Sunday, June 10, 2018

West Virginia, Kentucky, Arizona Teachers leaders speak in Oakland

Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

I went to an event in Oakland CA today that was sponsored by the Oakland Education Association that represents Oakland Teachers. The OEA is affiliated to the California Teachers Association (CTA) the state affiliate of the National Education Association, the largest union in the US with 3 million members. The CTA has 330,000 members.

The event was a panel featuring speakers from the various teachers union struggles throughout the country and focused on what California, a blue state with collective bargaining rights can learn from these historic teachers battles.

The speakers were:

Nicole McCormick a Music Teacher PreK-5, from Mercer County (West Virginia) Education Association President-Elect.

Tia Edison an Elementary School Teacher from Jefferson County Kentucky and with Black Lives Matter and Barbara Boyd, a retired teacher member of the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Repressions were also on the Panel.

Rebecca Garelli Middle School Math and Science Educator; Arizona Educators United Lead Organizer.

Also on the platform from California was the president elect of the OEA and a representative from the Los Angeles.

The speaker above is Nicole McCormick from West Virginia and like all of them she stressed the importance of the rank and file leadership of these struggles.  She pointed out that initially the union was concerned that there was talk of striking and one official told her it was not a “good idea”.  She responded that it was not only her but her husband and many more people talking about striking.

We have numerous articles on this blog about the developments in West Virginia, Arizona and Puerto Rico in particular and the reader can find them all under the labels to the right, search; teachers, education, public sector team concept, strikes etc.

The speaker from Arizona also said that the official union bodies were very supportive and helped organize events and provided logistical support. But all of them stressed the importance of social media with Facebook pages going from a few dozen members to thousands in a very short time. West Virginia went from 30 people to about 26,000 and Arizona has over 50,000.

I missed the first presentation from sister Tia Edison but caught more from both her and sister Boyd later on. An important aspect of their presentation was the issue of the community, in particular the poorest communities that have a permanent police present and where stop and frisk of their youth is commonplace. Both sisters pointed out that there was a gang ordinance in the legislature that they stressed was important to the communities of color in particular and they felt that this issue and the issues the teachers the fighting for should be linked. They stressed correctly that these workplace economic struggle cannot be separated from the social issues like police violence and particular the children of color who are overwhelmingly the target of these type of repressive measures.

There was some difficulty getting the union to take up this issue in the way it should but if we want communities on the side of our struggles every union/workplace dispute must link up with the communities in which we live and work if we are to be successful. It is not uncommon though for union members to say that these "other" struggles are not their issue, I've argued against that myself and I feel that if other issues are framed correctly workers see clearly that linking with the communities and also other issues strengthens all of us.

This theme rang strong through everyone’s presentation. Sister McCormick from West Virginia made the point that both the Democratic and Republican parties “favor the rich over the poor” which brought much applause from the maybe 300 or so people that were there. 

What was very refreshing but such a basic concept to the rank and file trade union member in the workplace was that these sisters made it very clear that whether someone belonged to an NEA affiliated union or the AFT and AFL-CIO affiliated union or an independent association or no union at all, they were welcome at the meetings and they got to vote just like anyone else. “We’re all teachers” was the theme. The sister from West Virginia in the video above also pointed out that although they are against Charter Schools, Charter School teachers were welcome as well. It was said by more than one speaker how the official union presence was such that these organizations just competed with each other for members. This is standard procedure and has done severe damage to the workers movement and to our ability to fight the bosses. It took the rank and file worker to enter the scene to overcome that obstacle.

It was obvious from what the teachers were saying that because it was illegal in West Virginia to strike for example, the rank and file took the lead. We all know, breaking the law is what we have to do in a mass way if we are to win and the trade union officialdom is one of the few forces in society that is obsessed with obeying it. There is no doubt that if the trade union hierarchy had been stronger in all of these cases it is quite likely that the strike in West Virginia wouldn’t have occurred or the events in Kentucky, Arizona, Oklahoma etc.

All of the speakers did not attack the union hierarchy viciously and generally referred to them as “the union” . In Arizona there are apparently numerous teachers running for state legislature and they are running as independents or certainly non-partisan as far as I understood. The slogan “Remember in November” is the rallying cry at those who have voted against the teachers and there have been some incredibly nasty slanders and scare tactics being used against them.

Naturally there are those that will pick this movement apart and find fault in every detail, find a “T” not crossed or an “I” not dotted. But what has happened here and especially the illegal strike in West Virginia and these actions in general in states where workers have no right to strike and no collective bargaining rights has opened up a new era. This genie might be tamed but it won’t be put back in the bottle. The present union hierarchy will try to temper this movement, the Democratic party will try to coopt it with their help, and there may be success along these lines but consciousness has been changed and lessons learned.

There was no real discussion from the floor and no comments or questions allowed that weren’t handed in on cards which was a bit ironic given all the talk about rank and file power, democracy and transparency from the panel.

This is a quick report and I also have a little more video that I will work on tomorrow. Sorry about a little instability in the video didn’t bring my stand. I made it clear to the speakers that this blog, Facts For Working People is at their disposal and referred them to some of the pieces we have published from Mercedes Martinez and the struggles in Puerto Rico.

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