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Bhattacharya writes: "The US is in the grip of a wave of strikes in our public schools. As a national organizer for the International Women's Strike, which took place on 8 March let me also add: 'at last!'"

'These strikes are for wages and benefits, but they arise from a social landscape scoured by gender and racial inequalities.' (photo: Sue Ogrocki/AP)
'These strikes are for wages and benefits, but they arise from a social landscape scoured by gender and racial inequalities.' (photo: Sue Ogrocki/AP)

ALSO SEE: 'Momentum Is on Our Side,'
Oklahoma Teachers Union Leader Declares

Women Are Leading the Wave of Strikes in America. Here's Why

By Tithi Bhattacharya, Guardian UK

10 April 18

The spreading teachers strikes are for wages and benefits – but they arise from a social landscape scoured by gender and racial inequalities

he US is in the grip of a wave of strikes in our public schools. As a national organizer for the International Women’s Strike, which took place on 8 March let me also add: “at last”!

The mainstream US media have been generally supportive of the strikes. They have highlighted how decades of neoliberal cuts to public education have kindled these flames. They have talked about how stagnant salaries mean teachers are unable to keep pace with the rising cost of healthcare. What they have not talked about is this: the strike action is led almost exclusively by women.

I have spent many hours talking with striking teachers, chanting with them in their statehouses. This movement has to be recognized as a feminist project, and all feminists need to stand with the teachers.

Here’s why:

1. 77% of all public school teachers in the US are women. In some states the percentage is over 80%

2. The prevalence of women in this sector is undergirded by a more complex issue. Teaching is seen as “women’s work”.

While the majority of teachers used to be male in the colonial period, the feminization of the sector began around 1900. Indeed, some scholars believe that feminization took place because schools were reluctant to pay the former high wages that male teachers received as the school term got longer with the spread of public education. Other scholars have demonstrated how the preponderance of women “has contributed to pressure to strengthen bureaucratic controls over teacher behaviour and to ‘deskill’ the profession”.

Funny how vicious this circle is. Teaching is seen as women’s work and hence teachers are paid badly. Because the vast majority of teachers are women, a formerly male profession suddenly becomes women’s work.

3. Since it is labelled women’s work, teaching then also gets classified as ”care work”. My friend, the economist Nancy Folbre, has done several extensive studies on the devaluation of care work, and she lists teachers, nurses, and childcare workers as the most prominent examples of this devaluation.

4. Women, whether in paid employment or not, do the majority of the actual caregiving at home and in the community. This is reflected in how teachers are conceiving the strikes. A common theme among the strikers is that they are striking for their students. When asked why they were asking for a 20% pay raise, Rebecca Garelli an Arizona teacher framed it beautifully: “our working conditions are our student’s learning conditions”.

But for these teachers, “care” extends beyond the classroom. Most of the strikes are happening in the poorest parts of the country. Many students in these teachers’ classrooms get their only hot meal of the day in school. In all strike locations, teachers have organized for their students to have hot lunches.

Jackie, a teacher from the successful West Virginia strike, who came from a small town in Blacksville, told me that throughout the strike they kept their city hall open where the children came in to be fed. Teachers are working with churches to prepare hot meals and take them to people’s houses.

This is why parents and students have all come out in support of the striking teachers. Olivia Morris one of the strike leaders in Charleston, West Virginia, told me how overwhelmed she was by the support from parents, who told her, “Don’t give up now. You are fighting the good fight for our kids, do not give up.’” That made Olivia want to keep fighting, “because if we didn’t have that, the nitpicking that the legislators [did] here on a daily basis … [would] break you down.”

5. Since women are the caregivers at home, all attacks on healthcare and childcare are women’s issues.

We know that Oklahoma, a state where the teachers are still on strike, has, over the years, cut funding for mental health and done away with earned tax credits for the poorest families. It now ranks, along with West Virginia and Montana as leading the country in adverse childhood experiences.

In Kentucky, the bill that sparked the strike proposes to cut, along with teacher’s pensions, pre-kindergarten funding and money for family resources centers. For West Virginia, what set off the strike were the extraordinary changes to the teachers’ health insurance plans: the deductibles had increased 500% with no increase in teachers’ wages.

The teachers also had to wear Fitbits and enter data about every bodily measurement and function, including sexual activity. Their premiums were to be decided on how well they did on such metrics.

6. Let us remember that teachers are not just women workers. They carry their gender home even after the last bell.

The politicians in the states where the strikes are taking place, have, over the years, shown their deep commitment to generalized misogyny:

  • Oklahoma has the highest rate of female incarceration.

  • Arizona is ranked first for its anti-abortion laws by the leading anti-abortion group Americans United for Life.

  • Kentucky now only has one abortion clinic left to serve the entire state.

  • In West Virginia, the same legislators whose laws led to the strike, are considering a bill to take out the right to abortion from the state’s constitution.

Rebecca in Arizona is not just a strike leader, she is the mother of three children under four. Carol Roskos in West Virginia is worried about children who live in abusive homes, but the state has cut funding needed to find alternatives for them. A substitute teacher in Kentucky wrote in a secret Facebook group “I just sit here and think of a 15-month-old baby girl in my family and I am petrified about her future.”

These strikes are for wages and benefits, but they arise from a social landscape scoured by gender and racial inequalities. The leaders of the strikes are thus not simply workers shaped only by conditions of work: gender marks them.

These are women fighting for dignity and security in the most commodious sense of those terms. Their gender is not incidental to this strike, their narratives of fear about their families and health, are not backstories to what is merely a wage struggle.

It is time to consider these “backstories” as central and constitutive of the strike wave. your social media marketing partner


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+9 # DongiC 2018-04-10 17:40
Once again, women demonstrate their concern for the poor and oppressed and their remarkable and uplifting heroism along with dedicated and caring male teachers. Maybe, we need a new quota standard specifying that at least half of all important positions in our culture will be held by women. I think evolution is on their side and, if we are going to make it on this planet, then females must have a deciding voice.
+3 # BetaTheta 2018-04-10 22:32
It's ironic that Donald Trump, Harvey Weinstein, and Nicolas Cruz may turn out to be the unwitting agents of a groundswell change for good in this country. By their heinous actions, they may well have brought us to multiple tipping points, where decent Americans at last decide enough is enough.

It is time for a new generation to claw back some sanity in our civic institutions.
+3 # Benign Observer 2018-04-11 13:45
Once upon a time Barack Obama said he would go to the Rust Belt to support striking teachers .. but he never did. Maybe he was too busy being president. It takes time to figure out the weekly drone kill list, deport Honduran kids, push the TPP and arrange for a trillion $ nuke makeover .. and having a job like that means you really need to set your priorities.

But where is he now? Is he busy giving another speech to Wall Street for $400,000, or maybe windsurfing with billionaires?

I guess he's going to follow the Reagan post-POTUS model rather than Jimmy Carter's.

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