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Striking Denver teachers reach tentative contract agreement

After three days of striking, Denver teachers reached a tentative contract agreement with Denver Public Schools early in the morning on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14. While the agreement must still be voted on by union membership, it represents a major win for the teachers. Every teacher would get a significant raise. Replacing the school district’s opaque and variable bonus-heavy pay structure is a clear schedule of “steps and lanes,” offering predictable salary increases for education and years of experience. This would bring stability to a school district which has been hemorrhaging teachers at a rate of 1 in 5 every year.

The union’s victory crowns 15 months of standoff bargaining which led to a strike, an intense and effervescent three days of picket lines, rallies, and marches. The biggest gathering was held on Day Three of the strike, Feb. 13. Four thousand people met in Civic Center Park for an inspired Valentine’s Day themed party, intended to highlight the love that teachers put into their work every day. Students, parents, community members and teachers danced to music and wrote “Valentines” to DPS superintendent Susana Cordova. The letters were then brought to the district’s office behind a banner reading “DPS: Show us some love”  accompanied by a marching band of music teachers.

Liberation News interviewed one of the organizers of the event, teacher and strike captain Moira Casados Cassidy.

LN: Why did you choose this theme for yesterday’s rally?

MCC: I got the idea because I know how much Valentine’s Day parties mean to some of my colleagues who work in elementary schools and how hard it is to miss a special day like that with your students. I had also seen students bringing Valentines to teachers on the picket line, and I thought that we could use the theme as an opportunity to remind the district that we put so much love into our work and they needed to show us some love in return.

The notion that teaching and other types of feminized labor, like nursing or caretaking, is a “labor of love,”is often used to exploit us. We are expected to work nights and weekends, to spend our own money, to be there to listen and care for students and their families out of the goodness of our hearts, without compensation. Parents and kids know how important that work is. That is why they have been out on the pickets and with us at our rallies.

But teaching is not a hobby. We are workers, and we deserve to be fairly compensated for the work that we do. Our work is valuable. “Honk if you can read this” is a funny sign, but it’s true. Teachers are providing people with essential skills they need to live their lives. We’re helping to raise the next generation.

Denver teachers wanted to turn that notion on its head. The love we have for our students and our work is a strength, not a vulnerability. That feeling of trust and unity between teachers, students and our community is what ultimately won this strike.

LN: What were some of the highlights from the rally for you?

MCC: The district had been saying we wouldn’t make it past day two. The honest truth is that many of us were tired and sore. We had been chanting three days in freezing temperatures and walking picket lines for hours. We were piecing together a plan on the fly. But all of a sudden an army of talented people showed up and made the rally happen. With almost no instructions, an amazing group of art teachers built a photo booth, created hundreds of Valentine templates, made a beautiful banner. Band teachers from different schools formed an impromptu marching band and learned a couple of songs. Marshals staffed their stations. The emcees moved the crowd. Everyone involved was just a teacher who rose to the occasion.

This was such a lesson in how competent we are. When we are unified on a goal, regular people, even when they are tired, can move mountains. We surprised ourselves and sent a really strong message to the district that they had underestimated our power.

LN: Why do you think the union was able to win this agreement?

MCC: When I went back into work today, I noticed a copy of the union’s original proposal from 15 months ago which we had tacked up in the teachers’ lounge. Last spring, that proposal seemed too good to be true. But here we are, 15 months later, and today’s agreement looks a lot like that. All of us are getting a significant raise.

The first six months of bargaining, the district wouldn’t even engage with us. They stonewalled and brought us nothing. It wasn’t until the threat of the strike became real that we saw any movement from them. We won in spite of a hostile school board — five out of seven are hostile to the teachers’ union. We won in spite of a superintendent who is firmly wedded to neoliberal school reforms (literally wedded, too — her husband made his career financing charter schools!)

We have so much power as workers when we stop working. After 15 months of virtually no progress, we ended it in three days. They tried to villainize us for walking out on our students. But the public didn’t buy it. They know our life’s work is loving and nurturing kids. Our students are our life’s work, and we wouldn’t do this if it wasn’t right for them.

Students walked out in support of their teachers in every neighborhood of the city — spontaneously. They organized themselves. We had parents and community members feeding us on the picket lines every day. We had other unions letting us use their offices, defending us from hecklers, side by side with us in our marches and rallies. The Teamsters brought their big truck. Every city worker, every postal worker that passed us on the picket line honked. It really kept our spirits up and it gave us the material support we needed to make it through each day of the strike.

LN: What are the struggles ahead for Denver teachers and for the union?

MCC: The fight against ProComp is only one part of a larger school reform agenda that we want to take on. Looking forward to the master contract expiring in 2022, we want to zero in on the fight for comprehensive neighborhood schools, to stop the privatization and break-up of neighborhood schools. We want to address our students’ learning conditions, which includes class sizes, wraparound services, services for students with disabilities and English learners. Denver has also created a huge amount of administrative overhead to manage their testing and school rankings and teacher evaluation.

All of these initiatives are linked and designed to work together. Until ths negotiation, teachers would receive bonuses based on DPS’ rankings of their schools, which were largely based on test scores, but are also designed to be preferential to charters. Denver’s school reform policies have worsened gentrification, have limited educational opportunities for working class kids of color, students with disabilities and English learners.

We need to build on the unity that we have now with our community and push forward to advocate for our most vulnerable students and take back our schools from corporate reformers. We were really inspired by the way that teachers in L.A., and before that, teachers in Chicago, built up progressive power in their unions to be able to fight for big changes.

The interests on the other side — the Gates Foundation, the Walton Foundation, or A+ Colorado locally — are very organized. We’re up against powerful interests. None of our politicians are helping us. Our best bet for countering that power is an organized movement. The teachers’ union is part of that movement.

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