After the waves of strikes in French and Portuguese schools this past autumn, the situation has taken a new turn. Unions have tried to harness the movements, a new actor has emerged in Italy, new movements in the US, and vaccination has entered the scene. The slogans have been evolving with the situation and the struggle is still on the rise, sometimes in the form of small isolated strikes and sometimes in spontaneous forms threatening the back-to-school operation in a whole country.
In France, after the November strike wave in schools and other educational centers, the unions offered to make a deal with the local administrations to ensure the provision of public services and to control and dial down the struggle of the workers. In Marseilles, for instance, they made sure to make punctual and spontaneous strikes more difficult by imposing the requirement to declare the strike in advance and for a limited time.
In the name of the continuity of certain essential public services, this mechanism provides for the obligation to declare a strike 48 hours in advance and avoids "beaded strikes". ... Therefore, it is no longer possible to go on strike for only one hour a day, with an equivalent withdrawal of salary, which should limit the possibility of staff extending the number of days on strike.
In Italy, the main unions also agreed with the government on a similar agreement to contain strikes in education in case they break out.
The great majority of Italian teachers are convinced that strikes are useless, do not bother governments and only save the State's money, but this is not what the government believes.
The reality is that unions prepared to prevent or de-escalate the strikes, but their chances of success depended on whether or not they would be able to bring the workers under control. And everything seems to suggest that appeasing the struggle will not be so easy. Even in Malta, where the unions remain relatively unquestioned, the concern and social mobilization was so strong that they dragged the public education unions into a two-day strike which eventually extended to five days and was likely to escalate beyond what was acceptable to both the government and the unions. Eventually, the unions were only able to call off the strike by becoming guarantors of the government's promise to prioritize school communities in the vaccination process. One of the keys to this mobilization and its success was that private schools, mostly under church control, had gone into remote teaching on their own without the government forcing them to go back to on-site teaching. The difference in standards made the government's classism and fundamental goals -keeping parents working at all costs- so open that social support for teachers threatened to overwhelm the union framework.
Union control is not only challenged in Malta. Already before Christmas, high school teachers in Aberdeen, Great Britain, announced that they would go on strike if distance learning was not extended during the days immediately before and after the school break. The union plans in Marseilles were thwarted by the sudden fall of the mayor of the Marseilles' Spring group. And in Italy whether the union-imposed Maginot line will coincide with the actual course of the coming struggles is not at all clear.
The role of the students
Italian students mobilized at the door of a high school
In fact, it was not teachers but the students who called for a strike last week. In contrast to the relative passivity of Italian teachers, students have been on strike for months to demand greater security measures in schools, higher education and transport. The Italian government committed to a safe reopening of schools this January, but the vaccination campaign is going at a very slow pace and sanitation measures in schools have not improved. The students have mobilized against having to choose between a distance education that does not reach many and leaves them stranded or between going back to school without any guarantee of safety.
Strikes broke out last Thursday in Rome, jumping from school to school and bringing teachers into the movement. This weekend, a school strike in 15 Italian regions, the vast majority of the territory, was threatened. The movement succeeded in getting the government to delay the return to school by a week and a half, but it is not enough for the government to hide its inability to respond to the pandemic by delaying the resumption of school.
The slogans converge in the call to speed up the pace of vaccination and to improve conditions in the classes. They are evolving in a similar way to the slogans during the French strike: it is not enough to keep students at home, there are many students, especially among the most precarious working class, whose education suffers under distance education. Distance education cannot be extended forever and the sanitary conditions must be improved to allow mixed in-person and remote teaching at the times when the pandemic situation allows it, something for which the Italian students and teachers keep on fighting.
In Spain it is also the students who are questioning a relatively apathetic teaching staff. The wave of requests to avoid on-site exams that started in Extremadura has spread throughout most of the country. In principle, it was a gesture with little flight, which at most, exposed the lapdog character of the student unions. However, the dismissive rejection by the rector's office has served to place the teachers in a conversation that is uncomfortable for the unions, and which is beginning to percolate into the high schools.
France: union-led strikes versus scattered strikes
In France, the back to school operation has gone relatively smoothly, the trade unions very much to their regret have let the state do without opposition and called for a strike at the end of the month, far from the return to school:
The measures taken last November remain unchanged: in the morning, children do not gather and go directly to their classrooms. But the school director remains concerned: It is true that, with all the chaos of the vacations, we can be a little worried, it would probably have been wiser to leave the children at home for a week, explains Patrick Capelle. A view shared by the school's union representative, who thinks the protocol could have been strengthened as a third wave approaches. The unions are calling for more resources and are launching a national call for a strike on January 26.
