Subscribe to the Belabored RSS feed here. Subscribe and rate on iTunes here or on Stitcher here. Check out the full Belabored archive here. Tweet at @dissentmag with #belabored to share your thoughts, or join the conversation on Facebook. Belabored is produced by Natasha Lewis.
Whether we like it or not, the labor movement often finds itself clashing with the powers that be in ways that push the edges of the law. So, as troublemakers, how do we advocate for workers when the rules are rigged against us? Belabored hosted a live panel discussion at the Labor Notes Conference in Chicago in early April to discuss how to organize outside the law. And who better to coach us on how to break the rules than the workers who make our schools run every day?
We sat down with four teachers and education organizers: Brandon Wolford (Mingo County, West Virginia); Josh Smyser (United Campus Workers); and Amy Mizialko and Angela Harris (Milwaukee Teachers Education Association). We discussed strategies to build power inside and outside of formal union structures in constrained political environments; activism in public-sector workforces where strikes are banned; and, as we prepare for the pending Supreme Court case Janus v. AFSCME, what we can learn from education workers nationwide who are advancing labor’s demands even without official collective-bargaining rights. With voices from Wisconsin, Tennessee, and West Virginia, we explore how to rewrite the rules at work and win progressive community change in the era of Trump.
Sarah: West Virginia Teachers Walk Out (Dissent)
Michelle: The Oklahoma Teachers’ Strike Is a Mutiny Against Austerity (In These Times)
Teacher Strike Fever Spreads (Labor Notes)
Please note: This is a rush transcript. An edited version will appear on the Dissent website in the coming week.
Michelle Chen: Welcome to Belabored Live, everyone.
Sarah Jaffe: This is going to be, actually, the 5th anniversary of our podcast. For me. Michelle joined us a little bit later, but still, five years of this podcast and our first guest ever was Karen Lewis from the Chicago Teachers Union. So, it is appropriate that we are doing this here in Chicago.
Chen: Full circle. Pretty cool.
Jaffe: And that we have some teachers on our panel. We are going to talk about the rapidly approaching future of organizing outside of labor law. We have some people on our session who can talk about that in various ways. We are going to let them introduce themselves for a couple of minutes. Then, we will ask some questions and then, open it up and get some questions from you. Also, before we get started, we are going to say thank you so much to Chris Brooks who helped us make this possible, lined up our amazing panelists, made this entire conference what it is. Thank you to Chris and all of the Labor Notes staff.
I don’t think we decided yet who was going to go first. Anybody want to volunteer?
Amy Mizialko: Hi, everybody. I am Amy Mizialko. I am a special education teacher from Milwaukee Public Schools. This is my twenty-sixth year. I am currently serving as the Vice President of the Milwaukee Teachers Union. We are seven years post–Act 10 and organizing with community, parents, students, all lovers of public education in our city to make sure that our students get what they deserve, our public schools get resourced, and that educators get the respect that they need to do the work that they need to do with kids in classrooms.
Josh Smyser: I am Josh Smyser. I am a member of United Campus Workers, which is a CWA affiliate. We organize public higher-education workers in the State of Tennessee. We are currently at nineteen campuses with about 1,800 members. We, like a lot of public-sector workers, are feeling the onslaught of neoliberalism, and that has mainly manifested itself as an effort by our governor to privatize the entirety of facilities in our state government. We won, recently, a major victory [against] the NRC systems and we are currently working to stop that on the other ones.
Angela Harris: My name is Angela Harris. I am a kindergarten teacher in Milwaukee, Wisconsin at Milwaukee Public Schools [and] a proud member of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association. Current campaigns that we are fighting right now: time, health, and a raise. We want the district to take us seriously, consider us the professionals that we are, and respect our time and allow us to dictate how our time is used. At this point, I am a new educator. This is my first year. There are no prospects of me getting a raise any time in the near future. That is really important to me. They are also trying to raise my health insurance. So, on top of not getting a raise, I am expected to pay more for my healthcare, as well. We have a whole month of actions planned with teachers, community members, parents to fight back against this.
Brandon Wolford: I am Brandon Wolford and I come from a small, rural county in southern West Virginia. I am a special education teacher at Lenore Kay School in Mingo County. I am, also, the president of the Mingo County Education Association which is also part of the NEA [National Education Association]. We are actually celebrating a victory. We just got the largest raise that we had received in twenty-eight years. We have successfully abolished charter schools. We secured our seniority and we have, also, ensured that a panel of people were put together, a taskforce, in order to keep our insurance from raising our premiums, so on and so forth. That isn’t set in stone yet, but the governor has issued an executive order due to our strike efforts. Basically, we are celebrating. But, we want them to know that we are not finished. We are coming back on the county level now. We have laid dormant for far too long. We got them on the state level. Now, we are coming to you on the county level. We want our voices to be heard. Next legislative session, we are going to right there and we are going to be asking for even more.
Chen: How do we organize for worker empowerment outside of formal union structures? That is the overarching theme here. I was wondering if you had any examples of how you guys have, in the absence of a lot of the formal legal channels that educators and public-sector workers and others can often go there, how have you built community alliances from the ground up? What are some of the other groups and allies that you have found, perhaps in politics itself or outside of politics that have helped you mobilize, as well as organize for the long term.
Wolford: First of all, we had a senator, Mr. Richard Ojeda, who came and supported us 100 percent. He actually got on the senate floor and he said, “If you don’t give these people the respect, the rights, and the wages they deserve, face it, ladies and gentlemen, the ‘S’ word is coming.” Strike is taboo there, so he wanted to just remind everyone that it was going to happen. He actually started this. He got this movement going. We have a lot of respect for Senator Ojeda. What I would suggest that most of you do is go to your senators, go to your representatives in your state. Get your people involved. Have them on board to where the employees are not afraid to step out. If they have the public support of their elected officials, they will be more willing to step out and strike.
Another thing that we did as far as community involvement was we printed flyers. We let our people know what it was they were trying to do to us. We kept them well-informed. We were approximately an hour and twenty minutes from the capital, so not everyone could go. What we did was, we had our people have two to three different locations and we exchanged every other day or so. At one point, we would have people rallying at the court house because we knew not everyone was able to travel to the capital. Some had illnesses in their family. Others had several children. Those people remained on post at either their local school, worksite, or at the courthouse. Then, we had people who would alternate between going to the courthouse, the school, or the capital. We actually had people going in all directions, but that is what you have to do to build community support. You have to let them know what you are fighting about and you, also, have to let them know what it is important. If they don’t understand, they cannot support you. That is your main thing: get the word out there in order to have the public support that you need in order to proceed.
