New York City, with 1.1 million students taught in 1,700 schools, is the only major public school system that will have in-person classes when school begins Sept. 8. This is over the objections of educators, other school staff, nurses, principals, parents and many City Council members, who maintain that current conditions are unsafe. The 180,000-strong United Federation of Teachers says its members will not return under current conditions. The UFT will hold a strike vote on Sept. 1. Below is a talk given by NYC teacher Karla Reyes at a Reds in Ed webinar on Aug. 29 on the issues involved. Reds in Ed is a national organization of socialist teachers. Reyes is a member of the Party for Socialism and Liberation.
This week, Jacob Blake was shot seven times in the back and his three children were witnesses. In spite of a massive rebellion against racism, in the midst of a health crisis and economic catatrosphe, a right-wing militia was given free agency to police the protest movement, to “do what they had to do” and to kill two protesters and injure another.
I begin with Kenosha because this is what is at stake for all of us fighting against an unsafe and racist school reopening — our Black students dealing with the endless trauma of being harassed and of seeing their family, friends, and neighbors harassed by the police as well as the escalating and emboldened right-wing response against the left.
We are the left. We are the ones fighting back against austerity cuts, fighting for food, housing and quality education. We are organizing.
This fight, this UFT strike, is about more than the school reopening, but we are fighting for the very lives of our communities, and if a strike is a tool to make this happen, if it’s a tool to get us to organize parents, young people and teachers, then let’s do it.
The UFT demands have focused on three things: supplies (like PPE), procedures (such as ventilation), and testing/contact tracing before school starts. As of right now, it seems the delegate assembly will take place Tuesday [Sept. 1] to authorize the strike.
In the last 10 days, the fight between the city officials and the workers has ramped up. In the Panel for Educational Policy meeting last week, a meeting where the Chancellor meets with parents, over 100 people spoke and kept the meeting going until 4 a.m., lasting 10 hours!
Thirty-one City Council members have openly stated they are against an in-person reopening. As of Thursday, a resolution was presented to the City Council against the unsafe reopening with a hearing happening next week that we are mobilizing for.
Via the MORE Caucus of the UFT as well as independent organizing, multiple districts have organized letters and forums — from parents to entire districts of principals to teachers — directly to the Mayor and the Chancellor. These have been organized in conjunction with town halls, phone zaps and in-person protests popping up spontaneously. Parent groups have been organizing fundraisers and drop offs for PPE for teachers in yet another example of the government’s lack of ability to provide for the millions in the city.
Unions backing UFT
Three unions have joined the UFT against this unsafe reopening — the New York State Nurses Association, the Council of School Administrators (the principals), and Local 372 — a union composed of school cafeteria workers, crossing guards, school aides, a union that is also 85 percent Black and Brown.
On top of all of this, New York State faces billions in budget cuts. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is withholding about 20 percent of city aid which means 22,000 layoffs across the board to every city agency. For teachers, that’s 9,000 layoffs. The withholding will become a permanent cut without federal intervention. The Chancellor even went so far to say that the entire school year will be remote and the 9,000 layoffs will happen if the cuts are permanent.
What has been the Mayor’s response to all this?
New York Mayor Bill De Blasio believes in “blended learning,” a hybrid model where groups of kids attend in person on alternating, part-time schedules. This model only works if students stay home the entire time they are not in school, which is not realistic.
He says that schools will shut down with infection rates of 3 percent and that the citywide average is less than 1 percent, yet neighborhoods like Sunset Park, a mostly immigrant community, have infection rates of 7 percent.
This week, he said outdoor learning would be an option now and that schools had until yesterday to apply for spaces like parks, open streets and roof tops. He released an instructional guidance document that says in-person teachers will focus on in-school lessons, remote teachers on remote learning, and there will be virtual content specialists to facilitate communication between both.
All of his ideas require MONEY. Parent associations have to buy the tents for outdoor learning, which run up to $600. What happens with poor schools, which is the vast majority of schools in NYC? Don’t you need money for additional content specialist?
The Mayor claims the parents are with him and that they need childcare to go back to work. That’s the point of reopening schools — to reopen the economy and not care or who lives or who dies. If this was about childcare, he wouldn’t have parents scrabbling in a hybrid model where they still need to figure out childcare, he wouldn’t only open up 100,000 childcare slots, and school wouldn’t end at 2 pm but offer free, quality enrichment options for families who need it.
He has continuously said that he will not “surrender” and that this is a “game.” Since when is the lives of thousands of people, like the 17,000 people who died because he closed schools too late, a game or a joke? He is at war with the workers in this city and we are fighting back.
Why are UFT members contemplating a strike?
- It’s because folks have felt so disrespected as workers.
- It’s because we’ve all seen the lack of response from the city — with this looming evictions crisis, with 2 million people facing food insecurity in the city, with over 1 million people here who lost their jobs.
- It’s because, with the most segregated public school system in the country, with the highest numbers of homeless students in the country, we are living in the consequences of a capitalist society.
- It’s because austerity cuts and other decisions are made to benefit finance capital.
- It’s because of all of this that folks are ready to strike.
As socialists, it’s our duty to organize because it is clear that the choices are given to the rich. They have options to create pods, to fund private schools. But the poor do not. Right now, in the PSL, our teacher comrades are organizing both in the union, in the MORE caucus, and outside of the union to gather the broadest amount of support to make an impact.
- We are organzing our local school chapters in strike readiness teams, taking on roles such as strike captain and facilitating so that others assume leadership too such as phone tree captain or parent outreach point person
- We are also organizing outside of schools focusing on solidarity with parents and students
- We created flyers translated into multiple languages including Chinese, Spanish, Korean and Arabic
- We are organizing local speak outs in neigborhoods to spread the message that the city’s current school reopening plan will continue to disproportionately affect poor communities
- We designed a poster to put up around the city that includes a QR code for parents to sign up for virtual instruction. De Blasio keeps saying the parents are on his side but the reality is that of the 1 million families, less than 400,000 filled out the survey and 65 percent said they would go remote-only.
We created demands which include:
- Financial relief for all families
- Food and housing security
- Defunding the police
- Fund schools adequately after decades of budget cuts
- No new infections city-wide for 14 days
We draw the line at dying because the city is focused on buildings but people are the ones who carry the virus, people are the ones dying, people are the ones losing their jobs. The Mayor forges ahead and he does not care who lives and who dies because under capitalism we are all replaceable and disposable.
And right now we say we will not risk our lives for profits — not the lives of families, our students, our communities — not one more!