PITTSBURGH—There is nothing radical about room 301 of the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. It’s the kind of B-grade utility room usually reserved for capitalism’s dullest rituals: trade show breakout meetings, employee trainings, and low-budget corporate banquets. But last Saturday night, it was filled with 100 of America’s most radical union teachers. They were there to talk about strikes.
Alex Caputo-Pearl, president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA), stood at the microphone. Caputo-Pearl leads 35,000 unionized public school teachers and has been negotiating with the Los Angeles Unified School District for 14 months with no deal in sight. After acknowledging the recent teacher strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona, he made it very clear that his workforce, which teaches over 600,000 kids every year, is on the verge of walking out this fall.
“They’re coming big against us, and it’s not just Janus,” Caputo-Pearl said, referring to the recent Supreme Court ruling that dealt a crippling blow to public sector unions by making it much more difficult for them to retain members and collect dues. “They’re trying to privatize entire systems. They’re trying to gentrify entire cities. Their program is huge. So our response has to be big.”
And it has been so far: In the face of a 278% increase in charter school enrollment since 2006 and per-pupil spending that puts California 46th out of 50 states, the UTLA has responded with demands that go beyond teacher pay, including immigrants’ rights, increased affordable housing in Los Angeles, a stop to random student searches, and more access to green space for students.
The union has already provided a preview of what a strike would look like. On May 24, 12,000 teachers, parents, students, and activists rallied at Los Angeles City Hall to demand a fair contract; things have only escalated since.
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“We will not limit ourselves only to traditional bargaining issues,” Caputo-Pearl said. “Yes, we’re talking about wages. Yes we want our healthcare. But we also want regulation on privatization in our contract. We’re talking about on standardized testing and limits on that, we’re talking about class size, staffing. We’re talking about a whole set of issues that have been developed with the community and taken to the table.”
The room erupted in applause.
The meeting was part of the national convention of the American Federation of Teachers, the country’s second-largest education union, which is comprised of 1.7 million members. Nearly 2,400 delegates from 404 locals spent four days in downtown Pittsburgh wrestling with how to continue labor’s fight against the prevailing right wing, pro-boss ideology that has been eviscerating private and public unions for more than 30 years. After enduring years of funding cuts and larger class sizes alongside the rise of charter schools—and with school voucher evangelist Betsy Devos as Secretary of Education and the renewed threat posed by Janus—the teachers are mad as hell.
They’re pissed off about Donald Trump, Neil Gorsuch, the NRA, and Mitch McConnell. They’re riled up about ICE, the Koch Brothers, private lenders, and private insurance companies.
Some are even more acutely angry with Democrats. Throughout the convention, I met dozens of AFT members upset with union leadership’s close ties to the Democratic establishment and reticence to embrace the grassroots left. In both public statements on the convention floor and private interviews, union reps admonished the AFT for endorsing Hillary Clinton seven months before the 2016 Iowa caucus and not pressing past Democratic candidates to embrace progressive policy goals like universal healthcare, universal childcare, free public tuition, and rigorous wealth redistribution.
“AFT hasn’t valued far-left progressive values the way a number of folks would like to see it,” Nick Faber, an elementary science teacher and president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, told Splinter. “Rank and file members in some of these larger unions are saying: ‘This is not moving fast enough.’ We’re pushing our national union on supporting staunch left wing candidates.”
Other AFT members at the convention criticized the national leadership, along with the National Education Association, the nation’s largest labor union, for lagging behind local organizers of the red state strikes this past spring. When West Virginia governor Jim Justice offered teachers a paltry concession in hopes of quickly ending the strike in February, the leadership of AFT and other local unions took the deal and called the strike off. Hours later, furious teachers across the state met and refused to return to work. The rank and file took over, launching a wildcat strike and carrying on the state’s tradition of militant workers pushing past their own union’s demands. Suddenly AFT was forced to play catch-up, as educators remained on picket lines for five additional days, ultimately winning a better deal on healthcare and public worker pay.
One month later, during the Oklahoma walkout, the unions, led by the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), sputtered again. In March, the OEA threatened to strike if their demand for more than $600 million in increased funding for education wasn’t met. The state’s Republican supermajority government countered with $475 million in pay raises and classroom funds. Outraged, the unions led teachers on a nine-day strike—only to later accept the same deal they had called unacceptable. The AFT, which has a minority presence in Oklahoma, again declared victory. Teachers, meanwhile, were furious. That week, Oklahoma City AFT President Ed Allen admitted to NPR that he was caught between fending off attacks from both lawmakers and his rank and file.
Lois Weiner, a former teacher who now works directly with striking teachers and consults unions around the country, worked with strike organizers in West Virginia, Arizona, and Oklahoma, and cautions organizers about how to deal with their national union.
