Strikes are at the heart of the resistance to US president Donald Trump’s warped vision of society.
What makes this all the more remarkable is that working class struggle in the US has been on a downward trajectory for years. Defeats and sellouts have dogged the trade union movement.
Now striking teachers are at the vanguard of a wave of walkouts.
In 2018 teachers across traditionally Republican-voting states struck and protested for demands including pay. The spirit of rebellion carries on, but the battlefield is changing.
In Los Angeles (LA) 33,000 striking teachers have scored a victory over pay, and conditions for students. They have also challenged the agenda of privatisation fanatics with deep links to the Democratic Party
It blows a hole in the argument put forward by the Democrats that the resistance to Trump should be subsumed into electoral campaigning.
Striking teacher Nicolle Fefferman told Socialist Worker, “The strike has educated people about the choices made by Democratic leaders, about how some have pushed privatisation.”
And Paloma Pressnall, whose children go to an LA state school, said, “The strike has increased awareness about the privatisation of education.”
LA is at the forefront of a national drive to privatise public education.
Charter schools are a part of that drive—they remove schools from democratic control and are subject to fewer regulations. They can also be run for a profit.
Netflix founder, Democrat financial backer and charter school zealot Reed Hastings loves them because “they don’t have an elected school board.”
The fight against privatisation in education is far from over. Both the Republican and Democrat party leaderships will come back for more. But education workers in LA and across the US have shown how to resist.
Nicolle argued that the strike was a stage in the fight against privatisation. “It’s going to be a battle, but I feel way more determined to go out and talk to folk now” she said. “There’s a tonne of educating to do about what can happen if privatisation is allowed to succeed in education.
“The strike has cracked open this conversation and brought it to thousands of people. Now it’s a debate that is happening in the classroom—my students are asking me about the different kinds of charter schools and what we can do about them.”
The support of wider layers of people, particularly parents and students, during the strike was crucial. “It can’t be underestimated,” said Nicolle. “We had over 500,000 kids out of school for over a week.
“When we voted to go on strike we never imagined the whole city was going to shut down.” A staggering 80 percent of LA residents supported the strike, according to one poll.
“The entire city supported the strike,” said Paloma. “The city government opened parks and recreational facilities. They even laid on extra staff so that admission could be free between 8am and 4pm.
“Museums in town made admission free and provided extra educational materials.”
She added, “Although schools remained open, parents kept their children out.
“At my children’s school only 15 percent of students came to school, and many of those who sent their kids in supported the strike but couldn’t find childcare.”
Paloma described how parents “helped each other out”. “We juggled childcare and reached out to parents who couldn’t afford to miss work,” she said.
That support was mobilised through the highly political demands of the strike. “There was a pretty broad understanding that the strike was about more than just an increase in salary,” said Paloma.
Nicolle added, “I teach students in high school. There are over 40 students in almost every class—it’s a violation of their civil rights.
“The district wanted to put numbers up to 50 students in a class.”
Students raised demands themselves, which teachers then took up. LA is one of only three school districts in the US that carries out random searches on students.
These disproportionately target students from ethnic minorities.
Students got teachers to add stopping these searches to their demands—which won.
And students took action themselves. They protested outside meetings of the school board to demand schools superintendent Austin Beutner come out and negotiate with them directly.
The struggle is spreading from LA. Thousands of teachers in Virginia struck over funding for state schools on Monday. And teachers in Oakland, California, are in the process of balloting for strikes. Their demands are similar to those raised in LA—including a pay rise and limits on class sizes.
There are 3,000 teachers in the Oakland Educators Association.They have already staged unofficial “sickouts”—when people call in sick—including one on 17 January which saw hundreds of teachers take part.
And teachers in Denver, Colorado are also joining the fight. Last week members of the almost 6,000-strong Denver Classroom Teachers Association vote for strikes over bonuses by 93 percent.
It shows the potential of the US working class to resist Trump through its own strength, not rely on the Democrats.
Winning despite their leaders
Rank and file teachers were up against both the bosses’ and union leaders’ games.
It took 20 months for the UTLA union to move through seemingly infinite rounds of talks—despite having a 98 percent mandate for strikes.
It called for strikes to begin on 10 January, only to postpone them until the 14 January.
And, after the UTLA had negotiated a deal, it gave strikers just three hours to read the 40-page agreement. In this time they also had to travel back to their schools, giving them hardly any time to read or debate the new contract.
Yet despite union leaders’ manoeuvres, strikers won many of their demands, including more children’s counsellors in schools. Bosses were forced to bring the ratio down closer to one counsellor for every 500 students.
Currently there is one counsellor for between 690 and 890 students.
Nicolle pointed out that a key part of the deal was the elimination of clause 1.5. This clause means that any commitments taken by school management over class sizes can be reneged upon.
Nicolle stressed how important this was because “at the last minute superintendent Beutner had tried to subvert the agreement”. While commitments to reduce class sizes are small now—just two fewer students for each class—bosses won’t be able to wriggle out of future agreements easily.
But many teachers want more.
The deal included a 6 percent pay rise and a number of commitments over class sizes and support workers.
Anne Scatolini described it as “just a partial return of the interest free loan teachers gave the district to remain solvent during ‘tough times’.” She was referring to pay freezes and real terms pay cuts teachers endured after the banking crash in 2008.
Despite the shortcoming the LA teachers have won the most of all the US teachers’ strikes—and showed workers’ power to take on the bosses.