A strike brewing in Oregon

AFTER MONTHS at the negotiating table with intransigent school boards, some 750 teachers from the Gresham-Barlow Education Association and Parkrose Faculty Association voted April 11 by overwhelming majorities to authorize their respective bargaining teams to call for a strike.

The executive council of the Reynolds Education Association, a third teachers union in Oregon’s East Multnomah County that is also facing attacks, voted to declare an impasse the same day. This opens the possibility that another 600 teachers could be on strike in the coming weeks.

ImageWhy are these teachers willing to strike? Those pushing for cuts to education want you to believe that greedy teachers are simply trying to take money from other workers. As Gresham-Barlow school board member Dan Chriestenson recently posted on the Multnomah County Republicans’ Facebook page, “I view a vote to strike as profoundly offensive and disrespectful to the hardworking families who continue to pay the bills for the district in this down economy.”

In Chriestenson’s world, the contract he and his fellow school board members unilaterally imposed on teachers–one that includes erosion in teachers’ job security, reductions in preparation time and five furlough days and allows for the use of counselors as substitutes–is not “profoundly offensive and disrespectful” to the working families whose children’s education will suffer as a result. The real issue for him is the fact that teachers are preparing to fight these attacks.

What Chriestenson conveniently leaves out is the fact that teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions. With endless budget cuts, students have fewer resources in the classroom and less support from education assistants and counselors. Increases in class sizes leave every child behind. Many students no longer have the joy of music classes, instruction in physical education or access to the library–all of which have proven to be supportive of student learning.

Further, the loss of prep time hinders educators’ ability to provide the differentiated and creative instruction required to meet various student needs. It also takes away from time educators can connect with families, collaborate with peers and attend meetings on students’ behalf. In addition, the loss of protective language for educators will create an environment of fear in our schools, silencing the educator’s voice for student advocacy and academic freedom.

A student in an overcrowded classroom can get lost. A student with a teacher who doesn’t have adequate prep time will receive less tailored instruction and less feedback on assignments. A student with a teacher who has no time to contact parents will not have a crucial bridge between school and home.

These are some of the reasons why students with nonunion teachers do not perform as well as students with union teachers.

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BUT BUDGET-slashers like Chriestenson are hoping working families will overlook these facts and side with school boards against the teachers’ unions.

This outlook echoes the national attack on public sector unions. Rather than point the finger at the bankers, corporate executives or politicians who paved the way for the economic crisis, and the state budget shortfalls that have accompanied it, conservatives like Chriestenson want you to believe that it is greedy public-sector workers who are to blame.

This argument is part of an effort to divide private-sector workers from public-sector workers in order to lower all workers’ standard of living. The U.S. elite has its sights set on competition with the world’s rising economies of China, India and the rest of Asia. That means drastically lowering the pay of workers here to compete with China’s low-wage working class. In order to accomplish this, America’s rulers need to crush any organized force within the U.S. working class. Breaking the teachers’ unions, the largest single sector of unionized workers in the country, is a key part of that strategy.

If these school districts are allowed to get away with their attack on teachers it will make it easier for other employers to attack workers. As historian Mark Naison explains:

There is another more insidious consequence of the attack on teaching. Every time you undermine the job security, working conditions and wages of one group of workers, it makes it easier for employers to undermine them for all workers.

This is why, during the Depression, many unemployed people organized in support of workers on strike, even though anybody with a job in that era was relatively privileged. They believed in the concept of solidarity–the idea that working people could only progress if they did so together, and if one group of workers improved their conditions, it would ultimately improve conditions for all.

The attack on teachers and other workers is intertwined with the assault on public education. While the government has lent, committed or guaranteed $13 trillion to the banks, and spent trillions on wars overseas, the stimulus package only included about $140 billion in aid to the states, roughly the same size as Wall Street paid out in bonuses in 2009.

As cash-strapped states look to the federal government for help, all they see is the $4.3 billion Race to the Top funds. President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan made states compete for these grants by using eligibility requirements that further the agenda of testing and privatization through the creation of charter schools. And because state governments typically cut taxes on corporations and the wealthy and put the majority of the tax burden on the middle and working classes during the neoliberal boom, most states are now finding huge holes in their budgets as unemployment and foreclosures rise.

The attack on workers and education is a bipartisan effort. By picking Duncan to run the Department of Education, Obama made it clear that his administration was no advocate for public education. More than 300,000 educator jobs have been lost since 2008. If teachers and other workers hope to defend public education and a decent standard of living for the U.S. working class, we will need to use our most powerful weapon–the strike.

For too long, we have we sat by while “shared sacrifice” has meant the rich get richer while we suffer. If there is any hope for the children in our communities–and if we want them to have a future that isn’t confined to poverty, unemployment, debt and despair–we need to teach them the real power that working people have to defend ourselves. We need to teach them there is power in solidarity–that when we fight injustice, others will rally to help.

This is why students, parents, and working people from all over Oregon should be prepared to head to the picket lines starting April 25. Support our schools, defend our teachers!

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