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  • Published in Opinion
Striking teachers inside the Kentucky state Capitol building holding placards

"Cuts won't heal": striking teachers inside the Kentucky state Capitol building. Photo: Twitter/@valubit

As school teachers walk out across the US, in Kentucky they're storming the state Capitol and making big demands, reports striking teacher James H. Miller

The question for us as Kentucky teachers isn’t “are we getting screwed?” We know we’re getting screwed. Governor Bevin won election with a mere 16% of registered voters (about 500,000 voters out of 3.2 million registered voters in Kentucky), so he can hardly claim a mandate for dismantling the pension and retirement plans of Kentucky state workers.

During the election he claimed he would fix the ongoing pension crisis (created, it must be said, by bipartisan neglect), and he lived up to his word in the same way that a doctor promises his patients they will not die of cancer and then euthanizes them.

So teachers in Kentucky know that Bevin is not their ally and does not have their best interests at heart. What we disagree upon is what to do about it. Some teachers have put all of their faith in the statewide professional organization, Kentucky Educators Association, which lobbies on our behalf and has certainly won some victories in these matters. But many others believe that KEA has been insufficiently militant, which is why Kentucky teachers pulled off a wildcat sickout on Friday March 30, immediately after the Republican-dominated state legislature passed a pension bill late at night without the required actuarial analysis or 24-hour reading period.

During the Friday sickout many teachers stormed the halls of the state capital, confronting legislators and making so much noise that lawmakers complained they couldn’t hear each other’s speeches. But many teachers stayed at home, fearful that their bosses might see them on the news and challenge their sick leave status.

On the Monday immediately following the sickout, tens of thousands of teachers, public workers, union members, and supporters swarmed the grounds of the Capitol building, covering the front lawn in a sea of red shirts and signs (reflecting the common “Wear Red for Public Ed” slogan in this and other states). Hundreds more people filled the Capitol rotunda, the legislative chambers, the hallways outside lawmakers’ offices, and even a tunnel that connects the Capitol with a nearby annex.

After this demonstration, energy was high, but folks could not agree on the next step. In fact, folks couldn’t agree on what we wanted. Some wanted only to defend pensions. Others wanted to defend pensions and also to address other ongoing attacks on public education. Still others (including me) wanted to seize this opportunity to demand significant improvements to public education instead of merely defending the status quo. We wanted to protect our students by demanding the elimination of legislation that would further criminalize black and brown youth and an end to zero-tolerance policies. We wanted to protect our students’ families by opposing regressive sales taxes and flat taxes.

As of this writing, over 3000 Kentuckians have signed their names to a list of demands which includes: improvement of pension and retirement plans; public funds for public education; progressive taxation and closing loopholes not regressive measures and cuts; prioritising student safety, health and educational needs; restoring social security benefits for pension recipients.

This list of demands has been somewhat controversial. Some have said that it represents a “political agenda,” which of course it does, because all of these struggles are political struggles. But these are not the demands of any particular political party. They were crafted by rank-and-file Kentucky teachers.

So what’s next? There’s widespread disagreement on the best strategy to pursue. Some are opposed to any sickouts or other job actions, arguing that they will hurt students and damage teachers’ credibility in the public eye. Others argue in favor of limited job actions such as the occasional sickout. Still others want Kentucky teachers to walk off the job completely until the November election gives voters the opportunity to sweep all of the anti-public education lawmakers out of office.

Various Facebook groups and pages have sprung up in defense of these strategies. There are the pages run by the official teachers’ organizations, including KEA and the Jefferson County Teachers’ Association. There are well-organized groups such as KY 120 United with thousands of members. There is a group, Defend Public Education, devoted to promoting the list of demands and encouraging discussion among teachers about strategy, tactics and goals.

As of this writing, there are too many unknowns to predict the future. Will the legislature override the governor’s veto of the state budget? Will state senators like Damon Thayer try to slip in a bill providing public funding for private schools at the last minute? No one knows.

But one thing will not change: Kentucky teachers are angry and they will not be easily placated. Already dozens of Kentucky educators have registered to run for state and local offices in campaigns specifically targeting incumbents who voted in favor of the governor’s anti-public education agenda. Already hundreds of Kentucky teachers have repeatedly swarmed the state capital in rowdy protests. Already thousands of Kentucky teachers have participated in a wildcat sickout strike. The future is unpredictable, but it will belong to us.

James H. Miller

James H. Miller teaches at duPont Manual High School, Louisville KY and hosts the radio show/podcast From Classroom to Newsroom, available at fc2n.com.

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