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The Next Teacher Strike Wave: COVID Edition

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The American Federation of Teachers has given its teachers permission to strike for their safety this fall.

The head of a powerful national teachers union told members Tuesday that its leadership would support “safety strikes” if health precautions are not met amid calls for schools to reopen as coronavirus cases surge.

Randi Weingarten, who leads the American Federation of Teachers, is leaving the final decision to local unions on whether to strike. The AFT — the nation’s second-largest teachers union, with 1.7 million members — also unveiled several benchmarks that it said should be met before schools can fully welcome back students and staff.

“We will fight on all fronts for the safety of our students and their educators,” Weingarten said in remarks delivered at the union’s biennial convention, conducted online due to the pandemic.

“But if authorities don’t protect the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve … nothing is off the table,” she warned. “Not advocacy or protests, negotiations, grievances or lawsuits, or, if necessary and authorized by a local union, as a last resort, safety strikes.”

The 2018 strike wave (and to some extent 2019) was tremendously effective, really one of the most successful set of strikes in my lifetime. The fundamental reason was pretty basic: the strikes were about the future of schools and the education of the kids as they were about wages and pensions. After decades of attacks on public schools, both children and teachers are suffering. When parents saw their kids’ teachers pulling second shifts at Walmart or driving for Uber, they knew that was not a good thing. They’d rather those teachers be sleeping or preparing for class. Teachers may be targeted by conservatives, but for everyday people, it’s still an occupation of respect. Some of those strikes may have been illegal, but who was going to bust a strike by agreeing to move to West Virginia to teach in an underfunded school for $35,000 a year? No one.

A strike wave of COVID safety absolutely builds on that. With teachers scared and parents scared and the Republican Party indifferent to human life, this would be another set of strikes that was about the community as much as the teachers themselves. This kind of community unionism is a solid ticket for any unions looking to demonstrate power. That it is going to be about keeping everyone alive and healthy is only going to give it that much more oomph.

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