The Thing That Walks and Other Experiences of Being On Strike
Although I am not a teacher, I often find myself working in schools. I did the contracting thing (oh man does tax time suck), but once I settled down in Oregon, I found out that the contractor game isn’t as fun to play here. So I called around and got myself a district job with relative ease.
Part of working for a school district is becoming a union member. You can choose to just pay the fees and waive the protection, but I like to get all the benefits that I pay for when I join something. So yeah, union member over here. Teacher’s union, in fact.
I am not a political person. It may be stupid to ignore politics since they directly influence me on daily basis, but I generally ignore politics anyway, because I often ignore dirty sleazy things. I know that unions and politics go together, but I try not delve further in than that.
When I was hired, I was told that I would be working under an expired contact and that this would be remedied in the very near future. Eight months later–still working under an expired contract. Talk of striking began. Before we knew it, the time came to a vote, and union members voted overwhelmingly to strike.
I ignored the hell out of everything that didn’t pertain directly to my job. I went to all the staff meetings, listened to the information, heard how we should support other districts who were about to strike, and just kind of ignored it all some more. It was a trickle of information that I watched puddle by my feet and then, suddenly, the puddle was up to my knees and the trickle was a stream carrying me away in a sea of buttons, red shirts, slogans, chants, and lots and lots of walking.
Everyone kept hoping it wouldn’t happen, but the time came when we had a week to clear out our classrooms. The idea was to show that we’re serious and to not leave materials for anyone who would try to take our place. And I guess to show how bare the classrooms are without all the things we buy to put into them. We all made sure to be on the appropriate e-mail lists and got the information we needed from our strike captains (yeah, seriously, strike captains), and prepared to make a good show of walking in circles for a few hours.
Monday: It rained. It rained and rained and rained. I am a pessimist, so I was ready for long hours in shit weather. But the optimists in our crew wore tennis shoes and water resistant outerwear, which they learned didn’t resist nearly as well after 4-5 hours of constant watery onslaught.
I tried listening to an audio book, tried having a conversation, and became unreasonably angry at people who walked at a pace that was not pleasing to me. I felt removed and exhausted. We didn’t know how long we would walk. We hoped the mediation between our union and the school board would be done in a few hours and everyone would come to their senses and give us back our classroom keys. All that came of that day was the knowledge that the next mediation session wouldn’t happen until Wednesday. I felt kind of crushed, but was not exactly surprised, considering that mind games were being played. That day we walked for 8 hours.
Tuesday: Someone brought a boombox and, despite continuing rain, dance parties started taking place in driveways. We started adapting. I talked more readily with coworkers who have been in my proximity for months and about whom I knew next to nothing. We talked with the parents and other community members who came out to walk with us or to waive signs around. Many of our families do not speak English, but they waived our signs at passing cars anyway and brought us snacks. At that point we already had a canopy set up and the amount of home-made sweets, VooDoo Donuts, coffee, fruits, and veggies kept growing and growing. Staff who were not part of our union would sneak out of the school and tell us they were thinking of us, give us hugs, and bring more snacks. Parents let us use their bathrooms–a fairly crucial part of maintaining some sort of dignity. I started to really love our community, seeing them like this. We walked another 8 hours. In tiny circles. In a slow shuffle.
At home I engaged in things that were the opposite of walking. So I mostly lay on the couch until it was time for bed, then I would hobble over to the bed. I iced my legs and my feet and my back and realized I do NOT own footwear that is appropriate for this activity. Chores were laughed at. At night I dreamed that I was walking in tiny circles, but that it didn’t hurt.
Wednesday: We spent half of it at a different location and I ended up part of my very first rally. The sun peeked out for the first time in days and it was nice to see the rest of the staff, including some really good friends from other schools. The board and the union mediated, we hung around in the sun, listened to music, had more dance parties and read some of the more excellent signs around us. One of my favorites: “Money is like manure. Useless, unless you spread it around to help young things grow.”
Although the school board didn’t leave at 5 as they threatened, they did escape around 7pm with full intentions to not bother meeting until next Tuesday, dooming the kids to missing more school, dooming us to walk for days without any hope. That really crushed me. Through the days my phone would go off to tell me of the meetings I was missing and I would cringe inwardly, not sure how this increasing gap of time would ever be made up. My legs hurt.
When I got home, instead of doing anything productive, I spent another 6 hours just laying there, drifting in and out of sleep, until it was time for bed. It felt like being in some strange alternate universe, where you only live for one purpose, and that is to walk in the rain.
Thursday: We were all told to assemble at 6am by the High School, as “tutors” were going to be brought in to “counsel” the seniors. Our main function was to block driveways and to ensure that we get a little face time with any “tutors.” That day was hard. As often happens in a crowd, some people were more militant than others. None of the people trying to get into the school knew that we would let them through if they just stopped and talked to us. I’m sure it was very intimidating to see a crowd of people in your way, although some drivers felt very comfortable trying to plow right through us. They were people in vehicles with tinted windows.
I felt bad about making people scared. Everyone who just slowed down, spoke to us, and was quickly let through smiled and waived and honked in support. But there were also people who didn’t know there was any option other than trying to ignore and push through us with several tons of metal, and conflicts arose, and yelling happened, and tear too. And this would go on and on for days to come.
We walked for 8 more hours and then many of us went home to write and call the school board and our community members and lo and behold! it was decided they were to meet again on Friday, instead of Tuesday.
Friday: To be honest, Friday was just plain fun. We were in the same central location and the sun was out again. People brought instruments and we walked to really great drumming concerts. People brought their pets, their kids, their spouses. And again there was a ton of food. That day we marched around the area chanting, and it was great hearing my voice join other voices. I forgot how much I liked singing cadences back in the Army days. There was another rally. Our union was bargaining with the board and it sounded like both were finally committed to staying and getting this contract done.
Although a strike is an awful thing that disrupts the functioning of schools, keeps kids from getting their education, and keeps teachers in a horrible position of having to leave their classrooms to instead spend hours walking, there is a silver lining. I’ve never felt close to the people at my school before. I never felt comfortable asking about anything personal. Mostly, it’s because I’m an awkward, socially incompetent person. But I also never had the time. This week we’ve had nothing BUT time, and I got to know my staff and my community. Which, by the way, is a big deal to me because I’m crap at being part of anything due to the fact that I have never been in one place long enough to be part of anything.
Oh, and we settled Saturday morning after an all-nighter for the board and the union. And I don’t even know what it is that we settled FOR, but I am happy. Ratification vote will take place next week and I will personally beat anyone who votes against it. I hope that the contract we agreed on has building safety built in, and does not allow for negotiations to start again anytime the budget is mismanaged (instead of when the contract expires), and has prep time build in. The prep time isn’t even important to my work-day, but I hope it’s there, because that means that kids still get gym and art and other classes that would otherwise not be necessary for scheduling to work.
If you’re not in school or working at a school, you probably don’t know how different things are from when you were last dicking around in the back of the classroom. These days it’s a fight to let kids have an art class, because it takes away from the time they could be learning how to pass standardized tests. But that’s a rant for another time. For now, I am just content to know that I have my kids back on Monday.