Teacher leaders: ‘Refuse to be silent’ and ‘unite the masses’
National Education Association (NEA) President Lily Eskelsen Garcia. | J. David Ake/AP

MINNEAPOLIS —Facing well-financed continual corporate and political attacks on teachers and democracy, the National Education Association – or at least its leaders – are sounding ever more militant. That follows the lead of some of their own state chapters, and of their students.

“Refuse to be silent” in the face of that onslaught, NEA President Lily Eskelsen-Garcia told the 6,000 delegates to her union’s convention, which met in Minneapolis-St. Paul during the week running through July 4.

“Unite the masses” of teachers, community groups and the rest of the country against the corporate anti-teacher and anti-democracy campaigns, and their political enablers in the White House, on Capitol Hill and in statehouses nationwide, urged union Executive Director John Stocks.

“Dig deep, keep fighting, keep educating, keep organizing!”

They’ll need to do so. NEA, the nation’s largest union, met just after the Supreme Court erected a large financial threat: The Janus v AFSCME District Council 31 ruling.

By a 5-4 partisan vote, with the white male GOP-named justices in the majority, the court said every single state and local government worker in the U.S. – including all the teachers and school staffers – could be a “free rider” able to use union services without paying one red cent for them.

A comprehensive study, before the ruling, by the University of Illinois, calculated the nation’s teachers unions — NEA and the American Federation of Teachers – would lose 88,000 members over time, as a result. And Janus will hurt working women: 75 percent of pre-K-elementary school teachers are female.

That decline would drop union density among teachers to just over 70 percent. But the loss of density, and the loss of revenue from “agency fees” non-unionists in union-represented school districts now pay, would weaken teachers’ bargaining power and cut teacher pay by 5.4 percent, the study adds.

The right wing immediately jumped into a multi-million-dollar campaign to get teachers and other state and local government workers to dump their union cards – while still taking the benefits.

“Billionaires, like Betsy DeVos,” GOP President Donald Trump’s viciously anti-teacher Education Secretary, “and the Koch brothers have never been more embedded in political power. Billionaires are trumping the rights of working people to organize,” Eskelsen-Garcia said of the Janus ruling.

“Billionaires have placed themselves over ordinary people and are determined to escape blame from the escalating crises engulfing the nation.”

“Billionaires believe that they are our rulers. They demand our silence. They demand we pretend. Instead of speaking out on racial injustice, they demand that we stand in silence and pretend that everything’s just fine.”

The answer to Janus and to the billionaires and corporate class which funded it, both NEA leaders said, is to follow the lead of grass-roots organizing and education drives which saw teachers and staffers in the right-to-work states of West Virginia, Arizona, Kentucky, North Carolina and Oklahoma – plus Colorado — to win more funding to fix decrepit schools, replace outdated textbooks and win long-overdue raises for teachers and support staffers

In all those states, teachers officially lacked the right to strike. They did anyway – led by a 9-day successful, community-backed statewide strike in West Virginia.

In so many words, hit the streets and keep doing so, said Eskelsen-Garcia, an elementary school teacher from deep-red right-to-work Utah. “We have seen the people march and speak up and refuse to be silent and refuse to pretend. We have seen the resistance rise,” she declared.

The solution is also to follow the lead of their own students, mobilized after the mass murder of 14 students and three union (AFT) teachers in Florida on Valentine’s Day, Eskelsen-Garcia added.

Surviving students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School there have led a mass movement of students nationwide for gun control. One of their spokesmen, senior David Hogg, also addressed the convention, emphasizing the same bottom-up organizing themes – and sounding the call against Trump and other politicians who would turn schools into armed camps.

“We have been speaking up, mobilizing, and standing strong because our friends and family mean the world to us. We are young and that means we don’t have to accept the status quo. And we never will. We intend to close the gap between the world as it is and what it should be,” Hogg said.

“Arm educators? Yes, with books, papers, pencils, computers, and the supplies and resources they need to help all students succeed.  We want our schools to be places for learning…where hands are raised for discussions and debates, not to show SWAT teams that we’re unarmed.”

Stocks, the union’s executive director, warned, however, that unions need allies and they’re in a long fight, and not just with Trump. “We need to build a long-term, large-scale coalition” to fight the corporate class which wants to privatize the schools, break unions and control the country, he said.

But the union has millions of allies outside its halls, he noted.

“More and more people want to stand for something, they want to be active, they want to associate themselves with a cause and an organization that is not only good but that is powerful and has the infrastructure to make a real difference.” That’s why delegates must help “unite the masses.”’

“We can’t be in a movement by ourselves and for ourselves,” Stocks said. “What the Red For Ed movement” – the T-shirts the striking states’ teachers wore – “has shown us is that when members and non-members, parents, community, and students stand together, we are a formidable force and together we can fight and win…We need to proudly share our values.”


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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