Thirty years ago Ravenna Ohio was the site of the longest teachers’ strike in US history. I was then a member of the Board of Education in neighboring Kent, and I watched closely.
At that time, neither Kent nor Ravenna had unions per se – both had teachers’ associations that shied away from calling themselves ‘unions’. People in Kent generally believed that our teachers had no union because they didn't need one: teachers had a place at the table where decisions were made, and there was mutual trust and respect between teachers and the school administration.
In their strike, the Ravenna Education Association’s main demands were recognition of the REA as their bargaining agent, acceptance of binding arbitration, and protection against recrimination for the strike. The Ravenna school board was widely thought to have the goal of dismissing the strikers.
After the strike ended April 13, 1981 the Ravenna board declined to renew the contracts of 68 teachers who had participated in the strike. Later, 17 white teachers who had been non- renewed were rehired for the 1981-1982 school year.
In 1983, Ohio passed a collective bargaining bill, part of a nationwide trend recognizing the right of workers to organize for common goals, and giving public employees’ organizations a place at the bargaining table where decisions were made about their lives.
Today the largest national teachers’ organizations are the National Education Association (NEA) with 3.2 million members, and the 1.5 million member American Federation of Teachers (AFT) . While NEA, founded in 1857, is a freestanding organization, AFT has always been affiliated with the union movement, specifically AFL-CIO. NEA includes workers besides teachers, including school librarians, nurses, bus drivers and cafeteria workers, as well as college professors and non-tenure-track faculty. NEA rejected a proposed merger with AFT in 1998.
In present discussions about SB 5 and teachers’ rights to negotiate collectively, resentment has been expressed that teachers’ groups’ demand for tenure makes it impossible for local school boards to fire poor teachers.
Tenure is generally understood as a lifelong contract and is primarily used by universities to retain outstanding professors. Public schools almost never offer such tenure. They offer continuing contracts that, by definition, are those that will be renewed year after year unless there are reasons not to. Non-renewal may be for budgetary considerations, because of curriculum changes, for poor performance, or for other reasons.
When I googled <Ravenna teachers' strike> the first thing that came up was "Ohio History Central" ( http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/entry.php?rec=1623 "a product of the Ohio Historical Society." ) I found a brief factual rundown of the strike, but was shocked to read this concluding unsupported assertion:
"The various teacher strikes [like Ravenna] created a negative image for Ohio, causing non-residents to view the state and local governments, as well as teachers, as being uncaring about education and children. Because of this view, numerous businesses and people refused to relocate to Ohio."
Even more shocking was that other sites repeated that passage. (http://www.familyhistory101.com/county/oh-county-portage.html; http://antiqueshopsinohio.com/portage_county.htm )
So there we have it: uncaring teachers and their greedy unions are the reason businesses haven’t come to Ohio, and are responsible for our economic downturn.
Nothing in my school board experience substantiates that. My experience suggests that this relentless demonization of teachers as incompetent and greedy and unions as conspiracies to defraud the public is a classic McGuffin or ‘plot coupon’ promoted by right-wing think-tanks (like the Buckeye Institute for Public Policy Solutions www.buckeyeinstitute.org/ ) to deflect attention from their effort to take most decisions about schools – curriculum, assessment of teachers and pupil progress, class size, teacher pay and employee benefits – out of the hands of local school boards and hand them over to managers from the private sector, or to pundits, experts, or economists from inside the Beltway. I believe No Child Left Behind (NCLB) was designed to force local school districts to spend money implementing policies they had no hand in making.
For years I have watched good people in Portage County – Republicans, Democrats and independents – working to manage our schools, civic infrastructure, safety services, and courts justly, fairly, compassionately, and honestly. All told, we’ve done well: we have good infrastructure and services; we’ve got active churches and voluntary associations helping neighbors, we’ve developed good leadership and administrators, and weeded out poor performers and cheaters. We have strong unions in both the public and private sectors. Most of all, we’ve got good teachers and good schools.
We’re all struggling with a larger world running out of oil and water, battered by disrupted atmospheric conditions, manipulated by financiers and disaster capitalism; our nation is mired in expensive and immoral wars, an economic system based on credit & debt, and we have unemployment, hunger and poverty in our own back yards. We’re dealing with new technologies for communications and warfare, and old problems of class, race and gender.
Controlling our common schools down from a corporate top, up from a budgetary bottom line, or sideways by slandering and mistrusting one another is not democracy and it is not sustainable. If we as citizens, school boards and unions are not all at the table where decisions are made about our schools, our children and communities will be lunch for the rich and powerful.
But the larger lesson I draw today is that politics has become less earnest improvisations by amateurs addressing our common challenges, and more theater pieces deliberately crafted and played in the commercial media by powerful corporations to demean, destroy, or discredit people, to separate us from all mutual support, and to distract us from the real challenges we face.
This column appears in the Kent Ravenna Record-Courier Sunday May 1, 2011