It was a long time coming, but when 400 members of the Scranton Federation of Teachers (SFT) marched out of the school board meeting Tuesday night singing “Solidarity Forever,” they were strike ready.
The school board had just given the go-ahead to cut off educators’ health insurance if they went on strike. This, after dozens of teachers and para-educators had spoken about the devastating cuts that students and teachers have endured over the last four years — cuts to pre-K education, to the arts, to music, to libraries. And after educators had told the school board about the medical conditions — cancer, multiple sclerosis — that would go untreated or result in monumental bills without health insurance.
In the face of the board’s “callous and heartless” decision, as SFT president Rosemary Boland called it, the union’s 900 members did not back down. Yesterday they hit the picket line.
Kathleen Beckwith, a middle school English and science teacher and twenty-four-year veteran of the Scranton public schools, was exhausted by last night. But, she said, “People are realizing that we need to be strong — that when you come together for a common cause it can be really positive.”
A Long Time Coming
The union has been without a contract for four years. In the last two years, they have lost 100 colleagues, either because the positions were cut or because educators have left, fed up with the board’s disinvestment in the schools.
The cuts to librarians, related arts classes, and music especially impact the students who need them most, who are least likely to have access to these activities through their families. “We are a very diverse community,” said high school English teacher Adam McCormick. “There is a wide range of socioeconomic levels. The school district has to provide opportunities for students. And they haven’t. Opportunities for students are more and more limited.”
Over the four years of stonewalling from the school board, the union has revised its demands three times to try to accommodate the district. But the district won’t budge — even as it has received almost $60 million in federal pandemic relief funds that could be spent increasing salaries for current educators and bringing back educators who can offer students the opportunities that have been taken away.
A few specific sticking points: The district is pushing bigger class sizes, a worse health plan, and a longer school day.
Members authorized a strike back in the spring, but the union’s executive board decided to wait for schools to reopen in person before calling the strike.
“We’re Seeing Red”
Leading up to the strike, union members met with parents and provided backpacks for returning students. “We wanted everyone to know we wanted to be back in schools,” Beckwith said. “The district has an agenda. Our agenda is to get back to school.”
Union members have been speaking at school board meetings and doing informational pickets at schools. They’re using the theme “We are seeing RED” to show their anger at the impact of cuts. A few weeks ago, they draped red shirts on 100 seats in the auditorium where the school board meets. Each red shirt represented an educator who was no longer with the district.
Boland says the community is 100 percent behind the striking teachers. Businesses are feeding them, motorists are honking support at picketers, and three union-endorsed candidates won school board seats Tuesday night.
Still, without health insurance and pay, it could be a long haul for these educators. McCormick will be picketing with his brother, who is also a teacher in the district. Because they’ve been without a contract and wages are frozen, McCormick’s brother, a sixteen-year teacher with two children, hasn’t received the step bump that he would have been due this year (a significant increase in pay that comes after sixteen years). That means his finances are tighter, and he is facing even more hardship by going on strike. “It’s humbling to walk the line with men and women who have a lot more on the line and are still willing to do it,” said McCormick.
Scranton, it should be noted, is home to Joe Biden. The school board that has been cutting the budget, in a district where 82 percent of people are living below the poverty level, is dominated by Democrats. The strikers never mentioned Biden — but you have to wonder, when McCormick says, “We want to get more eyes on these issues,” whose eyes might make a difference.