Turning the Streets Into Our Classroom

by Jesse Hagopian 

By Wednesday this week every school in Seattle will have held a union vote to decided if our Seattle Education Association (SEA) should go out on strike on May Day—International Worker’s Day—to demand full funding for education, to support our immigrant students, and to defend union rights.

I am voting yes!—and I hope that the rest of the educators join me in authorizing this walkout for the schools our students deserve.

Here in Washington State, our state Supreme Court ruled in the McCleary decision that our state legislature was in violation of the state Constitution’s “Paramount Duty” to amply provide for education.  The court has fined the legislature and found them in contempt of court for failing to support public education.  And yet we have seen our legislature continue to funnel money to the wealthiest corporations in our state, giving away billions in tax breaks to Boeing and maintaining tax loopholes for the rich.  Washington State is one of only a few states without an income tax and ranks dead last with most regressive tax structure in the nation.  The year 2017 was the final year that the state Supreme Court gave the legislature to fix the funding problem and it is clear that the legislature has no plans to start following the law anytime soon. 

We have tried emailing, calling and asking nicely for the legislature to follow the law and fund education. That hasn’t worked.

Now it’s time to show the collective power of labor.  We held a one-day walkout two years ago as part of a rolling strike wave across the state to pressure the state legislature. That was an important action that raised awareness, brought families into the streets with teachers in a common struggle, and gave teachers a glimpse of their power.  But this one-day strike has the potential to have a much bigger impact than the last because the Martin Luther King County Labor Council passed a resolution calling on all the locally affiliated unions to go out on May Day. As the Seattle Weekly reported,

SEA isn’t the only union flirting with a May Day strike. UAW Local 4121 is also voting on strike action, according to the op-ed. (We’ve got a line out to the union.) And the Martin Luther King County Labor Council voted last week in favor of a resolution supporting strikes and other direct actions (for instance, teach-ins) on May Day in cooperation with organizers of the labor and immigrant marches.

Many unions are looking to the SEA to see if we strike. If we do, others could follow and it could become a mass outpouring of labor solidarity that truly has the power to shake up the one percent and their political representatives in the legislature and make them heed our demands for education and union rights.

In addition to the urgency around education funding in our state, the May 1st Coalition in Seattle has called on workers to strike for immigrant rights on May Day, and there will be a massive outpouring of humanity at a rally that day to stand against Trump’s anti-immigrant policies. All the anti-immigrant rhetoric and deportations are demoralizing our students, splitting them apart from their families, and leading to hate crimes. Moreover, there is a push by the Trump administration and within the federal government to ratify anti-union, so-called “right to work” legislation, that would gut union protections.

I am voting to strike because I believe we as educators should join the struggle for immigrant rights and I see that as a vital component to a better education system.  

I’m not content to teach students about the mass strikes and boycotts of the past that won social programs and the right to unionize–I know we actually need to bring back that history and make it real for our students by demonstrating what it looks like in practice. I’m ready to make the streets my classroom on the first of May and teach a lesson about union power and collective struggle that the rich and powerful won’t soon forget.

Jesse Hagopian is a teacher at Garfield High School, an editor for Rethinking Schools magazine, and was a leader in the historic boycott of the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test of 2013.

Featured image is a cc licensed photo attributed to Spencer Tweedy/ via Flickr 

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