How will we build Tar Heel teacher power?

June 7, 2018

After last month’s historic day of action, North Carolina educator Matt Casella makes the case that teachers can keep up the fight by organizing more actions locally.

MORE THAN 30,000 educators rallied in the North Carolina state capital May 16 to make their voices be heard. In what may have been the largest work stoppage in North Carolina history, 42 districts canceled school that day. Over a million students didn’t go to school.

We are part of a national wave of teachers from so-called “red states” who are organizing, marching and striking to demand funding for public education and for fair pay and health care for the people who make the schools run. Around the country, teachers are discovering their power — and showing that if you fight, you can win.

These lessons gave confidence to North Carolina teachers to push ahead with their tireless organizing in their buildings and online. We walked hallways, spoke with co-workers, reached out on Facebook to teachers in other buildings and even other counties, and listened in on organizing phone calls.

We started talking to each other, and we found that the problems we face are not just in our own classrooms, but in every school and every classroom. They are collective problems that need a collective solution. We decided that school would be closed on May 16.

North Carolina teachers march in defense of public education
North Carolina teachers march in defense of public education (North Carolina Association of Educators | Facebook)

We fought administrators and superintendents who told us we weren’t allowed to use our personal days. We took on accusations in the media that claimed we couldn’t give up the instructional time and that we were turning our backs on our students. And we talked to other teachers who just didn’t think we could take the day.

We patiently explained and refuted these arguments. We pointed to the examples of teachers taking action around the country as proof that it could be done in North Carolina. And on May 16, we came together, stood shoulder to shoulder and showed — to our state, to our bosses and to ourselves — what kind of power we have.

Now teachers around the state are looking for a clear vision of what will come next.

WE NEVER thought that one day of striking and protesting and marching would be enough to win.

We don’t have a history in this state of large mobilizations and work stoppages that we can turn to for guidance. We do, however, have the examples from other states to look to. What did West Virginia do? What did Oklahoma do? What did Arizona do? How can we apply those lessons here in North Carolina?

It is important to establish a vision, and our vision should be to organize for action. The question we face is how to build our power, which we saw a brief glimpse of on May 16, to strike for our demands to be met.

We need to be strong enough to have a strike that is statewide, in every building and in every county, for as long as it takes to force the General Assembly to meet our just demands.

Our legislators want us to think that they have all the power. They want us to call them, beg them, endorse them and vote for them.

But they aren’t beholden to our voting campaigns. Legislators don’t worry about losing teacher votes, because most of their campaign contributions come from private sector interests. Our union’s donations are a drop in their bucket. Our votes don’t determine whether they keep their jobs. It makes them think they have power to pass whatever laws they want.

But our legislators are wrong. They don’t have the power. We do. A strike can bring much of the state to a stop. This is where real power lies.

The Republican super-majority in the North Carolina statehouse demonstrated last week that it can arbitrarily set the budget for the year, with no discussion. Legislatures in West Virginia, Arizona and Oklahoma are also dominated by Republicans.

Teachers in those states didn’t win by waiting years to replace those Republicans in office with Democrats. It was statewide strikes that forced Republicans to cave in to demands that would have been dismissed as unrealistic without educators showing their power.

In Arizona, Democrats actually voted against the bill teachers were fighting for — not the first time workers have been betrayed by the party that’s supposed to be our ally. But no matter. The strike forced Republicans and Democrats alike to meet teachers’ demands. We must do the same.

IF YOU followed the strikes in West Virginia and Arizona on the news, you might be tricked into thinking that some teachers just made some Facebook groups and then thousands of people spontaneously stayed out until their demands were met. This obscures the hard work it takes to organize and carry out a strike. Teachers I’ve spoken with are unaware of this hard work, but want to know more about it.

The most common argument I hear about why we can’t strike is that “we don’t have a union.” But this gets the order backward. Fighting for better schools will build our union. Striking will make our union.

Every teacher in the state should be a member of North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), but we aren’t going to achieve that without fighting to improve our schools and for better working conditions.

Unions that remain inactive while the conditions in our buildings break down will not win people — not just in North Carolina, but around the country. Having our main strategy be getting out the vote for a Democratic Party that repeatedly betrays us will not build the union.

By participating in actions like May 16, we grow stronger and more connected to one another. That is what a union is. That power comes from our own activity.

Right-to-work laws — a remnant of Jim Crow — do make collective bargaining illegal. But as we saw on May 16,we can defy those laws when we’re united.

This whole system is set up to keep our legislators comfortable, and in their offices from term to term. They gerrymander our districts so that we can’t vote them out, and they make striking illegal so that we can’t exercise our power over them.

Each year, they cut several positions at each school. They can fire us in ones and twos, because they either don’t plan to replace our positions, or they know they can find that one or two people from outside the system who needs a job.

But they can’t fire the 98,000 educators in our state at the same time. There’s no one to replace all of them.

They can’t fire everyone and close all the schools permanently either. Almost every person in this state is related to someone in the schools. Closing the schools permanently or firing all the teachers in the state would create a crisis that legislators would be unable to resolve.

In many of the other states, strikes were also illegal and the teachers acted anyway. And because they acted together and remained strong, they proved the arbitrariness of those laws that seek to hold us down. To paraphrase the people’s historian Howard Zinn: If you’re going to break the law, do it with thousands of people. That’s how we can win.

TO GET to that point, we have a lot to do. We can’t have a statewide teachers strike just by hollering it from the rafters. We have to build the capacity to make that a realistic possibility by carrying out actions in our buildings that can develop networks of activist teachers in every locality.

One way to start organizing our workplaces is by wearing red each Wednesday. #Red4Ed is homegrown in North Carolina, and we need to use it the way Arizona teachers did. #Red4Ed teaches us that there are others in our building who want to stand up and do something. That’s the first step towards creating a majority of buildings in every country that’s willing to strike.

Once we recognize each other, the next step is to act together to build the unity we need for future actions. Arizona teachers held walk-ins in the weeks that led up to their strike, and we can, too. Gather outside your school and walk in together on Wednesday. Discuss why you’re walking in with students and teachers. Invite anyone — parents, students, office staff, custodians, cafeteria workers — to participate. This is how buildings get organized.

Do actions with teachers in other schools in your district. Meet outside your commissioners’ offices or hold a rally before a budget hearing. A few teachers at one of these meetings can be ignored, but it’s harder for commissioners to ignore an organized building — and impossible for them to ignore an organized county.

These actions can build the organization we need: networks of teachers in buildings that can meet and discuss demands, strategies and future actions, and work out local needs. They can elect representatives to meet other building representatives in their district to plan rallies and walk-ins.

This committee can generalize demands and coordinate activity across the district, and help share resources between buildings. Each school district can elect a representative to communicate with the 114 other school districts. An organization like this can communicate quickly, but most importantly, it can make decisions about what’s next in the fight and what is worth striking for.

In West Virginia, after three days, the governor and the leadership of the union signed a deal for a 3 percent raise for teachers — instead of the 5 percent educators were demanding for all public employees.

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The union leaders and legislators declared the strike over, but teachers discussed the result in their buildings and decided to continue the strike. Our union leaders are going to negotiate the strike, but should be the ones to decide when they are done negotiating.

Our strength is in our activity. We become stronger by becoming more involved, and not the other way around. We need to take up the fight in the schools and bring more teacher activists in the fight, so that the next time we walk out, we’re a step closer to having all 115 districts out, and ready to stay out.

With this power, we can strike for the funding our schools need, we can get the pay we all deserve, and we can get our teacher assistants and other school personnel back.

Further Reading

From the archives