Harris: I just want to touch on that point as well. Our union does a great job of reaching out to the community members. Whenever we have an issue, we will have phonebanking parties at our union office where we have lists printed out of all of the community members who have ever supported us, who have ever shown up at school board meetings, who have ever volunteered at schools, different things like that. We will just call them all and let them know “This is what we are working on. This is what we need you to do. We need you to contact school board members. We need you to contact local legislators.” Those different kinds of things.
Smyser: Just piggybacking on that, the institutions like K-12 and higher education are incredibly impactful in communities and they touch a lot of people in a lot of ways. On a college campus that includes lots of students, but it also includes just many people who know people who work on campus. Especially in places where the institution is much more economically important and draws in people from other counties who, therefore, are represented by different representatives and senators. So, you are much more able, if you can utilize those connections, to really push politically and, also, push in the community because you touch so many people in so many different communities if you only realize that.
Mizialko: I can just say that in Milwaukee, we have worked very closely with community coalition schools and Communities United. Really, the seeds of that coalition were sown when a Democratic mayor tried to take over Milwaukee Public Schools and there was a strong alliance between the NAACP and educators in our city to make sure that didn’t happen. But then, I think the real birth of Schools and Communities United, which is twenty organizations. These are labor organizations, faith organizations, students, educators, different community folks, ACLU, Voces de la Frontera, Opt Out Milwaukee. . . Let me just say, some of our partners. . .a lot of our partners are people who just decided they don’t like business as usual. So, our Women Informed partners are some of our strongest allies, Marva and Gayle, who. . .they don’t have a fancy organization. They have a 501c3. They are just folks in the community who decided they want resourced public schools for our kids. Our Opt Out Milwaukee parents have been a huge part of the coalition. We meet every other week at a table and the one. . . We have many issues that we care about, but the one binding issue that never goes away is that we are going to unapologetically fight for public schools because they are the only schools that welcome and serve every child. Those are the only schools. . . . . .that have the legal responsibility and the capacity and it is our responsibility to take care of them. I will just say that a coalition is essential, but a coalition is messy sometimes. I just want you to know that we don’t have perfect harmony at all times at the coalition and that is not necessary. You don’t have to have perfect harmony all the time. There should be discussion. There is going to be disagreement. Bob Peterson always says, “If that isn’t present in your coalition circle, your circle isn’t big enough. You don’t have all the voices there.” We are a work in progress. It isn’t perfect. We have hard discussions sometimes. When the state imposed legislation to take over our school district, that coalition never quit. But, there were a couple of partners in that coalition who wanted to stand down. They thought the coalition was going too hard. That was fine, but everyone else had to keep going. That coalition, Schools and Communities United folks, never gave up and were instrumental in defeating a state legislated takeover. Our union could not do that alone.
Jaffe: So, the labor movement exists right now under the shadow of the Janus case. We wanted to pull together a panel of people who were already organizing in worse than Janus conditions. We should say that here. Everybody on this panel is not only in Right to Work, y’all are in much worse than Right to Work. In doing that, you have all been successful. So, we wanted to talk a little bit about what, specifically, unions can learn from having to organize in conditions that are beyond Right to Work.
Smyser: I often talk about our union as being like Wiley E. Coyote in Looney Tunes where as long as he is not looking down, he doesn’t fall. I think that our union and all the folks on this panel are people who are persisting and looking forward. When you are persisting and looking forward, if you think about the community that you are in, if you think about the connections that you have, if you talk and articulate about the public good that you provide. . . I carry mail on campus, so I am not as impressive as these teachers, but I provide a public good and everybody in our union does. When you communicate that to the students who receive those goods, the parents who send their kids there, who entrust their kids to go to our campus and to these schools, I think that is where you can really find that you have more power than you think you do. Even if you are, like us, enable to bargain at all. When you utilize that power to push politically, because we elect our bosses, and we tell them, “We elected you and we can unelect you.” That is where the power comes from, it is utilizing community and really being willing to wield it strategically.
Harris: I am actually a post-Act 10 educator, so I am not really familiar with all of the things that happened to prior to that. Really, when I am talking to non-members, or even members, in our organization, I am really talking about the work that we are doing now, the experiences that we are having now. Like you said, we can’t go backwards. We can only move forward. Those are the things that I focus on when I am talking to people. Also, just getting them to realize that the power is in the members, the number of members that we have, that we can get signed up and on board with us. We are stronger together than we could ever be apart. For me, it is important for people to understand that the power is within us and we are not, necessarily, looking to our union to save it and fix everything for us. We are actually going to be responsible and do it ourselves.
Wolford: I agree. It is the same way in West Virginia. We had some problems at the beginning with people saying, “It is too early to go out. The legislative session is three weeks away. . .the end date, actually, is three weeks away. They will starve us out.” People were afraid. They were establishing a fear, but at the same time, we told them, “If we can get all fifty-five counties aboard here, we can just shut the state down and there is nothing they can do about it.” That is exactly what we did. We shut all fifty-five counties down. We were on their doorstep. We were chanting various things like, “No one, not two, not three, not four! Fifty-five is at your door!” Meaning, we didn’t want the 1 percent raise, the 2 percent raise, the 3 percent raise, or the 4 percent raise. We wanted the 5 percent. And that is exactly what we got.
Mizialko: Let me, also, just say that after Act 10, our members get to go and bargain one thing and that is cost of living.
Chen: Can you explain what Act 10 is?
Mizialko: Yes, Act 10 is Scott Walker union busting legislation that came to Wisconsin that took collective bargaining away from us, that took arbitration away from us, that makes us do a recertification vote every single year just to survive as a union. Every year, every November for twenty-one days, every member and non-member. And if you don’t vote, it counts as a “no.” Wisconsin State union, 98,000 members before Act 10. Now we have got 29,000. So, that shit works. We get to bargain one thing, that is cost of living. I want you to know cost of living was 0.12 percent. A couple of years ago, it was 0.3 percent a year before. So, if we ever, ever bought into the idea that because we get to bargain one thing. . . Nope. We are going to get everything. I don’t know if anyone was in the room yesterday when Angela Harris said she is coming for everything Scott Walker took. Everything, y’all.
Wolford: I would like to add to what she is saying, because when this started, it was basically about our insurance alone. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. They were trying to increase our premiums, they were trying to make us wear Fit Bits. If we didn’t get so many steps per day, our premiums were going to increase $25 per month. That is really what got the ball rolling. But, after everyone became so enraged about what was going on, then we said, “Now, we have got everyone riled up. We are going for a raise. We are going to make sure they don’t bother our seniority. We are going to make sure they abolish anything that has to do with charter schools and privatizing public education.” If you can find a really good point to get them started on and you have the solidarity, then you can go for everything.
Harris: Can I just say this, also? Our union overwhelmingly voted to recertify this year.
