Organizing the unity that teachers need in N.C.

The rebellion of the teachers has reached North Carolina. For years, the state's public schools have been under attack. Since 2010, 7,000 teacher's assistants have been cut; advanced degree pay was eliminated; teacher pay has declined (teachers make 5 percent less than they did before the recession); and insurance costs have skyrocketed (teachers currently pay $10,000 annually on average for health coverage).

Currently, public school teachers in North Carolina make 65 cents on the dollar compared to other college graduates (the third-largest such gap in the country). The state ranks 35th in the nation in teacher pay and 43rd in per-pupil spending--in a state where one in four students lives in poverty, and one in 10 lives in extreme poverty.

Inspired by the education workers' uprisings in several states, teachers across North Carolina have requested personal leave for May 16, the first day of the new session of the North Carolina General Assembly. Their unified action has forced more than 40 school districts--representing more than two-thirds of public-school students--to close for the day. Tens of thousands of school workers and their supporters will descend on the capital of Raleigh and take their first statewide collective action in the fight for the schools everyone deserves.

North Carolina teachers Matt Casella and Carla H spoke with Joel Sronce about the past, present and future of teachers' struggle in North Carolina.

North Carolina teachers organize against cuts to public education (Gerry Dincher | flickr)North Carolina teachers organize against cuts to public education (Gerry Dincher | flickr)

WHAT KIND of work has gone into organizing for the teachers' mobilization in North Carolina?

Matt: Two quick summaries of what's been going on: The first is going classroom to classroom, going up and down the hallways, just knocking on people's doors when it's their planning or your planning time, and if they have a minute, having those one-on-one conversations.

Then, in addition to that, we've been finding and reaching out to people through social media. Facebook has been extremely useful for creating group chats. I think I've made more Facebook friends in the past week than I have in the past six or seven years. It's been a whirlwind, but it's been really amazing to just reach out and immediately have a connection with somebody else, because of the same job that we do.

I think most educators have been experiencing this feeling of alienation in our jobs. One of the teachers I spoke to, who didn't want to participate at first, said, "Well, we're all just suffering, and we're just supposed to suffer together."

The process of moving forward has been more like: "Maybe we don't have to suffer, but what we do is still something we do together."

Carla: Less than half of the teachers in North Carolina are in one of the two unions, so there isn't as widespread activity as there was in West Virginia. It's really been in local pockets.

So in our county, we've identified a building representative. Whether they're part of the union or not, they're the contact person for their school. That's 126 people who are the contact people for their schools.

They have contacts for everyone at their school, which is going to be really important on the day of May 16 and moving forward, just to have that infrastructure in place.

WHAT ARE you expecting on May 16?

Matt: I'm hoping to see a sea of red.

It's been really heartening to go around my building and find other people who think the same way about education and the conditions that we live in and work in, and that our students learn in. Moving forward, it's going to be really emboldening for us to be together in the same space, and reach across counties and school districts and the whole state. I think it's going to be really powerful.

I can't wait to be there. A lot of hard work has gone into this. I think that kind of spirit and camaraderie is going to be really, really important to move forward.

CARLA, what do you expect to see on May 16? Matt mentioned a "sea of red," but are you worried that there are goals that won't be realized due to the way public school workers in North Carolina have organized, as opposed to the way they've organized in other states?

Carla: Something we saw in several other states was school-site voting, where the majority of teachers and school staff in general were making the decisions, and not the union leaders. That's not what we're seeing in North Carolina.

The decisions are being made, and everyone is just told that this is what we're doing. Which will be okay on May 16, but it leaves no room for what happens on May 17.

The message that's been sent is that the decisions aren't up to union leaders or the leadership in general. But even if everyone is involved in making decisions, there's no infrastructure right now to know that they've all made the same decision. So I don't foresee any major actions happening on May 17.

My hope is that people will go back to their buildings and at least have more energy and more contacts in place to do something soon in the future.

Matt: We haven't heard much from union leadership or the May 16 Coalition, but I think going forward, there's a real hunger that people have for collective action. Pushing for that is something that we really need to do as we move forward.

I think that people are ready to have those arguments and have those discussions, but I don't think that we're currently at that point where teachers in North Carolina are confident in making these decisions as groups in their own buildings.

I think that what this event could lead toward is conversations that build strong unions in the school, strong unions in the counties and--hopefully, moving forward--a strong union in the state.

I think that the model we've seen in Arizona is really inspiring in the sense that we're able to build this kind of organization very quickly. Moving forward, that needs to be our central goal.

As Carla was saying, it doesn't necessarily need to be the union, but it needs to be a union--a group of people who are willing to act together. If you go on strike, that makes you a union.

Anderson Bean contributed to this article.