AFT willing to strike if teachers are forced into unsafe schools
An angry and determined Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, has the full support of her union's national convention when she says "nothing is off the table" in the union's fight for the safety of teachers and children. | Mike Groll/AP

WASHINGTON —The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) is warning state, local, and federal school officials that “nothing is off the table” if those nabobs try to force unsafe schools to open starting in August, during the coronavirus pandemic. And that includes strikes as a last resort.

Union President Randi Weingarten presented the AFT board’s resolution, with that statement, to the union’s virtual convention, which opened July 28 and ran for three days. Delegates adopted it.

“Just as we have done with our healthcare workers, we will fight on all fronts for the safety of our students and their educators,” Weingarten explained in her keynote address. Her 1.6-million-member union includes school nurses and, in some states, hospital nurses, too.

“But if the authorities don’t get it right, and they don’t protect the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve, nothing is off the table—not advocacy or protests, negotiations, grievances or lawsuits, or, if necessary as a last resort, safety strikes.”

Weingarten also used her keynote address to blast right-wing GOP President Donald Trump’s complete mismanagement of both the pandemic and the economic depression closure measures produced. And she strongly backed ongoing nationwide protests against continuing U.S. racism.

And she reiterated the union’s endorsement of presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden to face off against Trump for the Oval Office this November. AFT’s endorsement is important because teachers, as a class, are politically knowledgeable, activist, and motivated on behalf of their students.

Successful strikes in West Virginia—shutting every school in the state—Arizona, Kentucky, Denver, Chicago, and Los Angeles over the last two years showed that commitment. Weingarten challenged union members to undertake 100,000 pro-Biden actions—phone banking or anything else—per month through November.

“Why would anyone trust President Trump with reopening schools, when he mishandled everything else about the coronavirus?” asked Weingarten, a New York City civics teacher.

“Why would anyone trust Betsy DeVos, who has zero credibility about how public schools actually work? Why would anyone try to reopen schools through force and threats, without a plan and without resources, creating chaos? Unless all they wanted was for it to fail?”

By contrast, “Biden is a decent, honest, caring and effective candidate who has put forth policies that embrace and fund public schools, child care, and free college, treat healthcare as a right, strengthen labor unions and confront racial inequities.” Biden was scheduled to address delegates on July 30.

Trump and DeVos, his anti-teacher, anti-union, anti-public school, and anti-student of color Education Secretary, have stoked controversy nationwide by demanding the nation’s 100,000 brick-and-mortar school buildings reopen this fall regardless of the consequences, including the coronavirus threat.

Not only is doing so dangerous to students, parents, teachers, and staffers, especially in coronavirus “hot spots” such as Los Angeles, Houston, and Miami-Dade, but there’s no money for the needed measures to make schools safe.

Those measures would include daily coronavirus testing of everyone at every school and social distancing through classroom split shifts with desks six feet or more apart.

They would also include means to teach students on-line—such as providing poor students with tablets or other internet-enabled devices and setting up WiFi hotspots.

Earlier this year, the union unveiled a comprehensive re-opening plan with an emphasis on safety first. Without it, Weingarten said, teachers and parents are “scared” to send kids back to school buildings, teachers “are quitting in droves…and some are making their wills.”

The coronavirus has killed some 200 AFT members, she added.

But with state and local tax revenues tanking due to the depression, teachers and unions are lobbying the government for the needed money. Trump, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and that chamber’s ruling Republicans are stonewalling them.

McConnell’s version of the next economic stimulus bill contains $100 billion for the schools and nothing for fiscally falling states, counties, and cities, whose taxes provide at least 90% of public school money. Those tax revenues have dried up.

And DeVos keeps trying to divert federal economic stimulus funds away from public schools, where students of color are in the majority, to suburban—and white—private schools.

Weingarten also pointed out that “anything” includes lawsuits. That’s what’s happened in Florida, she noted. The pandemic is so bad there that it forced the Florida Education Association, the state’s 145,000-member joint AFT-National Education Association affiliate, to sue state officials to prevent the imposition of their reopening plan.

Gov. Ron DeSantis, R-Fla., a slavish Trumpite,  his GOP Education Commissioner, and his state school board are mandating immediate and complete reopening of brick-and-mortar schools all over the Sunshine State, regardless of the terrible pandemic outbreak. DeSantis caused it by reopening the state too soon, and Floridians and visitors flocked to beaches, bars, and shopping malls.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of Press Associates Inc. (PAI), a union news service in Washington, D.C. that he has headed since 1999. Previously, he worked as Washington correspondent for the Ottaway News Service, as Port Jervis bureau chief for the Middletown, NY Times Herald Record, and as a researcher and writer for Congressional Quarterly. Mark obtained his BA in public policy from the University of Chicago and worked as the University of Chicago correspondent for the Chicago Daily News.

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