The war on public education; Time to organize

Here we go, a lesson from over the pond. A few of our states are showing promise in the K12 scene… progress is long overdue. The American Higher education scene has been bled out.

Why I’m a striking lecturer: I want to stop the slow death of public education

On the picket line I’ve seen how much widespread support there is, by those fighting against broader attacks on education

University workers attend a rally outside the Scottish Parliament on 8 March 2018 over pensions changes
 ‘Under the ‘defined contribution’ scheme, the typical lecturer would lose about £10,000 a year in retirement.’ Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Iam a lecturer, currently on strike. I am also a part-time MA student, whose lecturers are on strike. And I am the mother of a student whose lecturers are on strike. There have been attempts by many vice-chancellors to pit students and their parents against striking staff, often by positioning staff as selfish and greedy, and students as the consumers whose livelihoods they harm. But even though I dread the hole in my next pay packet, and know exactly what it is like to see classes disappear when I have an essay to write, and though I feel for my daughter, who worries about the impact this will have on her degree – and therefore her future – for me there has been no moment of doubt, no internal war.

This unity of purpose is mirrored on the picket lines, where the active support of students has made even the coldest days feel like high summer. They arrive at 8am daily to brew us “solidari-tea”, they make banners, art and music, they occupy buildings, and march alongside us, even in heavy snow. And the support is broad: a YouGov poll conducted on the eve of the strike showed that 61% of students supported it, and only 2% blamed the strikers for the disruption to their studies.

The issue that has led to this dispute is pensions, and yet large numbers of casualised staff are on the picket line too – part of a growing cohort of young academics for whom the only jobs on offer are paid hourly, and meagrely, with no security and very little opportunity to do research. Viewed from the precarious position of many staff and most students, pensions of any sort must seem like an impossible dream. So why do the majority of them support us?

Partly, because they can see the injustice. Often presented as if a gift, like some fat cat’s golden handshake, pensions are in fact part of our pay. People who choose to teach in universities do so because they believe that teaching and research are a public good, and worth doing in return for modest pay and a decent pension. So when the vice-chancellors, represented by Universities UK (UUK), announced their intention to switch from a “defined benefit” scheme to a “defined contribution” scheme, the betrayal was keenly felt.

Under the “defined contribution” (aka “die quickly”) scheme, the typical lecturer would lose about £10,000 a year in retirement. It is a deeply cynical move by people with vested interests, which if successful, would mark the end of higher education as a public service.

Why are university staff striking?

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The fact that the majority of vice-chancellors involved have now publicly distanced themselves from UUK’s position, including OxfordCambridge, and others who appeared implacably hostile to the strikers’ demands only days ago, is a sign of the weakness of their argument, as well as the strength of the strike. Many universities have expressed dismay at how their own contribution to UUK’s “consultation” was presented. UUK also claimed that defined benefits have become prohibitively expensive – a claim that turned out to rest on an implausible scenario in which every university went bust tomorrow, and which has been challenged even by the Daily Mail. Meanwhile, universities enjoy record surpluses, vice-chancellors are being given obscene salaries and lavish expenses, and cash is poured into trophy buildings to make the “brand” easier to “sell”. And all while junior staff struggle to pay their rent, and students in huge debt sit in overcrowded seminars.

But, like most strikes, this one is about much more than money. My favourite banner on the picket line reads “Against the slow cancellation of the future”, a phrase popularised by the late cultural theorist, Mark Fisher. In the grip of neoliberalism, we begin to believe that there is no alternative, Fisher told us.

In universities, this slow draining of hope began with the introduction of tuition fees in 1998, and gathered pace when they were tripled in 2010. Successive governments, enthusiastically aided by overpaid senior management drawn from outside the university sector, have turned higher education into a utilitarian and consumer-driven activity that students buy in exchange for skills for the job market. The raid on pensions fits this pattern – it is an attempt to shift the risk of volatility in the market from the employer to the individual, to pave the way for further privatisation and rid universities of any remaining sense of responsibility for the long-term health and dignity of their workforces.

The real reason for the widespread support for the strike is that these broader attacks on education as a public service affect the entire academic community – the full-time staff, the casualised staff, and, of course, the students.

The problems we face – debt, increasing workloads, precarity, mental health issues – are not only shared, but systemic. Students understand that staff working conditions are their learning conditions; staff understand that students’ financial stress is an assault on their freedom to learn. On the picket lines, the conversation has not been about pensions, but how we can democratise universities, and restore them to their real purpose. Every member of the academic community knows education is potentially life-enhancing, liberating, world-changing. That is something worth fighting for.

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 Becky Gardiner is a senior lecturer at Goldsmiths, University of London, and former comment editor of the Guardian

Walk out!

