- Interview by
- Eric Blanc
Today, thousands of educators from across Virginia are walking out and converging at the state capitol for a public education day of action. Their movement in many ways resembles last year’s explosive red-state revolts in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona. Given the weakness of Virginia’s teachers’ unions, and the absence of collective bargaining, militant teacher activists have initiated a statewide push from below for more school funding and pay raises.
Through on-the-ground organizing at school sites, social media, and some ingenious music videos, a new rank-and-file network — Virginia Educators United (VEU) — has begun to galvanize educators across the state. To discuss the emergence and stakes of this struggle, Jacobin’s Eric Blanc spoke with Sarah Pedersen, a founder of VEU and a sixth-grade history teacher in Richmond.
What are conditions like for educators and students in Virginia?
During the recession, Virginia suffered a huge drop in revenue — and nothing was hit as hard as public education. And here we are, ten years later, and our public schools are still being forced to live under the same austerity regime.
What that means for me as a sixth-grade teacher is that I work in a building that is literally one hundred years old and every year we lose heat for at least a week. Since my students are primarily low-income, and since their parents can’t always afford a winter coat, what happens is that a lot of them have to sit there shivering in my classroom.
My district was also in the news last year because we didn’t have enough toilet paper for our students — I wish I could say it’s a quirk of our particular budget, but I know so many teachers who are forced to buy hand sanitizer and tissues so our students can properly clean themselves. It’s maddening, it’s heartbreaking.
And as a teacher I’m personally faced with deep student loan debt and an outrageous hospital bill because the coverage we’re provided doesn’t even cover typical expenses. Last year, me and my husband (who is also a teacher) had a daughter and it cost us $10,000 out of pocket. That’s outrageous to me because so many teachers, definitely a majority, are mothers — but our insurance here doesn’t cover childbirth.
Can you speak about the organizing leading up to the January 28 walkout?
Our core group of organizers that make up Virginia Educators United, we’re scattered all over the state. We initially met primarily through our union, the VEA [Virginia Education Association], though a few of us are in AFT [American Federation of Teachers].
We first got connected at last year’s delegates assembly of the VEA. At that convention, a good number of us delegates were on fire because of what had happened in West Virginia. Lots of us were so moved by West Virginia that we started talking with each other after the assembly. And what we concluded was basically that to win we needed a larger coalition than just union members, which aren’t even a majority of educators in Virginia. We knew we had to bring in parents. Really, we took a page out of what we’d seen work in these other states, where they were engaging the larger community. It was incredibly inspiring.
So we started a closed Facebook group and we invited everybody we knew to it; ever since it’s been steadily growing. We’re still pretty small, but over the past two weeks, every single day we hear about more schools and districts planning on coming to Richmond on January 28 for our day of action, which we called to coincide with the union’s lobby day. Lots of teachers on their own have started self-organizing to get off work and get to Richmond — so this thing now has stronger legs than just those of us in Virginia Educators United.
One of our goals of putting out the call for a mass rally and action on January 28 was to show what collective and direct action looks like, for both union members and nonunion members. Another was to make sure that while there are some VEA members inside our legislative building lobbying, we’ll also have thousands of people outside carrying the same message from all over the state in our rally and our march.
I imagine that one of the tricky things about this organizing is relating to the unions — how have you navigated this?
When we first started organizing, our original goal was mostly to drive up union membership in both VEA and AFT, to draw more radical energy into the union, to push it to a more progressive and active stance. And we wanted to do that within the structure of the union, which is one reason why we’re supporting VEA’s lobby day.
Really, we want to resurrect our unions, which is hard because currently they’re in free fall. We’re hoping to get them to step into their own power, in order to make both public education and the labor movement stronger. But to make that happen we need to push our unions to take on direct action and to do real organizing, not just provide insurance and lobbying. We want to resurrect teacher power and community power in our state.
What are the main demands of Virginia Educators United?
We’ve got five.
The first is to get per-pupil spending back to prerecession levels. Second, we’re demanding that teacher pay be brought up to the national average and that pay for support staff be made competitive as well. Third, we’re calling on the state to come up with a plan to recruit and retain quality teachers, particularly teachers of color. The fourth demand is for the state to make major improvements to school infrastructure. And our final demand is that the state government needs to ensure that every school has adequate support staff.
That piece on retaining teachers of color is significant — I haven’t seen this particular demand raised yet in the other recent strikes. Do you see your movement as having a racial justice dimension?
Absolutely. My students are almost all students of color and so I want them to be able to have more teachers from their background, that’s really important. And I want my kids to have every opportunity that kids in other states and other counties have. We teach with a social justice lens; our organizing is also going to have that framework.
Virginia has had a Democratic governor and a Republican legislature for a very long time, which has provided a convenient excuse for the Democrats to explain why they can’t get more education funding. However, those Democratic governors haven’t always done right by us either.
The former governor, Terry McAuliffe, is the one that made the deal with Amazon, giving it $1 billion dollars. And in his letter to Amazon, to Jeff Bezos — the richest man in the world — our governor literally wrote that “in Virginia, we put corporate partners first.”
That honesty is something else …
Right? I was surprised the quote didn’t get around more.
So we’ve got a lot of corporate Democrats that have been elected, not only Republicans. One of our goals is to ensure that everyone runs on education in the upcoming election. Public education is the largest issue in Virginia right now and so far the voting records of almost all our legislators are paltry. For our students and for our communities, we need to ensure that we have candidates that have the political courage to confront the corporations.
Politicians on both sides of the aisle usually say that they support education, but that there’s just not enough money to give us what we’re asking for. Where do you think the funding should come from?
First of all, we’ve got a billion dollar surplus in Virginia right now. But what the legislature is about to do is pass a tax cut for families making over $125,000 a year. It’s crazy — well, I guess it actually makes a lot of sense given who is funding these politicians. They don’t care about our families. Or they’re not brave enough to fight for our families.
That’s part of it, but it goes deeper because Virginia has not raised its corporate tax in three years — and it is already one of the lowest in the country. And two-thirds of corporations in Virginia don’t even pay income tax. Closing these loopholes would create more than enough revenue to meet our demands.
Can you speak a bit more about the inspiration you’ve gotten from the teachers’ strikes in other states?
There’s no other word for it than amazing — in every sense of the word. Before West Virginia, if you had asked anybody whether educators could strike in a red state, almost everybody would have told you: “No way, they’ll lose their jobs.”
But what West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona all showed was that teachers have the moral authority to call attention to these issues — and that we have an obligation to do so.
One of the key things about the issue of public education is that it doesn’t break left or right, it breaks working class. Regardless of your political affiliation, you want your kids to go to a good school.
And when parents hear that me and husband make so little that we’re seriously considering leaving the state, they’re devastated. Because they know that their children deserve qualified professionals who love their kids.
We’re losing that quality education because both Democrats and Republican politicians have been starving our schools; both have been moving towards privatization and charterization. What these strikes are doing is that they’re igniting a coalition of working-class people to advocate for those few public institutions that are still left in our country.
And now we have the powerful, inspiring example of Los Angeles. So this wave shows no sign of stopping anytime soon — and we’re on it here in Virginia.
I have every expectation that those in power are going to need a few more wake-up calls before they meet our demands. And I have every expectation that we’ll keep ringing these alarm bells for as long as it takes. We’re not giving up.