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Friday, May 11, 2018, 10:23 am

Colorado Teachers Are Mad as Hell—And Now They’re out on Their First Strike in Decades

BY Rachel M. Cohen

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Teachers and supporters strike outside East High School on May 7, 2018 in Pueblo, Colorado. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images)  

Teachers in Pueblo, Colorado have been on strike for the past five days in a historic work action. They’re calling for 2 percent cost-of-living increases—a demand supported by a neutral fact-finder who determined that the school district could afford such raises.

It’s the first teachers’ strike in Colorado since 1994, and it comes just weeks after some of the largest teacher organizing efforts in the state in decades.

Teacher pay in Colorado ranks 31st in the country, with the average educator earning just under $53,000, according to the state’s education department. As Chalkbeat Colorado notes, some school districts in the state have average salaries above $70,000, while others are closer to $30,000.

On April 26 and 27, thousands of teachers from across Colorado poured into Denver, the state capital, to call on legislators to increase funding for teachers and schools. Those rallies weren’t technically strikes—educators prefer the term “walkouts”—since school districts closed beforehand and many teachers used their personal days to attend. The Colorado Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union, says that public schools are underfunded by $822 million, and that per-pupil spending stands at $2,700 less than the national average.

Mike Maes, executive vice president of the Pueblo Education Association, told In These Times that over the course of the past week their strike has really evolved “into a community movement.” On Wednesday roughly 1,000 teachers, students and parents marched for miles around the city. “There’s almost no words to describe it,” said Maes. More than 470 teachers voted to strike, and just 24 voted against it.

In late April, a Republican state senator named Bob Gardner introduced a bill designed to prevent Colorado teachers—like those in Pueblo—from going on strike. His legislation threatened teachers with job terminations, fines and even jail time. The bill would have also blocked school districts from paying any teacher for time they spent on strike. Gardner said his bill was inspired by the teacher strikes in West Virginia.

But the bill was quickly shot down, with even Gardner’s fellow Republicans coming out in opposition. Within days, Gardner announced he would kill his own bill, saying there were too many other items left for legislators to attend to this session. When The Denver Post asked Gardner at the end of April if he’d consider reintroducing the bill next year, he said much would depend “on what happens between now and January of next year.” He added, “if we have a teacher strike, I probably will.” Sen. Gardner’s office did not return In These Times’ request for comment.

That said, teachers weren’t much threatened by Gardner’s bill.

“It did more to mobilize our members than scare them,” Corey Kern, a spokesperson for the Denver Classroom Teachers Association, told In These Times.

Kallie Leyba, president of the Douglas County Federation of Teachers agreed. “Nobody took that bill seriously, not even the Republican caucus,” she told In These Times. “Colorado is a local control state—meaning it’s ultimately your school board members who would control any sort of retaliation. It wouldn’t come from the state-level unless there was a law passed, and we knew that wasn’t going to pass.” Colorado school board members and superintendents—like those in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona—have been relatively supportive of the teachers’ protests.

Maes, of the Pueblo Education Association, said concerns of retaliation have not been at the forefront of his members’ minds. “Of course we’re always a bit concerned,” he said. “But if there’s retribution we’ll stand up for ourselves.”

Colorado’s school funding situation is particularly challenging compared to other states. It is the only state in the country to have a so-called “Taxpayer Bill of Rights” law, which bars legislators from raising taxes without voter approval. “We have incredibly low property taxes in Colorado, and they continue to go down,” said Leyba. “As a result we have lost an incredible revenue stream for schools.”

In order to raise more education funding, advocates are working to pass The Great Schools, Thriving Communities ballot initiative, a measure that would generate $1.6 billion through tax increases on the state’s highest earners and corporations. Advocates are currently working to collect signatures. Due to a controversial state amendment, teachers need to collect signatures from 2 percent of registered voters in every senate district across Colorado in order to secure the measure on November’s ballot.

Colorado is not a right-to-work state, but it’s not a collective bargaining state either.

Kern of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association says this essentially means teachers in each district must fight for every right and protection they have, and “a lot of districts are in different points in that fight.” In Douglas County, for example, teachers had collective bargaining rights for decades but lost them six years ago. “Our members didn’t want to strike for a collective bargaining agreement at the time in 2012,” said Leyba, the teacher union president. “I think our members didn’t know how bad it was going to get.”

According to Kern, there’s been a sharp increase in teacher militancy since Trump was elected. “That woke up a lot of people, especially young folks,” he said. “I think educators just reached their tipping point, and we’re seeing a much more supportive parent community too.” Denver teachers are currently locked in a contract dispute that Kern says could result in a strike vote next January.

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Rachel M. Cohen is a journalist based in Washington D.C. Follow her on Twitter @rmc031

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