Archives for category: Unions

Jesse Hagopian teaches history and is the adviser to the Black Student Union at Garfield High School–the site of the historic boycott of the MAP test in 2013–and is an associate editor for the acclaimed Rethinking Schools magazine. Jesse is the editor of More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High-Stakes Testing.

At my request, Jesse wrote this explanation about why the teachers went on strike and what they won. It will also be posted on his own blog,

The Seattle Educators’ Strike for Social Justice

On Sunday evening, thousands of Seattle Education Association members gathered in a general membership meeting and voted to approve a new contract with the Seattle Public Schools. This vote officially ended the strike by Seattle educators, which began on September 10, 2015, and interrupted the first five days of school.

This new contract contains many hard fought wins for social justice that the school district said it would never grant. These groundbreaking victories are against the abuses of high-stakes standardized testing, for more recess, and for race and equity teams in the schools are a dramatic departure from our pervious broken model of collective bargaining and hold the potential to transform educator unionism in the nation. Yet the contract also contained some needless concessions to corporate style reforms—including succumbing to the district’s disrespectful pay raise offer, raising caseloads for some special education teachers, extending the school day and reducing teacher planning time—that could have been avoided if the union had kept the picket lines up for a few days longer and organized mass mobilizations.

But the most important outcome of this contract negotiation won’t be found in the fine print of the agreement. The true triumph of this contract battle was the achievement of solidarity—between teachers, office professionals, nurses, school librarians, instructional assistants, parents, and community organizations—in the struggle for the public schools.

Thousands of parents joined in solidarity with the teachers, including the celebrated “Soup for Teachers” group that formed to bring sustenance and solidarity to picket lines at every school in the district. The Coalition for the Schools Seattle Deserves united community organizations and joined the great Kimya Dawson to host a benefit concert to raise funds for the striking teachers. The Seattle City Council, led by councilmember Kshama Sawant, passed a unanimous resolution in support of the strike. Marching band students used their pep-band anthems to root on striking educators, and local businesses donated to the picket lines. Even the mainstream media regularly reported that parents were in support of the strike and that the educators were winning. There can be no doubt that this strike was overwhelmingly supported by the people in the Seattle area–except, perhaps, for the regions’ wealthiest resident, Bill Gates, who has invested his fortune in schemes to privatize education and reduce our schools to test prep centers.

So many of the union’s social justice demands were advanced in the current strike and negotiations–creating a compelling model for educators around the country who believe in social justice unionism.

We won an end to the use of standardized tests scores being used in teacher evaluations, the so-called “student growth rating”—a huge blow to the testocracy in Seattle and across the country. This victory clearly comes out of the years long struggle of educators, students, and parents in Seattle who have taken bold action to oppose these tests. In 2013, the teachers at Garfield voted unanimously to refuse to administer the Measures of Academic Progress test and the boycott spread to some six other schools. Last year in Seattle, every single 11th grader at both Nathan Hale and Center school opted out of the SBAC common core test—joining some 60,000 other opt out across the state.

Our victory for a guaranteed minimum of 30 minutes recess in every elementary school is perhaps the first of its kind in the country. A story from a local NPR station in the spring of 2014 exposed the vanishing recess time in the Seattle Public Schools and showed how schools that served low-income students and students of color were particularly recess deficient. All last year I worked with a city-wide organization called “Lunch and Recess Matter,” that organized, petitioned, and rallied for the right to eat and play. This is a concrete victory for a research driven reform that has been shown to be vital for the social and emotional development of children.

We also won enforceable caseload caps for our Educational Support Associates (ESAs), such as school psychologists and speech language pathologists—a victory for vital services to support some of our most vulnerable students.

One of the most important gains for public education in this contract was the creation of race and equity teams. The Seattle Education Association advocated for every one of the Seattle Public Schools to have such a team to tackle issues of institutional racism–and in so doing won the support of many Black Lives Matter activists, including Seattle NAACP members, who issued a statement supporting the strike. The Seattle school district originally said they would only agree to having these teams in six schools. However, the power of the strike pushed the district to agree to allow thirty schools to have these anti-racist committees. Given that the Seattle schools have been found to suspend African American students at four times the rate of white students for the same infractions, it is clear that every school in the city needs to organize actively against inequality and racism.

