Seattle teachers and staff have authorized a strike unless negotiations with Seattle Public Schools don’t result in a tentative contract by the first day of school, September 5. Our vote to strike is part of a unified labor action across Washington to protest the lack of adequate and equitable funding for schools and teachers in this state.
Seattle teachers are hardly alone in the struggle for fair working conditions for educators and better learning conditions for students. The wave of teacher walkouts and protests that swept through West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and other states this spring brought to the fore the need for teachers to receive competitive pay raises and improved learning resources and smaller class sizes.
To prepare for what we are likely to face in our struggle for a just contract, Seattle educators recently organized a panel that included a representative from a community of educators that’s been hit hardest by financial austerity and the privatization movement: Mercedes Martinez, president of the Puerto Rico Federation of Teachers.
These teachers have been leading courageous struggles not only for their own pay, but to defend public education and create the schools Puerto Rican students deserve.
Their fight has escalated since the devastation of Hurricane Maria brought disaster capitalists flocking to the island in an effort to profit off the island’s vulnerability.
In the aftermath of the hurricane, Julia Keleher, Puerto Rico’s secretary of education, echoed former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s comment that Hurricane Katrina was the best thing that ever happened to New Orleans schools. She called New Orleans a “point of reference” for the reorganization of schools in Puerto Rico into charter schools, and an “opportunity” to remake education according to a vision of outsiders.
Using what Naomi Klein calls the “shock doctrine” playbook for privatizing and profiting off of the misery of communities in trauma, Keleher and other profiteers have put their plan for mass school closures and charterization into high gear.
Teachers and communities are organized and fighting back. On May Day this year, Puerto Rican teachers, parents, and students launched strikes and boycotts to push back against austerity measures that would close nearly 300 schools, lay off 7,000 teachers, convert public schools into privatized charters, and cut public sector pensions. These protesters faced brutal repression from a militarized police force that shot students and teachers with rubber bullets and sprayed them with mace.
More recently, the Puerto Rico Federation of Teachers led a one-day strike that ended with an important wage increase.
At our panel, Martinez shared these words of solidarity and explained the recent battles for education justice that she has helped lead in Puerto Rico.
Mercedes Martínez, President of the Teachers Federation of Puerto Rico:
Good evening Seattle educators, union brothers and sisters. It’s an honor for me to write these words on behalf of the Teacher’s Federation of Puerto Rico, and be with you in spirit tonight. The fight for a fair contract is part of the fight for education justice. Demanding lower classroom sizes, proper funding, health and security measurements, will benefit directly all the children and youth teachers impact.
The demand of a much-needed salary increase will do justice to Washington teachers who earn over $22,000 less compared to the salary of college graduates in other professions, the seventh worst pay gap in the nation. That is just wrong!
In 2008, after twenty-six months trying to negotiate a fair contract of teachers in Puerto Rico, and the Secretary of Education denying to negotiate in good faith, the Puerto Rico Federation of Teachers decided after going to a General Assembly of approximately 8,000 members to go on strike. The strike lasted ten days. We won a 14 percent salary increase and a signed stipulation of no charters in our country. Standing together and fighting for social justice, for education justice is the key answer to achieve our goals as a whole.
In 2017 a Category Five Hurricane hit us, destroyed thousands of homes, left us with no electricity, water, communications or food access. To worsen that they pretended to shut down 200 schools immediately after it hit us. Little did Ms. Julia Keleher, Secretary of Education know, that something we did not lose was our hope, our sense of solidarity, and our resilience. The communities rose up, fought back and won. Teachers protested, demanded, united, and acted and were heard.
Disaster capitalism is on fast track in our country. We were able to stop school closures after the hurricane, but this last semester they announced 305 school closures. We fought back and were able to save fifty-five schools. But the amount of schools closed is unacceptable. Parents, students and teachers are now beginning to occupy schools, because if the government decided they are no good for our children, we have news for them: they won’t be good for privatizers either. So, resistance is happening right now, and lots of school buildings are been used for community-driven purposes.
We are fighting the fight of our lives. We had a one-day stoppage last August 15 that led us to a 7 percent salary increase. But that is not enough. We continue to fight for the education our children deserve. We continue to fight against inhuman working and learning conditions. We continue to fight and we continue to strategize and to organize, because I am sure, that the triumph will be on the side of the working class, of the oppressed. Social justice will become more than a dream, they will be our reality.
So I finish my statement letting you know that you are not alone.That teachers around the world are with you. That we are giving the same struggle different scenarios, and will definitely overcome. To my union brothers and sisters in a strike vote starting to take place tomorrow, my love and solidarity.Remember that if we fight together, we win.