Regardless of what the big unions may or may not decide, not a few isolated educational centers continue to go on strike in France, where for instance the Le Bris middle school in Douarnenez has gone on strike in protest of the chronic lack of personnel, now worsened by the pandemic.
Teachers hold virtual classes during a protest against the return to face-to-face teaching at the doors of Brentano Elementary School in Chicago on January 4, 2021.
In the Americas, the return to school has been or is expected to be busy. In Brazil, the unions are threatening to call a teachers' strike in the schools if there is no serious vaccination plan to ensure basic health measures in the centers.
In the United States, hundreds of teachers in Phoenix, Arizona, organized a sickout -mass absenteeism claiming health reasons- against the return to school at the height of the pandemic. According to a teacher in Chandler, Phoenix:
Hospitals are full We've had at least 2 employees killed and at least 2 parents (that became public) killed by COVID-19. What more does it take for the board and district to retrain and educate remotely until it's safe? At a minimum, let's do it remotely for the first two weeks to allow the numbers to improve a bit! I have a friend/colleague whose husband has it now, he was one of the most vulnerable. He's expected at work next week. Crazy!
They ended up obtaining an expansion of distance education during the worst phase of the pandemic peak. And the example spreads: in the district of Maricopa - also in Arizona - 13 schools closed due to the teachers' mobilization. The unions had to apply themselves in the surrounding districts to defuse similar sickout movements. In some cases, such as in the Gilbert district, confessing that their own members are leading the protests.
Mobilization is not limited to Arizona either. Less than half of Chicago Public School teachers showed up at schools on Monday of last week. 40% of support staff also did not show up. Chicago Public Schools, a public school employers' organization, issued a statement saying that:
The overwhelming scientific evidence, expert guidance, and experiences of school districts throughout Illinois are clear: schools can safely reopen with a comprehensive plan in place. The Chicago Teachers Union has not identified any areas where the district's plan does not meet public health guidelines, and CTU's last-minute tactics are deeply disrespectful to the 77,000 families, mostly Black and Latinx, who chose face-to-face learning. It is the expectation of the district that teachers without an adequacy report will work tomorrow, just as principals, custodial staff, engineers, and food service personnel have done throughout the pandemic.
The schools condemn the CTU's last-minute tactic... that is, the CTU's decision to give its supposed support to the teachers who were going to strike anyway. Until then, the union tried to prevent it and presented as an alternative the lodging of complaints in the courts and the collection of signatures. Only when the workers took in their own hands the organization of the struggle, did the union begin to support it. It did, however, superimpose its own demands on the demands of the workers.
The Chicago Teachers Union proposes that the Chicago Public Schools delay classroom instruction until all employees have received at least one dose of COVID-19 vaccine, and for the union and the school district to reach an agreement that guarantees an uninterrupted school year. The union is also proposing that, in the meantime, Chicago Public Schools allow face-to-face instruction among staff who volunteer to do so with students who want to return... Although CTU President Jesse Sharkey said the union has not given up its claim to use the COVID-19 positivity rate to guide reopening decisions rather than double the rate the district has adopted, he also expressed a desire to reach an agreement.
If it fails to reach an agreement, the union plans to hold a vote among its members to authorize the strike. This means that the strike would not begin for at least two weeks. But in the meantime, the Chicago Public Schools denied more than 80% of the requests for teleworking based on the need to protect a household member with previous pathologies.
Teachers and students mobilize for life and safety, unions mobilize to keep the productive system going no matter what
Protesting teacher in Phoenix, Arizona
Country by country, region by region we see the same tension. Education workers are mobilizing to defend a need that is as universal as it is basic: the safety and health of the community in which they live. Unions, like governments and educational administrations, have another priority: the education system for them is first and foremost a piece of the productive apparatus, therefore, imposing strict health conditions can only disturb the recovery of economic profitability in the economy as a whole (=accumulation).
If these movements are so important today, it is because they clearly materialize a global and irreversible phenomenon: the permanent conflict between universal human needs and the demands of capital. It is nothing abstract, it does not happen on a theoretical plane: what we see before our eyes is two social classes trying to defend two antagonistic principles. Workers defend life, capital through unions and governments, defends profitability. It is from there that, as a class, we must become conscious, aware, of our possibilities and means as a class and keep moving forward.