Graduate students at the University of Maine are hoping the higher education system may voluntarily recognize their proposed union, allowing student-workers to avoid having to undergo an election process that could prove time-consuming, particularly if the administration were to attempt to push back against the bargaining unit.
Vaclava Hazukova, a PhD candidate in the Ecology and Environmental Sciences Program at UMaine, said the effort to form a union of graduate students began about three years ago in response to low wages, insufficient health care benefits and an overload of work. That movement culminated in a unionization “card drive” that began at the end of February and represents the continuation of a national trend of graduate students seeking to organize.
Hazukova said the proposed UMaine union would encompass all graduate students at the institution, including research assistants, teaching assistants and graduate assistants. All told, that would include about a thousand people, she said.
Under National Labor Relations Board regulations, at least 30% of workers must sign a card to trigger a union election. However, union organizers are looking to build even more support to put pressure on the university to voluntarily recognize the bargaining unit, which would allow students to move directly to bargaining with the administration. UMaine graduate students are seeking to join the United Auto Workers (UAW), which has assisted over 40,000 workers in higher education in forming unions in the past eight years.
While student organizers declined to give a specific number of signatures they have gathered in favor of the union so far, Amanda Gavin, another PhD student in the Ecology and Environmental Sciences program, said those involved in the campaign are confident they have “supermajority support for the union” among those eligible.
“It’s about having a seat at the table,” Gavin said of the reasoning behind forming a union. “Because right now, the university, the administrators, unilaterally make decisions about our health care, about our wages, about our benefits, about our working conditions, and we’re not consulted in any of that. And so we need to have a recognized seat at the table.”
Hazukova echoed that sentiment.
“We just need a voice,” she said. “We just need an entity and a platform that would allow us to negotiate with the administration on some more equal footing.”
A primary issue graduate students hope to address by creating a union is low wages. Hazukova said that the minimum stipend for master’s students at UMaine is $17,000 a year while PhD students earn a minimum stipend of $20,000 annually. Some graduate students may make more than that because their particular department might give them more pay or due to grant funding, Hazukova noted. But for many, the current pay level has led to significant financial insecurity.
“We’re really far from a living wage in the state of Maine,” Hazukova said.
Another issue graduate students want to address through a union contract is the skimpy health benefits provided by the university. Hazukova said grad students’ health care doesn’t include vision or dental and that they split premium costs at a 50-50 level with the university, which is below the contribution amount many employers across the country pay.
Overall, Gavin said graduate students in the UMaine system receive the lowest pay of any such students at public universities in New England and also have the worst health plan in terms of how much they have to contribute. She said the low pay is doubly concerning given that some students — including Gavin — are explicitly barred through their position with the university from working another job outside the institution. And Gavin added that even those who are permitted to seek other jobs often can’t because the work of being a graduate student is so time consuming.
“We have inconsistent pay, we have a lack of affordable housing, we have bad health care benefits, we are not making a living wage,” she said. “And I believe that all workers deserve those things, including graduate workers.”
Discussions with university leaders about the union are ongoing and Gavin said the tenor of the conversations has been positive so far. She said the administration has expressed “that they don’t want to fight with us” and that they want to work with graduate students in good faith. Gavin expressed optimism that a graduate students’ union could have a productive relationship with university leaders.
Hazukova also said conversations have gone well so far, and noted that organizers are “hopeful for voluntary recognition [of the union], but we don’t have confirmation of that and nothing is set in stone.”
Tory Ryden, a spokesperson for the University system, told Beacon that there are conversations taking place with UAW and students about potentially voluntarily recognizing the union but said no final decision had been made as of Friday.
“At this point, we are in active discussions with the United Auto Workers Union which represents the graduate students during their organizing efforts,” Ryden said in an email. “We are working together to outline the process surrounding union card count and voluntary recognition.”
The UMaine graduate students’ unionizing effort is not happening in a vacuum but comes as other student-workers across the country have formed collective bargaining units, including those at the University of California System and Boston University.
That movement is part of an overall national reckoning with labor conditions at institutions of higher education, as many professors are also seeking to organize and unions and advocates are raising concerns about the low pay provided to adjunct teachers.
The trend toward seeking the protections afforded by unionization has occurred at other institutions in Maine, such as Bates College. However, a unionization campaign there ultimately failed earlier this year after an anti-union campaign by the administration.
Evan Popp studied journalism at Ithaca College and interned at the Progressive magazine, ThinkProgress and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He then worked for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper before joining Beacon. Evan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Close to 50 people rallied in South Portland on Thursday to call on the Maine Community College System to agree to a new contract with adjunct faculty members that pays them a fair wage.
The rally, held at the campus of Southern Maine Community College — one of seven higher education institutions within the system — comes as the adjunct faculty union has been negotiating for a new contract since January, when the previous agreement expired. The adjunct union is a chapter of the Maine Service Employees Association (MSEA), SEIU Local 1989.
“The Maine Community College System relies on us, they need us, and they can’t function without us. And we deserve the respect that comes from that,” Katrina Ray-Saulis, an adjunct professor within the system and the chapter president of the union, said at Thursday’s event.
(Disclosure: Ray-Saulis is a contributor to Beacon).
The battle over how college’s should treat adjuncts — who are typically part-time, non-tenure track professors that work for less money and don’t have the job security year-to-year associated with tenure-track professors — is playing out around the country. Nationwide, colleges and universities have increasingly filled faculty positions with adjuncts as a cost-cutting measure. Fifty years ago, about 80% of teaching positions were tenure-track. But that proportion has flipped on its head, as advocates now estimate that 75% of college teaching positions around the country are filled with adjunct instructors and that adjuncts teach over half of university courses.
The situation at the Maine Community College System (MCCS) is similar. Noel Gallagher, director of communications and public affairs for MCCS, said there are 572 adjuncts teaching in the system during the spring semester and 358 full-time faculty members. Gallagher added that under their respective contracts, full-time faculty are required to teach a minimum of 15 credit hours a semester — and have additional responsibilities at the college — while adjuncts can teach a maximum of 12 credit hours per semester. However, most adjuncts at MCCS (87%) end up teaching less than the 12-credit-hour maximum allowed in their contract, the university system said.
As contract negotiations between adjuncts and MCCS continue, the main sticking point appears to be compensation. Ray-Saulis said under the terms of their last union contract, adjuncts across the system are paid $930 per credit hour. That means if they teach a one credit course, $930 is all they would make for a 15-week class. If the course was worth three credits, they would be paid $2,790 for those 15 weeks, Ray-Saulis said.
Given the amount of work that goes into teaching, she said that’s not a lot of money.