With this visionary set of demands and the overwhelming support of the parents, students, community, and even city officials, it is truly disappointing that the union ended the strike before we achieved all we could at the bargaining table. Seattle has the fastest rising cost of rent and is among the top ten in highest cost of living in the nation. Educators have not had a cost of living increase in six years, and are increasingly unable to live in the city where we teach. It was a mistake to agree to 3% raise the first year, a 2% raise the second, and a 4.5 % raise the third, which won’t do much to even off set our rising cost of healthcare. With this contract, nurses in the Seattle Public schools will still have to split their time between several schools and can’t possibly provide the care that our students deserve. We achieved lower student to teacher ratios in some preschool and Distinct special education programs, but increased the special education “Access” programs caseload by 30%, going from 10:1:3 to 13:1:3 (student:teacher:instructional assistant). With the current ratios the Access students are able to participate in the general education curriculum and setting with support, however the new ratios put that inclusion model in jeopardy and will overwhelm Access case managers. We also submitted to the district’s demand to lengthen the school day by 20 minutes, which will reduce teacher planning time. There is no definitive evidence that a longer day produces better student outcomes, but we do know it will increase the burden on educators.

The fact that the union never organized a mass rally to bring the maximum pressure on the district was really disappointing. I know that if the union had organized a demonstration with all of our 5,000 members, many thousands of parents would have joined us and the pressure would have been enough to get us big gains on all the major issues we were fighting for. This reality reveals that the key to building the power we need to achieve the schools our children deserve will be in combining social justice demands with a social movement unionism approach that seeks the full mobilization of the membership and the community in pursuit of those demands.

All that said, I also know our strike has already gone a long way in transforming our union, city politics, and the labor movement for the better. So many educators, parents, students, and community members, in Seattle and around the nation, understand the issues that we face in education so much better as a result of this struggle. With so many more parents made aware of the dangers of over-testing by this strike, the opt out movement in Seattle will be truly massive this spring. The issue of disproportionate discipline as a component of the school-to-prison-pipeline has now been exposed in our city and I believe this will help embolden the Black Lives Matter movement in the coming months. So many in our city have been made aware of the need to fully fund our schools at the state level and I believe teachers, parents, and students will collaborate more than ever in challenging the state legislature to live up to its constitutional duty to amply provide the resources needed to run our schools.
As the Social Equality Educators—a rank and file organization of educators in Seattle—recently wrote, “The sleeping giant of our union has awoken from its slumber and begun to stretch its muscles. SEA members showed a tremendous amount of creativity and courage on the picket lines.” When our union fully commits to using this newfound strength, the corporate reform bullies will be once and for all chased out of the schoolyard.

Jeff Bryant reports that the Seattle teachers’ strike is nearing an end. The teachers are very pleased with the gains they made on behalf of their students.

Was a pay increase part of the settlement? Yes. Seattle teachers live in one of the most expensive cities in the nation and have gone for years without a cost of living increase.

But what mattered most to teachers and what precipitated the strike were their concerns about conditions for their students.

Jesse Hagopian, a spokesman for teachers, said: “For the first time, our union was able to make social justice the center of the debate. We took a huge step forward.”

Also in the settlement terms, according to a local television news outlet, were student-centered demands including requests for guaranteed 30 minutes of recess for all elementary students, additional staff such as school counselors and therapists, a reduction in the over-testing of students, and the creation of new teams in 30 schools to ensure equitable learning opportunities and treatment of students regardless of race.

While recess may seem to be an unworthy demand to the reform-minded editors of the [Seattle] Times, classroom teachers understand it to be something critical to the health, development, and academic success of their students, as numerous research reports have found.

Having access to school counselors, therapists, and other specialists is critical to many students, but in inadequately funded school districts, such as Seattle, these are the positions that are routinely the first to be cut.

The demand for less testing is also, ultimately a student-centered demand. As Hagopian explains, this time to Erin Middlewood for The Progressive magazine, “’We oppose these tests because there are too many of them and they’re narrowing the curriculum and they’re making our kids feel bad, but they’re also part of maintaining institutional racism,’ says Hagopian, who serves as an adviser to Garfield’s Black Student Union.”

