We see what’s possible when teachers unite

March 23, 2018

The West Virginia teachers' strike has given confidence to educators around the country to voice their demands against similar conditions of low pay and privatization. In Arizona, Noah Karvelis, a K-8 music teacher in Phoenix, member of the Arizona Education Association and co-founder of Arizona Educators United has experienced a groundswell of support for action. He talked to Darrin Hoop about how the struggle has taken shape.

WHAT ARE the main issues that teachers are facing?

THERE ARE several. The biggest really is our pay. Pay is pretty abysmal, and depending on the metric, we're always near or at the bottom among the states.

What most people use as the most accurate measure is the Morrison Institute for Public Policy numbers, which put us at 50th overall when the cost of living is adjusted for. That's last place--and it's last place by a long shot. We would need an 11 percent raise just to go from dead last to second to last. That really puts it in perspective just how far behind we are in Arizona.

For high school teachers, it's a little bit better, but again, they're right at the bottom of the heap. High school teachers are often making $2,000 a year more than elementary school teachers, but they're still making, if not the lowest, then among the very lowest wages in the nation.

Part of the issue for us is not only our pay, but our total compensation. The cost of health insurance that falls on teachers continues to rise, and that takes a huge chunk out of everyone's paycheck.

Arizona teachers rally for a better conditions in schools
Arizona teachers rally for a better conditions in schools (@kathyhoffman_az | Twitter)

You'll see a teacher who's getting paid $32,000 a year, and they have 20 years of experience, two masters degrees and national board certification. But it's even worse with the health insurance. If you have a kid or two, that takes so much out of their paychecks. A lot of teachers are posting their pay stubs, and they're taking home $650 or $700 every two weeks.

So our total compensation is pretty miserable, and teachers just can't continue doing this. We have teachers fleeing the state because they can't afford to teach and live in Arizona. At the end of the last school year, we had over 2,000 classroom [teaching positions] still vacant. At the start of each year, we typically have about 5,000 to 7,000 empty, and a lot of them don't get filled.

This is essentially a continuing crisis. Those kids don't disappear, they just don't have a teacher--so they go into another classroom, and you see class sizes of 35 to 40 kids in some districts. I've had classes before where I don't have enough chairs, and kids have to sit on the floor.

What you can do

Find out more about Arizona Educators United at the group's Facebook page.

Attend or watch the Facebook Live stream of a solidarity meeting in support of Oklahoma teachers, featuring Noah Karvelis of Arizona Educators United. In Seattle, on March 31, at 4 p.m. (Pacific time), at the M.L. King County Labor Council building, 2800 1st Ave.

Sign a petition in support of the Oklahoma Educators United struggle before the teachers' April 2 strike date.

Those are some of the big issues. It all revolves around how teachers are compensated and treated here. That's what we're really fighting for--to make sure that we're compensated fairly, and that we have not just a functioning, but a vibrant and sustainable infrastructure for public education.

HOW DID Arizona Educators United get started?

OUR FIRST action was called #RedforEd. It was similar to what I saw in West Virginia and Jersey City, where teachers wore red shirts to send a message.

The original idea was really just to organize my campus. I was part of a conversation with our union president over Twitter, and he asked: "Hey, are teachers ready for statewide action?" I think maybe one other person commented, but I said, "Yes, I think they really are ready for some action here. What do we do?"

He wrote back to say every movement starts locally, and you have to test the waters at your own school. He suggested that we do this #RedforEd day, and I decided to do this weekly until it caught on. I organized my campus, and pretty soon, another teacher got in touch and said, "You know, I think I could get my campus on board with this, too." We picked up a couple others, and pretty soon, we had about 20 campuses jump in.

So I made a Facebook event, drafted a flyer and started pushing out the hashtag and the event, inviting everybody I knew. It really started to grow. Something that I thought originally was just going to be me and a couple friends at my school wearing red on the same day grew to be what the Arizona Republic called "arguably the largest show of teacher action in recent history."

