Teachers in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, walked out on strike December 2 for the first time since 1983.
Why now? The state was trying to privatize public education. The local school board was trying to balance the budget on our backs. Add to that a once-in-a-century pandemic.
A well-organized membership was determined not to bend to the pressure from all of the above.
PUSH TO PRIVATIZE
Ohio’s legislature, like others, enacted its own version of privatization with a piece of legislation passed in 2013 called Ed Choice.
This law uses a test-and-punish report card to label a school district as failing. Families living in that district can then take public money as a tuition voucher for a private or religious school of their choice.
The Cleveland Heights-University Heights district already had a high concentration of families sending their kids to private and religious schools. Now these families are draining the district of much-needed state funding—creating a budget crisis.
It’s all straight from the playbook of the privatization purveyors. First, starve public schools of funds. This erodes the quality of education, prompting an exodus of students out of the district. This brings pressure to lay off union teaching staff and demand pay cuts. The cycle repeats.
LOCAL AGENTS OF AUSTERITY
Our union was well aware of the descending storm. That’s why, with the help of the Ohio Federation of Teachers, we led the efforts to change the Ed Choice law. We got no help from our elected school board, and so far our lobbying has yielded no results.
Then in the spring, the Board of Education dropped a hammer, demanding contract concessions unlike any our negotiators had ever seen.
Claiming poverty and citing an impending budget crisis, the board proposed to eliminate experience step increases, something we’ve always had. It demanded a 250 percent increase in what we pay for health insurance and a 1 percent reduction in the board’s share of our state pension. These concessions added up to a $3,000 to $5,000 annual cut in pay.
The board claimed the cuts would bring our health insurance “in line” with surrounding districts. But over the past decade, our union had made concession after concession on wages to keep our health care costs from spiraling. It was a point of pride that we had maintained a decent health care package over the years—even at the expense of a wage rate that fell behind the cost of living.
OUT FOR BLOOD
The extreme demands hit members like a bombshell. But most people thought the district would bargain down. Our negotiators got the district to back off the experience steps.
On our health care, though, it seemed to be out for blood. Apparently the board was listening to a small, vocal minority of anti-tax activists who were misleading the public into believing that our health plans were the reason the district was heading into fiscal crisis.
In June our union formed a strike committee and began organizing for a strike, though the possibility still seemed remote.
Throughout the summer we were also distracted by the global pandemic. The district was planning to start the new school year in person, even though the pandemic showed no signs of diminishing. Teachers lobbied, with community support, and convinced the district to go fully online. But still the impasse in bargaining was causing great consternation.
AT AN IMPASSE
In September the district announced its last, best contract offer. Our strike committee organized an in-person contract rejection vote. Members drove through in their cars; union volunteers handed them ballots. It was a way to bring people together while we couldn’t meet in large groups.
The final tally was 97.5 percent to reject the contract—more than enough to authorize the union to call a strike. We hoped this overwhelming rejection would bring the board to its senses. But instead it decided to impose its offer, an unprecedented step in our local’s history.
This blatant show of disrespect incensed our members, especially after the board told the press that the union was the one refusing to bargain in good faith. Soon after, the board agreed to another round of negotiations—but these were postponed when both sides agreed to wait until after the November 3 election, when a new local tax levy would be on the ballot.
In the meantime, the union strike committee continued to organize in earnest, meeting weekly via Zoom.
PREPARING TO STRIKE
The election came and went; the tax levy passed narrowly. Negotiations reopened—and still the board refused to budge from its final offer.
After a series of vociferous Zoom meetings with the membership, our union president filed a 10-day strike notice. A couple days later the school board president, with crocodile tears in her eyes, made the shocking announcement that the district would be suspending our health insurance on day one of the strike.
This move, though we discovered it was not unprecedented, was highly unusual for a public sector strike. Advisors from the Teachers (AFT) told us they had never seen this happen to one of their locals before. As it turned out, it was a terrible public relations move for the board. We got an outpouring of support from community members outraged at the cruelty of eliminating health insurance during a pandemic.
Meanwhile our organizing efforts had become urgent. Each school building had formed its own strike committee, taking direction from the union-wide committee.
The building where I work, the high school, has a relatively large membership of 140. We decided to divide into strike teams by department, each with a captain. Since we were doing distance learning, we couldn’t see members in person daily, so the strike captains set up text and email chains and made phone calls to keep members informed, organize picket-line shift schedules, cement members’ commitment to the strike, and identify possible scabs.
Well before the 10-day notice, the union-wide committee had strike captains distribute electronic pledge cards asking members where they stood on the impending strike—were they supportive, would they picket, and would they promise not to cross the picket line? We also sent out forms to select your preferred picketing shift.
STRIKING IN THE SNOW
Then complications arose. First, COVID-19 cases surged in Ohio, and the governor handed down new mandates closing public facilities and limiting assemblies to 10 people. We lost access to the library branches we had planned to use for restrooms and as warming stations. In the last week before the strike, our committees had to find new restrooms and revamp the picket schedules to shorten shifts.
The day before the strike, Northeast Ohio was blasted by a massive snowstorm. With some schools now off limits due to the snow and loss of parking spaces, we had to change plans again. We called for members to picket at two locations: the high school and the Board of Education. We also had to postpone a planned in-car rally, because the location was still buried in snow.
Nonetheless, as the sun rose on “D-Day,” our members came out in massive numbers in the bitter cold and snow. Teachers started the first day of picketing with snow shovels and blowers to clear the sidewalks.
After three and a half hours, word reached the lines that that a settlement had been reached, one that our executive board could recommend. We went home for Zoom meetings to debate the merits of the offer. Two days later, members voted it up by more than 90 percent.
THEY FOUND THE MONEY
The contract is decent. Although it has us paying more for our premiums and opens the door to co-pays, these concessions are much less than the ones in the board’s egregious “final” offer. They are concessions we can live with, and they are partly offset by a modest raise and additional days off.
We got a two-year contract instead of one year, so we don’t have to fight this battle again in a few months. And in a huge win, we safeguarded tenure for five more years—staving off the arbitrary and punitive evaluation system the district was pushing.
Somehow, at the end, the school board had found the money to offer a dignified contract.
It showed that a well-organized group of workers can reject austerity. One member put it well when she said the so-called final offer was nothing less than a “race to the bottom and we weren’t having it.” Our unity proved unshakeable—even when we were confronted with having our health care cut off, a move designed to scare members into crossing the picket lines.
Walking off the picket lines one fellow strike captain, a music teacher, told me that we need to maintain what we built. We need to develop a union culture where we have one another’s backs and band together to protect ourselves in the workplace—even in between contract negotiations.
This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on December 11, 2020. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Tony Bifulco is a history teacher and was the lead strike captain for Cleveland Heights High School.