It’s been an important couple of years for labor strikes.
The Labor Department reported in February that in 2018, the largest number striking workers were involved in labor disputes since 1986; over 400,000. Among related major incidents in 2019 —from this past spring’s New England Shop & Stop strike to this month’s United Auto Workers battle for better pay for temps and new hires— public school teachers inarguably occupied an immense presence.
In West Virginia, public school teachers staged a walkout to demand a pay raise, and then went on strike again when the state legislature honored their demands but reneged on an initial promise with cuts in favor of charter schools. In Oklahoma, teachers stormed the state capitol when lawmakers skimped on funding for supplies and extra-curricular needs. Each time, tens of thousands of teachers were involved. Kentucky, North Carolina, Arizona, and Los Angeles teachers followed suit, all under similar circumstances: inadequate pay, cuts to funding, and deference to charter schools.
The most recent of these, the Chicago Teachers Union strike, kicked off earlier this year, with nearly 25,000 teachers overwhelmingly voting to do so. After 11 days of striking, the CTU went back to classes largely victorious : they negotiated at least one nurse and social worker for every school, a pay raises for faculty, and over $35 million in additional funding. But in addition to better pay, smaller classroom sizes, and more school nurses and social workers, the CTU has much larger problems in their sights, seemingly unrelated to their immediate concerns. The closure of nearly 50 public schools during Rahm Emanuel’s mayoral administration to alleviate a climbing deficit had a disastrous effect on students’ academic performance and teachers alike. Nearly $2 billion in tax increment finance “slush funds” have gone to luxury developers instead of the low-income neighborhoods they were designed for.
Meanwhile, the Chicago Housing Authority has demolished thousands of public housing units since the early 2000’s, and collects money on vacant apartments while evicting residents. Current Mayor Lori Lightfoot, who told the CTU there was “no more money,” to meet their requests, greenlit a $1.6 billion subsidy to a private developer in April.
As such, the CTU has made housing and urban community needs a part of their contract demands with Chicago Public Schools: the creation of programs to help teachers purchase new homes, ensuring that TIF funds are used for the appropriate services, and a commitment to advocate for rent control.
In Connecticut, familiar trends aren’t hard to recognize. Recently, public schools in places like Bridgeport and New Haven have faced declining graduation rates, deteriorating buildings, and are still starving for funding despite the money already spent on them. As The New York Times reported last year, money from property taxes in property-poor cities used for schools simply isn’t enough to fully meet the direst needs, (while the high tax rates are an additional burden on residents already encumbered by economic inequality). These schools disproportionately teach black and Latino students; wealth disparities among Connecticut school districts effectively segregates them racially, too.
The Lamont administration has forged a partnership with billionaire hedge fund manager Ray Dalio aimed at the creation of a 5-year, $300 million plan to address education inequality in underprivileged Connecticut high schools, and to “promote greater economic opportunity,” (reception hasn’t been overwhelmingly warm, and the lack of transparency the venture has demonstrated so far should raise eyebrows).
But as activists have pointed out, Dalio’s multi-billion-dollar hedge fund, Bridgewater Associates, received millions in taxpayer subsidies in 2015 and 2016, and enjoys special low-tax privileges thanks to a “carried interest loophole,” saving it even more.
There seem to be plenty of reasons why funding can’t be given to the schools who need it the most in Connecticut or Chicago, when it’s not really the shortage of money itself that is the problem. Rather, it’s how the money is being managed and who is managing it. It’s clear that, in both cases, wealthy private interests are given the upper hand, while public services are expected to jump through an insulting number of hoops for meager rewards.
These problems —the housing crisis and education are only a few— all intersect. Teacher strikes keep happening because the economic climate that animates them hasn’t gone away, and it won’t, necessitating broader, increasingly militant approaches like those that teachers across America have resorted to over the past year.
Mass movements are the means through which government and the wealthy are held accountable. Cynical pivots to philanthropy aren’t.
Joseph Oliveri is Assistant Editor of The Echo, Western Connecticut State University’s student-run newspaper.