Mizialko: Angela, thank you for raising that. We. . . This is a real thing: people get weary, people get fatigued. I get weary. I get fatigued. The concern has been year after year after year after year, “Are people going to stop paying attention to this? Are they going to lose the urgency of how important it is?” We turned in our highest recertification vote ever this last November. I will just wend by saying one thing: It is all about power. It is all about deciding that you still have it. And if you don’t have enough of it, you can win more of it. But, people. . . For Angela and I, we have no choice. We have no choice but to fight. It is the only choice they gave us. If we don’t fight with our students and our families, no one is doing that. We have no choice. It is the only path we are walking. We sit down at the table with administration lots of times and settle lots of things. But, if they don’t want to settle things nicely at the table and do right by our students and do right by the people who teach them, we will fight you every time and we win more than we lose. We have to. These are our students. It is our only choice.
Harris: You guys, the point of Janus and Act 10 and the things that Governor Scott Walker and other governors like him are trying to do is to break unions down, to make us afraid. We can’t let them do that because then they win. When I said yesterday, “I am coming for everything Scott Walker took” I went on Twitter and I added him because I want him to know. [Laughter]
Wolford: Speaking of the attempts to break the unions up, I know some of you may have been here last night, but after we decided to start our work stoppage and we got in Charleston. . . We are there maybe a week, a week and half, and they propose a bill. The bill is to require everyone who is a union member to reauthorize their dues to be removed from their pay check every single year. They were trying to break our unions up then. That was just simple retaliation at its finest. We ended up telling them, “Before we will settle, before we will negotiate, that has to be brought off the table, too, because this insurance that you are proposing that you are going to raise, the retirement that is coming out, you are not making us reauthorize to allow you to take that out every year. So, why should we have to on the union dues? We signed a paper. We can drop that at any time that we want. So, why do we have to go through you? Why do we have to make it something that is a state law? It is our choice. It is our money. We see our pay checks every single time we are paid. We know when it is coming out and we have the right to stop it. It is not up to you to make us reauthorize our deductions.”
Mizialko: When we were originally trying to put this panel together, we had cast a wide net in terms of sectors or topics that we wanted to look at. But, again and again, we kept returning to education. I don’t think that is coincidental and it is a reflection of the activism that has surged so far this year. That is, also, not without reason. If you could talk about why education is such a galvanizing issue when, perhaps, other labor issues are not, or, it mobilizes people in the community and it touches them in a way that they would be more open to labor struggles than they ordinarily might on other issues politically speaking. What makes education special and how is that emblematic of wider trends in the workforce?
Harris: I think education is special, number one, because it effects all of us. Our district is predominantly black and brown. When we think about black and brown children, they already are coming into buildings under a deficit. It is our job to pay that deficit back. I think everybody realizes that. Parents realize that. Community members realize that. The better we can educate our children, the better our nation will become. I think that is why it is such an easy issue for people to get behind. We can all think back to a teacher who somehow touched our lives or impacted us in some type of way. That is another thing that gets people involved and gets people to want to get behind us because of that. There are people who come who have no children. Who are like, “I don’t have any kids, but I saw what you guys were doing and I think it is totally unfair because… Everything that you do for these children.” That is what I think.
Chen: Everyone has been a kid.
Harris: Everyone has been a kid. Everybody has had a teacher.
Wolford: In addition to her comments, any type of job, whether it is a. . .something in career and technical education or whether it be a doctor or whether it be a nurse, a lawyer, any profession, you have to have an education. No matter what you do, you have to have an education. To me, that is why I think we have had the most support because if the education system fails, then everyone else is pretty well screwed. We have to have education in order to survive and for our country to be able to thrive. No doubt about it.
Smyser: I think for higher education, especially in our country and the way that it has been commodified and pushed to largely benefit the loaning industry, people see it as a real promise, as an opportunity to not just have a high school diploma, but to push on. That attracts a lot of people to it and it is every important for that reason. I think it is also the case that because it attracts a lot of people, it attracts a lot of money, and it therefore attracts a lot of opportunistic politicians and the corporations that keep them flush. Our governor is also a wealthy man, just like the terrible Jim Justice shithead. [Laughter] But he has a lot of rich friends who are attracted to and want to make some money off of this thing that has so much appeal to it. They want to get a piece of it. They want to get a bit of the brand. That is why companies want to manage the facilities. That is why companies want to manage the food service. It is because they are trying to get a bite out of that magic apple that actually contains the promise of a better future for the people who live and work there. I think that is just it. The promise and the investment of a community and a higher education institution and a high school and a middle school is also the thing that makes people want to grab it to start a charter school or to do whatever.
Chen: And, also, reflective of what is going on in the White House right now. It is a textbook example—no pun intended—of what this means.
Mizialko: In Milwaukee, we continue to try to raise the conversation that the promise of Brown vs. Board of Education has not been fulfilled. And the purposeful disinvestment in our public schools and the purposeful disinvestment in brown and black majority cities is buy design, it is on purpose, and that is state sanctioned violence. That is what violence is. Education. . . I was saying to Angela, I have 4,000 students in Milwaukee who are homeless. I had children walk into my classroom without socks. All the teachers in Milwaukee Public Schools who had [. . .] benefits slashed by $10,000, we have. . . I had a file cabinet that belonged to students. The contents of that file cabinet belonged to students. There were socks in that file cabinet. There is food in that file cabinet. There is lotion in that file cabinet. There is deodorant in that file cabinet. When families don’t have jobs, when jobs run away from our cities, and my students and our students don’t have. . .don’t know that they can depend on being food secure and housing secure, and their moms and dads are working two and three and four shitty jobs to try and put it all together, that public school is supposed to be a place where every kid matters. Angela and I look at our students the way that she looks at her children and the way that I look at my nephews. If what is being offered is not good enough for what I would accept for my family, it is not good enough for anyone.
Harris: Just to piggyback off of what Amy is saying and tying it all in together with our fight and all of this. . . I am a new educator. I don’t make very much money, but I still have that same drawer in my classroom. I am buying snacks every week. Underwear. Socks. Toothbrushes. Toothpaste. I have given money to families because they were in need. So, I am going to fight. I am going to get parents, community members. . . When they see me walking in with all the bags, the parents are like, “Mrs. Harris, what is that for?” “Oh, this if 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 am like, “Well, 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.” I pull them in and then, they have conversations. I have 93 percent attendance in my classroom because I make connections with my parents. They see that I love their children. My kids in my classroom call me “Mom” because I treat them the same way I treat my own children. I am dedicated to this profession. I just wish that our legislators and our government would be equally as dedicated to us.
