Teachers in Oklahoma, Kentucky, and now Arizona are building on the actions by their West Virginia comrades and walking off the job to protest their terrible pay and benefits, but really are protesting decades of being underpaid, overworked, and seen as easy marks for attacks from Republicans.
Public schools closed in at least 25 Kentucky counties on Friday as teachers staged a quasi-strike after legislation was passed that would overhaul the state pension system.
Kentucky teachers called in sick or absent to protest the legislation, which passed mostly along party lines on Thursday night. The closures affected schools across the state, including in its two largest school districts: Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville and Fayette County Public Schools in Lexington. More than one-third of all school employees in Lexington called out of work, the Fayette County school district said.
Kentucky’s public pension system is among the worst funded in the nation. Gov. Matt Bevin (R) has prioritized reforming it since he was elected in 2015, and Republicans have taken up the issue since gaining control of both houses of the state legislature in 2016.
Teachers and public employees have fought the proposed changes, which have included transitioning new hires into a “hybrid” system that more closely resembles a 401(k). They argue that such changes would lead to steep cuts to their retirement systems and could violate their contracts with the state.
Educators have spent weeks protesting the proposed pension plans, and appeared to have derailed any potential reform earlier this week as Kentucky’s 2018 legislative session drew to a close.
But on Thursday afternoon, Republicans tucked many of their proposed changes into a piece of legislation relating to public sewage. And after mere hours of debate, both state legislative chambers approved the bill in late-night votes, with the state Senate voting around 10 p.m. to send the bill to Bevin’s desk.
The 291-page bill dropped some reform proposals that had drawn the most opposition, such as cuts to annual cost-of-living raises for teachers and a Bevin-backed provision that would have increased the amount teachers have to pay into their health insurance funds.
Still, it included major changes to the system. If the bill becomes law, for example, it will take longer for new teachers to gain eligibility for retirement benefits. And the bill would end a contractual obligation that prohibits lawmakers from changing pension plans or reducing retirement benefits for any teacher already under contract, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader.
On Easter morning, at the nearby Baptist church, Kenita Self closed her eyes and bowed her head in prayer.
The teacher prayed for her third-grade students, who face a high-stakes reading test this year that will determine whether they advance to fourth grade. She prayed for their futures. And she prayed that she was doing the right thing by not showing up Monday morning, instead joining thousands of teachers at the state Capitol to protest the deep cuts to education.
Leaving behind their classrooms, educators are set to travel from the far reaches of the state on chartered school buses and in caravans of cars, hoping to press lawmakers into restoring education funding.
“I know it’s the right thing to do,” Self said, standing in the kitchen of a colleague who hosted an arts-and-crafts sign-making party.
Oklahoma’s schools and educators have endured some of the steepest cuts in education in the last decade, reductions that are evident in dwindling supplies, aging textbooks and the pay stubs of teachers. Before last week, state lawmakers have not raised the minimum salary for teachers in a decade, making them among the worst paid in the nation.
The cuts in Oklahoma also had dire consequences for schools. Districts have not been able to maintain buildings, so students shiver through the winter in classrooms with faulty heating, share long-outdated textbooks and become accustomed to a rotating cast of teachers. Many school districts have moved to four-day school weeks because they cannot afford to keep the lights on for five days.
Arizona teachers, among the lowest paid in the country, are threatening to strike if state lawmakers do not raise their salaries and restore dramatic funding cuts that schools have endured.
Teachers, who organized a grassroots campaign on social media, are demanding a 20 percent raise and restoration of school funding to 2008 levels, before the Great Recession struck, according to the Arizona Republic. They are also asking state lawmakers to stop cutting taxes until Arizona’s per-student spending reaches the national average.
“Governor Ducey, legislature, the last thing that any of us want to do is go on strike, but if we have to, we will,” teacher Dylan Wegela, an organizer of the movement, told protesters Wednesday at a rally outside the state house.
As others have noted, part of the reason for public sector unions was to regulate labor and prevent things such as mass walkouts by creating contracts that bound workers to a legal system while giving them a decent life. You take that away, as all the right-to-work laws have done and now Janus is going to do and you also take away what restricts workers from doing whatever they want.
I doubt that the current Court remembers that collective bargaining for teachers, and the ABOOD precedent, come to be because labor unrest among teachers needed to be addressed, not because of “liberalism.” #Janus https://t.co/skf8DpPeVN
— Prof. Garrett Epps (@Profepps) April 2, 2018
Unlikely this influences John Roberts or Neil Gorsuch. After all, there is the solid unshakable constitutional principle of “fuck unions and fuck the Democratic Party” that binds the 5 conservative justices together. That will make the future of public sector labor actions very interesting.