Toward the end of the summer, the Washington Teachers’ Union in D.C. fought off an unsafe buildings reopening (and I say “buildings,” as schools themselves have been operating remotely). Some of the tactics—car caravans, mock classrooms, and body bags outside of a school system office—caught the attention of critics.
Some, including Marc Thiessen in his Washington Post op-ed, “Schools aren’t that risky, and teachers are essential workers. We must reopen,” tried to portray the union as selfishly hurting poor and working-class families. Currently, teachers are in another fight to have their voices heard in the discussions around reopening, as the mayor and chancellor continue to push a half-baked plan that can disrupt learning and harm communities.
Educators won’t let the building reopening debate be twisted to pit the union against the rest of the working-class. Unions can acknowledge the hardship on communities that comes with building closures, while also showing that these hardships are not a failure of educators fighting for safety. It is, in fact, the failure of an economic system that promotes exploitation instead of humanity, creating conditions that make it so difficult to manage major crises.
In his op-ed, Thiessen points out that “Many depend on schools for food and health services. And working-class parents, who don’t have the luxury of telecommuting, can’t work if their kids are not in school.” There is no arguing that working people have suffered the most economically under pandemic restrictions. Workers have not only lost wages, but often healthcare. While many schools are still providing meal pick-up, it is not perfect, and for the many parents who are continuing to work (often in unsafe conditions), childcare adds a large hurdle to an already difficult situation.
However, the disruption that school building closures have during a pandemic highlights the weak, stripped safety nets and harmful priorities of an economy built on the continuous push for profits on the backs of workers.
Imagine if, as Ben Burgis argues in Jacobin, we had a healthcare system funded like the Pentagon and prepared for health crises in the same way the Pentagon prepares for war. Imagine if wealth was not accumulated into the hands of a few but instead distributed in order to provide a living income for those out of work. Imagine if workers could democratically decide on the return to their facilities, and if the return did happen during a crisis, it was with sufficient safety protocols agreed on by the employees. Sadly, all of these ideas demand profits from the wealthy in order to finance, and it is the capitalist class that has thwarted even the most modest tax measures.
Thiessen also brings up the challenges that come with teaching students with special needs remotely. Educators are currently innovating and designing lessons and routines in order to reach every student, and many are having great successes. But, again, imagine if creating the most effective virtual learning environment and training was prioritized, funded, and implemented. Instead we have politicians reacting to drastic funding cuts and pressures from a nervous capitalist class, all who were never concerned about learning deficits when they ignored under-resourced schools and crowded classrooms outside of the pandemic but suddenly care when business interests are at stake.
A group of workers fighting for safe conditions should not be portrayed as the enemy of other workers and families. This is simply a maneuver that takes control away from both groups and gives more to those already in power.
Instead, teacher unions build solidarity with workers, parents, and community members in ways that highlight the root of the problems and directly respond in an active fight for solutions. While this is a large ask of educators already spread thin, it is an incredibly important means to change the narrative, raise consciousness, and support those communities being impacted by building closures.
Many educators are already directly involved in a variety of fights for other working people, as educators naturally care about policies that are good for their students and families. Also, many parents of DCPS children are incredibly supportive of the union’s calls in the reopening decisions. Because of strong relationships, DCPS parents trust that educators want what is best for communities.
D.C. union members have joined Cancel Rent rallies, Black Lives Matter protests, and more. When educators and parents were not allowed to testify at a City Council hearing on the reopening plan, the union created their own hearing outside of City Council offices, where both parents and teachers shared their concerns. These acts help build solidarity between the families, working people, and the union.
In D.C., there are a number of organizations that work to help communities affected by poverty, including mutual aid groups in each ward that are seeing dwindling funds and volunteer burnout months into the pandemic. The Washington Teachers’ Union can mobilize to help these groups in order to create large working-class coalitions, much like the Chicago Teachers Union did during the 2012 strike. The solidarity built is based on a moral imperative to help those hurt by building closures, but it can also provide an education on the capitalistic root of problems, as well as prepare workers from different backgrounds to collaborate and provide assistance to one another for fights in the future.
Unions can highlight systemic flaws and support those who are impacted, especially those not protected by a union, instead of feeding into an antagonistic narrative that pits workers against each other. Educators can continue to join fights for policies that help working people and families, such as Medicare for All, Universal Basic Income, and more. As the reopening fight escalates, we can continue to show—it’s not educators, it’s capitalism.