“You have all this time [spent] communicating with students, corresponding with students outside of class time, grading, updating your courses … all that falls under that same $930 a credit hour. And when you break it down, it’s basically minimum wage for a lot of people,” she said.
MCCS students who attended Thursday’s rally agreed. Christine Livia, who studies at Central Maine Community College in Auburn, said attending school there has been an empowering experience. That’s why it’s all the more disappointing that many professors aren’t being paid adequately and don’t have long-term job security, she said.
“Frankly, as a student, I think it’s really unfair that the people who are working really hard to ensure I have an awesome education aren’t making a living wage,” Livia said, noting that one professor told her that he works multiple jobs just to make ends meet.
“To the community college system management: Respect your workers, give them a living wage and long-term job security and allow them to thrive in the same way that they want to see their students thrive,” Livia added.
In the current contract negotiations, Ray-Saulis said some progress has been made with MCCS management around updating the system’s anti-discrimination policy and creating additional professional development opportunities for adjuncts.
However, she said the response to requests for increased pay has been disappointing.
“They’ve moved very little on compensation,” she said of MCCS management.
In a statement, David Daigler, president of MCCS, agreed that the key sticking point in negotiations is wages. Daigler said the institution has offered adjuncts a wage increase of 4.5% in each year of a proposed two-year contract. Given the current rate of $930 a credit hour, that would amount to a raise of a little over $80 to the credit hour rate over the course of that agreement. Daigler said that would add to action taken in the last round of contract negotiations that provided uniform pay rates for adjuncts in different colleges within MCCS and increased wages for adjuncts between 15% and 82%, depending on the particular campus they taught at.
“We highly value the adjunct faculty at our colleges,” Daigler said. “They are a critical part of the excellent instruction at Maine’s community colleges and we deeply appreciate their work.”
Daigler added that “adjunct faculty who wish to teach more classes and be paid the same as full-time faculty can apply for full-time faculty positions.” He said 41% of full-time faculty hired at MCCS since 2018 were previously adjuncts within the institution.
However, Ray-Saulis said given the amount of time and energy adjuncts spend on teaching — along with the student loans many have — she believes they should be paid around $1,800 a credit hour. Still, she acknowledged that it’s unlikely MCCS will agree to that figure this time around and said the union has pitched raising pay to $1,200 a credit hour for adjunct faculty — more than what MCCS has offered thus far.
Adjuncts are also looking for increased respect, and in particular respect for those who are long-time instructors at MCCS, she added. Ray-Saulis said she’s been teaching at the institution for five years but makes the same amount as adjuncts who have been teaching there for over 20 years. The new contract should allow those who have been at the institution longer to receive additional compensation, she argued.
At the end of Thursday’s rally, Timothy McGuire, a field representative for MSEA, urged attendees to sign a letter of “community support” for adjuncts that would be delivered to Daigler and to take additional steps to increase visibility of the union’s campaign.
“Post to social media and spread the message that adjuncts deserve a living wage,” he said.
Overall, Ray-Saulis said Thursday’s rally was an important step in making MCCS management aware that adjuncts “know what we are worth.”
“Adjuncts are smart, we are educated, and we have years of teaching expertise,” she said. “We have hands-on experience that directly benefits our students and that we bring directly into the classroom and we deserve to have that seen.”
Evan Popp studied journalism at Ithaca College and interned at the Progressive magazine, ThinkProgress and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. He then worked for the Santa Fe New Mexican newspaper before joining Beacon. Evan can be reached at email@example.com.
Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, center, with Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., left, and Rep. Julia Letlow, R-La., speaks about proposed legislation dubbed the ‘Parents Bill of Rights,’ March 1, 2023, on Capitol Hill. | Jacquelyn Martin / AP
WASHINGTON (PAI)—Several of the nation’s largest unions, led by the Teachers (AFT), teamed up the week of March 22 to try to defeat the House’s ruling Republicans and their so-called “Parents Bill of Rights” bill.
The House Education and the Workforce Committee approved it March 8 after a long work session with almost all Democratic-offered amendments rejected on party-line votes. The full House was scheduled to consider it on the evening of March 23.
Despite its name, the measure (HR5) is a Republican “messaging” bill by panel chair Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., a hater of unions, including teachers’ unions.
Foxx offered HR5 to support “parents” who invade and disrupt school board meetings in the name of their “right” to ban the teaching of what they consider off-limits subjects, such as civil rights and Black history.
Right-wingers, egged on by Breitbart and talk show hosts, charge schools, teachers, and unions with indoctrinating kids. Though Foxx didn’t say so, her measure is designed to protect those “parents.” Instead, she aimed at two favorite far-right targets, unions and “bureaucrats.”
“The education bureaucracy should no longer be allowed to censor mom’s and dad’s important voices. We heard their calls to reopen schools and make their children’s well-being a priority during the lockdown. The government should have listened,” said Foxx at the panel’s March 8 work session. Like other Republicans, Foxx now opposes fighting the coronavirus.
“Perhaps the only silver lining of these past three years is America now realizes parents will always put their children’s interests first. And the teachers unions that fought to prolong the lockdowns will not.”
Parents “God-given right to make decisions for their children has been ignored, and at times, attacked.” Foxx wrapped herself and the “parents” in the Constitution’s free speech guarantees, too.
AFT and its allies say who really need protection are teachers and their right to teach and promote discussion and students’ right to learn. “We need parent and family engagement. Frankly, it’s good news that Republicans are thinking about strengthening parents’ involvement in schools,” AFT President Randi Weingarten’s letter to members and parents began.
“But we must do it right; we can’t pair this parent engagement with measures that will hurt kids, make it easier to censor education, and heap unnecessary burdens on educators’ already overflowing plates. We must listen when teachers and parents tell us what will actually help.”
Measures that will hurt kids is what Foxx’s HR5 accomplishes, Weingarten’s letter says. It wants people to urge lawmakers to oppose it and back a substitute “Bill of Rights for Students and Parents” from Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., instead.
“HR5 asks schools to divert resources from teaching kids and opens avenues for bad actors to censor education, ban books and harm children who are just trying to be who they are,” Weingarten, a New York City civics teacher, wrote. One Republican amendment would apply HR5 only to public schools. Even religious schools getting public money would be exempt.
“Why not adopt the Bonamici substitute?” Weingarten asked. It “prohibits book bans, calls for parent coordinators, increases funding for family engagement centers and community schools and prohibits federal extremists from censoring teaching” of Black, Latino, Asian-American, Native-Hawaiian, Pacific-Islander, and LGBTQIA+ history, along with “women’s history, Native-American history, and history of the Holocaust or anti-Semitism.”
