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A True Labor of Love

Why teachers are adopting a more militant politics

Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

Teachers are expected to do their jobs for the love of it.

For years now, that has meant getting by with tattered, aged textbooks, in buildings that are falling apart, and spending their own money on toilet paper, food, hygiene items, and socks for students, even as their own wages fall and their health insurance premiums spike and pensions are carved away.

It has meant, too, that any action by teachers to improve their working conditions—which, they have stressed since the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike, are their students’ learning conditions—is immediately depicted as selfish, uncaring, improper. There is no amount of money that bankers must be happy with, but our culture tells us that workers whose job is not the production of widgets (or toxic financial products) but the care and education of others must accept any sort of misery out of their devotion to their work.

The teacher revolts rippling across the country in the past couple months have seemed out of the blue to many, yet they are only the latest and perhaps unruliest actions taken by educators in the past eight years. What those of us who follow labor closely have been tracking is an ongoing reorientation of teacher unions, away from a myth of professionalism that no longer works when roaches are running over their feet, their students’ bellies are empty, and politicians from both parties are blaming teachers for not being able to be “Superman,” and toward a renewed militancy from the rank-and-file. In doing so, they are turning the myth of the labor of love on its head.

Around the country, reformers have run for office in their unions—most famously in Chicago, with the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) taking power and precipitating the 2012 strike, but also in Seattle, Los Angeles, Portland, St. Paul, New York, Massachusetts, Puerto Rico, and North Carolina, among others. Teachers have refused to administer standardized tests, built coalitions for street protests and to defeat legislation, held sick-outs, and both threatened to and actually gone on strike. They have pushed back on testing, school closings, charter schools, merit pay, insurance and pension cuts, and won reforms including social services, restorative justice initiatives, and increased funding.

What has been happening in so-called Trump Country—West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona, specifically—in recent months is then deeply connected to the shifts that have come before. Indeed, the visuals of red-clad teachers in capitol buildings recall nothing so much as the 2011 capitol occupation in Wisconsin, where teachers alongside other public sector workers camped out, sang, danced, and challenged the austerity agenda that was pushed—ultimately, successfully—by Governor Scott Walker. Act 10, the anti-union law that sparked the occupation, left teachers and other public employees able to bargain only for cost-of-living increases. They have to recertify their unions every single year—and a non-vote counts as a no.

Despite that, Amy Mizialko, a 26-year special education teacher from Milwaukee and vice president of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, noted with some pride that her union continues to overwhelmingly recertify. They fought back against the state legislature’s move to take over Milwaukee public schools, returning to the capitol for more protests in 2016, and succeeding in maintaining local control. “There were people who told us to stand down and walk out of the capitol,” Mizialko said, “but I know this country can see that public school educators are sick and tired and they are sick and tired of the garbage that their students have been given and I think the cat is out of the bag.” Despite the gutting of their union, they have managed to stick together and to bring the community onto their side.

In West Virginia, Mingo County special education teacher Brandon Wolford said it was the insurance changes that started the wave of outrage: “They were trying to make us wear FitBits. If we didn’t get so many steps per day, our premiums were going to increase $25 per month.” But once people were angry and talking to one another, they started to make more demands—for a raise, for seniority protections, against charter schools, and finally for a raise for all of the state’s public employees. “If you can find a really good point to get them started on and you have the solidarity, then you can go for everything,” Wolford said.

Their revolt galvanized teachers across the country and spurred a successful nine-day walkout for Oklahoma teachers, and shorter walkouts and rallies in Kentucky, Arizona, and Colorado. In Puerto Rico, teachers held a one-day strike against the push to privatize the island’s public schools in the wake of Hurricane Maria. There are rumblings in Tennessee and North Carolina, where Guilford County Association of Educators President Todd Warren wrote in an op-ed, “In every one of our 115 N.C. school districts, teacher retention is a priority issue; no one can afford to fire teachers, certainly not teachers advocating for themselves and their students.” And those teachers in many cases have been offered raises and deals—Arizona’s governor has proposed a 20 percent raise by 2020—but they have gone further, demanded more, refused to accept one more mouthful of austerity logic. There is money, they say. And our students deserve nothing less.

When schools that have been cut to the bone and more are being threatened with closure or privatization, teachers have increasingly asked: What do they have to lose by going on strike, even if those strikes are technically against the law? Wolford said, “We basically just say, ‘We know it is the law, but we have got the majority. What are you going to do? We are 48th in the nation. You have got over 700 vacancies. To heck with the law. We are out. Replace us if you can.’”

Before the hurricane, Puerto Rico’s teachers were already fighting austerity from all angles, particularly the PROMESA law that established a “fiscal oversight board” to deal with the island’s hedge fund–induced debt crisis. The Federacion de Maestros de Puerto Rico had already been decertified over a 2008 strike, so calling another one is hardly outside of the realm of possibility. “We are going to propose a strike indefinitely for the time that we have to, until they revoke this law and they guarantee that no charter schools will be implemented, that they stop the school closures,” Mercedes Martinez of the FMPR told me.

After cleaning and repairing their hurricane-thrashed school buildings with their own hands to get them reopened, the Puerto Rico teachers felt the threat of privatization as something beyond a slap in the face. Over and over again, teachers are told that they must go above and beyond for their communities, that they must not only love their work but show it in a thousand grueling ways. Yet more and more often those teachers are succeeding in demonstrating that love by refusing to work under miserable conditions, by insisting that the city, the state, the country can do better, that they and their students deserve more.

“We never stop thinking about our students. It is not an 8 to 4 job. We go to bed thinking about them, we wake up thinking about them, and we spend the summers worrying about them,” Mizialko said. She kept a file cabinet in her classroom with food, lotion, socks, deodorant, for students who were poor or homeless. Her colleague Angela Harris, a Milwaukee kindergarten teacher, did too. On a first-year teacher’s salary, she bought underwear, toothpaste, and even recalled giving money to her students in need. And that bond that she built allowed her to flip the script on state politicians. “When they see me walking in with all the bags, the parents say, ‘Mrs. Harris, what is that for?’ ‘Oh, this is for the classroom.’ ‘Who bought all of that stuff? Did the principal buy that?’ ‘No, I did.’ ‘Oh. That is great, Mrs. Harris. I appreciate you doing that.’ Then, I say, ‘Let me talk to you about how much money I make. Let me talk to you about how many hours I spend in this building unpaid. Let’s have a conversation about that.’”

It is that particular bond with families that politicians seem to have forgotten about. Instead, they counted on passivity from teachers—the large majority of them women—through attack after attack. The same love that they intended to exploit is at the root of teachers’ increasing refusal to be exploited.

“We have no choice but to fight,” Mizialko said. “It is the only choice they gave us.”