Teacher Pay

Here we go! as last posted here Labor lessons from former coal country

We are now in the midst of a genuine walk out.  Best of luck educators throughout West Virginia!

This is a pre-K through college fight and we need to have each other’s backs–adjuncts, Pre-K teachers, K-12, and the post-secondary tenured, together, are a mighty, mighty force in this country. Let’s have some solidarity.

 

From Dissent.com  (Full article here)

“When Logan County special education teacher Leah Clay Stone entered the West Virginia capitol building on February 2, she saw a sea of teachers from the chamber doors of the Senate and House all the way back to the rotunda. Her county was part of the first work stoppage this month that saw public school teachers flock to the capitol building in Charleston to protest continued low wages, spiking insurance premiums, and poor working conditions.

The teachers flooding the galleries that day came from schools in just three counties. But since February 2 the rebellion has spread. Today marks the second day of a statewide work stoppage, with schools closed in all fifty-five counties. The teachers—who don’t even have legal collective bargaining—wear red T-shirts with the outline of West Virginia and the word UNITED emblazoned across them, a visual that calls to mind not only the Chicago teachers’ strike of 2012 but also the Wisconsin capitol occupation in 2011, against Governor Scott Walker and the Republican legislature’s move to take away collective bargaining rights from the state’s public employees. Now West Virginia public employees are showing that even without collective bargaining rights, they too can make a heck of a lot of noise.

On Thursday morning, thousands of teachers headed to the capitol, carpooling because the walkout included bus drivers. Others stayed close to home to make sure they had a presence in their schools, where they were met with support from students and parents. That support has been building over recent weeks: Ashlea Bassham’s ninth- and tenth-grade students and others had already held their own walkout in Logan County, wielding signs that read “I’m in the bleachers for my teachers.” Parents have held informational pickets and walk-ins, standing outside schools in the cold and the snow to support the teachers. The movement has spread from county to county, neighbor to neighbor, as teachers who live in one county and work in another talk to friends at home and on the job. “It literally was like a fire just catching and going,” says Stone, who is the local vice-president for the Logan County Education Association, one of the two associations in the state.

At the beginning of the legislative session, the executive committee of the association called an emergency meeting to discuss changes to their insurance plan and other bills being introduced in the legislature. The teachers called for a vote to walk out. “I don’t think there was anybody still seated. It was a resounding yes,” Stone said. She then put her production-management background to use pulling together a voting process, getting representatives from every school to collect ballots. “We managed to get ballots into every school and all three bus garages and had them back into my hands and counted in twenty-four hours,” she said. “I literally was creating a ballot as I was walking out the door of the building. I was like ‘somebody else needs to drive, I need to take care of this.’”

The teachers were trying to avoid the district getting an injunction to halt their action, but instead the superintendent closed the schools, a pattern that would repeat itself in every county across the state as teachers stood up to join the statewide day of action. A movement organized by teachers on the ground was able to spread in part through existing networks, in part through social media. “A lot of people blame Facebook for all the bad things in 2016 with the election, but it has actually been really helpful here because West Virginia is so rural and spread out,” said Jay O’Neal, who teaches in Charleston.

Like other teachers who have resorted to stopping work in recent years, the West Virginia teachers have emphasized that their goal is to make education better for every child in West Virginia. “Teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions” has become the byword in these campaigns. The West Virginia teachers have demonstrated this commitment not only with their demands—for filling teacher vacancies, for smaller class sizes—but with immediate action. “As soon as we called the work stoppage for Thursday and Friday our locals took it upon themselves to start working with churches and food banks and different places to provide day care for the parents who needed it, to provide meals for the many students who get their hot meals at school,” said Dale Lee of the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA).

The legislature and the board of the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) have begun to make some noises about conceding some to the teachers’ demands, but nothing is concrete and the work stoppage is set to continue at least through Monday.

 

The teachers began to notice trouble in January, right at the beginning of the legislative session. In that first session, Bassham noted, there were over thirty bills introduced that seemed ominous. When it comes to salaries, West Virginia teachers are already some of the worst off in the country—forty-eighth, according to Lee—and their health-insurance premiums had increased so much over the last year that it amounted to a pay cut. “I keep seeing this number thrown around—$45K is the average teacher salary. I’ve been teaching for seven years and I am nowhere near that,” Stone said. O’Neal added, “I moved here in 2015 and my second year teaching, I made less than my first.”

That pay cut came from a change to how PEIA insurance was calculated—it shifted from being based on the individual teacher’s income to total family income. That could effectively double the already-high premiums for insurance that used to be seen as a counterbalance to low wages. On top of that, the teachers would be penalized if they did not participate in a wellness program.