The nation’s largest union, the National Education Association, agrees with AFT. So do the Service Employees, though it issued no statement. NEA did not specifically oppose Foxx’s bill, yet, but President Becky Pringle has blasted the entire Republican anti-education agenda.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., “is ignoring the needs of our students, as well as the wishes of the vast majority of parents, to appease right-wing billionaires like Betsy DeVos”–a GOP big giver and Donald Trump’s anti-union Education Secretary–“who want to drag their political games into our school buildings,” Philadelphia science teacher Pringle said.
“McCarthy would rather seek to stoke racial and social division and distract us from what will really help our students thrive: An inspiring, inclusive, and age-appropriate curriculum that prepares each and every one of them for their future,” Pringle added.
“Parents and voters agree elected leaders should be focused on getting students the individualized support they need, keeping guns out of schools, and addressing educator shortages. Sadly, McCarthy would rather empower politicians who want to ban books and drive passionate educators out of the profession, instead of doing what is right for our students and public schools,” she concluded.
Bonamici’s substitute lost in the committee on a party-line vote. It would replace Foxx’s measure with a “sense of Congress that parents have access to public schools.”
“Parental involvement is critical to developing and sustaining high-quality public schools. We must do all we can to involve parents and break down barriers that prevent or discourage participation,” said Bonamici, a parent, PTA member, and school activist before becoming an Oregon legislator.
“Language translation, child care, and flexible hours and video options for conferencing can all make a positive difference. We must speak out against and end the attacks on public education jeopardizing these essential relationships and threatening to make schools a less welcoming place for Black students and other students of color, students with disabilities, LGBTQI+ students, and other marginalized students.”
Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People’s World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.El galardonado periodista Mark Gruenberg es el director de la oficina de People’s World en Washington, D.C. También es editor del servicio de noticias sindicales Press Associates Inc. (PAI).
Public school in the US is already provided universally, free of charge. There’s no reason we shouldn’t provide free lunch to every child at school as well.
or a hundred eighty days each year, fifty million kids file into a hundred thousand public schools and receive free education that costs $800 billion per year. Around half of these kids get to their school using a free bus service that costs $30 billion per year. At school, these kids receive free bathrooms, free playgrounds, and free access to gyms, textbooks, and computer equipment. If they play sports, they often receive free uniforms and free access to weight rooms and other sports equipment.
Around 90 percent of kids use the free schooling service, with the remaining 10 percent opting for a private religious school (7.5 percent) or a private nonreligious school (2.5 percent). Public school attendance is more common among kids from lower and middle income families, but the vast majority of upper income families also attend public schools.
Around the middle of each school day, the free schooling service is briefly suspended for lunch. Instead of providing free lunches to all of the students, schools charge students $0, $0.40, or approximately $4.33 for their lunch. How much each kid is charged is based on their family income except that, if a kid lives in a school or school district where 40 percent or more of the kids are eligible for free lunch, then they are also eligible for free lunch even if their family income would otherwise be too high.
Each year, schools serve 4.9 billion lunches to a monthly average of 30 million kids. Before COVID, in 2019, 68.1 percent of the kids were charged $0, 5.8 percent were charged $0.40, and 26.1 percent were charged the full $4.33. In the latest year, due to temporary COVID changes, the same numbers were 96 percent, 0.3 percent, and 3.3 percent, respectively.
The total cost of the 4.9 billion meals is around $21 billion per year. In 2019, user fees covered $5.6 billion of this cost. In 2022, user fees covered $0.7 billion of the cost. The rest was covered by public subsidies as part of the free and reduced price lunch program.
The approximately $5.6 billion of school lunch fees collected in 2019 were equal to 0.7 percent of the total cost of K-12 schooling. In order to collect these fees, each school district has to set up a school lunch payment system, often by contracting with third-party providers like Global Payments. They also have to set up a system for dealing with kids who are not enrolled in the free lunch program but who show up to school with no money in their school lunch account or in their pockets. In this scenario, schools will either have to make the kid go without lunch, give them a free lunch for the day (but not too many times), or give them a lunch while assigning their lunch account a debt.
Eligibility for the $0 and $0.40 lunches is based on income, but this does not mean that everyone with an eligible income successfully signs up for the program. As with all means-tested programs, the application of the means test not only excludes people with ineligible incomes, but also people with eligible incomes who fail to successfully navigate the red tape of the welfare bureaucracy. Research on the community eligibility program — a program that makes every kid in a school or school district eligible for free lunch so long as 40 percent of the kids are eligible for it — shows that the program improves food security and nutritional outcomes even among low-income kids who should have already been eligible for free school lunch.
The case for free school lunch is initially the same as the case for child benefits more generally. By socializing the cost of children — including through paid parental leave, child care benefits, K-12 education benefits, and through a cash child benefit — you help equalize the conditions of similarly situated families with different numbers of children. Socializing the cost of children also smooths incomes across the life cycle by ensuring that, when people have kids, their household financial situation remains mostly the same.
Indeed, this is actually the case for the welfare state as whole, not just child benefits. When people become elderly or disabled in our society, their costs are socialized and they are provided a monthly cash benefit, public health insurance, and long-term care. Children are not really any different from the elderly and the disabled. In fact, they are sort of a combination of the two: like the elderly, children’s ages make it so that they should not work, and like the disabled, children’s limited capacity makes it so that they cannot work (in fact, it’s illegal for them to work). For all three populations, worklessness makes it impossible to receive personal labor income, meaning that some other nonlabor income system is required.
Beyond this general case, there are other considerations that are unique to children and to school lunch. Well-resourced children tend to be more productive and less destructive adults, something that benefits the society overall. In the case of school lunch, well-fed kids learn better and are less likely to engage in bad behaviors that are distractive to their peers. Children also go on to become the workers of the society and thus go on to make it possible for earlier generations to retire in old age.
Conservative criticisms of getting rid of school lunch fees mostly fall into two buckets. The first is that the fees serve an important pedagogical function in society to get people to understand personal responsibility. The second is that, because the school lunch fees are means-tested, they serve an important income-redistributive function in society.
Both arguments are hard to take seriously.
Notably, conservatives don’t apply the first argument to any other part of the free schooling bundle nor to free schooling itself. The closest analogue to the school lunch service is the school bus service. The two services cost about the same, but, with an occasional oddball exception here and there, the buses are funded entirely without user fees while the lunches are funded 26.6 percent by user fees and 73.4 percent by public subsidies.
Do conservatives believe that the free bus service, which goes back to the 1800s, is destroying personal responsibility in society and that, in order to resurrect it, we need to start charging means-tested school bus fares? I’ve never seen them say it. Nor have I seen them say that any other aspect of the current free schooling bundle, including arts and sports, should charge means-tested fees.
