Analysis

Lessons from a labor leader: Denver teacher strike of 2019

Denver teachers on strike. Photo: [email protected]

This article was originally given as a talk on the PSL’s May 7 webinar entitled “The Fight for Public Education in the New Era of Class Struggle.” Tune into the PSL’s weekly webinars Thursdays at 7 p.m. on www.facebook.com/pslweb

My name is Moira Casados Cassidy. I’m an organizer with the Party for Socialism and Liberation and a high school teacher and union activist in Denver, Colorado.

Public education in the United States has been under attack for decades, and during the last economic recession, budget deficits were used to justify devastating cuts to public education across the country. In Colorado, the majority of schools switched to a 4-day school week. In Denver, half of teachers are driven to quit within their first five years, resulting in an extreme turnover rate. Of course, teachers’ working conditions are students’ learning conditions, and these cuts hit working class and oppressed students the hardest.

The policies that created these conditions were promoted by Democrats and Republicans alike. Denver, a city controlled by Democrats, pushed to privatize public education and made students into guinea pigs for anti-union, privatization reform. This approach, championed by the neoliberal dream team of the Obama administration, the Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, tore apart traditional community schools and teachers unions in favor of charter schools and “innovation” schools.

Many schools in Denver closed, and students were forced to enroll in newer, privately run, experimental schools, with multiple charters often co-located in the same school building where a traditional neighborhood school had been. Patterns of racial segregation across the city were exacerbated. In many of these new schools, teachers weren’t represented by a union.

In less than a decade, Denver went from having 17 comprehensive neighborhood high schools (with orchestras and football teams and career teachers) to having only three. The district’s administrative costs ballooned as teaching salaries stagnated and school funding decreased.

When I began teaching in Denver in the fall of 2017, my union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, was in the middle of negotiations with the school district over our master contract. My coworkers and I sat in the negotiations, held in middle school gyms until late at night, watching as our union’s negotiators accepted concession after concession from the district.

After a week of feeble back and forth, we were still facing huge class sizes, astronomical insurance premiums, and draconian performance rankings based on high-stakes testing. When the tentative agreement was passed across the table for our review, a spontaneous chant of “strike, strike, strike” broke out, then died, going nowhere.

We had union representation, which of course is much better than no union at all, but we had no rank-and-file organization. We were ineffective against the army of lawyers, lobbyists and accountants paid for and deployed against us by the school district.

But Denver was not alone in this struggle. The attacks on public education were playing out across the country, with that same template of low pay, high turnover, and disregard for the needs of teachers and students. As teachers were wiping noses, working 2 jobs and getting micromanaged by corporate consultants, our will to fight back was bubbling up under the surface.

In West Virginia, a state where public workers have no right to strike, a Facebook group calling for a wildcat strike grew to 73,000 members in only four days. West Virginia teachers shut down schools in all 55 counties across the state and forced a rightwing government to walk back damaging cuts and raise salaries in 2018.

We followed the strike closely in Denver, updating each other in the staff office every morning. The success of that West Virginia strike created a domino effect, emboldening teachers hundreds of miles away to stand up against their own poor working conditions. Strikes took off in Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona later that year, sending a message that education workers had reached their breaking point.

It is worth noting that this fightback emerged in states that are typically considered conservative or inhospitable to labor activity–West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona. It wasn’t the ease of organizing which drove this movement. It was the severity of the conditions. It is also noteworthy that while workers in many sectors of the economy have experienced shrinking wages, poor working conditions and rising healthcare costs, it was K-12 teachers –77 percent of whom are women, whose work has been devalued and demeaned because of its association with caring for children–who rose up.

The strike wave was a lesson to us not to underestimate the power of workers organizing ourselves and taking initiative, even when our union’s leadership is flat-footed or conservative in pushing for limited demands.

When our next contract negotiation came up in the fall of 2018, Denver teachers were ready. The school district was refusing to budge, doubling down on a failed salary structure which pitted schools and teachers against each other for minimal bonus pay based on test scores. This pay structure was driving turnover and making it impossible for us to afford to live in the city where we work.

So in February 2019 we voted to strike, which was a giant leap of faith. We didn’t have a strike fund, or even a union representative in every building. Most of us had never participated in a strike. But in one night we were able to find a strike captain for each of Denver’s 200+ schools. The night before we were set to strike, the strike captains gathered at our union hall and did a last minute training on how to walk a picket line.

Every day that the strike went on, we were told the next day might be the day the line would break, and masses of teachers would go back to work. The last strike was in 1992, and without any real institutional memory of how to pull it off, the district expected us to fail. Those low expectations were shattered by the creative energy of working people.

A small group of young teachers with no formal roles in union leadership jumped into the organizing, working late into the night every night to plan actions, write and translate press releases, contact speakers and plan march routes. Anyone who knows a teacher knows that we are resourceful, and the picket lines were packed with hand-written placards, as well as hundreds of placards donated by the PSL.

Before I became an organizer with the PSL, I would have been terrified to talk in front of the whole staff of my school or yell on a bullhorn. My experience as a PSL organizer gave me the confidence and skills to help plan a strike action that thousands of people attended.

On February 14, 2019, Denver Public Schools issued a tentative agreement guaranteeing big raises and an end to performance pay. In three days of striking, we were able to undo the damage of a decade of austerity and school reform policies.

Of course, no victory is permanent. Just over a year later we are facing down COVID-related budget cuts that threaten to erase the gains we made in the strike. But what cannot be erased is the fundamental shift in consciousness that came about from our strike. In the middle of the Colorado winter, on a bitterly cold day, our students streamed out of the building to join us on the picket lines. The teamsters and postal workers marched beside us, helping to anchor our sometimes-shaky pickets. A multinational, working class city stood up for our children. We yelled, danced, and played drums.

People who were not considered fighters, like women and care workers, became aware of our power and seized it. Looking back on the impact of these strikes on my own life, on the lives of my coworkers, students and neighbors, I know that workers like us have the power to defeat capitalism, and that when we organize and fight, we win.

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