My dad retired when I was twelve, about 3 months before I finished 7th grade. He and my mom both had full careers working for the County of Los Angeles and represented by the Service Employees International Union. It’s a pretty strong union, and I don’t recall any significant work actions, strikes or otherwise, while I was growing up. I don’t recall my parents having to walk picket lines. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. I just don’t recall it happening.
But, for my dad, the concept of solidarity went beyond paying union dues and being ready to strike if called. He fought the building of Dodger Stadium because it displaced a working class Latino community in Chavez Ravine. We didn’t eat grapes for years as an act of solidarity with Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. He taught me the word boycott, and with my mom, taught me the value of standing up for social justice.
During my secondary school years, my teachers, represented by the United Teachers of Los Angeles, engaged in several work actions. I recall a couple of one day walk outs, and some informational pickets, and one major strike that went for 9 days while I was in 10th grade.
On days when the teachers were out, the union called on parents to send their kids to school anyway because the absence of the students would negatively impact some element of the school’s funding formula and cause it to lose much needed money.
So I went to school. I’d see my teachers picketing, walking up and down the sidewalk. An right there with them, I’d see my dad, and our dog, a bearded collie named Maggie. Just as with those families in Chavez Ravine and the UFW, my dad, known as “the man with the dog,“ was demonstrating his solidarity with my teachers, and by extension, the whole school community.
That was 25 years ago. Now, I’m not a student, but a parent. On Monday, May 11, the Shoreline Education Association, my children’s teachers, staged a one day strike. It was not against the district or the school. It was part of a series of rolling walkouts being staged by teachers’ unions across the State of Washington to insist that our state legislature listen to the will of the voters and the orders of our state Supreme Court and fully fund our Washington’s K-12 education system.
There are a number of issues at hand. There are cost of living adjustments to teacher compensation. There is the voter-approved initiative 1351. It calls for reduced class size. It’s been ignored by the legislature. And there’s the McCleary decision, a court order in which the Washington Supreme Court found that the state was failing in it’s primary purpose, as described in Article IX of the Washington Constitution.
SECTION 1 PREAMBLE. It is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children residing within its borders, without distinction or preference on account of race, color, caste, or sex.
The legislature has been so unresponsive to the court’s decision that it has been held in contempt of court. Action on that contempt citation is pending based on the results of this year’s legislative session.
The House is controlled by the Democrats, while the Senate is controlled by Republicans. Both have passed budgets that fund education. The House finds money in an estate tax on millionaires and by closing a number of big business tax loopholes. The Senate package finds money with cuts to the social safety net (which ultimately comes back to hurt schools) and by taking control of teacher health benefits out of the hands of local districts and consolidating them under a state-level bureaucracy that doesn’t enhance the benefits at all. (I know. I don’t get it either.)
So when we got the message that our district was going to participate in rolling walkouts, what was the son of “the man with the dog” to do?
Naturally, I took the day off. I couldn’t quite get the kids out the door early enough to do sign waving, but there was time for Annie to make a sign and for us to join our teachers at their rally.
We pulled up to the park and joined the sea of red clad teachers. Ultimately we found our school’s contingent and stood with the kids’ teachers. We listened to various speakers: teacher, staff members, parents, students, and union leaders, united in the cause of education.
The kids listened. Annie steadfastly held her sign, although I adjusted her grip a couple of times so she wouldn’t hit her teacher. She wouldn’t lower her creation. I was really proud of both of them.
What I did with my kids on Monday was not a grand gesture. I wasn’t the only parent, although I wish there had been more of us. They weren’t the only kids, and that’s okay. They got a lesson that day. It was a lesson, albeit a small one, in community, in solidarity, in civics, and in self-advocacy. And they got outside to play in the park.
No, none of the three of us did anything grand on Monday. We were just three voices among many speaking out for the future of education in our state It’s easy to think that doesn’t make a difference. But our voices, joined with the hundreds in that park and thousands in parks across the state, when married with purpose and commitment can and will make a difference.
I listen to a Pete Seeger station on Pandora, and occasionally, I’ll hear old union anthems. One of them, Solidarity Forever, asks “What force on Earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one?”
It’s easy to stop there. It’s easy to think one person, one voice doesn’t make a difference in modern politics and policy making, and there are some who want us to think that. They’re not on your side, whatever side you may think you’re on.
But it’s not true. The greatest safeguard of democracy is the participation of the people. We just need to show up, all of us, even in small ways, joining in small groups that get bigger and stronger with each addition, to make our voices heard. That’s what I’m trying to teach my kids. It’s what was taught to me by my mom and my dad, in words and in actions.
Like walking the dog on a picket line with my teachers.