So from the conservative discourse on this, we are apparently meant to believe that $800 billion a year of free schooling services is compatible with creating a personal responsibility ethic, but that rolling an additional $5.6 billion of spending into that service by eliminating the means-tested school lunch fees is not. This is just an obviously stupid and laughable position.
The conservative argument that means-tested school lunch fees serve an important income-redistributive function is both untrue and at odds with their general attitudes on, not just redistribution, but on how child benefit programs specifically should be structured.
In the last couple of years, we had a big public debate about whether one of the country’s cash benefits for children, the Child Tax Credit, should be extended to the poor. The conservative position on that was that child benefits should specifically be designed so that they exclude the poor and only go to the middle and upper class because such a design will increase the employment rate.
Thus, conservatives believe it is appropriate for a married family with $400,000 of income to receive $2,000 per year per child in cash benefits from the federal government, but somehow think it is wrong for that same family to receive around $800 in free school lunch. And then, on the other end of the scale, conservatives think a family with $0 of labor income should not receive a single dollar from the Child Tax Credit because that will promote worklessness but then think they should receive $800 in free school lunch benefits. Does this not also promote worklessness? It’s all very jumbled.
As far as achieving income redistribution through the application of $5.6 billion of means-tested school lunch fees goes, there are simply much better ways to go about it. As I’ve noted many times before, if you want to reduce the resources of people above a certain income by $5.6 billion, the best thing to do is apply a tax to everyone with income above that level, not dump the entire $5.6 billion charge on families that currently have children in school.
Such a tax would have a larger base and thus represent a smaller share of the income of each person taxed and such a tax would smooth incomes over time. Also, this tax-based approach would allow you to eliminate the means test, which is administratively costly and ends up excluding many low-income kids from school lunch due to administrative burdens, and allow you to eliminate the school lunch payments system, which is administratively costly and forces schools and parents to needlessly give out money to payment processing companies.
My own child currently rides the free bus to school and then, due to the community eligibility program, receives a free breakfast and lunch at the school. Today’s breakfast is an egg and cheese sandwich and a choice of a banana, apple, or orange. Lunch is a choice between cheesy pasta, a PB&J sandwich, and a turkey and ham sandwich with sides of rolls, carrots, broccoli, and fruit. I didn’t have to create a school lunch account and then input my banking information in order to load it up with money. I don’t receive any emails about the balance being low and needing to be reloaded. I don’t have to worry about it at all. Parenting is already full of stresses and hassles. Dealing with one-off payments systems for means-tested school lunch fees is one such hassle I am happy to do without.
After more than a year’s delay, a campaign to organize a union for the adjunct faculty and staff at Bates College in Lewiston failed to get enough votes.
On Thursday afternoon, the Boston office of the National Labor Relations Board counted workers’ ballots that were cast in January 2022 to form the Bates Educators and Staff Organization (BESO), a wall-to-wall union that would have been part of the Maine Service Employees Association, SEIU Local 1989 and available to any worker who is not management, tenure-track faculty, or a campus safety officer. But the campaign failed with a vote of 254 against and 186 for the union.
“Of course, we are disappointed in the outcome of our election. However, we’ll continue to stay connected and work to build a voice for us educators and staff on campus,” the Bates Educators and Staff Organizing Committee said in a statement on Thursday.
“We faced a difficult and heavily-funded anti-union campaign, and still overcame so much together,” the statement continued. “Win or lose, it is clearly time for change at Bates, and although we won’t be able to take this step of forming a union together right now, we are incredibly proud of our organizing and the way our campus has come together over the past 18 months.”
The union drive began in October 2021, when the organizers announced their intent to unionize, citing low pay, poor working conditions and declining staff retention at the private liberal arts college as their reasons for organizing.
Staff members and student supporters hoped for an amicable response from administration, but, as Beacon previously reported, the college dug in against the organizers and hired anti-union consultants who began hosting meetings presented as unbiased informational forums about the pros and cons of unions. Routine for decades, such meetings are tactics used by employers to erode possible union support by requiring workers to attend anti-union briefings.
After staff voted by paper ballot last year, the administration petitioned the NLRB to impound the ballots while their legal team challenged the composition of the bargaining unit. The 2019 rule that allowed the ballots to be impounded for 14 months has since been rescinded by the NLRB.
In a statement released ahead of the vote count on Thursday, workers emphasized that the campus community is tired of Bates’ time, money and resources being used on expensive anti-union legal battles.
With a new incoming college president, there is optimism that such tactics will change. On March 7, the college’s Board of Trustees announced that they had unanimously selected Gary Jenkins as the ninth president of Bates since its founding in 1855.
“The outgoing administration jammed our union efforts with now-illegal delay tactics and process challenges wherever they could,” said Jon-Michael Foley, a grounds and maintenance worker at Bates. “We’re ready to move on from the constant interference and get to the negotiations table. Is President Jenkins ready to collaborate and deliver better for us, or will it just be more of the same? Everyone is waiting eagerly for Bates to choose a more productive path forward.”
Dan Neumann studied journalism at Colorado State University before beginning his career as a community newspaper reporter in Denver. He reported on the Global North’s interventions in Africa, including documentaries on climate change, international asylum policy and U.S. militarization on the continent before returning to his home state of Illinois to teach community journalism on Chicago’s West Side. He now lives in Portland. Dan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PHILADELPHIA—Last week, the Temple University Graduate Student Association (TUGSA) ended a historic 42-day strike by overwhelmingly ratifying a contract which included far more than the Temple administration ever insisted it would give.
The union faced unprecedented retaliation, persevering as members’ healthcare was manually shut off by their employer twice and tuition fees were charged to members totaling thousands of dollars.
As an institution which consistently markets itself as Philly’s “diversity university,” Temple is an alluring place for young people looking to find an education that caters to the poor and marginalized. That made its actions against striking student workers particularly appalling.
Keeping with the Temple University tradition of students fighting for social justice in spite of their administration, graduate student workers established the first and only graduate student union in the state of Pennsylvania here in 1997.
TUGSA has since been bargaining with the university in contract negotiations every four years, and its membership has grown steadily. It presently represents over 60% of graduate workers, which is no small feat when approximately 20% of your bargaining unit leaves at the end of each year.
A few of the notable wins TUGSA enshrined in the new contract include:
The elimination of tiered wages.
An immediate pay increase to $24,000 for employees with nine-month appointments (which, for full-year employees, becomes the $32,000 the union had as its goal wage). Additionally, graduate workers will receive a $500 return to work bonus and a $1,000/year raise for each of the four years this contract covers, an impressive precedent to set.
Parental leave was increased from five days to three weeks.
The creation of a workload review committee to guard against overwork and major changes to the grievance procedure which should increase speed and improve outcomes.