Wolford: I would like to just touch base on what Josh said a minute ago about our governor, Mr. Jim Justice. He is the wealthiest man in the State of West Virginia. He is a billionaire. He started off on the Democratic ticket and he came around pushing the. . .bringing the jobs back to West Virginia, paving the roads, putting educators first. . . So on and so forth. We all bought it. We all fell for it. He got all of our endorsements. He gets in shortly after, switches over to the Republican ticket. He begins helping the corporations fill their pockets. He does everything in his power against the working-class people. It is beyond shameful the things that this man has done. He actually owes back taxes to the state, which are in the umpteen millions. I am thinking somewhere between $14-16 million that he hasn’t paid. We would be in jail if it was. . .let’s say umpteen thousands, but here he is in the millions and they are not even touching him. This is an example of what is going on across America in the Republican Party. Sorry to the Republicans in the audience, if there are any, but that is just the way it is. Republicans support corporations. Democrats are for the middle and the working-class families.
Jaffe: So, since we are talking about Jim Justice and strikes, we want to go back to the idea of the strike as a way and a place to both build power and build attention. The country is now paying attention to teachers and their demands. This has been ongoing. We said earlier that we started Belabored with Karen Lewis from the Chicago Teachers Union after the Chicago Teachers Strike. When we look at organizing outside of the National Labor Relations Board model, when we look at organizing outside of what your state law allows you to do, what role does the strike play and how does that allow you to build power and to make your demands heard?
Wolford: 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. People are not knocking the door down to come in here for this insurance that you are offering us. There is no possible way that you are going to pull people in here to replace us. So, to heck with the law. What are you going to do? We are out. Replace us if you can. Not happening.”
Harris: Again, it just speaks to that fear component. People are afraid to say the “S” word in Milwaukee because it is illegal. We are currently actively in a campaign to fight for time, health, and a raise. Our budget passes on. . . April 27th, Amy?
Mizialko: The superintendent will reveal her entire budget on that day.
Harris: So, after April 27th and the budget is revealed and we have done all of these actions up until then, what happens after if we don’t get what we want? Where do we go next? This is a real conversation that I am having with members in my building. I had a member actually tell me, “Well, I am close to retirement. So, I am not going to strike.” Well, if you don’t, I am not close to retirement. I have twenty plus years left. If you don’t strike, you leave me out to dry. You leave me hanging. So, we need to take what they did in West Virginia and what they are doing in Arizona and Kentucky and Tennessee and we need to keep that momentum going. We need to keep the flames burning. We can’t let it die. If we do, we will never get the educational system our students deserve.
Wolford: One thing I would like to point out is we had a teacher who is near retirement, her name is Pam Chapman. She doesn’t even have insurance. She is covered under husband’s UMWA pension and that is 100 percent coverage. She actually stood with us on the insurance issue even before the raise itself was actually brought up. She went around and she spoke to these older teachers. She was on our side 100 percent. If you can find someone who has that ability, who says, “I am not going to be affected by this, but we have to help our younger teachers.” Everyone needs a Pam Chapman. I can tell you that. She stood with us even when the insurance did not affect her. We must do that. We must stick together whether we are close to retirement, whether we have got a few years in, whether we are halfway there. Everyone must stick together. There has to be a form of unity. If that does not happen, you are not going to get anywhere.
Mizialko: We could clearly see what happened when legislators and special interests think that they are going to continue to break the backs of workers and starve our children. We have seen West Virginia. We are watching Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona. I saw an article yesterday, “Is Tennessee Next?” When the Wisconsin State legislature passed a law to take over Milwaukee Public Schools, they passed a law that that had to happen. Our union and parents and students and coalition members said, “Some laws are unjust. And some laws are worth breaking.” They passed a law and they didn’t take over one of our schools. Not one. What I can tell you is that I remember being at the capital for eleven days. I wrecked a pair of boots because it snowed every day. It snowed every day. We were marching and it was wet and I wrecked a pair of boots marching. The only place my car would drive was Madison and the capital. I wasn’t a leader in my union then. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but I just kept looking around and I was like, “Is this going to happen? Are we going to take it down?” And it didn’t happen. There were people who told us to stand down and walk out of the capital, 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, people. [Laughter] I think the cat is out of the bag. I think in some ways. . . I am wondering. . . I think West Virginia teachers thought, “Well, only our kids are the ones with the old textbooks and the broken chairs and no recess.” Then, Oklahoma was like, “No! Our kids don’t have that either!” And Wisconsin and Milwaukee is like, “No! Our kids don’t have that either!” So, the cat is out of the bag. What they have been doing to our students across this nation is unconscionable. It is unconscionable. I just feel that this nation is at a moment and people have had it and they are saying that this is enough.
Wolford: One thing I would like to add as far as West Virginia, we have had various state assessment changes over the last couple of years. They have gone from West Test to Smarter Balance, which was based around Common Core. Within one to two years, they are redoing this, saying, “Well, this test doesn’t work. We are going to throw this out. We are going to adopt new standards.” The last count I had, within the six years that I have been here, they are now on their third set of standards and the last time they spent $66 million to change the assessment and to get it online. What is the purpose in that? Why can that not go towards our textbooks? Why can that not got towards our raises? Why do we have to keep focusing so much on standardized testing? It is ludicrous.
Harris: Just to speak to Amy’s point, and I just want to get everybody in the room’s feeling. Raise your hand if you are sick and tired of being sick and tired. I think all of us are. I think that is where we are going. We no longer want to be sick and tired.
Chen: When the strike wave started making the news, a lot of people got interested all of a sudden in what was going on in education, but I think what struck people, also, was that it upended a lot of their stereotypes because of where this is happening. People are like, “What? A mass uprising in the middle of Trump Country?”
Jaffe: Big air quotes around “Trump Country.”
Chen: “Trump Country? In the heart of all these red states? And led by teachers, no less? What is going on here?” We saw workers taking grassroots action in a way that challenged people’s stereotypes even though on the ground, given your political circumstances, it might have felt like the most common sense thing in the world and things might have just been falling into place. We know that it didn’t start with Trump and it is not going to end with Trump. It didn’t just start with these contract negotiations and it is not going to end with this legislature either.
Jaffe: And it didn’t start with Scott Walker.
Chen: It didn’t start with any single politician or law. There is actually a long history that people don’t know about if they just read the headlines, of teacher militancy, of mobilization even in these, supposedly, red states. I would like to go around, what would each of you [. . .], these news organizations to understand about the history that led up to these moments that just punctuate a really long arc of organizing in your communities?
