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Forum Teacher strikes past and present

January 16, 2019

Thirty-four thousand public school teachers in Los Angeles went on strike on Monday. Their strike comes on the heels of the inspiring teachers’ strikes in numerous states and Puerto Rico last year. In every instance, there was a tremendous degree of unity, participation was robust, rallies were large and spirited, very few teachers crossed picket lines and the public was overwhelmingly supportive.

The themes of all the strikes have been the same: better wages and benefits for teachers and other staff who often have not gotten raises in many years, pushback against dramatic cuts in funding for schools, no more undermining public education through the privatization charter schools scam, and an end to class war on workers and unions.

A number of the strikes also specifically called attention to the massive bipartisan transfer of public wealth via tax reductions on corporations and the super rich, plant closures, union-busting and an unconscionable military budget. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of all the strikes was the primary role played by rank and file teachers, often in conflict with union bureaucrats. That speaks well to the possibility for desperately needed changes in organized labor’s willingness to fight back against a ruling class that grows ever more predatory.

Bridgeport 1978

The recent strikes bring to mind another in Bridgeport just over 40 years ago. Just like the recent strikes, the one in Bridgeport was part of a nationwide strike wave that was widely supported by the public. In addition, the issues of better staff compensation, better schools and a commitment to public were the same. And because of the intransigence of the Board of Education, government officials and the courts, the Bridgeport strike was the most contentious teachers’ strike in many decades.

Five days into the strike, 13 teachers were arrested, handcuffed and carted off to jail, the men to a prison in New Haven and the women to one in Niantic 60 miles away. Those arrested endured degradations such as strip searches and being doused with lice spray. Adding further insult, fines of $350 per person per day were imposed on the arrestees. Angered by the arrests and the teachers’ treatment, the strikers turned out to the picket lines in ever larger numbers and with greater determination. All told, 274 teachers were arrested, 22 percent of the total in the city.

As prison space became scarcer, the arrestees were packed onto buses and taken 70 miles to a National Guard camp that was converted into a makeshift jail. With teachers still standing firm after 14 school days, the teachers union and Board of Ed agreed to binding arbitration. All teachers were released from prison and the final agreement was largely favorable to the teachers.

In the strike’s aftermath, the Connecticut legislature passed the 1979 Teacher Collective Bargaining Act that mandates binding arbitration when teachers and municipalities are stalemated in contract negotiations. It remained illegal for teachers to strike, however (as it remains today), and changes to the law such as one that allows municipalities but not unions to reject the decision of an arbitrator have weakened the bargaining position of teachers.

Moving forward

Teachers who struck last year have a greater sense of purpose and stronger organizations than any time before, and many have carried that energy forward. Teachers in several states, for example, rebuffed efforts to pay for improved salaries and benefits with cuts to programs for the working class as a whole. Mainstream commentators who regard union workers as a special interest group exclusively concerned with their own well-being had no idea what to do with that one. Also of note is that, in large part because of the insistence of the teachers, the contractual gains won by some of the strikes included all other school workers, and non-union supervisors in at least several states overwhelmingly supported the strikes.

One important challenge teachers from Connecticut to Los Angeles must confront is that underfunding of education has proceeded at a faster pace in places with higher percentages of students of color, particularly African Americans. Seriously addressing this point and developing strategies accordingly will go a long way in determining how effective all of those efforts will be. Given events of the last nine months, there are good reasons to believe teachers will continue the revitalization of social justice movements essential to creating a better society.

Bridgeport native Andy Piascik is a longtime activist and award-winning author whose most recent book is the novel In Motion.

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