“Funeral leave” becoming “bereavement leave,” meaning workers no longer have to provide evidence that some part of leave was specifically a funeral. Leave has increased from three to four days, and it now covers the passing of grandparents and allows for an extra five-day extension for workers having to travel internationally.
Dependent healthcare, which was previously not covered, is now partially subsidized, creating a foot in the door for future expansion and taking the costs down from 30% of the average salary per dependent to 13%.
Guaranteed access to the list of bargaining unit members before the semester begins, as opposed to the previous amorphous deadline which frequently hindered union recruitment.
As the TUGSA strike winds down and the strike wave at other employers across the country ramps up, it is worth examining this fight to see what others can glean from this strike’s success. Having been on the ground for its entirety myself, I saw a number of practices and strategies TUGSA employed which others will hopefully replicate.
TUGSA’s Contract Negotiations Team included multiple former presidents of the organization. The current president is a second-year PhD student, meaning he will be in a position to have both seen this round of contract negotiations and participate in the next one, as will his vice president. My strike captain was not the only first-year student in that position and even more first-years served as strike coordinators. This leadership structure, which engages and fosters talent early, set up TUGSA’s success from the beginning.
Over two months passed between TUGSA’s strike authorization vote and the beginning of its strike for numerous reasons. As mentioned in my previous People’sWorld article on the strike, one of Temple University’s first strikebreaking measures was to threaten international workers’ visas. By avoiding a strike during the winter break, not only was TUGSA able to ensure international students were granted re-entry into the U.S. but also maximize picket visibility.
Additionally, unlike in most other industries, graduate workers are paid once on the final day of the month, rather than weekly or biweekly. By waiting until Jan. 31st specifically, TUGSA set up its strikers to have a month’s worth of pay in the bank, with the added benefit that Jan. 30th was Temple University’s final day to drop classes, a significant date for teaching contracts.
What “strategic timing” means for a workplace varies by industry and circumstance. TUGSA was able to adapt to the specifics of its conditions and this facilitated a more successful strike.
Unions are supposed to be democratic institutions by definition, but TUGSA’s leadership was uniquely transparent with its members from the beginning. This paid dividends.
Leadership fought for open negotiations prior to the strike to ensure rank-and-file members were present to witness everything that happened and, when the administration demanded closed negotiations, diligently recounted everything they possibly could to rank-and-file afterward.
Leadership’s continued honesty with goals and expectations, sharing their perspectives and concerns, and managing the union as horizontally as possible built so much trust that when those inevitable times came that leadership was barred from sharing information with rank-and-file, we knew they were competent and respected their judgement. In return, information and rationales for decisions were shared after the fact if they could not be shared beforehand.
Solidarity between unions
From Unite Here showing up to reinvigorate the pickets with food and chants to the AFL-CIO hosting a rally for all locals despite the wind and rain, the solidarity that characterized this strike was palpable.
From the beginning, the American Federation of Teachers sent out fundraising emails to all other branches to raise money for the strike fund, and the recent Philadelphia Museum of Art Union, which had just come off strike, sent members to share information from their experiences. In fact, knowledge-sharing was one of the core facets of the inter-union relationship that benefitted TUGSA benefitted.
The union was in near-constant communication with other academic unions around the country which had been in similar positions, sharing ideas and strategies. TUGSA even directed its members to other unions’ demonstrations during the strike and, in the days since, has made it clear that this will be the norm moving forward.
Temple University is home to nearly a dozen unions, as well as an organizing committee for undergraduate service workers, TUUWOC, that is presently fighting to unionize. TUUWOC put much of its own organizing on hold to stand with TUGSA. Meanwhile, TAUP, the union for professors at Temple, called for a vote of no confidence against the president, provost, and chairman of the board, which is presently scheduled for April 10th.
Utilizing political resources
It is not abnormal for unions to send delegates to lobby state senators and representatives. It is abnormal, however, to rent a charter bus and bring 50 neon-clad strikers to the state capitol all at once to canvass virtually every office there.
TUGSA was uniquely tactful in its use of its political resources. From enlisting electeds to draw the press while strikers signed up for food stamps to networking with state officials to work as go-betweens with the administration, TUGSA effectively walked a delicate line. It managed to avoid rejecting aid from potential allies while also never leaving the workers’ fate solely in politicians’ hands.
Innovative social media usage
Going viral on Twitter is not always a guarantee of success, but TUGSA rode its luck to a fair contract. By parlaying views into donations, endorsements, and alliances, TUGSA managed to spend 42 days on strike without ever getting lost in the news cycle.
The tone of TUGSA’s social media presence was informative yet personable. Meanwhile, because rank-and-file members were not policed in their online communications, the result was a parallel set of social media accounts under the name of “TUGSA Strike Crush.” While the official accounts kept their distance and provided information, the Strike Crush accounts not only engaged the talents of social media-minded members but also provided a space for informal communications and jokes.
While other types of leaders may have been concerned about this renegade account, TUGSA embraced it, taking it as a sign of member engagement and folding it into the union as an informal, autonomous social committee.
Amplifying members’ talents
TUGSA’s response to the Strike Crush phenomenon is a microcosm of the larger strategy TUGSA utilized: giving its members space to explore and utilize their talents for the cause.
One member who’s passionate about graphic design joined together with workers from the printmaking MFA program to produce T-shirts at rallies to fundraise. Prior to the strike, one union leader with programming talents used Python to generate mass emails for the union. (Mass emails would be part of the strategy throughout the strike.)
Speaking personally, I am a political scientist who at one point conducted preliminary research for a book on protest music; they handed me a megaphone and I taught the strikers my favorite union songs. On the musical front, our picket saw everything from electric guitars to accordions to an eventual entire brass section.
The union allowed space for and encouraged members to bring their passions to the picket line. By the end, professional dancers performed in the middle of our picket lines wearing TUGSA beaded bracelets and knitted TUGSA hats. Everyone had space to bring something to the table and, when given the opportunity, they did.
Adjusting to advice
Regarding everything from how frequently to take breaks to masking guidelines, TUGSA remained unafraid to adjust to good faith criticism. Leadership and members resisted the urge to “feed the trolls,” coming with critiques from without, while simultaneously listening to and adjusting to critiques from within.
The results are palpable in the contract ratification vote—344 to 8. This does not happen without members who feel comfortable voicing their concerns and leadership which takes those concerns into account.
The parameters of a successful proposal were determined not by the negotiations team alone but by polling members and large group deliberation. Under those conditions, a successful vote was inevitable.
Collaborating with undergraduates
Neoliberal institutions like Temple view undergraduate students as “customers” of education. TUGSA was able to utilize this relationship the undergraduates had with the administration to apply pressure.
