Posted In: Education Support Professionals, Educator Voices, Election 2012, Maryland, Multimedia, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Wisconsin, Workers' Rights
By Amanda Litvinov
Upon meeting, Tiffanie Lawson of Wisconsin and Summer Hill of Pennsylvania realized they have a lot in common: Both are kindergarten teachers, and both were inspired to become activists through their union after witnessing their governors slashing education budgets and going after collective bargaining rights.
Lawson was one of thousands who protested in Madison last year and helped force the recall election of Gov. Scott Walker, Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch and four state senators. Now she’s focusing on union-led efforts to encourage voters to head to the polls on June 5 (stay tuned to EdVotes for coverage).
Hill’s home state of Pennsylvania, “is like Wisconsin in slow motion,” she said. “We’re not there yet, but we’re headed down that road.” She points to an active bill in the state legislature for distressed schools that wouldn’t provide any money for those districts—but would remove collective bargaining rights and allow the state the option of shutting down the school. No checks, no balances.
“Gov. Corbett cut billions of dollars from our education budget,” said Hill. “There are so many kids that need what public education provides, the care and concern and opportunity they need to be successful in life, that’s what he’s taking away from those kids.”
Their dedication to protecting public education from devastating budget cuts, bad policies, and the whim of governors funded by out-of-state corporate interests is what brought Lawson and Hill, along with fellow activists David Foust, a bus driver from Maryland, and retired teacher Marjorie Clark of Virginia, to Washington, D.C., where they were honored at a reception hosted by Vice President Joe Biden at his residence.
“As I think about the union movement, the most critical thing it did is it brought average guys and women, like the stock I come from, to the bargaining table,” said Biden. “It did more than just allow them to say, ‘We need higher wages,’ it allowed them to say, ‘I’m your equal—I warrant respect. I warrant being treated with dignity.’”
That rang true to David Foust, a longtime defender of workers’ rights who is a driver in the complex bus operation in Fairfax County, Va. (which transports more people per day than Greyhound).
“It takes an entire system to support a good education for the kids,” Foust said, “and you can’t have a good school system without the dedication of cafeteria workers, custodians, bus drivers—all of us.”
“It’s sometimes discouraging for those of us who feel like we have fought all of these fights and have to go back and fight them again, whether it’s women’s rights, or education, or voting rights,” said Marjorie Clark who taught for decades before retiring in 2002. “In Virginia they’re putting in one bill after another that would just cut off public education at the knees, so if we have to fight again, we will.”
All of the NEA activists found they shared common ground on the national political scene as well, supporting President Obama’s policies related to protecting public schools and collective bargaining rights and restoring fairness to the middle class. “Everyone should have a fair shot at being part of the middle class, and living the American Dream,” said Faust.
“Our single job,” Biden told the activists and the labor community at large, “yours and mine, is to restore the dignity so many people have had stripped from them through no fault of their own….. They’re the people we’ve got to focus on, because guess what? When they do well, everyone does well.”