By ERNIE GOTTA
Across the country, teachers in their thousands are fighting back against poor working conditions, low wages, overflowing classrooms, and unusable health care. Following teachers in Arizona, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and West Virginia, Los Angeles teachers erupted in a strike last month. They are 34,000 teachers strong and ready to take a stand against austerity in the country’s second largest school district.
From L.A. to Hartford, Conn., urban areas are being hit hard with austerity. Hartford itself has a lot of contradictions. It is one of the poorest cities in the country, yet it is in one of the wealthiest states and surrounded by affluent suburbs. The needs of a city rich with Latino, Afro-Caribbean, and African-American culture is routinely ignored by the state government while at the same time it regularly squeezes more and more out of its residents.
Today, the city’s mayor, Luke Bronin, through his appointed officials on the school board along with Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez, is attempting to weaken the Hartford Federation of Teachers by demanding greater and greater givebacks. In their last contract, teachers agreed to take a pay freeze to help out the struggling city. The superintendents newly proposed contract seeks to cut even more, and teachers don’t want another lousy contract.
Below is an interview with Joshua Blanchfield, one of the 1900 rank-and-file members of the Hartford Federation of Teachers who has been active in the contract fight. He discusses the issues and ways in which teachers in Hartford are fighting back.
Ernie Gotta: I’ve been following your tweets about the developing situation with Hartford teachers. What would you say is the root cause of the Superintendent’s attack on the Hartford Federation of Teachers?
Joshua Blanchfield: The proposal from the Superintendent and the Hartford Board of Education is unfortunately in line with other anti-union, anti-teacher contracts that have been pushed across the country, especially in urban districts. Hartford, like many urban school districts, operates under the inherently undemocratic system of mayoral control of educational governance. This component of the city charter enables the mayor to stack the Hartford Board of Education with political appointees and sycophants. They comprise the majority of the board and simply act as a rubber stamp for the superintendent.
When you have a power structure like this, anti-union policies, and in this case contracts, become the norm, and this has played out across the country.
EG: What are biggest issues that Hartford teachers feel need to be addressed?
JB: The financial crisis of the municipality of Hartford has been front-page news for many years now, worsening each year. In a good faith effort, the Hartford Federation of Teachers has proven time and again that we love our city and our students. In the previous contract negotiations two years ago, as a tangible example of our commitment, we agreed to a wage freeze. It hurt, but we wanted to help our city in a very real way.
Keep in mind, no other organ of Hartford Public Schools did this: principals kept getting raises, and most grotesquely, the Superintendent’s shameful salary continued to balloon. It now is a quarter of a million dollars. In this latest fight, the Superintendent demanded another two years of wage freezes, while at the same time forcing every teacher into a high deductible ($4000) health savings account, with deductions from wages increasing. This would represent four years of frozen wages and higher health-care costs, so all of it is massive wage cuts for every teacher.
But really, that’s the tip of the iceberg in this contract fight: cutting all prep time, cutting the sick time bank in order to terminate sick workers more easily, ending standardized documentation of student discipline, and cutting lines in the salary schedule to punish highly educated workers.
Finally, the most boldfaced attack on our union was to force the HFT to have only one detached duty officer, down from three. These three teachers, the president and our two vice presidents, coordinate over 1900 teachers. And even now they are overworked. To cut it to one would effectively kill the union.
EG: How are teachers responding to the current situation, considering that in the last contract they agreed to a pay freeze?
JB: Basically, by using all the tools in the tool box. Everything from social media to directly confronting the Superintendent at nonpublic “executive session” board of education meetings has been employed. The pressure from all these angles did effectively shame the Superintendent back to the negotiating table even after pushing the whole process to arbitration.
EG: Are teachers linking their fight and needs to the needs of the broader Hartford community? If so how are those connections beginning to unfold?
JB: We have always operated by the maxim that the working conditions of the teachers become the learning conditions for our students. When you devalue teachers, you devalue students. Families and students are the best ones to vocalize this—and they have. At the most recent board of education meeting, the public comments hammered the Superintendent and Board for this action. It is amazing how powerful a force it is when the students, families, and teachers are galvanized and have total solidarity.
EG: Do you find a connection between the insurgent teachers’ struggles that have emerged across the country and the attacks on theJB: Ever since the election of Karen Lewis and Jesse Sharkey as the leaders of the Chicago Teachers Union, we have been more in touch with the struggles of teachers nationwide. The CTU reinvigorated our struggle, as well as the fight to defend public education, and we owe them a great debt. This teacher militancy and urgency to defend public education has now spread everywhere.
Like never before though, Hartford teachers have begun discussions of labor unrest, especially within the punitive Connecticut system, which explicitly outlaws teachers from striking. I will just say we’re discussing all options.
EG: Do you see this situation being resolved with a favorable outcome for the teachers?
JB: Because of Connecticut’s binding arbitration laws, we will at this point be handed a contract and have no vote on it, nor will the Hartford Board of Education members. Discussions involving both sides have progressed before the three-member arbitration panel, and it seems because of pressure on the Superintendent, there has been movement away from such a punishing, antagonistic contract.
EG: Anything else you’d like to add?
JB: The larger goal of teacher militancy and worker control needs to extend beyond the contract fight. That is where the real work lies.