Learning loss caused by the hiring of unqualified scab teachers brought students to file an ongoing class action lawsuit. They risked their grades not to cross our picket line and instead held multiple walkout demonstrations, one of which included approximately 2,000 students.
On their own accord, the students formed a TUGSA solidarity committee which is continuing to operate even after the strike, rallying to ensure students who stood in solidarity with the union are not penalized for assignments they missed in scabbed classes.
Prioritizing joy and community
Burnout looms large over activist communities across the capitalist world, and unions are no different, but strike teams for TUGSA diligently guarded against fatigue by foregrounding camaraderie.
Unlike in other situations, where organizers must plan for the long-term while managing the short-term, strikes are ephemeral. They demand an “unsustainable” amount of effort because they are not meant to be sustained, and adjusting to temporary, high-level organizing can be a source of shock and overwhelm, even for seasoned organizers. TUGSA recognized this from the beginning and made sure that pickets, rather than adding stress, became the place strikers went for stress relief.
The strike fund was strategically used for communal lunches each day and healthcare costs to guarantee no one was left behind. Pickets were characterized by art, music, dancing, and banter between comrades. Strike teams became tight-knit families, and the union held more social events than before the strike, both formal and informal.
TUGSA never took itself too seriously, leaving space for jokes between chant leaders and witty slogans on friendship bracelets. The union understood that the best guarantee of longevity in an organizing space is the community it builds.
TUGSA balanced between the serious task of striking and the solidarity that can come from just having fun together. By the end, we weren’t on the picket line every day just for the wages, the healthcare, or the benefits—we were there every day because the picket line was where all our best friends were.
It was the place to cry when the administration retaliated against us, with people who understood. It was the place to catch up with one another while walking in circles for hours. It was the place where we could vent or laugh or celebrate or scream—whatever we needed, we became for each other.
Through solidarity, as the saying goes, the union made us strong. That is why we won.
Raegan Davis is a community organizer based in Philadelphia. She serves as archivist for the Philly YCL and organizes with the Temple University Graduate Student Association while working on her MA in Political Science. You can find more of Raegan’s work on Twitter, @RaeReadsTheory.
Originally published in Otherwords on February 1, 2022
When Republican President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976, he called on Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans.”
He also acknowledged that Black Americans had shown “courage and perseverance” when our country had failed to live up to its own ideals.
Today, even Ford’s simple words would be inadmissible in many American classrooms.
As of last year, at least 35 state legislatures had introduced bills to limit the discussion of racial history in their classrooms. At least 16 had passed them.
As a result, teachers are finding it more and more difficult to teach about Black history without fear of repercussions.
As a Black woman, I am not at all surprised by these attempts to whitewash our history. If I were a politician obsessed with suppressing civil rights, voting rights, and racial justice, I too would probably want to make sure only my version of the story gets told.
In a discussion with Color of Change president Rashad Robinson, journalist and Howard University Professor Nikole Hannah-Jones argued that this erasure is no accident.
Hannah-Jones, the 1619 Project founder, explained: “The same instinct that led powerful people to prohibit Black people from being able to read is the same instinct that’s leading powerful people to try to stop our children from learning histories that would lead them to question the unequal society that we have as well.”
DeSantis notoriously signed the so-called “Individual Freedom Act,” also known as the “Stop WOKE Act,” which states that “teachers are not allowed to make students feel ‘guilty about past discrimination by members of their race.’”
Much of Black history in this country isn’t easy to learn, teach, or digest — there is nothing comfortable about it. But the point isn’t to make students feel “guilty.” It’s to help them learn.
The state of Florida apparently agrees, defining “woke” in court as simply “the belief there are systemic injustices in American society.” But the state is manipulating the term as if it were wrong or “progressive” to believe that systemic injustices exist.
Thankfully, many people aren’t fooled. Students all over the country, including in my home state of Pennsylvania, are protesting book bans on stories of color.
Overturning those bans would benefit kids of every color. “Having a diverse curriculum will benefit students in the long haul,” argues writer Nathalie Wilson, because it “helps them to better understand the complexities in the world.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Black history is complex. It is also American history. This Black History Month, don’t ban it — teach it.
Ministry of Education justified the move as “exploring the foundation of the Republic of Korea based on liberal democracy.”
After he was elected president in March, Yoon Suk-yeol 윤석열 was praised for being the first conservative president or president-elect to attend the memorial for the Jeju Massacre, also known as the April 3 Incident 4.3 사건. But just a few months later, the Yoon administration is on its way to removing discussion of the massacre from high school history books.
The Jeju Massacre is one of the most horrific acts of state violence in South Korean history. From 1947 to 1949, the Syngman Rhee 이승만 regime slaughtered as many as 30k civilians on the southern island of Jeju-do 제주도 at the behest of the United States. Under the pretext of rooting out communist insurrectionists, the Rhee dictatorship destroyed nearly 60% of Jeju’s villages and wiped out 10% of the entire island’s population. (See previous coverage, “Remembering the Jeju Massacre.”)
In 2015, the Ministry of Education 교육부 added the Jeju Massacre as one of the modern historical events that must be included in history textbooks. But in the “2022 Revised Educational Program 2022 개정교육과정” proposed by the Ministry, the Jeju Massacre was taken out as a mandatory element of learning. The Ministry said the revised guidelines were intended to “explore the foundation of the Republic of Korea based on liberal democracy,” and to simplify history education.
The Blue Roof is the first English language site dedicated solely to news and analysis of South Korean politics
Teacher Graciela Lage gives an English lesson at the Cuban School of Foreign Languages in Havana. | Desmond Boylan / AP
Cuban education has long been ground zero for ending inequalities.
Schools on the island are places where doors opened up for all Cuban young people to learn and for students, even of oppressed classes, to prepare for one or another kind of work that would contribute to Cuba’s development as an independent nation.
Cuban literacy teachers, 123 of them, arrived in Honduras on Dec. 20. With Honduran colleagues, they will be utilizing Cuba’s special method, “Yo sí puedo” (Yes I can), to teach literacy. It’s a technique that has found worldwide application.
Dec. 22 in Cuba is Teacher’s Day. On that date in 1961—Cuba’s “Year of Education”—Fidel Castro, speaking before a large crowd in Havana, announced the end of Cuba’s literacy campaign of that year. He declared Cuba to be a “territory free of illiteracy.”
On hand were 100,000 young people who had volunteered to teach the rudiments of reading and writing to illiterate adults living in rural areas. These young people, mostly from Cuba’s cities, lived with families they were teaching and did farm work.
Joining them in the island-wide literacy campaign were tens of thousands of volunteer teachers, unionists, and other working people. In the end, 271,000 literacy volunteers enabled 707,000 Cubans (out of a population of 7,291,200) to learn how to read.
