The Return of the Walkout: Collective Action in Academia

South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Finland, United Kingdom, Canada, Netherlands, Ireland, and Poland. What do these nations have in common? They’re all ranked the top ten schools for education while the U.S. ranks 14th. We rank 24th in the world for literacy, and 17th in fourth grade math performance. The U.S. likes to brag about being number 1 (which we are in things like school shootings and military expenditures) but we’ve fallen far from the first spot in education and have been falling for a long time now. Our schools are in dire straits – our students are under threat not just from gun violence but from a lack of funding and a lack of support by the government. What our government has failed to do, and continues to fail to do, has pushed teachers, students, and other members of the public to once again unite in collective action to fight for the things our schools need: more funding for students, more improvements in the classroom, and more unionizing at the graduate level. Labor has once again found that collective action is the most direct and effective way of getting their demands met.

Before the statewide Arizona Teacher’s Strike which has just begun, the first to catch the nation’s attention in 2018 were the teacher walkouts in West Virginia. Shortly thereafter, Oklahoma and Kentucky teachers walked out of their jobs to shut down school districts to protest cuts in pay, cuts in benefits, and to demand more funding in their classrooms for their students. With Arizona, the trend of teachers in red states walking out of the classroom and picking up picket signs has continued while also growing. The Arizona walkout has made history as being the first statewide walkout for teachers. News sources from the right slam teachers for being selfish, but across the nation teachers are some of our lowest-paid workers with Arizona teacher’s making roughly 45K a year, ranking 47th out of 50 states. But teachers are not on strike for low pay, proposed pension cuts, and benefits packages alone: teachers are striking for their students’ welfare as well. With textbooks falling apart, outdated materials, unsafe working conditions like old, broken desks, and no funding for supplies (which teachers end up paying out of pocket), teachers are striking to improve the education of their students. Oklahoma, for example, ranks 50th out of 50 states for school funding. When teachers walkout, they aren’t doing so with their own interests in mind but in the interest of their families, their communities, and their students.

Students across the U.S. are following their teachers’ examples and have started walking out in protest as well – but this time, in response to gun violence in schools. From students in Parkland, Florida to students in my own backyard from the Inland Empire, California, students are taking to the streets in mass demonstrations and walkouts on the anniversary of Columbine. Gun laws and gun violence are controversial across the U.S. – indeed, they are controversial in our own party (Socialist Party USA). As someone who was in high school during the Columbine shootings, I can heavily empathize with today’s students and their fears. At my high school, a month after Columbine, there was a bomb threat on our campus which was deemed a prank. Despite the threat, we all had to attend school that day. We had a bridge connecting our two campuses that was narrow and gated and the only way we were to cross the street that divided our schools. That day, students cried as they were afraid of a bomb being placed on that bridge or someone closing the gates on students while crossing and opening fire. We were fine, but that one day was only a minor dose of fear in comparison to what students face today for violence in schools happens on a much larger and more frequent scale than it did in the days of Columbine. As the Washington Post reports, more than 208,000 students have faced gun violence in school since Columbine on April 20th, 1999. Students today are tired of being afraid – they are tired of threats to their lives – and they are tired of failed measures by the government from police in schools (who perpetuate violence against black and brown children and can be found hiding in a park during any real violence on campus). Instead of arming teachers in classrooms, students want real solutions and, since the government seems incapable of coming up with anything practical or agreeing on restrictions that might protect students, collective action is once again a tool students are employing to get media attention and to get their message heard: the U.S. needs to take real steps in preventing gun violence in schools.

At the graduate level, graduate students, often overworked and underpaid for their labor, have begun to unionize in the private school sector. Starting with the University of Chicago and going all the way up to the Supreme Court, University of Chicago graduate students were denied the right to unionize for the laws that allow public school students to form unions and to use collective bargaining was ruled not to extend to private universities. While the University of Chicago students have since withdrawn their lawsuit at the federal level (in, what the student representatives said, was a choice to prevent Trump’s administration from overturning the lower court’s Columbia precedent), graduate students at private universities across the country are now unionizing. Earlier in 2018, University of Pennsylvania students were granted the right to unionize followed by Harvard in April. These students make less than adjuncts for the classes they teach, take on large workloads, and are told they should like it because they are in a graduate program and this is part of their academic training. Unlike adjuncts though, graduate students often sign contracts stating that they cannot work another job outside of their department and if they are caught working, they can lose any financial support they may have and can be booted out of the program. To fight back against the continuously growing academic administration at colleges and universities that puts profit ahead of teachers, students, and education, graduate student unions can use collective bargaining and collective actions, such as walkouts if their demands aren’t met, to create a better work environment across academia.

Academia has once again found power and a voice in collective action and in solidarity. On May 1st, 1886, 300,000 workers in 13,000 workplaces across the U.S. walked out and demanded an 8-hour workday. States are beginning to see the collective action of our teachers and students as a threat and are passing laws to rebuke teachers that would attempt walkouts, which means one thing: collective action is working. It is through our collective action, and through our constitutional right to assemble and protest, that workers have the most power and the most protection. It is the hope of this author that, much like the workers at the L.A. Times, this rediscovery of unionizing and solidarity continues to spread across the nation as we see more workers fight for their right to unionize and to use collective bargaining to protect themselves from the capitalist class and an inept government.

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