Hagopian sees the increasingly popular campaign to opt out of standardized tests as being connected to the Black Lives Matter movement because money that should be used to support and educate children and youth of color is being directed to punitive measures such as testing and incarceration.

Can you believe this?

While everyone else is complaining that Governor Cuomo is crushing teachers with his punitive and research-less teacher evaluation plan, the New York Post complains that Governor Cuomo has capitulated to the teachers’ union by ordering a new review of the Common Core standards and assessments. Imagine that! The governor actually might have cared that 220,000 children opted out; he no doubt realized that 220,000 children might have 400,000 or so parents, and they vote. The New York Post seems unaware that in a democracy, it is usually a good idea to pay attention to mass movements.

The Post feels certain that Cuomo is kowtowing to those horrible teachers’ unions, always the enemy (the teachers’ union has now morphed into George Orwell’s Emmanuel Goldstein in “1984,” the quintessential enemy of the State).

Read the editorial. The Post will not be satisfied until there are mass firings of teachers.

Here are the closing lines:

We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: The unions and the politicians they control will make sure no system ever lets schools shed rotten teachers.

The only hope for kids is to flee these failure factories — to flee to charters or private schools, or out of New York altogether.

Oh, dear, where should families flee to?

Not to Connecticut; it has teachers’ unions.

Not to New Jersey; it has teachers’ unions.

Not to Massachusetts; it has teachers’ unions.

Not to Pennsylvania; it has teachers’ unions.

Flee, families, flee!

Flee to Tennessee! Flee to Mississippi! Flee to North Carolina! Flee to the Deep South! Flee to any state without a teachers’ union.

You won’t get better education but at least you can be sure that the teachers are without any representation.

Oh, and by the way, do the writers and workers at the New York Post belong to a union? Or is it a non-union shop?

Historian and teacher John Thompson reminds us of why unions are necessary: to protect workers against predatory, greedy, heedless bosses.

He tells about the jobs where workers risk their lives and where more would die without the protections that unions insist upon.

He chides the so-called “reformers” who pal around with anti-union goons like Scott Walker and John Kasich and who help them bust unions.

He reminds us that neither Arne Duncan nor Barack Obama lifted a finger to help the unions in Wisconsin when Scott Walker began attacking them.

In union there is strength. That was why it is so sad that Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, i.e. Scott Walker lite, and the Obama administration help pave the way for his union-bashing and did little to help working people in the Wisconsin recall campaigns.

That is also why Walker pretended to not be an existential threat to private sector unions and claimed that his fight to the death with public sector unions did not foreshadow an all-out assault on public and higher education. Only after he had picked off one opponent after another did Walker cut education spending by $2 billion and ram through Right to Work. When pushing a $300 million cut to higher education, he promised universities freedom from “shared governance,” which “kept the university from directly running things” and told professors to work harder.

Unions have always been some of the most loyal members of the civil rights coalition, as well as crusaders for economic justice. And, we have usually had the same opponents. As Kaufman recalls, a founder of the Right to Work movement, Vance Muse, explained the need for its banning of otherwise legal, negotiated agreements, “White women and white men will be forced into organizations with black African apes, whom they will have to call ‘brother’ or lose their jobs.”

Kaufman also notes that roads in the Right to Work state of Texas don’t cost half as much to build, even though workers get paid that much less. “So,” as a union leader says, “it is only a question of who makes the money — the workers or the owners.”

It is one thing for a right-winger to oppose the rights of working people, but there is no intellectually honest way for a liberal to be an ally of Right to Work and to still pose as pro-civil rights. On the other hand, the neo-liberal corporate reformers who opened the door for Walker are nothing if they aren’t inconsistent. They will say anything, do almost anything, and ally themselves with virtually any true believer in uncontrolled competition to clear the way for top-down, market-driven school reforms.