The figure of José Martí, Cuba’s national hero, epitomizes for Cubans the affinity of education and revolution. Introducing Martí’s book On Education (Monthly Review Press, 1978), editor Philip Foner observes that, “Basic to the foundation of liberty, in the eyes of José Martí, was the education of the people. Nothing guaranteed that a government was anxious to serve its citizens as much as the haste it displayed in educating its people.”
In comments in September 1961 about the literacy campaign, Castro updated Martí’s idea: “One does not conceive of a revolution without also a great revolution in the educational arena … revolution and education are almost two synonymous ideas … [The] Revolution will advance and be successful the more it works in the field of education, the more competent technicians there are, the more competent administrators, teachers, revolutionary cadre it has.”
Foner notes that in 1959, 23% of Cubans were illiterate, the “average school education was below third grade,” and “only a few thousand” children were attending secondary schools. By December 1961, according to Castro, the revolutionary government had created 15,000 schools while converting military installations into schools and building schools for handicapped children.
By 1973, literacy was all but universal. Some 1,898,000 children were attending primary school, and 470,000 were enrolled in secondary schools, according to Foner. By that time, a “second educational revolution” was in progress with the training of 20,000 additional teachers to handle waves of students now attending secondary and pre-university schools.
A third educational “revolution” was underway from 2000 on. Associated with what the Cuban state referred to as the “Battle of Ideas,” it called for teaching that emphasized social justice and equality and was accompanied by moral and social support for students. Education in the arts expanded, and there were new social-work schools. Visual, audio, and computer-based methods were newly available to teachers.
University enrollment increased as authorities extended instruction to students’ own localities while relying on computer-based and televised teaching aids. By 2015, 80% of university students were studying close to home.
Some problems emerged, however. Teaching programs in science and technology lost students to courses in the humanities and social sciences. University teaching was contributing less than before to the country’s economic development. Fewer students were preparing to be teachers, and 20,000 teachers had left their posts for the sake of better-paying jobs.
Reversing course, the government cut back on university teaching at the local level, made entrance exams more competitive, re-emphasized scientific and technical training, and shortened the university course of study. As of 2019, 241,000 students, or one in three Cubans between 18 and 24 years of age, were studying in 50 university centers. Almost 50% of them were taking medical-sciences courses; 8,542 were art students.
All along, the U.S. economic blockade was causing shortages and adding difficulties. A report presented by Cuba’s Education Ministry in early 2022 explains:
Under blockade rules, Cuba lacks access to the credit needed for buying goods abroad.
Importing is difficult due in part to price hikes resulting from high freight costs for importing goods from places other than the United States.
The inflated costs of goods purchased abroad from third-party intermediaries discourage imports.
Under blockade regulations, specific items manufactured anywhere with even tiny U.S. components are prohibited.
The list of necessary and often missing items is long: paper, books, notebooks, computers, audio-visual devices, laboratory supplies, laboratory equipment, writing materials, art supplies, sports equipment, special devices used by handicapped students, musical instruments, recording devices, English language texts and books, broadband internet connections, and replacement parts for equipment.
Nevertheless, as the result of sustained efforts over decades, students have been prepared to take on varied tasks aimed at developing Cuba’s economy and building socialism.
Between 1960 and 2017, Cuban universities graduated 1.2 million “professionals,” including 80,000 physicians. Women accounted for 64% of university graduates in 2010, up from 3% in 1959. University graduates in 2019 made up 2.2% of Cuban workers.
Spending on education in Cuba in 2012 represented 9% of the GDP. The comparable figure in the United States currently is 4.96% of GDP. Cuba in 2018 dedicated 13% of its national budget to education.
In Cuba in 1995, a Cuban woman hitched a ride on a small bus carrying Maine visitors, myself included, from Havana to Trinidad. “We Cubans want producers, not consumers,” we heard her say. Fidel Castro spoke similarly on that first Teachers Day in 1961.
He dismissed fellow University of Havana law students as “all those people with nothing to do but to study to be a lawyer.” At that time, “the ruling class was not teaching the children of workers.” That “half the population, the rural population, had no secondary school” he regarded as a “serious problem for any revolution in an underdeveloped country like ours. What few technical workers there are come from upper-income sectors … from the economically and politically dominant class, which, logically, is opposed to revolutionary change.”
Leftists in the United States and elsewhere often regard reform and revolution as separate projects. Cuba’s experience of preparing young citizens to work at what would become socialism may be relevant.
Small though they may be, certain reforms happening now within U.S. schools, rife with inequalities, could end up serving the revolution on the way, and in that way be revolutionary. Such reforms: the fostering of equality among students, the inculcation of real knowledge about societal problems, and students’ work projects that are oriented to the common good.
W.T. Whitney Jr. is a political journalist whose focus is on Latin America, health care, and anti-racism. A Cuba solidarity activist, he formerly worked as a pediatrician, lives in rural Maine. W.T. Whitney Jr. es un periodista político cuyo enfoque está en América Latina, la atención médica y el antirracismo. Activista solidario con Cuba, anteriormente trabajó como pediatra, vive en la zona rural de Maine.
It’s no secret that Paul LePage is no fan of public education. As governor he called Maine teachers “a dime a dozen” and told an audience of business people that “if you want a good education, go to private schools. If you can’t afford it, tough luck — you can go to the public school.”
LePage has always been upfront about his obsession with privatizing and defunding public schools. He has called for vouchers that would allow for education funding to be diverted to subsidize private religious schools, home schooling and for-profit online education.
The former governor’s fondness for private religious schools is rooted in his own experience attending parochial school in Lewiston, where he claims the combination of strict discipline and corporal punishment made him a better person.
“It wasn’t the religious part of it that was good; it was the brothers being stern and — look at my knuckles — they still show that they were hit a few times,” LePage added.
Rather than addressing the key factors that worsen academic performance — like social and economic conditions, poverty, unequal school funding and lack of early childhood education — LePage and his fellow school privatizers are more interested in putting all of the blame solely on teachers, school boards and administrators for low student achievement. Instead of improving public schools, LePage seeks to punish them by diverting public education money to private schools. This further reduces the amount of funding available for local public schools and disadvantages low-income students and children with disabilities and higher needs. As disability advocates point out, private and religious schools can legally reject students with special needs and voucher programs don’t cover expenses like transportation and other services those students need.
The racist roots of the school choice movement
Having more educational options sounds like a positive thing, but in reality studies show that this doesn’t improve student achievement overall. Instead, it further balkanizes and segregates the student body by allowing more elite schools to cherry pick the most privileged and highest achieving students who have more resources to supplement private school educations. This is no accident.