We had around 8,000 people from the Facebook event alone, and that doesn't include Twitter, where most of the action was being organized. A lot of local union meetings helped get the word out. We don't have an exact number, but we think 8,000 to 10,000 people participated.

That pumped a lot of life into teachers and educators across the state. We realized that now is a ripe moment to harness that energy and organize it, so we started Arizona Educators United. That's how we got started--as an offshoot of that first action: the #RedforEd day.

WHAT'S THE relationship between Arizona Educators United and the Arizona Education Association and the rank and file?

I THINK that's one of the most interesting and powerful things about this movement: It's been led 100 percent by rank-and-file educators.

Educators run Arizona Educators United. There's a team of about nine of us, with three or four core members, and then we have people who are pick up odd jobs to help organize and move us forward.

As far as the union relationship goes, the union put out a video the other day of the president fully endorsing this movement and encouraging people to get involved.

They've been very interested in helping us whenever we want, so if we need a resource or need insight on something, they're there to help with that. But they've for the most part been hands off and really committed to their idea that this should be led by rank-and-file educators. They're letting us do our thing and just helping us keep the wheels turning.

WHAT ARE the next steps for the group?

RIGHT NOW, we're trying to build our infrastructure. Everything has happened so fast that we've had to just keep things moving in the right direction, and while we're doing that, continually escalating our action.

We started with the #RedforEd day. Shortly thereafter, we held a protest of the governor's appearance on a radio station.

We're in the middle of a campaign now that we call #RaisesNotLies. This is in response to some ads propagated by the governor, Doug Ducey, and some his corporate funders that have gone out under the name "Arizona Education Project."

Some of the ads have been proven to be just bold-faced lies, and some crafty ways of skewing the numbers. We're in the process of trying to get those pulled from the air, because we think they're incredibly misleading and inappropriate--that's why we're doing the #RaisesNotLies campaign right now.

In addition, we're building up to March 28, when we'll have a day of action statewide that will include around 15 different regional events. The main one will be here in Phoenix, right on the lawn of the state Capitol. We're expecting around 8,000 to 10,000 people at that.

There's already been a lot of national press coverage, and we're hoping that will continue. We plan to have an announcement there about next steps. We're still working out exactly what will take place, but we're anticipating an announcement about what will follow. We have about three to five weeks left in the legislative session that's currently underway, so we're hoping to get some changes passed during that.

I IMAGINE the West Virginia teachers' strike had a big effect on teachers there. What did you learn from it?

IT REALLY set off a powder keg across the nation.

We've been treated incredibly poorly here for years. Ever since the recession hit, school funding has been continually cut, and we haven't seen that funding returned. So there was all this discontent bubbling, and then West Virginia happened.

We saw what can happen when teachers unite. And unite anywhere--even if you're in a conservative, "right-to-work" state with a Republican governor. It also showed teachers that you don't have to be a martyr--you don't have to make it on $28,000 a year. You can stand up and get something done, no matter where you are.

That was a huge empowerment to everybody. They had really incredible participation across the state, and we've been able to study up on what their infrastructure looks like to sustain that--what some of the key roles were that people had to play.

West Virginia gave us an idea of what it looks like to organize that kind of statewide action, so we've been learning a lot. It's the same thing with Oklahoma now. They're a couple steps ahead of us, because they have a strike date.

It's been a real gift for us to have both of those states.

WHAT ELSE should people know about the last few years to understand what's going on in Arizona?

ONE OF the biggest things is funding levels. Tons of money got cut from public education during the recession, and most states have at least attempted to get back to normal funding, but here in Arizona, we're still about $1.2 billion behind pre-recession funding today. So we're still working on recession numbers as far as that goes.

Our governor likes to point out that he's put more money into education, and that's true, but it's a drop in the bucket. Our per-pupil funding is down by over 35 percent since 2009, which is ridiculous.