Those issues already left teachers feeling undervalued and disrespected. And that came on top of legislators proposing bills that threatened public education—such as introducing charter schools, “education savings accounts” (giving parents public funds to spend on educating their children, or a “backdoor voucher” in Lee’s words), so-called “paycheck protection,” which restricts the ability for automatic deduction of union dues, and other attacks on the already deeply restricted unions. Anger at the anti-union proposals opened the door to bring up other issues that had been frustrating teachers for much longer, like sky-high class sizes in secondary schools and a lack of electives for students.

Despite it all, Lee noted, “We have great schools. We’re right at 90 percent graduation rate, and for a rural state that is exceptional.” To him, legislators’ complaints about spending are disingenuous—the state is paying for past underfunding of retirement benefits and counting those dollars as education spending. Because West Virginia’s population is quite spread out, that also means that transporting students costs more than it would in more densely populated states—more dollars that aren’t going to the classroom but are still necessary to spend.

Meanwhile the state has a shortage of certified teachers because it’s hard to convince people to enter a job when starting salaries for people with advanced degrees are still in the $30–35,000 range. “You’re sold the idea of, hey, go to college, get a degree, get an advanced degree, and then you still really can’t make ends meet,” Bassham said. “Obviously we do it because we like the kids, but I also like to be able to pay my bills and not have $8 to last me six days until payday.”

 

Leah Clay Stone is a second-generation member of the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA)—she and her walked picket lines with her mother during a 1990 teacher strike. Her father was a coal miner through the 1980s. West Virginia is a state with a proud labor history that gets lost in the “Trump Country” profiles. Many of the teachers in today’s fight have personal experiences like Stone’s. It was not lost on anyone I spoke with that the first teachers to stop work were from coal country, from Mingo and Logan Counties, the sites of the great mine wars.

Stone also recalls, as a teenager, going to party with friends on top of the infamous Blair Mountain, the site of what historian Elizabeth Catte, in her new book What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, calls “the largest show of armed resistance in the United States since the Civil War—and the most significant labor uprising in the United States.” Immortalized in part in the 1987 movie Matewan and in memorable labor ballads, the Battle of Blair Mountain pitted workers and their allies—like venerable labor agitator Mary Harris “Mother” Jones—against a “private army” that would later be praised by the National Rifle Association (yes, the same one that currently wants to arm teachers against school shooters). It is a stark reminder that West Virginians died to organize the unions that the state’s officials are currently bad-mouthing in the press.

Today’s action is the first statewide walkout of teachers in almost thirty years. “If you look at what teachers and their allies are posting on social media, you can see that they are connecting the upcoming action to the state’s important history of labor uprising, from Blair Mountain to Widen.” Elizabeth Catte told me via email. She pointed to a tweet from Richard Ojeda, a candidate for Congress from the state, who posted a photograph of himself in a red bandanna with the caption, “The term redneck started when WV coal miners tied red bandanas around their necks during the bloody battle of Blair mountain to unionize. Today, our teachers channeled their history. #UnionStrong”

“It’s rather impressive to me that people don’t have the knowledge of what it means to be union proud. Or what it means to be involved in an organization,” Stone, who recalled doing a school project on Mother Jones, said. “For the past few years we’ve struggled to keep membership even in our organization. But in this moment and this movement people have been finding out that they are the movement. If they want something done they have to speak up.”

These days, of course, the labor movement is a shadow of its former self in terms of both militancy and membership. With collective bargaining banned for West Virginia teachers and public-sector workers, unions are voluntary associations—meaning that teachers at any given school might be members of the WVEA or the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia (AFT-WV), or neither. Without collective bargaining, the WVEA’s Dale Lee explained, mostly the associations fight to get work issues that unions might bargain over—like duty-free lunches and planning periods—written into state law.

There is a separate association for school service personnel, the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, who have also backed the job action—cooks, custodians, maintenance workers, and bus drivers. Beyond that, Bassham told me, they are standing for all public employees who are struggling. “It’s not just a teacher issue, it’s not just a school issue, it’s our state not wanting to take care of the people who are trying to make our state a better place.”

Their message is a reminder that despite pollsters’ tendency to make a college degree the dividing line between “working” and “middle” class, the categories are often not so clear cut. The reality is that college-educated workers too have to fight for decent wages and benefits. That the teachers all cite Blair Mountain’s miners as inspiration is an act of class solidarity and a reminder that the so-called knowledge economy we have been told to prize over manual labor doesn’t come with a guarantee of good pay any more than coal mining did.

West Virginia’s government has long been dominated by coal and other extractive industries. In fact its sitting governor, Jim Justice, is a second-generation coal tycoon and a billionaire who owes his own state millions in back taxes. But Jay O’Neal is heartened that teachers and their supporters—including the mine workers’ union—are now calling for raising taxes on those extractive companies in order to fund education. In a literal sense, the teachers are fighting the same companies that the coal miners were, decades ago.