As Duke University historian Nancy MacLean has documented, the “school choice” movement was a direct reaction to the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision that struck down racial segregation in public schools in 1954. School vouchers were developed by Southern states to avoid court-ordered racial integration and allow white parents to send their children to private schools known as “segregation academies” that could discriminate based on the color of one’s skin.
Based on extensive archival research, MacLean has exposed how the conservative economist Milton Friedman “taught white supremacists a more sophisticated…court-proof way to preserve Jim Crow” by providing a justification grounded in the free market ideology. Friedman argued that breaking the “government monopoly” over education would promote “competition.”
The school choice movement was later picked up by well-funded conservative think tanks and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate-funded bill mill that creates “model legislation” for Republican state legislators. LePage, who was deeply involved with ALEC as governor, described himself as a fan of Friedman and even once declared July 31 to be “Milton Friedman Day” in Maine, citing the economist’s support for “school choice.”
But despite a decades-long corporate-funded effort to undermine public education, polls consistently show Americans broadly support it and overwhelmingly reject school privatization schemes. That’s why school privatizers have been diligently working to erode confidence in public education by demonizing teachers and stoking fear and paranoia about the teaching of LGBTQ content and “critical race theory,” or “CRT,” an academic concept addressing institutional racism that is generally not taught in K-12 schools.
This latest manufactured moral panic can be traced to a right-wing propagandist named Christopher Rufo of the conservative Manhattan Institute, who launched the war against CRT and supposed “grooming” of students by sexually predatory public school teachers. Rufo uses CRT as a catch-all term to describe any lessons that include studies of race relations and racial equity that make white people uncomfortable. In capitalizing on white racial anxiety in reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement, Rufo says he purposely uses the term “critical race theory” because it’s the “perfect villain” and comes off as “hostile, academic, divisive, race-obsessed, poisonous, elitist [and] anti-American” to average white middle-class Americans.
LePage and the bigoted anti-CRT mob
In his campaign appearances, LePage has made it clear that he will continue the war on public education by putting gag rules on teachers and censoring what students can read. As he told an audience last year, “I can’t wait to attack the school system, because man, this critical race theory. They’re taking down statues, burning down buildings, killing Americans.”
Earlier this month LePage echoed calls from the far-right when he said he wanted to remove “pornography” from school — a label anti-public school crusaders have used to describe books that contain LGBTQ subject matter — and hinted at pushing legislation to support efforts by parents to ban books.
“I’ve heard it. I’ve seen one here in Hampden and one down south in Bonny Eagle, where people were threatened to be arrested, thrown out of meetings. That is inappropriate,” he told an audience at Husson University. “So, the governor’s office’s role is to pass legislation that allows school boards to hear from the parents, and the parents and the school board should determine what goes into the libraries.”
LePage is apparently referring to the antics of a far-right agitator named Shawn McBreairty, who has been repeatedly banned from entering a number of schools across the state after spending the past two years harassing teachers and school boards over CRT and books containing LGBTQ subject matter. McBreairty first received national notoriety after receiving a criminal trespass order from SAD 51 schools — which encompasses schools in Cumberland and North Yarmouth — for repeatedly violating district rules.
In 2020, McBreairty became convinced that the school was calling residents of Cumberland “white supremacists” and teaching “critical race theory” after it released a statement denouncing white supremacy and committing to racial equity in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. In violation of school rules, McBreairty padlocked a sign to a school fence, disrupted numerous school board meetings and distributed flyers denouncing school officials to Greely High School students. At one point he even put a billboard-sized sign of a school board member’s face on his lawn that he claimed was surrounded by rat traps.
McBreairty cast himself as a free speech martyr in an appearance on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show, implying, falsely, that he was prohibited from attending his daughter’s graduation for battling with the school for holding what he described as “anti-white training.”
After that appearance, McBreairty rocketed to right-wing stardom and became a chapter leader of the “No Left Turn Education,” one of the largest organizations fear mongering about racial equity in schools. The group and its founder have compared educators to Pol Pot, Vladimir Lenin and Adolf Hitler and claimed that “black bigotry towards whites” is a “very real problem.” But McBreairty was too much of a loose cannon even for that group. No Left Turn later fired him in 2021 after he pled guilty to improperly influencing a Cumberland school official by threatening to release a recording of the deceased father of a school board member if they didn’t resign.
Most disturbingly, McBreairty and Lockman frequently name individual teachers in their defamatory accusations on conservative radio shows, podcasts, newsletters and on social media. One of McBreairty’s favorite targets is 2022 “Maine Teacher of the Year” Kelsey Stoyanova, an eighth grade teacher at Reeds Brook Middle School in Hampden. Students have described Stoyanova as passionate about instilling a love of learning and making all students feel valued and accepted.
However, McBreairty, who doesn’t have any children in Hampden schools (or in any K-12 schools), has accused Stoyanova of “hyper-sexualizing” students and promoting CRT because she released a reading list for students that included Black and LGBTQ authors.
However, the fury and fearmongering of a vocal right-wing minority is having a meaningful impact with conservative voters. One recent poll found that while Democratic support for public schools has increased during the pandemic, Republican confidence in public schools has plummeted to an all-time low. Last spring, Maine Republican Party convention delegates even passed McBreairty’s “Don’t Say Gay” resolution to ban CRT and sex education in schools and limit what school staff can say about gender and sexuality.
Free public education is one of our most valuable institutions and a cornerstone of our democracy. Its mission is to provide every young person in the nation with an equitable, inclusive and quality education that fosters a life-long love of learning and gives students the knowledge they need to be active, informed participants in the democratic process. While public education may not completely live up to its ideals, we need to continue working to strengthen and improve it for future generations of young learners.
Our educators pursue teaching not to get rich but because they have a passion to shape young minds. It’s not an easy job, though. It involves providing differentiated instruction for diverse learners, endless paperwork, early mornings and late nights preparing lessons, disciplining students, dealing with bullying and problems at home, and spending money out of one’s own pocket for classroom materials due to lack of funding.
The stress of working through the pandemic along with the constant smears, personal attacks and demonization of their profession is driving good teachers out, with more than a half-million leaving the profession since the beginning of 2020. Although these far-right activists are small in number, they have become very influential in our politics and it’s clear that if LePage is elected governor, he will continue to empower them and legitimize their bigoted grievances.
If you value public education, racial justice, LGBTQ rights and the separation of church and state, sitting back and rolling your eyes at these antics is no longer an option. We need to organize and fight back against this elitist, hateful agenda and send LePage back to Florida in November.
Andy O’Brien is the communications director for the Maine AFL-CIO, a statewide federation of 160 local unions representing 40,000 workers. However, his opinions are his own and don’t represent the views of his employer. He is also a member of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1445.