Smyser: Something that was really occurring to a lot of us in East Tennessee was that there is a long history of outsourcing. Before they wanted to take facilities jobs, it was the textile plants. There was just a wave of closures from the 1930s to the 1970s. We had. . . People use the term “Leadhead” as a derogatory term. I am not going to try to take that back for them, but we had some former Leadheads in our local or people who remember that. So, there has been a simmering anger around just the loss of stable employment, especially in the surrounding counties to where I live in Knox County, Tennessee. I think that is part of it. It is just that when people are long-term economically marginalized, they don’t forget that and if they are not personally affected, they know someone who is. I think that, combined with. . . What people don’t know about the labor movement is, actually, there is lots of militant things that happened in the south. Often not remembered by everyone, but certainly happened. I think that is just something that people forget, that whatever color your state is on some map that people remember your state exists the months before a presidential election, there are actually people who are, and have been, fighting for a progressive agenda who maybe don’t even have those terms, but are actually trying to build a better life for themselves and their family and they have been the whole time in between the four year cycle.
Wolford: I actually reside right in the heard of Trump Country. In West Virginia, we had 70 percent of the vote go toward President Trump. In an interview with Fox News, I made the statement, “We would like to call on our president to intervene somehow with the education system.” Of course, it was never reported. But, if you have that strong. . .or that much support within a state and as we have mentioned in these other states that are completely red, and he actually does care about education, why does he not try to do something on a federal level to help us? Why can we not get grants? Why can we not get raises? I know that a lot of this is basically state issues, but I feel that there could be. . .more could be done at a federal level than what is being done to help us now.
Chen: If he can intervene to save coal miners then he can intervene to save teachers.
Wolford: Absolutely. If he can save the coal miners, he can save the teachers. Absolutely.
Harris: Tito Satan was not predicted to. . . He was not predicted to win my state initially. I was not surprised that he did, though. Wisconsin, Milwaukee specifically, is one of the most segregated cities in our state. So, there have been lots of people fighting against that for a very long time. Prior to me joining MPS, I was familiar with them fighting for post-Act 10, fighting the takeover. There are lots of labor organizations in Milwaukee along with our organization that we are fighting, as well. I forgot where I was going with that. Sorry, I lost my train of thought.
Jaffe: Sick and tired. [Laughs]
Harris: Yes, sick and tired. Sick and tired, girl. [Laughs]
Mizialko: I will not sit here and tell you that I have any handle. . . I need to know much more about the militancy of labor in teaching, in particular. So, I will not sit here and say that I know that. But, here is what I do know, education is carried out in this nation by women, overwhelmingly. What Act 10 did to women in my state and families in my state. . .and this is. . .my West Virginia brother, I love you, but we cannot get away from the fact that women are the educators of this country. For lots of reasons. But, I do believe there are. . . I am told there are 160 women attorneys going to the Oklahoma State House tomorrow. What they have told the legislature is that they want to help them get public schools fixed for children and educators and that they know they can help them and if they don’t let them help them, they are going to run against them and take their jobs. I will just say that I believe in public school educators. I believe in women. I believe that is a huge part of why we are seeing the resistance, because the responsibility that we feel never goes away. We never stop thinking about our kids. 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. I do trust the women who teacher our students in this country.
Jaffe: I just want to say, I wrote a book about social movements. This is really me not trying to plug my book, but, to say that Wisconsin was the beginning of the fight back against austerity, against all of this stuff with the fight against Act 10. That was where it started. Before that, the whole story was the Tea Party, the Tea Party, the Tea Party. Then, all of a sudden, it teachers and social service workers in Wisconsin, in the streets and in the capital. So, I am very happy to have Wisconsin and West Virginia, and also Tennessee, I love Tennessee. I want to end, before I am going to open this up to the questions from the audience, I wanted to ask all of you. . .I was really struck by Angela saying, “I am coming for everything Scott Walker took.” All of you are in places where, again, things are. . .labor law is already shot. It is already terrible. When re-thinking it, when we are coming for what Scott Walker took, what do we want it to look like? How would we re-write labor law in these places? All of you have learned that sometimes organizing outside of labor law is better in some ways. So, what would it look like if we put all of you in charge? And, I am hoping that all of you will be in charge very soon.
Chen: If labor law were written by labor, what would that look like?
Wolford: Actually, we have already been discussing this, especially with our US Congressman. He is running for US Congress. He will win. Senator Ojeda, as I spoke of earlier. He has told us that once we take the House and the Senate back in November, that the Right to Work law will be abolished. And the Democratic Party has made lots of promises and they are going to have to stick to those. So far, they have been on our side the entire time. The Republicans claim that they are just doing this to win it back. We will see next year when we win it back if they do. And if they don’t, then they are going to have us to answer to.
Chen: And that abolishment of charter schools, is that actually enshrined in legislation right now?
Wolford: The abolishment of charter schools isn’t actually in legislation, but we made sure that the bills were killed and we got the promise of the governor who says, “Just trust me, folks” it is gone. I am confident that as long as we get the Republicans out and the Democrats take control, that that will no longer be an issue. My main reason for believing that it is coming all over the country is it is the agenda of Betsy DeVos. I think that she is the one who has got all of this going. If we can get a Democratic leadership back in West Virginia, I am certain that although it may not be in legislative law that it will be as good as abolished.
Harris: In this fight to come for everything that Scott Walker took, one thing that I want to remember, and I think everybody needs to remember. . .and Ingrid Walker Henry was was one of our union sisters said yesterday, “In this fight, we have no permanent enemies and we have no permanent friends.” So, just like you spoke about these things that they are saying that they are going to do, we don’t know if they are actually going to do it. But, if you are voting with me and you are voting with my students and my families, I don’t care if you are a Democrat or a Republican. When it comes to what I would want the labor movement to look like, I really want the right to bargain back. I want that back on the table. I need to be able to sit down and say, “Look, I am at work sometimes ten, eleven, twelve hours a day and then, I go home and I still work. I need to be compensated appropriately. I need to be able to fight for my wages. I need to be able to bargain for my wages, to bargain for my healthcare.” We need that power back in our hands.
Smyser: I totally agree with all of that. I, also, think that when you think about labor law, you should actually think about democracy. One thing that our union has talked about and hopefully will continue to work to support, these laws that actually allow for more people to really actively engage in governing. When the people are in charge of the government, that government is robustly funded, that government has services that are accessible to all the people, and when they are not, they don’t. I would love to be able to bargain for my wages and my health and safety conditions and all that kind of stuff. We will fight for that. But, I also think that we have to think about it expanding democracy for the whole class, all the people. When we can do that, that is when we will have won. If we focus too narrowly on labor law, then we can forget that.
