Virginia teachers rally for what they deserve

January 31, 2019

Robert Wilson reports from Virginia on a one-day walkout and demonstration of teachers and their supporters that converged on the state Capitol building.

AS THE spreading tide of teachers’ strikes washes over the country, Virginia teachers took a big first step in their own fightback against funding cuts, privatization and low pay, staging a one-day walkout on January 28, with a demonstration that drew more than 4,000 teachers, parents and supporters to the state capital of Richmond.

The growing Virginia Educators United campaign — organized by the rank and file, like the “red state” teachers’ rebellions last spring — campaign called for action months ago. Their organizing, alongside the Virginia Educators’ Association (VEA), Virginia Parent-Teacher Association and other groups, drew thousands out in a show of support.

Marchers gathered at Monroe Park before marching toward the Virginia state Capitol building on the other side of town. Teachers led chants of “We need teachers, we need books, we need money that the [General Assembly] took,” and “Fund our schools” that echoed through the streets and alleys of the former capital of the Confederacy.

For most of the teachers marching, adequate pay was the central demand. While Virginia is the 12th wealthiest state in the country, its teacher pay is 14 percent below the national average.

Teachers rally for education justice at the Virginia State Capitol
Teachers rally for education justice at the Virginia State Capitol (Virginia Education Association | Facebook)

When relatively wealthier Northern Virginia is excluded, the state ranks among the five lowest states in teacher pay. There are some 1,000 teacher vacancies across the state currently, and the education budget rests at only 3 percent above 2009 levels.

As in other recent teachers’ strikes, educators are highlighting how their working conditions are their students’ learning conditions. As the Washington Post reported, “The demands animating the Virginia march have been at the heart of teacher strikes and walkouts elsewhere, including Los Angeles, West Virginia, Oklahoma and North Carolina: boosting teacher pay, recruiting and retaining teachers, providing money for building needs and bolstering school support staff.”

Virginia is a “right to work” state like many of the other states that featured prominently in the “red state” teachers’ revolt — the wave of strikes that began in early 2018. Not all of the state’s teachers belong to a union, and those who do belong to both the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers (AFT).

The crowd was made up of a similar mix — VEA members, AFT members and unaffiliated, nonunion teachers who are unevenly spread across the state. Richmond teachers had a strong showing as the district superintendent encouraged teachers to participate in the march.

THE RALLY at the Capitol building included state officials, union representatives, rank-and-file teachers and more — and illustrated a clear diversity in organizing strategies and visions within the teachers’ movement in Virginia.

While the organizers of VEU have drawn direct connections between their struggle and the widely successful red-state walkouts across the country, VEA president Jim Livingston pointed toward next November’s elections in Virginia for the state legislature. “We’ll remember in November,” he said repeatedly.

by contrast, Sarah Pedersen, a middle school teacher at Binford Middle School in Richmond, one of 12 core VEU organizers and a VEA building rep at her school, gave a fiery speech from the steps of the Capitol, conjuring images of West Virginia teachers during their wildcat strike and Los Angeles teachers who recently won a 6 percent raise after six days of striking.

“Six percent in just six days,” Pedersen said to wild applause and cheering. “And how long have we been fighting here?”

Shortly after 1 p.m., the rally’s emcee announced that the event had gone two minutes past its permit and had to end. Before parting, however, VEA President Jim Livingston made an importance announcement: The Virginia House of Delegates announced that its newest budget bill included a 5 percent raise for teachers. The crowd erupted.

What’s next for Virginia teachers remains to be seen, but the organizing will continue. As Sarah Pedersen explained in an interview following the march: “Virginia is a hard place to organize in, and I know it’s connected to the history of Jim Crow. That created a ‘stay in your lane’ culture. You’re not supposed to make waves.”

Virginia teachers and their supporters made a wave on January 28, however — and they will fight to make that wave bigger as the teachers’ struggle continues across the country. Pedersen said:

As someone in [United Teachers Los Angeles] was saying during the strike, the damage that’s been done to public education happened over 40 years of callous underfunding, so it’s not going to be fixed in just one contract. Our work won’t be done until our schools have everything they need, and it doesn’t come at the expense of those who rely on them. That means we’re going to have to tax the rich.

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