In January of 2019, United Teachers of Los Angeles had a historic strike against Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest district in the nation, to fight for public education. Since then, more and more schools and districts are rising up and demanding better for their students. If you find yourself in a community that is also rising up, you know that this is a scary and uncertain time for teachers, students, and the community as a whole. As a teacher who was on strike for six days in the pouring rain for smaller class sizes, a modest pay raise, more counselors, librarians, and nurses, and increased charter school accountability, I was hoping to shed some light on what it means to strike and how to get through it.
First, I want to address some common misconceptions:
- Teachers do not get paid when they strike. This is a huge sacrifice teachers make because these issues are important!
- There are many steps before escalating to strike. UTLA was in negotiations for two years before our strike. Folks outside of the education community may not hear about these negotiations until it has escalated, but it is necessary to note that unions and teachers try absolutely everything before it gets to this point, and it is usually a lengthy process to get our demands met before it comes to this.
- Teachers do not want to strike. We want to teach! We love our jobs and our students. It is because of the love for our jobs and students that we are willing to fight so hard to make sure our youth gets what they deserve. I had a class size of 47 students in one high school English class. In a 55-minute period, I am simply unable to be the best teacher I could be under these circumstances. Our students deserve better and our community needs high-quality classrooms and schools for our society to function.
- Striking is not vacation time. My days striking were more exhausting than my days teaching! During strike days, teachers are out all day marching, chanting, and engaging with community members. Striking, and activism as a whole, is hard work because it is necessary to show strength in numbers and make a large and loud presence in the community and beyond.
What it was like striking in Los Angeles
It was pouring rain for several days during the strike. This is weather that us Angelenos are definitely not used to! We would picket our school sites every day in the morning and afternoon (when students would typically be dropped off or picked up from school). In the afternoon, we would have other actions that we would go to marches to city hall, local marches, and rallies.
During this time, many Los Angeles teachers went viral for chanting, singing, and especially, dancing in the rain. It became a very interesting form of activism: when faced with inequity, teachers showed unequivocal dedication, motivation, and even joy, with no signs of slowing down. It was cold. Wet. Early. We were out there, unpaid, fighting for our students, and sending a message that we will not tire out! We will continue to show up every single day with more and more people, more creative chants and dance moves and picket signs; we will never stop fighting for our students.
It is in these moments that it is especially important to keep morale up. Keep showing up, keep finding new ways to engage with the community, find local businesses that are supporting teachers during this time (there were many local businesses that offered 50% off discounts or even free food). Remember your mission, especially on the days that seem long or hopeless. Find your people. Make new signs or new chants, write letters, post on social media, continue to inform the public about what you are fighting for. Also know that it is necessary to practice self care during this time and to also set your own boundaries to keep yourself and your work sustainable. You also need to think about the harsh realities of paying bills and feeding yourself if the strike lasts longer than expected; make sure you are talking to other teachers and your union about supports that may be available to you.
If you are facing the scary times of a strike, know that it will not be easy. But also know that you are not alone. And while opposers are often the loudest, teachers and educators do have overwhelming support from the public. We need serious national reform for education, we need more funding, smaller classes, more support, and it is up to us to be loud and proud in demanding this. The education community is large, inspiring, and filled with some of the most powerful, compassionate, and dedicated people. We must continue to stand united and fight for our youth.