Sadly, one reason why elite education reformers don’t understand the essential role of labor in working for justice is that too many of them have no experience in the blue collar working world. If the rank-in-file of the corporate reform movement had more experience in the industrial world, they would have seen how little the lives of workers are worth. Kaufman explains, for instance, that the fatality rate for construction workers is 40% higher in Right to Work states.

Virtually every remnant of the social safety net is now at risk. Middle and working class families are just one medical crisis away from poverty. Now more than ever, test-driven, competition-driven reformers should reconsider their neo-liberalism and rethink their contempt for organized labor. They should face up to the single biggest question. Even if they can’t get over their distaste for teachers and unions, and even if they don’t have any personal contact with blue collar workers, how can they continue to sow discord among the ranks of progressives? If they help destroy organized labor, who will replace us in the fight for civil rights and economic justice?

Recently an old friend who has long been active in Democratic party politics asked me why everyone he knew in the business world hates unions, especially the teachers unions. I said business hated unions in the 1930s. The same people hate them now. The only difference is now they have the tacit support of the Obama administration. I sent him a copy today of John Thompson’s post.

Yes, we do need a rebirth of labor unions.

A new study shows that the workers who make the least money have experienced the biggest decline in their take-home pay since the recession of 2008.

Despite steady gains in hiring, a falling unemployment rate and other signs of an improving economy, take-home pay for many American workers has effectively fallen since the economic recovery began in 2009, according to a new study by an advocacy group that is to be released on Thursday.

The declines were greatest for the lowest-paid workers in sectors where hiring has been strong — home health care, food preparation and retailing — even though wages were already below average to begin with in those service industries.

“Stagnant wages are a problem for everyone at this point, but the imbalance in the economy has become more pronounced since the recession,” said Irene Tung, a senior policy researcher at the National Employment Law Project and co-author of the study.

The economy is recovering, but not everyone is benefitting.

One explanation may lie in the findings of another study released on Wednesday by the Economic Policy Institute, also a liberal research group. Its report showed that even as labor productivity has improved steadily since 2000, the benefits from improved efficiency have nearly all gone to companies, shareholders and top executives, rather than rank-and-file employees.

A good society provides opportunity for all, not luxury for the few and misery for the bottom quarter.

Businesses and their allies in politics have done a successful job of whittling away the power of unions and nearly strangling them. Big-business is now trying to decimate public sector unions. But there are still millions of low-wage workers who suffer from long hours, low wages, and poor working conditions.

This article describes efforts by workers in New Mexico and elsewhere to gain some protection from abusive conditions by forming “committees.” Businesses don’t like this either but it is still not a labor union, with the power to bargain collectively and gain victories for workers.

SANTA FE, N.M. — Jorge Porras used to report to his carwash job here most mornings at 8:15 a.m., but he said that his boss often did not let him clock in until 11, when customers frequently began streaming in. Many days he was paid for just six hours, he said, even though he worked nine and a half hours.

One day, when the heavy chain that pulled cars forward got stuck, Mr. Porras tried to fix it, but it suddenly lurched forward and cut off the top of his right ring finger. The injury caused him to miss work for the next two weeks, he said, but he received no pay or workers’ compensation for the forced time off.

Mr. Porras and nine co-workers became so fed up that they took an unusual step. They formed a workers committee (not a labor union) and sent a certified letter to the owner of the carwash. In it, they complained about being “insulted and humiliated” in “front of our co-workers and customers” and protested being required to work off the clock and not being given goggles or gloves even though they worked with toxic chemicals.

An advocacy group for immigrant workers, Somos Un Pueblo Unido, advised Squeaky Clean’s workers to set up such a committee because the National Labor Relations Act — enacted under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1935 — prohibits employers from retaliating against workers for engaging in “concerted” activity to improve their wages and conditions, even when they are not trying to unionize.

In an era when the traditional labor unions envisioned by Depression-era supporters of that law have weakened steadily, many advocates now see work site committees as an alternative way to strengthen workers’ clout and protections.

Simon Brackley, president of the Santa Fe Chamber of Commerce, said Somos had exaggerated the prevalence of wage violations and had been too quick to pounce on employers. But Somos is not backing down, and many worker groups are now copying its work site committee idea, which has been adopted at about 35 restaurants, hotels and other companies in Santa Fe….