“The advice I gave everyone is the union is going to betray you. If [AFT] had been doing their job, you wouldn’t be doing this right now, and they’re going to take away control,” she told Splinter.
Aside from Caputo-Pearl, teachers from Boston, San Francisco, Chicago (home to its own enormous teacher strike in 2012), and Philadelphia asserted in convention speeches that AFT’s leadership must threaten and carry out strikes with renewed militancy, pushing the action into both red states and blue ones run by corporate Democrats.
AFT might just be hearing them. A resolution sponsored by radical, pro-strike locals that called on candidates endorsed by AFT to embrace Medicare for All, universal free child care, free public tuition, double per-student spending in grades K–12, and unabashedly raise taxes on the rich passed unanimously Sunday afternoon. That platform is already pissing off the right people: On Tuesday, West Virginia Senate President Mitch Carmichael—one of the top enemies of the state’s teacher strike—tried to denounce AFT’s “Obama styled socialist agenda.”
The convention was also anchored by speeches from both rising and established stars of the progressive movement: Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Paul Ryan challenger Randy “Iron Stache” Bryce. (Hillary Clinton addressed the convention on opening day.)
In a conversation with Splinter, AFT president Randi Weingarten acknowledged the need for more a more radical approach. When asked if AFT will break with tradition and ardently criticize Democrats, Weingarten pointed to the likely UTLA strike.
“The Democrats in LA who have control of that school board, we believe they’re wrong,” Weingarten said. “Alex [Caputo-Pearl] will call them ‘corporate Democrats.’ Regardless of what you call them, they are wrong because they’re against the investment in public education and are trying to crush the union.”
Weingarten also conceded that AFT and other large unions had been slow to support this year’s red state strikes, but refuted the suggestion that AFT was an obstacle to its rank and file.
“For a strike to be successful, it is always the rank and file that have to feel it,” she also said, crediting AFT national for bringing other unions in to coordinate action when the situation in West Virginia “turned more militant.”
With deep concerns over Janus, DeVos’ handling of the Department of Education, questions about the efficacy of past strikes, and the apparent imminence of the Los Angeles strike (along with another possible fall walkout in Louisiana), union staff and teachers in Pittsburgh were also largely looking forward to the 2020 presidential race as a chance to stem some of the bleeding. And in the not-too-distant Democratic primary, two frontrunner teacher’s pets have emerged: “undecided” and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.
“Sanders’ economic program is the economic program of labor. Sanders is labor’s candidate. There’s no excuse for the AFT not to support Sanders’ platform. Single payer, housing, everything,” Weiner, the former teacher and union consultant, said. “Sanders inspired activism. He politicized a generation, and many of those people are going into teaching. They’re idealistic, they’re looking for work.”
As the strike panel in room 301 began to break up, Weiner drew a direct connection between strikes and Sanders’ progressive movement. “Every time there’s a walkout, it draws young teachers who were never interested in union activity to the unions. They say ‘Wow, I should be doing something in the union.’ The walkouts have made teacher union work a credible activity for the young people who were politicized and radicalized by the Sanders campaign.”
On the same afternoon AFT passed its resolution to make more progressive policy demands of candidates, I posed the 2020 question to two union members on different sides of the strike issue. Jackie Lansdale, a former history teacher from Shreveport, LA, hasn’t pick a favorite yet.
“I’d like to hear Kamala speak. I’d like to hear Gillibrand,” she said. “There are some other voices out there that I’d like to hear before I make that determination. But I just want a candidate that can win.”
Beside her sat Sam Brunett, a 53-year-old art teacher from Morgantown, WV. Brunett wore a bright red shirt screen printed with #55united, a reference to how teachers shut down schools in the state’s 55 counties during the strike. He happily recalled supporting Sanders in 2016, and told Splinter he looks forward to supporting him again.
“Bernie was the most progressive voice that I heard and a movement I’ve been waiting for for a long time,” Brunett said. “And when I heard Elizabeth Warren speak in there, a former teacher, I was also impressed. I don’t see anything wrong with a Sanders-Warren ticket, that’d be kind of cool!” (Sanders remains the country’s most popular politician, with an approval rating 15 points above that of Donald Trump.)
On the last day of the convention, I got a call from Juan Ramirez, a 56-year-old elementary school teachers in Los Angeles. I only had one real question: Did he have faith that AFT—or any union that big, that old, that entrenched, that wealthy, and that powerful—would support his union brothers and sisters if they walked off the job a few weeks after Labor Day? Juan sighed, and started out shaky: “I really hope that they will, but that’s not going to change what we’re doing.
“We really believe that the one way for teachers and educators to win a fight is to fight for respect,” he continued. It’s not just a salary raise, it’s respect, and sometimes respect won’t come until you get mad and say ‘Enough!’”
Scott Heins is a photojournalist and reporter based in New York City.