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Strikes Work!


The latest teacher strike wave is continuing, mostly notably in Chicago. Teachers in Dedham, Massachusetts just went on strike for 3 days and won most of their demands. I was interviewed for this Boston Globe story about it, placing it in the context of all the strikes nationwide.

With deteriorating conditions in some public schools and stagnant wages for many in the classroom, educators involved in the strikes have said they have no choice. In Dedham and elsewhere, they have framed their position as fighting not just for higher wages for themselves, but also for better education for the students they instruct. One of the most popular rallying cries is that teachers are fighting for the schools that students deserve.

“It’s not just about more money. . . it’s about schools that actually function. It’s about communities that actually function,” said Erik Loomis, a professor of history at the University of Rhode Island and the author of “A History of America in Ten Strikes.”

That argument has resonated widely with parents and students. In Dedham, where the strike affected some 2,700 students, some families joined the teachers on Friday on the picket line and at a Saturday rally.

The primary reason that so many teachers are walking out, scholars say, is because states have slashed public education funding, which has left 94 percent of teachers paying for school supplies out of their own pockets, according to a Department of Education survey. And while the weekly wages of college graduates have generally risen since 1996, the weekly wages of public school teachers have actually decreased in that time period, according to a report from the Economic Policy Institute. About 1 in 6 public school teachers has a second job.

In the agreement in Dedham ratified by the union, teachers won a 10-13 percent wage increase over four years, depending on their level of seniority, said Tim Dwyer, president of the Dedham Education Association. They also won new sexual harassment language and a policy that would restrict cellphones in academic settings, among other provisions. Before the strike, the two sides had met for 21 months to work out an agreement for teachers, nurses, school psychologists, and counselors, but talks stalled in August. The Dedham School Committee plans to vote on the agreement Tuesday night.

If approved, the contract would be retroactive to the 2018-2019 school year. Superintendent Michael Welch said the missed school day from the Friday strike will be added to the end of the academic year.

“No one goes on strike lightly, especially an illegal strike,” Dwyer said. Other unions in Massachusetts and nearby states may be taking note.

“I would find it hard to believe that it would not influence other people, given the success of the last week,” Dwyer said, pointing out that the School Committee had refused to bargain with the union since Aug. 1, but after one day of striking, the school committee “negotiated and came to an agreement.”

Although it is illegal for public school teachers in many states to strike, Loomis said, it’s rare for teachers to be punished, partly because of the reasons they walked out in the first place.

The Dedham strike was believed to be the first strike by Massachusetts public school teachers in 12 years.

While each strike hinges on a set of local conditions, experts said that each serves as an inspiration, and a model, for the next.

“The thing about strikes is that most people don’t really want to do it. It’s scary,” said Loomis, adding that between the mid-1980s and a few years ago, strikes were rare. But seeing others go on strike — and win — makes people less afraid.

Loomis pointed to another prominent strike in the region — the walkout by some 31,000 Stop & Shop workers earlier this year.

“Just within New England, how many of these teachers saw Stop and Shop workers on strike earlier this year? It all kind of builds on each other,” Loomis said.

Dwyer said he and his fellow teachers had been watching the teacher strikes beyond state borders.

“The strikers have made us all proud,” he said, “all around the country.”

It’s a little weird to be seen as an expert on strikes, but I won’t say no to it. And I do very strongly believe that the visibility of strikes is hugely important to giving people courage to take their own workplace actions. In an era when it’s hard for many people to have a lot of hope, this is extremely encouraging.

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