Barbara Madeloni

VIDEO: Organizing in the Face of the Coronavirus

In the light of this pandemic, it is imperative that we protect workers immediately, prevent the exploitation of this crisis by management, and consider how to use this moment to advance demands that last far beyond the coronavirus.

How do we do this? What is happening and what can we learn from each other?

Almost 900 people joined a Labor Notes webinar to hear from educators, an Amazon worker, and a worker center organizer about their successes organizing in the face of the coronavirus.

Brookline paraeducators with signs lining hallway of school.

Teachers around the country have been schooling us all with their strike wave. But schools depend on more than just classroom teachers. Recently paraeducators, a vital—and criminally underpaid—part of the public school workforce, are starting to rise up too.

Paraeducators assist individual students with a range of learning issues, including physical disabilities, problems focusing, and difficulties managing emotions. They aid classroom teachers and are often called on to provide support in managing the day-to-day of school life for these students.

Strikes Are Hard Work

Dedham educators in red, on a picket line, with red and white signs.

They stood on a picket line at the entrance to the school parking lot: seven educators out on strike for the first time.

Public sector strikes are illegal in Massachusetts. But the night before, after two years of fruitless negotiations, the 300 members of the Dedham Education Association had voted overwhelming to walk out.

Now educators lined the main street from the high school to the middle school, celebrating each passing car that honked support.

“I’m nervous,” said one. “I am a new teacher, two years in the district.”

Crowd of LIttle Rock educators and supporters in support of LREA.

The site of struggle to defend unions and public education has moved quickly from Chicago to Little Rock.

The 1,800-member Little Rock Education Association began preparing for a potential strike after the Arkansas State Board of Education ended recognition of the union. Their demands: return collective bargaining rights to LREA, give full local control of the school district back to the people of Little Rock, and provide education support professionals with raises that were being negotiated at the time that the union was decertified.

Defying Injunction, Massachusetts Teachers Strike

Line of workers on picket line in red union T-shirts holding signs that say "Dedham Education Association on Strike" and "Fair Contract Now"

In Massachusetts, strikes are unlawful for public sector workers. That didn’t stop the Dedham Educators Association from walking out this morning after an overwhelming 248- 2 (out of 280 members) strike vote last night.

The educators in this Boston suburb are crying foul about health insurance costs that eat into their salaries, and district demands for more time on the clock and in professional development without any increase in compensation. Teachers are also demanding contract language that allows for real enforcement of sexual harassment policies.

Three Chicago teachers, one with bullhorn and two with arms flexed.

In 2012 the Chicago Teachers Union woke up union members and educators across the country with a winning strike. Seven years later, after a wave of teacher strikes in the last two years, CTU is at it again.

As educators walk out today, a lot feels like 2012. The strike authorization vote was high (94 percent) and the mayor is disparaging their demands and branding the strike as hurtful to children.

THIS TIME IS DIFFERENT

But there are noteworthy differences.

Refuse the Soft Handshake

Handshake

“Hey, Barbara. This is Arne Duncan. I just wanted to congratulate you on your election victory.”

In 2014, as an insurgent candidate from the Educators for a Democratic Union caucus, I won the presidency of the Massachusetts Teachers Association. Duncan, then Obama’s Secretary of Education, was one of the first congratulation calls I got. The message he left on my phone provoked lots of astonished laughter when I shared it at meetings and in bars.

Less Messaging, More Action

L.A. teachers in red rallying during their January 2019 strike.

You’re at a union meeting, brainstorming for a campaign, when a hand shoots up. “What we need is better messaging. Can we get a billboard? Maybe we could make a meme.”

We’ve all been there. Maybe you’ve said it yourself. It seems like common sense that if we can just find the right words and the correct medium, we’ll win over our fellow workers, or the community, or politicians.

I was frustrated daily by this logic when I was president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, leading the campaign against a ballot question that would allow for more charter schools.

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