Standing alongside an estimated 12,000 teachers and public employees at the State House in Frankfort on April 2, John, a social studies teacher in a rural Kentucky district, talked about the impact of last month's West Virginia strike: "Seeing how those school teachers could come together in solidarity was really awesome. It lets me know that it's possible for thousands of people to come together for a common cause."

Teachers swarm into the state Capitol building in Kentucky
Teachers swarm into the state Capitol building in Kentucky (Emily Shaw | SW)

John said he's always been upset by what's happening to public education--but "this is the first time I've spoken up and gotten out and done something about it."

Schools in all 120 Kentucky counties were shut down to begin the week. In 100 counties, it is spring break, but the others were closed because teachers called off work.

This was a continuation of a rebellion that began the previous Friday after the Republican-dominated state legislature passed a sneak attack on teachers' pensions--yet another in a long list of attacks on public-sector workers and the state education system. Thousands of educators called in sick and descended on the state capital of Frankfort to protest.

With cries of "Enough is enough," "Education is not for sale" and "We are united, we'll never be divided"--this last one is a reference to Kentucky's motto "United we stand, divided we fall"--the teachers of the bluegrass state have entered the arena of struggle.

VICKI LEIBECK-OWSLEY, who teaches at Adair County High School, was crystal clear about why she was involved in the April 2 protests:

What they've done to our pensions, what they're about to do to our schools budgets, it's filthy, it's dirty. They're cutting our funding, and they're going to destroy our kids. They're out to destroy public schools, from pre-K up to higher education, and it's ridiculous and has got to be stopped.

Leibeck-Owsley's response is important to remember in light of the mainstream media articles that reduce teachers' grievances to the legislature's pension rip-off. Educators' concerns are much broader than that.

Lawmakers passed a number of bills this week that addressed some of those concerns, but the basic filthiness and heartlessness of the attack on public education remains at the core of the legislation now on the desk of the anti-worker Republican Gov. Matt Bevin.

To understand the roots of the explosive protests in Kentucky, let's go back to 2016, when Republicans--benefitting from the Trump turnout in the presidential election--won control of the state House of Representatives for the first time since 1920, completing their sweep of the governorship and legislature.

As Nema Brewer, a teacher from Fayette County and founder of the grassroots group #KY United 120 Strong, told Eric Blanc in an interview with Jacobin, the Republicans immediately initiated "a blatant offensive to destroy public education in Kentucky" through wage cuts, privatization, passing "right-to-work" and approving charter schools.

Teachers' anger increased with the attack on the pensions of public employees, launched by Bevin in the summer of 2017 by commissioning the PFM group to review the state's pension funds. The PFM report is the same classic neoliberal attack on public-sector workers that we have seen across the country and the world.

In the words of the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, "PFM uses exaggerated claims about the condition of all of the state's pension plans to justify harsh and ultimately counterproductive cuts to retirees, current workers and future employees."

According to the report:

Retirees would lost cost-of-living adjustments, cutting benefits of retired workers up to 25 percent. In other words, in a state where state workers don't receive Social Security benefits, "Kentucky retired teachers would be among the few Americans without a defined benefit plan that adjusts for the cost of living."

Current workers would be switched from state pension plans to 401(k) and hybrid plans. Retirement ages would be raised to delay benefits, and sick leave could no longer be accumulated to increase pension benefits--despite workers having already planned their retirement based on existing sick day policies.

New workers would immediately be placed in low-earning 401(k)-type direct contribution plans, and never even sign contracts. And some of the costs for these new plans would shift from the state to local school boards.

RESISTANCE TO THE proposal was mobilized by the Kentucky Education Association (KEA), the state's main teachers' union, and by a public-sector workers' organization formed on Facebook with the name Kentucky United We Stand.

Last November, Kentucky United We Stand organized a 1,000 person-strong "Fund Our Pensions" rally, while the KEA and member unions like the Jefferson County Teachers Association mobilized to pressure politicians. A special session of the legislature to ram through the pension "reform" plan failed.

Opposition continued through late March--when lawmakers passed the pension proposal on March 29, using the dubious legislative maneuver of slipping the pension changes into a sewer construction bill.

In her press conference the next day, KEA President Stephanie Winkler declared: "What has occurred over the last 24 hours is nothing short of a bomb that has exploded on public service."

The next day, teachers shut down schools in 20 counties through sick-ins. The protests were organized by rank-and-file educators through #KY United 120 Strong. The KEA hadn't called for the protests, but Winkler defended the action, saying teachers were truly "sick" of attacks on education.

Dan Dowell, a consultant in the Daviess County Public Schools, agreed that "the big thing was the passing of SB 151 on Thursday night, because that just blindsided everybody. When they slipped it into the sewer bill, with all their improper shenanigans, lord..."

Molly Seifert, a teacher at Beechwood High School in Northern Kentucky, also registered the shift at her school after SB 151 passed. "We had a 'walk-in' protest on Thursday with about 15 people participating," she said, "and after SB 151 passed and I sent a fact sheet out, we had over 40 faculty our protesting before school on Friday."

