With public school teachers fighting for and winning improved wages and working conditions in states such as West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arizona due to widespread strikes, it is clear that America’s educators are a force to be reckoned with.
West Virginia teachers secured a five percent pay raise and beat back unfair healthcare requirements, and Oklahoma teachers won a $6,100 raise and millions more in school funding. After Kentucky teachers protested, Kentucky lawmakers voted to override Republican Governor Matt Bevin’s veto of a two-year budget that expands public education spending using a $480 million tax increase. Arizona Governor Doug Ducey announced a deal on Friday that would raise teachers’ pay 20 percent by 2020, though Arizona teachers remain skeptical and are fighting for more concrete gains.
But as teacher strikes continue to gain steam, several prominent politicians are responding with sexist, infantilizing comments and threats of retaliation to the women on the front lines.
Let’s take a spin through the recent thicket of insults:
In response to the strikes, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice said if public school teachers did not have patience and accept a one-to-two percent pay raise, they were being “dumb bunnies.”
Oklahoma representative Kevin McDugle said, “I’m not voting for another stinking measure when they’re acting the way they’re acting,” a comment that came alongside Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin’s remark, “Teachers want more. But it’s kind of like having a teenage kid that wants a better car.”
In Kentucky, Governor Matt Bevin falsely and egregiously asserted that “I guarantee you somewhere in Kentucky today, a child was sexually assaulted that was left at home because there was nobody there to watch them” because of the strike. He added, “Children were harmed – some physically, some sexually, some were introduced to drugs for the first time – because they were vulnerable and left alone.” The governor’s comments were so crass that Democratic and Republican lawmakers alike introduced and passed two resolutions in the Kentucky House of Representatives condemning the comments – and forcing him to publicly apologize.
Saying teachers are acting like “teenage kids” and “dumb bunnies,” and accusing the strikes of hurting children are comments that reflect the wider disrespect that women face at work when they advocate for themselves and their communities. The majority of teachers and thus the majority of strikers are women. Nationwide, women make up 73 percent of education, training, and library occupations. According to the Association of American Educators, “men are often deterred from teaching because of the pay associated with being an educator.” The insults against striking teachers are gendered. They are lobbed at the strikers not just because these politicians are anti-worker, but because they have bought into gendered stereotypes about women’s work not being real work, or worth value – monetary or otherwise.
In Colorado, teachers, —approximately 76 percent of whom are women— were threatened with criminal sanctions for speaking out. Last week, an estimated 10,000 teachers staged a walkout and marched to the state Capitol to protest low wages and inadequate resources and benefits. The Colorado walkout was met with one of the most egregious forms of retaliation yet. Colorado has a track record of underpaying teachers, and Colorado statesmen (and yes, “men” is the correct term because both bill sponsors were men) introduced a bill that would have prohibited “public school teachers and teacher organizations from directly or indirectly inducing, instigating, encouraging, authorizing, ratifying, or participating in a strike against any public school employer” and applied harsh penalties to both teachers and teacher organizations for taking action. Colorado is one of the few states where teachers’ unions can legally strike, so in addition to being an all-out assault on organizing, this bill was also an attack on a hard-won right that Colorado teachers currently enjoy.
Although one of the GOP sponsors pulled the proposed bill, citing lawmakers’ heavy workload in the last days of this legislative session, the measure was a wild overreach as well as a cowardly attempt by male lawmakers to intimidate (mostly women) workers into compliance. It would have allowed a public school employer to seek a court injunction to stop teachers from striking or in the face of an imminent threat of a strike. Then, if the teachers still went on strike and were held in contempt of court, they could have been fined up to $500 a day and/or gotten jail time of up to six months. Teachers also would have been immediately terminated with no right to a hearing and would be barred from getting a job with any public school employer for one year. If local teachers’ unions or organizations violated a strike injunction and were held in contempt of court, they would have faced fines of up to $10,000 a day. Additionally, the organization would have then been prohibited from representing teachers and collecting dues for a year and their collective-bargaining agreements would have been made null and void.
While Republican Senator Bob Gardner has pulled the bill for now, he has made no promises about it being dead for good. When asked if he would introduce the bill again next year, Gardner was evasive. “A lot depends on what happens between now and January of next year,” he said. “If we have a teacher strike, I probably will.” This political hedging is an important reminder that we must remain vigilant against measures that aim to take away the rights of individuals to engage in collective action. .
The justification of the now dead bill was that it was “necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health, and safety.” This vague language was a barely concealed effort to rationalize the bill’s intent and effect: stifling the voices of teachers, criminalizing dissent and disrespecting the valid grievances of teachers – as women and as working people.
The reality is that the protests in West Virginia and other states have posed no threat to peace, health, and safety. But if these lawmakers really want to talk about peace, health, and safety, we’re got some ideas for better bills:
If the goal is peace? Let’s discuss measures to reduce gun violence in schools and everywhere else, or support functional collective bargaining agreements that would reduce labor unrest.
If the goal is health? Let’s discuss ways to actually make teacher healthcare affordable.
If the goal is safety? Let’s discuss sexual assault in K-12 schools and what can be done to stop it, and give teachers increased tools to be free of sexual harassment in their own workplaces too.
Teachers are striking because they have been underpaid and underappreciated for far too long. Teachers’ work is undervalued specifically because they are predominantly women and women’s work is undervalued. Politicians’ gendered insults are an important reminder that when women speak up they are faced with sexist attacks accusing them of being selfish, reckless, or too dumb to know better – rather than addressing any problems with substantive policy. We can’t let these insults go unaddressed and we will not stand idly by while democratic dissent is criminalized. Instead, we should all support and stand with these courageous women.