Mizialko: I want collective bargaining back. But, I also. . .I don’t want it back the way that it was. I don’t want it back the way that it was. Until Act 10, I felt very peripherally involved with my union. When I got my first pay check at twenty-two years old, I made $24,000. Which I thought was fantastic. I was so proud to earn that pay check. But, when I got my first pay check, there was a deduction there for union dues. I was like, “I did not authorize this deduction. What is this deduction? It is for the union? Hmm. What is the union?” So, I don’t want it back the way that it was because. . . I can only just speak from my experience in Milwaukee. I want to be able to enforce a contract, but we are responsible for so much more than that. We are responsible for schools that are real places for emancipation and liberation for our students. We are responsible for schools that are freedom schools. We are responsible for schools that are explicitly anti-racist. I don’t know if my union ever bargained for something like that. The best thing that happens to me on any given day is when a Milwaukee Public School parent or a student reaches out to me and says, “We are not being listened to. This administrator isn’t paying attention to us. This school board member isn’t calling me back and listening to me. Board governance is ignoring me and I have got a problem that is a serious problem.” The union should be. . .our union should be for everyone. I want Milwaukee Public School parents to know that the MTE is their union, too. I want students in Milwaukee Public Schools to know “That is your union, too” and that we do that together.
Jaffe: So, we want to take some audience questions. We want all of you to be able to be heard on the podcast. Natasha is going to take this microphone. We may need you to come up. If people have questions you want to ask of our incredible panel—thank all of you so much—we are going to need you to come line up here.
Audience Member: Hi, I have got a question for the Milwaukee teachers. I sat in a panel with your Director of Social Media, Joe. I heard about the struggle up there. In Iowa, I know they have to recertify, as well, every year with the unions. Were you guys able to get involved with the fight for trying to do the texting and getting members to vote or did you leave that up to other members?
Harris: Oh, it was a total team effort. All hands on deck. Seriously. Amy texted me. She was like, “Angela, you are BR at your building. I need you to get 100 percent recertification” and I was like, “Ah. . .um. . .” I am new. First year educator and first year BR. I got a lot on my plate. I was like, “I have no idea how I am going to do this.” But, we had a plan in place. We used this app called Hustle where you just shoot out hundreds of messages and then, you get responses back. But, even beyond that, once I started sending out the Hustle, “Hey, did you call? Did you vote to recertify? Here is the number? Make sure you text me back once it is done. Then, I can check you off the list.” So, it was not only about reaching out to all of those people, but making sure that we followed up with them, as well. There was a huge push from Joe on the social media side, Facebook, Twitter. There were messages posted in our member group, messages posted so that we could share them. We had flyers that we put in everybody’s mailboxes. It literally was a coordinated effort amongst all of us.
Mizialko: Angela is right. Follow through is everything. Let me just say that putting a flyer in somebody’s mailbox and telling them to vote for recert? No. Sending an email? No. In all of the ways that Angela just talked about, it is also walking up to everybody in your building with your team. . . So, if we are a team, we are taking it floor by floor, department by department, shift by shift. However it has got to get done and I am responsible for looking in the eyes of my fifteen people and making sure that they voted. If they didn’t, I got my phone in my hand, “Do it right now.” My best friend got mad at me this last time. She contacted me. She is like, “Hey, can we. . .?” I think she wanted to see a movie or something and I am like, “Hey, you haven’t turned in your vote to me.” She didn’t talk to me for a couple of days. That is okay. We have to win the recertification and I am going to be honest with you, the first couple of years that we did it, it made me so mad. It made me so boiling mad that we had to do it. But then, it was like, “No, this is an organizing opportunity.” Because it is not just making a phone call. We are doing this for our students and for our union.
Audience Member: Hello, Richard Jackson from Amalgamated Transit Union. We represent the transit workers in Grand Rapids and mechanics. We understand all too well the need to fight for what you want and what you deserve. Earlier, when you started. . .and I don’t recall who actually made the statement. . .you talked about, there comes a time in bargaining where. . .when you have done everything by the book to try to deliver your message to the people that can affect that change and it basically falls on deaf ears and you have to escalate. Within your coalitions and your labor councils, there may be a little bit of discord. What I want to know is. . . It is kind of a two part question. Do you think it is important to go and repair those rifts within that when they all don’t agree? If so, how do you do that knowing that there is a high probability that you are going to have to go right back and do this thing again when it comes time to start renegotiating?
Audience Member: Hello, my name is Raymond Gong. I am here representing the University of Illinois at Chicago Graduate Employees Organization. I have a quick comment and then, a question. The first comment is to the comrade from West Virginia, please don’t stop being vigilant against pushing against the charter school expansions, because Chicago has been under Democratic control for a very long time and we have already seen fifty historic school closures and charter proliferation even under Democratic leadership. So, please stay vigilant. My question is for the entire panel, but specifically for the comrades from Milwaukee. Based on the success of your reauthorization vote, could you provide some concrete examples of, one, recruiting the right people into positions of power and leadership? And two, cultivating a culture where members feel empowered and responsible for enacting the ideas for change that they want to have in their workplace? Thank you.
Audience Member: Hi, Ross Grutters, Railroad Workers United. I am curious, with healthcare being a central issue that West Virginia teachers were organizing and fighting for, after the establishment of the PEIA Taskforce, what were thoughts that teachers were having around that outcome and what does that mean for future organizing?
Wolford: Actually, they were outraged because the premiums were going up. They were proposing that our out of pocket deductable be increased from the current $80.20 to $60.40. They were wanting to include a total family income. . .to base the insurance premium on that, which meant as of now, and the way it has been as long as we have had PEIA, they had based it primarily on the insuree, the main insuree. Well, they wanted to make them include their spouses income and if you had a teenager who was working sixteen or seventeen years old, they wanted you to count that in, which would have been $700-800 for some, maybe more for others. You would basically be working for insurance only. That is what really got them fired up. That is what got the ball rolling. There were just so many things. Did that completely answer your question or was there a second part?
Audience Member: I guess I am just curious with the outcome being the establishment of the taskforce around them, how do the teachers in West Virginia feel about that and what does that mean carrying the struggle forward?
Wolford: The teachers themselves are not comfortable. They do not trust the governor. They do not trust the taskforce. But, I will say this, there have been three taskforces that have been created in the State of West Virginia concerning education in the past twenty-eight years. The first one was to deal with the pensions of the retirees. That was established in 1990. That one has been successful. Another, established the EPA, which is an organization that comes in and repairs our schools. They build new ones. They give us [. . .] money which is approximately $250, give or take, depending on where you live. They were able to do that, as well. We get that every year as a result of a taskforce. The third taskforce was under Governor Joe Manchin, which is more recent. The third taskforce was on merit-based pay. They were trying to base our wages on our test scores and our evaluations. That third taskforce, which was created in 2008, was successful in keeping the merit-based pay out of West Virginia.
Anyway, based on the past experiences, the three times a taskforce has been implemented, all three have been successful. That is what I am telling my people. Am I going to say that they are going to be successful here? No. We don’t know. They don’t trust him. But, based on past experiences, they have always been successful and that is what I am trying to be optimistic about.