Another battle that runs parallel to this is school choice and vouchers. Arizona is a testing ground for Betsy DeVos, the Koch brothers and Americans for Prosperity in trying to get statewide vouchers. They actually passed a bill in the legislature last year to expand the voucher system to all public school students.

But a grassroots, volunteer-based citizen organization called Save Our Schools Arizona got the law referred back to the ballot--so it will go up to the citizens to vote on it.

There's a big privatization movement here, and that obviously pulls money right out of our general fund--public tax money that should go to public schools is being pulled out to go to for-profit schools way too frequently.

If they expand vouchers statewide and make them available to every single student, it would be a huge blow to our state and our public infrastructure, not just in education, but across the board here in Arizona.

That's the situation. There's basically a full-on assault on public education, and teachers, whether they're in public or private or charter schools, are still getting paid terrible wages almost across the board. So we're all in it together.

ARIZONA IS a "right-to-work" state. Can you say something about the challenges of organizing under those conditions?

IT'S DEFINITELY more difficult in a "right-to-work" state, there's no doubt about it. There are certain legal barriers that we have to work through or around.

But look at the power we have right now--just like in West Virginia, where they shut down all the schools in all 55 counties. No matter what the laws are and no matter what right-to-work says, they have to answer those teachers.

I'd love to get a call from the governor saying, "We're done, we're giving you guys a 15 percent raise." I don't think that's going to happen. So we don't know what it will look like--I don't know if it will be a statewide strike--but we think that we have numbers where we're a force to be reckoned with, no matter what.

It's been challenging. There was, especially in the early days, a lot of talk about how we couldn't strike, it's not legal. People were intimidated even by the prospect of talking about a strike on the Facebook group page. That's been an attitude we've had to deal with.

But one of the beautiful things about this is how people have come together, and that attitude of intimidation is slowly disappearing. More and more people are feeling empowered by the solidarity, both across the state and nationwide.

We still have to take our time and make sure everything's done very strategically, and we're careful about everything we do, but at the same time, we have a lot of power.

So hopefully, we can start to kind of chip away at right to work and get some union power back in states like this and across the nation.

WHAT DO you think it will take to get what teachers want? Do you think you'll have to strike?

HONESTLY, I haven't had a ton of confidence in our legislature or governor. I think it's going to take some large actions, statewide. I don't know if that's a work stoppage or a sick-out yet, but I don't have a lot of confidence in them fixing this issue until something bold happens. We're building infrastructure to sustain whatever type of action we deem necessary and strategically viable.

Honestly, the question is really more for the governor than for us, because we have to continue to escalate our actions until something changes. Otherwise, we can't continue teaching and living here. There will be no public educators in the state if this isn't fixed, so we have to continue to escalate our actions.

Like I said, I'd love to see this fixed tomorrow, and we could go back to teaching and our regular lives. But it looks like it's going to take a lot of action from us.

WHAT CAN people do around the country to support you?

WE'VE DONE two of our #RedforEd days, so if people want to jump on and send solidarity from wherever, that would be great.

If they want to participate in #RaisesNotLies, that's just social media-based. They can join our group and join the event if people want to put a little heat on some corporate sponsors. A lot of these conglomerates working with the governor are probably acting in their states and communities as well, so it benefits them.

If people want to make a financial contribution toward our day of action on March 28, they can do that through one of the other organizations we're partnering with at SOSArizona.org. They can make a contribution that will help for the basic infrastructure on the 28th, like porta-potties, a sound system and that kind of thing.

We're also getting ready to set up a GoFundMe, where people can contribute directly to our financial situation and help with whatever we may eventually need, whether that's a strike fund or the next event.

We have about 34,000 teachers involved and a good leadership team, all public educators. That's the driving force: a 100 percent grassroots, educator-led movement, which is really interesting and powerful.

Transcription by Jordan Weinstein

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