 

On Thursday teachers from all three education workers’ associations took to the streets and the capitol halls, dressed in red, bearing handmade signs, some of them wearing those red bandannas. They waved to passing drivers and marched with other unionists. Schools throughout the state remained shuttered Friday, and at an afternoon press conference, union representatives said they were prepared to continue the walkout until the state commits to address their demands: higher pay, fully funded insurance benefits, and rejection of the regressive bills.

Teachers had already driven to the capitol on snow days, on treacherous mountain roads. “Our colleagues in the northern panhandle and the eastern panhandle have to come so much further,” Bassham said. “They drove on some crazy mountain roads to holler at legislators, and it was fabulous.”

Those legislators are slowly beginning to take action, Stone said, though there is also “quite a bit of grandstanding. . . . They want you to think that they’re doing everything they can for you but their voting record doesn’t show that.”

Public-employee strikes in West Virginia, as state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey has stated, are illegal. And yet the teachers have gone out anyway, taking the risk because it can’t get much worse for them. With the Janus case looming before the Supreme Court, potentially decimating every public-sector union in the nation, and right-wing governors looking for additional ways to punish unions, the West Virginia teachers’ situation is a bellwether.

These teachers recall that there were no laws protecting the mine workers in the 1920s either. Stone said, “West Virginians have a long background of doing what’s expected until it gets to be too much, and then we make sure we do what’s right, and we really want our legislators to do what’s right instead of what’s expected.”

Mother Jones would be proud.”

 

Hell yes she would.

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Labor lessons from former coal country

Some Motivation from West Virginia. The battle hardened state has a long history of labor struggle. This bit comes from Krystal Ball at the TheHill.com All eyes on

Could this be the moment the labor movement has been waiting for?

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Link Here

It’s been a rough couple of decades for the national labor movement. Unions have been subjected to a full blown assault by the GOP, eroded by new work arrangements and all but abandoned by Democrats. Major newspapers no longer employ labor reporters, 28 states have undermined unions with so-called right-to-work laws, the Trump administration has decimated the National Labor Relations Board, and every year brings another grim statistic about how union membership has fallen.

With this set of facts piling up, plenty of people have decided unions are now irrelevant and left the movement for dead. Turns out, though, that West Virginia didn’t get the memo.

Teachers, school service personnel and other public employees in the Mountain State are on the verge of a historic statewide walkout over pay that’s near the worst in the country. Over the past few weeks, these workers have staged local walkouts, flooded town halls, and descended by the thousands on the state capital in Charleston. Today, teachers will walk out of schools in at least three more counties, and on Saturday they’ll rally in a massive protest at the Capitol building in what is expected to be their largest action to date.

 

With no sign that the Republican-dominated legislature is going to accede to the teachers’ demands for a decent wage, the only avenue left is a coordinated statewide walkout. According to Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union: “Unless things change, we’re headed toward a work action.”

It’s hard to overstate just what a dramatic scene this will be. When thousands of teachers walk out of West Virginia schools, they’ll be bucking a national trend in a big way. Last year was the second lowest year ever recorded for large-scale strikes. In the entire country for the entire year, there were only 7 strikes involving more than 1,000 workers.

If you’re surprised to see a resurgence in progressive radical action coming from West Virginia, then it’s time you toss out your old stereotypes of West Virginians as an endlessly trod-upon people who don’t understand their own self-interest and reflexively back Republicans. You may also want to revisit your history.

West Virginia was a cradle of militant unionism and the site of some of the most storied, important battles between labor and management. In fact, if you’ve ever called someone a “redneck” or been called one yourself, you can trace that proud pejorative back to one of the bloodiest battles between labor and management to occur in our nation’s history. In the Battle of Blair Mountain, miners literally fought against management and government for their right to organize and to earn cash instead of scrip and to shop outside of company stores. In order to easily identify their brothers in arms, the miners wrapped red bandanas around their necks.

You might also be surprised to learn that those rednecks were composed of whites, black migrants from the South and new European immigrants. They spoke different languages, came from different cultures, but their red bandanas stood as a sign of cross-racial, working-class solidarity.

In other words, West Virginia may be the perfect place for workers to once again disregard the rules meant to keep them in their place. The perfect place for workers to demand more from a system that has been systematically rigged to deliver for business and the politically connected at the expense of working people in every community. The perfect place to lead a vanguard of progressive activism that just might be the jolt the entire national labor movement needs.

These modern-day rednecks are ready to fight.

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Krystal Ball is president of The People’s House Project, which recruits Democratic candidates in Republican-held congressional districts of the Midwest and Appalachia. A former candidate for Congress in Virginia and host on MSNBC’s “The Cycle,” she is a video host for the soon-to-be-launched Hill.TV project. Follow her on Twitter @krystalball.