Harris: I wanted to answer the question about our recertification and concrete examples of getting people involved in their roles with leadership. I didn’t consider myself to be a leader in our union. I definitely. . . I told a story yesterday about being in the new teacher orientation and some people with some green shirts coming in and “We want to talk to you about our union.” I called my husband and asked him if I should sign up and he said, “Yes.” I started my career in Milwaukee Public Schools as an educational assistant. My role was actually called a paraprofessional. I was in a department in our central office that nobody knew about. They hid us in the basement so they could do whatever they wanted to us, essentially. I remember walking across the street to our union and I said, “I have this issue in my department. I need help with it. I am paying these dues. What can you guys do for me?” They were like, “Oh, we can help you, but first, we need you to sign up some people. You are the only member in your department.” So, I brought back eighteen memberships. I signed up every member in my department. Amy told a story yesterday that I didn’t know about. She had said, when I did that, she was like, “I need to know who this girl is.” [Laughter] And ever since then, Amy texts me like, “Angela, I need you to: XYZ” and I am like, “But, I have never done this before.” The first thing she asked me to do was speak at a school board meeting. I am deathly afraid. . .I don’t know if you guys can tell that, but. . . [Laughter] I am deathly afraid of speaking in front of people. My hands are shaking, my voice is shaking. Amy says to me, “Angela, I am nervous when I get up there, too, but I need you to tell your story.” She does such a great job of empowering people and making you feel powerful. I kind of knew I had power, but Amy just reinforced it. She provides me with these opportunities to speak out for my children. That is really what it is all about. One of the things in terms of leadership, because leadership looks different for everybody, so you may not be the person who likes to sit in front of a room full of people and talk or stand up at a podium, but you can be the leader in your building pushing your teachers to do things. You can be a leader in our union helping us organize and get new memberships. That is another opportunity for leadership. Amy can probably speak a little bit better on how she cultivates our leadership opportunities.
Mizialko: I am always vigilantly looking to see who really does the work. We have this question about the recertification vote in 137 schools and we run that, we track that every single day with our team. We have some buildings that don’t have elected leaders. So, we have got to carry those buildings. A union doesn’t grow stronger that way. That doesn’t happen that way. So, before Act 10, our union was involved in a practice where if individuals in a building didn’t want to conduct an election to elect leaders, they didn’t have to and somebody could sign up to be a distribution contact. A distribution contact is someone who puts flyers in mailboxes. We are not doing that anymore. There has to be an elected building team in every single building. We are whittling that number down every single year. I don’t have. . . We are not at the place we need to be, but we are so close. So, when someone said to me, “There is a woman who just signed up her department” I was like, “Really?” [Laughter] “How big is her department?” “Eighteen people.” “Oh. What is her name?” [Laughter] “What is her name?” So, we all watch for who really does the work. So, when we do the recertification vote and we come back every single day and every single week and look at where it is getting done and look at where it is not getting done, new people show up all the time and I am like, “Who is that? Who is that? That really just noticed that the person who is elected isn’t moving it, but were like, ‘I have got to move this. Let’s go!'” I think constantly broadening and expanding what leadership is. Leadership isn’t the president and the vice president. That is not a union. That is a great way to just tamp a union down. Leadership has to be growing all the time. Really, twenty-sixth year of teaching, first year of teaching. . . Angela now has her eyes on “Who are the new leaders who are really doing the work?” It is “Si se peude” people. It is not that hard. There is “No se peude” people and there are “Si se peude” people and you have got to find the people who are like, “Yes, we can, because we have to.”
Harris: There was one more. . .I don’t think we answered your question. . .
Mizialko: The rift? Yes, I wrote that down. I will try. It wasn’t that hard. I was very nervous, though, when it was happening, because I was worried about whether or not it would get repaired. People are ready to do what they are ready to do. I have a different kind of a responsibility to push a union sister than I do a coalition partner. That is just a decision that I have made for myself. People are ready to do what they are ready to do, but 90 percent of us were ready. So, we can’t. . . I am not going to judge the 10 percent who aren’t or weren’t, but they are still at the table. They still matter. And we will take on something again that will be difficult. It will happen again and it will be difficult. We will have to face that and we will. . . I can’t tell you how important it is to just start off inoculating yourselves and knowing that it is going to be bumpy sometimes. That doesn’t mean it is bad, but it is going to be bumpy sometimes. But, I can say that there was no rift that remained and that those folks are still at our table.
Audience Member: Hi, I am Rebecca with Eastern Michigan University Federation of Teachers. Michigan, Right to Work state, as well. My question is: In terms of building a coalition and reaching out to the community, because it seems evident that the future of labor is a broader movement and can’t be the Good Ole Boys Club anymore. What are some tangible and really concrete ways to do that that you have seen to be effective? That is our long-term goal as a union, to really be able to do that. I would love to hear some successful stories of things you did that worked.
Smyser: Great. The first thing that comes to mind, I got my start as an activist. . .I don’t think about it as a career, but I got called to the movement by an organization called USAS: United Students Against Sweatshops. A lot of universities have a student group like that. Students are people who are. . .your direct contact who are receiving the public good you are giving. Your labor is giving them and education. Your labor is cleaning their floors, like I did for a long time, that allows them to have a classroom that is clean that they can learn in. I think that is the first thing, is identifying people who receive the thing that you are giving and knowing that you and them are not separate. You don’t have to have this consumer relationship with them where you sell and they buy. Also, we have had a lot of success with faith groups, with the campus faith groups and their connections to the larger faith community. I am, also, co-chair of a group called Jobs with Justice. Having our union show up for their unions, show up for the other things outside of your purview. Like our Jobs with Justice coalition supported a high school student organization called Voices for Trans Youth that was working to combat some really ugly policies where. . .that basically made trans youth vulnerable in the school system. So, if you have a track record of showing up and not just for your one or two buddy organizations, but for everyone, people will then show back up. I think formal coalitions like Jobs with Justice and reaching out to groups like USAS. If there is a USAS chapter at EMU, they are not only receiving the gift of an education from you and your colleagues, but also they are part of a national organization that can bomb the phone lines if you. . . Not literally. Not literally. [Laughter] Call in. I mean there might be some people with some specialized skills. . . [Laughter] So, national coalitions like Jobs with Justice and USAS are two things that I would say really concretely. . . And there are lots of other organizations. Interfaith Worker Justice, very similar. They might have a chapter close to you.