BUT DOWELL emphasized that while the pension issue was a catalyst for the upsurge, educators have a lot more on their minds:

It's not just about the pensions. It's about the funding of the programs for the pre-schools, for Family Resource Centers], for transportation. The new budget doesn't have money for transportation. In Eastern Kentucky, where it's so rural, that's one of their biggest expenses.

Thus, the Republicans' introduction of a state budget with draconian cuts was another turning point in the growing unrest of public-sector workers, especially those in education. The unveiling of the budget bill--with its tax cuts for corporations, an anti-worker and anti-poor flat tax, funding for private prisons and education cuts--was what motivated Nema Brewer to launch #KY United 120 Strong. As she told Jacobin:

I heard West Virginia had started organizing for their strike by using a closed Facebook group. So in homage to West Virginia, me and my friend Blair called ours KY United 120 Strong. We started the group not even a month ago, and now we have 36,000 members.

West Virginia showed all of us that it can be done. West Virginia is our neighbor, we share a lot of similarities. My daddy was a mineworker, and I remember what it's like to fight for your job, for your livelihood. But a lot of people in Kentucky have forgotten.

According to Todd, a minister from a rural area who identifies as a socialist, this "forgetting" has material roots. As he explained outside the Capitol building:

We're in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, and so we have a history of being associated with the radicalization of coal mining. But we're in a place where coal mining doesn't exist. Maybe there used to be a factory, but the factory got moved, and nobody has jobs.

So rebuilding the traditions of labor solidarity and confronting the social crisis afflicting working people throughout the state go hand in hand.

Fortunately, Kentucky does have a history of struggle for teachers to draw on. Marjorie, an 80-year-old retired teacher, remembered going out on strike in 1970:

Even though my county's teachers weren't that dissatisfied with our own salaries, we went out in defense of the teachers of eastern Kentucky. We banded together. And that's what I still believe--you band together. If one group is having a bad time, you try to help.

Molly Seifert explained that divisions between newer and older teachers, created by the debate over the pension plan, were starting to dissolve as the struggle picked up:

I'm happy that almost everyone in this struggle is fighting for the retired folks, the active folks and the future teachers. Early on, there were some people who bought into that divide-and-conquer bullshit. They were ready to throw new teachers under the bus, as long as current and retired teachers got to keep their pensions.

I haven't heard a peep in that direction in months. There's a strong solidarity for new and old.

THE UNITY showed by the teachers is inspiring, but they definitely have a fight on their hands. Even as the last buses were pulling away from the Capitol building on the afternoon of April 2, there were more surprises from lawmakers.

With another set of clandestine maneuvers, Republican legislators pushed through a state budget bill and a tax bill on Monday that have a direct impact on public education.

While some vicious proposals were removed from the budget--including new initiatives around private prisons and cuts to spending on school transportation and Family Resource Centers--it's obvious that the regressive tax bill passed the same day will shift as much of the cost as possible onto poor and working people.

Like the teachers' fights everywhere, Kentucky educators and public employees will have to take up broader issues of social inequality and mobilize against the right's reactionary agenda, from top to bottom.

In the process, questions will emerge--and already have: How will the KEA's predominantly legislative and electoral strategy link up with the mass mobilizations relied on by the independent networks? Will the educators' protests and sick-ins build towards a strike, as in West Virginia and Oklahoma?

Does the "We'll remember in November" and "Vote them out" slogans popular at the Capitol protests tend to limit the struggle to voting for Democrats lawmakers, whose own commitment to austerity laid the basis for the Republican attack?

By April 4, as this article was being readied for publication, most of the sickouts had ended, though not without some controversy. A teacher from Northern Kentucky had already called in sick on April 3, along with her co-workers, expecting an escalation of the protests. She was livid that the KEA had written a memo to members telling them the union had not authorized this tactic and asking them to hold off further protests until the legislature's current recess ends on April 13.

Meanwhile, Pike County teachers in the militant region of eastern Kentucky immediately organized a grassroots food drive and a rally for April 3, declaring in a video that they would keep mobilizing.

Nema Brewer told Jacobin that #KY United 120 Strong "was formed because there was a need for greater unity and more aggressive tactics" than the KEA was committed to.

The grassroots group now faces similar questions to Oklahoma Teachers United, the organization founded by rank-and-file teachers that led the way in organizing for the ongoing strike that began on April 2.

"After leading this struggle from below," Darrin Hoop wrote at SocialistWorker.org, "OTU activists would be poised to organize a campaign to persuade the nearly 30,000 educators who aren't in the union to join it." But having led the way, OTU members ought to have something to say about the future of the union.

As for what's next in Kentucky, the legislature will return from its recess on April 13 to deliberate on other legislation--and take up any vetoes by the governor. There will certainly be another statewide mobilization in Frankfort--organizing is already underway for more protests.

The politicians better watch out. The temperature is rising in this "education spring." That's because Kentucky teachers are bringing the heat.

Further Reading

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