Only days after the Squeaky Clean workers sent their letter in 2012, the owner fired Mr. Porras, Mr. Muñoz and four others. The fired workers and Somos complained to the National Labor Relations Board’s regional office in Phoenix. That office soon filed a civil complaint against Squeaky Clean, accusing it of unlawfully retaliating against the workers for engaging in what the courts call “protected, concerted” activities.

“We knew we’d have little protection if we acted alone,” Mr. Porras, an immigrant from Guatemala, said in Spanish. “But we knew that if we formed a committee, we’d be protected.”

Ultimately, the labor board ordered Squeaky Clean to reinstate the workers and pay $6,000 in back wages. The carwash agreed separately to pay $60,000 to settle claims for minimum wage and overtime violations.

The deterioration of working conditions in low-wage, non-unionized sectors like fast food and other services makes you wonder whether there might be a rebirth of unionism. When things get bad enough, collective action becomes necessary.

While there has been much talk about the racial achievement gap in test scores, there has not been sufficient attention paid to the racial gap in wages.

A new study by professors at the City University of New York finds that unionization is a successful strategy in reducing the racial wage gap.

This bears directly on educational outcomes, because children from economically secure families are likelier to be more successful in school than their peers who live in poverty.

A study released on Friday, noting the gains made by black union workers in New York City, said that raising the rate of unionization among black workers across the country would help narrow the racial pay gap.

The study, conducted by two professors affiliated with the Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies at the City University of New York, which issued the report, described high unionization rates for black workers who live in the city compared with national rates.

Nearly 40 percent of black workers who are city residents are union members, compared with roughly 13 percent of black workers nationally.

The difference between the rates of black and nonblack unionization is also especially pronounced in New York City. The black unionization rate is nearly double that of nonblacks in the city, a difference that is much smaller nationally.

The authors, Ruth Milkman and Stephanie Luce, found that black union members enjoyed higher wages than black nonunion workers, and were also likely to have better access to employer-sponsored health care benefits and pensions.

The corporate education reform movement has tried diligently to decouple the relationship between education and the economy, but the relationship is there whether they admit it or not. Not admitting it is a way of obscuring the root causes of poor academic performance. Children who have medical care, good nutrition, and decent housing in a safe neighborhood are more successful than those who lack these advantages. This has been documented time and again; it is a correlation that shows up on every standardized test in the world. Economic security is good for children; economic insecurity is not.

When reformers say that “poverty doesn’t matter,” what they really mean is that it doesn’t matter to them. After all, almost every reformer lives in great comfort and ease; few attended public schools or send their own children to public schools. They like to declaim on what other people’s children should be doing and why they don’t need the same level of school resources as they expect for their own children.

But back to the study that shows the advantages of unionization:

“Unionism offers black workers a substantial economic advantage in regard to earnings — to a greater degree than is the case for nonblacks, reflecting the fact that larger numbers of blacks than nonblacks are employed in low-wage jobs,” the study said.

Unionization shrunk the racial wage gap by roughly half, reflecting the tendency of unions to fight for more equal wage distribution across the workplace. Black nonunion workers who live in the city made about $4 less in median hourly earnings than their nonblack counterparts. Among union members, that difference dropped to $2.

Dr. Milkman, a sociology professor, said in an interview that the findings suggested one path to addressing racial disparities in pay and broader income inequality that have come under increasing scrutiny across the country.

“When unions were more powerful in the United States, income inequality was also smaller,” she said. “One component of that is de-unionization.”

She added, referring to the black unionization rate in New York City, “We knew it was better here, but the extent of that is surprising to even us.”

Dr. Milkman said the findings could be explained in part by the fact that the health care and transit industries, which are major parts of the city’s work force and have high proportions of black workers, are heavily unionized.

Amazingly, one of every four workers in New York City belongs to a union.

The New York Times has a lovely article about where to find the art that portrays working people. I tend to think (wrongly) that the art of and about working people is from the 1930s, Socialist Realism. But much of the art described here is centuries old. People have always worked, but the great painters tended to paint royalty or mythical scenes or portraiture or still life, but not so much the people building and sowing and making.

