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Jesse Hagopian: Fight Back Continues after Seattle Teachers Reject May- Day Strike

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Author, activist and Seattle Public School teacher Jesse Hagopian says teachers, parents and students remain united to defend public schools, and how parents and labor can unite to take on Trump’s privatization agenda

JAISAL NOOR: Even after the recent rejection of a one-day strike by Seattle teachers, author-activist, and Seattle public school teacher, Jesse Hagopian, says teachers, parents and students must remain united to defend public schools from underfunding.

JESSE HAGOPIAN: I think it will still send a really powerful message to the state legislature that educators took a vote on whether to shut the schools down, in opposition to their unlawful under-funding of public education. And I think it will, in any way, mean the end of our struggle. Even if the vote goes down, there are many school buildings across Seattle that want to continue the fight in many different ways, whether that’s protests, rallies, different work actions or, even taking job actions, working to the rule.

And so, these are all proposals that educators are talking about. And I think with the masses of parents who are upset about the underfunding of our schools, it’s likely that parents, students and teachers, will unite and fight back in big ways to come.

JAISAL NOOR: Hagopian says union leadership could have done more to support the strike vote.

JESSE HAGOPIAN: I think there was an underwhelming support of this, by the leadership in our union. And I love our union. And I’ve seen, even this leadership that did not get behind this effort as strongly as they could have, I’ve seen them lead fights and strikes in the past. And so, it makes it disappointing that they supported 75% threshold, of a vote, in order to ratify the strike, and really didn’t help to spread the message about the potential power of this strike.

Regardless of the outcome, we’ve sent a powerful message to the State Legislature here in Washington State that refuses to do its constitutional duty, in fully funding education. You know, our State Legislature has been found in contempt of court, for refusing to fund education, which our state constitution calls the paramount duty of our government.

And because of this flagrant violation of the law, and their continued unwillingness to give basic supports to students, teachers are showing that they’re upset. And the fact that we’re voting on this strike really is going to frighten a lot of politicians, who realize that the next time, this thing could truly erupt.

JAISAL NOOR: He adds that demands for labor and grassroots activists remain as urgent forever.

JESSE HAGOPIAN: We need to fully fund education. We need to support our students and, you know, that’s not happening here in Washington State, and it’s not happening across the country. Number two; May Day was revived in 2006, against the Sensenbrenner Bill, as a day of immigrant rights action. And there’ll be a mass immigrant rights rally here in Seattle that we can then participate in, as educators, who want to defend our students from anti-immigrant policies. From hate crimes, and from Trump’s deportation regime that is splitting families apart.

You know, at my own son’s pre-school, one of the teachers there just had her father abducted by ICE. And this is hitting our communities hard, and we want to raise these issues. And I think, lastly, this strike can show that labor will not just lie down and be beaten, and bludgeoned by the Federal Government. As well that is looking to implement federal Right to Work. Better understood as, Right to Work for less legislation.

And I think all unions are under attack, and I think it would be a beautiful thing to see our educators union help take the lead in uniting other unions, and fighting back.

JAISAL NOOR: So, a lot of the attacks we’ve seen on public education have happened as part of a bi-partisan consensus around what education reform looks like. A lot of it is corporate top down, increasing charter schools and testing. So, what is really different about this administration, the Trump administration, and the education Secretary Betsy DeVos, when it comes to education policy?

JESSE HAGOPIAN: Well, I think we definitely have to see the Trump administration as a continuation, of really some of the most egregious policies that were perpetrated under the Obama administration. The Race to the Top initiative by Obama was a train wreck for education. It increased incentives to tie teacher performance to test scores. It led to the mushrooming of standardized test scores being used for high stakes decisions to close down schools, and to deny kids graduation.

And Obama really helped to usher in liberal support of privatization of public education. And I think that’s a real travesty. You know, the NAACP came out this year opposing charter schools, calling for a moratorium, right? Along with the movement for Black Lives, which also put out a statement against high stakes testing.

And I think that those were really bold efforts to push back on some of the worst policies that were really promoted under Obama. And now we’re seeing under the Trump administration, the continuation of many of those as well, though, with I think, a concerted effort, to go even farther in the privatization model with the voucher system, and then an egregious budget proposal, right?

So, if budgets are morals, then President Trump has put forward a budget that cuts morals to shreds, and also our public schools, right? Proposing some $9 billion in cuts to public education, while he wants to make unprecedented increases in military spending. Some $54 billion additional military spending, while he cuts programs for students needing grants to go to college, while he cuts billions for teaching training programs.

It’s really been quite awful to see the proposals coming out of the Trump administration. And then his Education Secretary who has no experience and no clue, with how to improve public education, and is simply just a shill for the privatization efforts.

JAISAL NOOR: And so you talked about the role teachers and unions have played in Seattle. I wanted to ask you what advice, or lessons, would you have for other cities that are sort of mired in similar struggles?

In Baltimore, the city is facing $130 million shortfall. That’s a combination of city and state funds, but you know, there’s no talk, that I’ve heard of, a strike or any labor action.

And, in fact, some teacher activists want their union to do more to be on the front lines, and to mobilize, and consider these types of actions, which they haven’t done. In fact, Baltimore’s teacher’s union was the first to adopt the Race to the Top education policy, under the Obama administration. And that was after it had initially voted against it, the union asked them to vote again, and they approved it several years ago.

So, what advice or what message do you have for unions that are kind of taking the same efforts as what’s happening in places like Chicago, L.A. and Seattle?

JESSE HAGOPIAN: Well, I think the key to reviving the educator unions, and making them affective vehicles for collective struggle, in defense of public education, is really to build a movement, a social movement unionism. A style of unionism that connects with the communities that we serve, and makes alliances with parents, and students, and community organizations, that are fighting for social justice.

And this has really been the model that’s been so affective in places like Chicago, where they built united struggle with parents against school closures in black neighborhoods, fighting for libraries in the schools. Fighting for basic protections for black and brown students. And it’s been so affective in Seattle, when we went on strike last year, a five-day strike that was able to win race and equity committees, in 30 schools across Seattle. That was able to push back on Standardized testing, and actually eliminate the use of standardized testing in teacher evaluations.

And it was our connections with the parents, and community groups like Black Lives Matter activists, that really helped propel our union forward, and become a popular struggle. And I think key to that, is unions fighting around budget issues to get more funds, to lower class sizes, to bring in wrap-around services for students that parents so desperately want as well.

You know, tutoring services, healthcare programs in the schools. But I think it’s also — the union’s need to also move beyond just discussions about the budget, and also bring in discussions about equity and social justice. Here in Seattle we’ve launched a struggle by the NAACP collaborating with the Social Equality Educators Social Justice Caucus of Teachers, and other community organizations. Who are fighting for ethnic studies, to mandate that the schools require ethnic studies as a graduation requirement, so the schools can be a place to uplift and affirm the diversity of students that exist in our schools.

And I think by taking up these kind of struggles, that the community so deeply cares about, the union can forge the alliances that can create the solidarity, and the masses of numbers of people that we need, to combat the massive number of dollars that the corporate education reformers have.

JAISAL NOOR: Go to therealnews.com for all of our coverage of public education around the country.

This is Jaisal Noor.

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