Audience Member: Hi, my name is Dennis Dunn. I am a Communication Worker of America from New York. First of all, I just want to thank you for what you do in West Virginia. It was inspirational. I have an observation and then, a question based on that. We were on strike a couple of years ago for seven weeks and social media was really the catalyst for getting information out to the public and coalition members for getting that support publicly in the community. I am wondering if you felt it was the same where there? There is kind of a timeline of this growing swell because if I watch the local news or any news channel, they just show a blip on West Virginia teachers being out without any meat and potatoes behind what you are really walking for. But, through social media, I can see that and it is rank and file members and teachers like yourself that are getting that message out. Did you have a social media plan? How do you feel like social media helped with your support and your fight?
Wolford: Actually, we had Jay O’Neil who is attending the conference here, as well. He created a page called West Virginia Public Employees. That included everyone who is under the PEIA insurance. We got social workers involved, state police, county workers, those from the Department of Transportation, as well as teachers. We shared that with everyone and we had all on board, all on the page, everyone understanding what was going on. To me, that was one of the biggest things that allowed us to successfully get our message across, allow people to know what was going on and when it was happening, what they were trying to do us. We had people from other professions to come and go along with us on that. Definitely, social media was the number one way of getting it out.
Chen: I know that probably were at least a few politicians who were allied with your cause. Did they tap into their networks in terms of social media and reaching out to their constituencies?
Wolford: The ones in favor? Is that what you are asking?
Wolford: Absolutely. As I said, we had two House of Delegates who were Justin Marcum and Mark Dean, both were phenomenal and on our side. Now, part of our county has Senator Ojeda, who I have mentioned several times. He was on board. Now, the area where I live was, and is, currently represented by Mr. Mark Maynard who is our senator. He was anti-teacher, anti-union, you name it. Complete sleaze ball. He told me that teachers only represented a small amount of his constituents. I, in turn, said, “Well, we have families and we have friends and we do have a lot of influence.” I tried to ask him, “Why will you not propose or support any type of bill that will allow our gas severance tax to be increased by 1-2 percent?” because that was all it was going to take in order to fully fund our insurance. Well, the thing is, we get online and we start checking all their contributions and all those who were voting against it had ten, twenty, fifteen thousand dollar contributions made to their campaigns the corporations, by the gas corporations, by the oil corporations. They could have very easily had just put hat up 1 percent. According to our senator Ojeda, we are actually sitting on the next Saudi Arabia. That is the way he has compared our natural resources that are beneath our feet and they are not doing anything about it. They are allowing them to come in, just as they did with the coal industry, bankrupt our towns. The billionaires are taking the money out. They are leaving. They are not giving us anything in return. We right now have ghost towns across the state of West Virginia. To answer your question completely, we have to have the support of our legislatures. If we don’t, then the people aren’t going to go with you. Now, back to Mark Maynard who is the one in my district, in that conversation that I had, and I tried to explain to him that I needed this, that they had already pulled coal from our state and now if they do the same thing with oil without raising the tax, then we were going to be in the same boat in a few years only it was going to be worse in our towns. His response after he told me that we only represented a minority of his constituents, he says, “I am going to do what is right. I am not here to be re-elected anyway.” I said, “Well, it is a good thing you’re not.” [Laughter] He turns around very quickly and he says, “Thank you for you enthusiasm” and darts off into another room.
Jaffe: This will be our last question and, also, if any of you want to make any final statements while we are answering.
Audience Member: Hi, I am Elizabeth White from the National Union of Healthcare Workers in California. I want to thank the panel for your inspiration. I want to thank Michelle Chen who covered our Kaiser Permanente strike. One of the things that I haven’t heard a lot at this conference that I thought was so powerful and helped me become more of a labor activist is during the Occupy movement, the 99 percent and 1 percent. So often, when you are a professional worker, you are divided from other workers. But, the 99 percent and the 1 percent really cut across and unified, I think began in our work to be able to have our mental health professionals, people with master’s degree and licenses, really embrace the full spectrum of workers. I want to ask the panel, especially Milwaukee, because I remember your Fight for Fifteen. You guys were one of the first ones to go with that. But, how can 99 percent and 1 percent bring back more of a unified approach to our activist work?
Mizialko: I am thinking about your question. It is very good. I can remember that when I was finishing up my dissertation for my PhD, I was interviewing Dr. Antonia Darder and she. . .and I was studying the social construction of whiteness in a classroom and what it means for a teacher like me to teach students who are not like me and “What does that mean?” In our discussion, for the very first time, Professor Darder brought to me this concept of professional and worker. I had not thought about that before. I had declared myself as a professional. And I am, I am a professional worker. But, this concept I think is very important because I think the lie and the trick of the 1 percent is that we are supposed to be like them, we are supposed to strive, we are supposed to keep. . . I don’t think that sounds very good. I think when I started seeing myself as a worker and when I started thinking deeply about what it meant for me to be in true solidarity with my students and with my students families, that that was when the possibilities for my teaching and my students learning really unleashed. This premise of “All of us or none of us” that is how I think of 99 percent and 1 percent. This concept of profiting off of education and these people who see dollar signs over our students’ heads, I think that it is extremely important for the public education message that the 99 percent is taking it back, that we are demanding rich, resourced, properly attended to public spheres and that that is our right. I do appreciate the push on that idea.
Smyser: I think that as a rhetorical strategy, the 1 percent and the 99 percent is good and we certainly use that in our campaign. But, I just want to really echo what Amy was saying. The “We are the 99 percent” has to be built through action, through real solidarity. Because at this point in our country. . . I do believe there is a whole working class that is in a similar boat, the 99 percent. But, there are divisions around gender and race and lots of other things. To make that 99 percent have weight beyond rhetoric that means that a union has to have the social justice bent that Amy was talking about and that Angela was talking about and that Brandon has been talking about. And if they don’t have that, then it is just rhetoric. I think that will attract some people, but that won’t lead to long-lasting social change.
Harris: I agree with that statement. We have to have some real conversations when we are talking about the 99 percent because there are. . . We may be the 99 percent, but there are some people in the 99 percent that are just as bad as the people in the 1 percent. We need to start having some real conversations where we are talking about building this movement and being social justice minded.
Chen: Anyone else have some final words about moving forward under the Trump era? Words of advice?
Harris: Don’t be afraid to fight. Do not be afraid to fight. If they don’t give us what we want, we shut it down. Period.
Wolford: I agree with that statement, as well. Everyone needs to keep the fire burning. We cannot sit back and allow this to happen again. We have to keep our people informed. We have to be at these meetings. We have to be at the capital. We have to have presence in places where we let them know we are watching them and when they turn their heads, they see us standing there and they know that they are not going to be able to run over us any longer. If we don’t do that, if we don’t stick together, if we don’t stay informed, then we are going to end up right back where we were. I have no intentions of allowing my county or my state to get in that position ever again.
Mizialko: The only thing running through my head right now is “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never has and it never will.”
Please note: This is a rush transcript. An edited version will appear on the Dissent website in the coming week.