One thing that occurs as you view the art of labor is how much of this kind of work–in factories and fields–has disappeared, either because it has been mechanized or outsourced. A factory that once employed 1,000 workers has either been transformed into a sleek production line run by robots and overseen by a handful of people. Or shipped to China or Mexico, where labor is cheaper.

Another thought is that unions arose to combat terrible working conditions and give working people a voice, so they were not treated as disposable by the bosses.

In the 1930s, the owners of capital hated unions. They have always hated unions. They don’t want to share power. They hate them still and do not lose an opportunity to reduce them and wherever possible, eliminate them.

In 1975, New York City’s government teetered on the verge of bankruptcy. The city’s leaders appealed to the Gerald Ford administration for financial help. President Ford said no.

The New York Daily News published a headline on its front page that was immediately iconic:


Today the same newspaper published an editorial with the same sentiment, this time directed at the parents of the 220,000 children who refused the state tests.

The editorial argues that the parents have been manipulated by the teachers’ union, which is not only false but implies that the parents are dupes.

The editorial claims that the state must stand by the Common Core standards, which (they say) were “developed over many years by the nation’s top education experts.” Would the editorial board please tell us how many years they consider “many,” like two? Would the editors please name the nation’s “top educational experts?” David Coleman of McKinsey? Jason Zimba of Bennington College? Representatives of the College Board and ACT? Are these our “nation’s top educational experts”? Who says so?

The editorial argues that the state must support Governor Cuomo’s demand that 50% of teachers’ evaluation be tied to student test scores, ignoring the research and experience showing that this policy has no basis in research or real life.

Has the editorial board read the statement of the American Statistical Association, which found that teachers affect 1-14% of the variation in student scores, while the family and home have a far greater effect?

Is the editorial board aware of the legal battle of Sheri Lederman, an exemplary fourth-grade teacher in Great Neck who was rated “ineffective” on student growth? Sheri received accolades from her superintendent, her principal, parents, and former students. Should respected and successful teachers like Sheri be fired and replaced by new and inexperienced teachers? Why?

The editorial piously says:

“Kids in struggling schools have for years been plagued by low expectations and too many lower-performing teachers.”

So the editorial wants readers to believe that the Common Core tests that failed 96% of English language learners, 94% of children with disabilities, and more than 80% of Black and Hispanic children are in their best interests. Never mind that the same tests, with their absurdly unrealistic passing marks, widened the achievement gaps among groups. Why does the editorial board think that students in “struggling schools” will fare better academically if most of them fail the Common Core tests year after year? How will repeated failure create higher expectations? More likely, it will produce among the children a sense of despair and low self-worth.

It may be comforting to the editors of the Daily News to think that their arch-enemy–the teachers’ union–is pulling the strings, but the reality is that parents across the state are fed up with the excessive emphasis on testing. They know it robs their children of the arts, science, history, even physical education and recess.

The union doesn’t tell them that their children are cheated by the obsessive focus on testing. Parents see it with their own eyes. And parents across America agree with parents in Néw York. A recent Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll reported that 67% of public school parents and 64% of the public nationwide think there is too much emphasis on standardized tests in school.

So who should we listen to about education? The politicians or public school parents? The politicians or statistical experts?

This is a battle that the Daily News and Governor Cuomo can’t win. If they keep fighting and demeaning parents, next spring there will be 400,000 students who refuse the tests. They will refuse not because their parents are dupes of the union, but because their parents are defending the best interests of their children.

In an action taken in the past hour or so, Seattle teachers voted to strike.

The two big issues: a salary increase; recess time for children. Many children in the district get only 15 minutes a day of recess. Teachers want children to have at least 30-45 minutes a day.

“The union is advocating for a decrease in the use of high-stakes testing. This would include forming a joint committee with the union and the district to accept or reject any standardized testing beyond the federally mandated tests and getting rid of the “Student Growth Rating” that ties tested subject teacher’s evaluations to standardized tests scores. The Seattle School District has inundated our school with dozens of tests that students have to take in their lives as K-12 students, and it’s past time that we reclaim our classrooms for teaching rather than test prep.”


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