Labor, US Politics

How we shut down the schools • Interview with NYC teacher

With strikes, sick-outs, sit-downs and other kinds of industrial action sweeping the country, Marx21 spoke with Frankie Lamar about one of the earliest US worker mobilizations to combat COVID-19 — when New York City teachers shut down their schools. With New York lawmakers now fighting over when to reopen schools, lessons from the teachers’ struggle are more important than ever.

Thomas Hummel: How did you organize your co-workers to take action? 

Frankie Lamar: Once we heard about the severity of what was happening, and how social distancing would be so key, I floated the idea among teachers for a sick-out, and people were saying “yeah, definitely”. 

I’ve been organizing at my school for a while, so the other teachers already knew me as the political person. So basically I went on Friday and whenever I could, I talked to teachers individually. Other coworkers who are also organizers and very progressive, very political, talked to people in their grade level and we just kind of floated the idea and checked in with people to see what their thoughts were. We talked with almost everybody in the building, all the staff. Some of them weren’t sure, some said yes, and then a few nos. 

Then we had a conference call the next day which had all the union members on it, and staff, and parents, too. We discussed why we thought this should happen, what might come of it. We were definitely concerned about teachers who were not tenured if this was a sickout, because they would be disciplined. 

I was reporting back to a citywide call organized by MORE (Movement of Rank and File Educators, a caucus in UFT, the United Federation of Teachers). They are the social justice democratic alternative who want to fight for their members and organize everyone to fight for themselves. They’re that spirit of the union, up against the longtime Unity leadership that’s very top-down and undemocratic and looks to make friends and negotiate.

The conference call was for teachers across the city, some 400+ people, the vast majority of them not members of the caucus, teachers that had heard about it and wanted to shut down the schools. 

We found out on that call that there had already been some organizing — at Grace Dodge school in the Bronx where a staff member had tested positive for COVID-19. Because the test was done by Montefiore Hospital, which hadn’t been approved, the school said it wasn’t legitimate, and so they kept running the school. So the teachers organized a sickout that Friday. Stuyvesant High School also had some big organizing. 

So these were the two schools that helped initiate it, through action before the schools closed. And most of the organizing since then has been to prepare to shut down the schools on Monday. Because of this, they were forced to shut the schools.

TH: Do you think the sick-outs and threats of sick-outs had an impact on their decision to close?

FL: Yes, I think there were a number of factors. The sickout was a big one. 

The union leadership had an official petition against it, but they moved quickly. They were sort of neutral at the beginning, agreeing to disagree. By Sunday, they were being their own version of “militant”. There were a lot of articles about it, nationally and locally, that NYC teachers were going to sick out, so there was a lot of publicity around it. So I think that definitely helped it to move along a lot quicker than it would have. They were afraid of what would happen on Monday if the teachers didn’t show up.

The other factor was that SEIU Local 1199 at first sided with Mayor Bill de Blasio to keep the schools open, because they said they needed health care workers and emergency responders needed childcare so they could work in the hospitals. But the UFT talked to them and seeing what was happening around the world made them change their minds. So they also switched positions and said that the schools should close. The pressure of that as well, and without another union to back him, de Blasio gave in. Also, Governor Andrew Cuomo was giving him pressure.

TH: So the school closures were a huge win for the teachers in NYC?

FL: They were a big win in protecting students and to slow down the transmission. I think that closing the schools will help to save lives. 

But, the thing is, UFT school members and staff were mandated to go to school to learn about remote learning on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday — which obviously put people in danger because people had to take the subway, crisscross the city, expose themselves and others, as well as expose each other in the school, with some hundreds of teachers in some schools. 

Unfortunately, that was something the UFT leadership said nothing about. They basically cosigned on to this with the mayor and the Department of Education in an email encouraging people to go. In my school, at least a third, or maybe more, of the staff didn’t go in, and rightfully so. But there was a lot of moral pressure for people to go, such as: “we need to plan for the students and to be there for them,” even though most of the schools said they learned remotely from their classrooms, which they could have done at home.

So this put some people at risk, maybe just as a control measure, telling people what to do because none of the showing up was actually necessary. The majority of people from other schools I talked to said they learned digitally from home.

TH: Do you have any advice for teachers organizing in other school districts?

FL: One is long term: building communication with people in your building and doing outreach when you can. Obviously, now we’re not doing in-person organizing, but reaching out, phone calls. There were one-on-one conversations with coworkers trying to get people to change their opinion through conversation. Conference calls were definitely really key, as well as using membership lists. And people definitely through the organizing started changing their minds.

Originally people were like: “we have to be there for our students, we have to trust our city and our mayor.” Over time, as they heard more arguments about what it would mean to people’s health, people’s opinion shifted. This collective conversation, whether it was on the phone or email, was really useful for getting people to change their opinions and whether they would sick out or not. I know that happened with a number of coworkers at my school.

TH: What remaining demands do you have for New York state and the federal government to protect students and teachers?

FL: Some of the demands include unemployment benefits for everyone who’s not working, and like Bernie Sanders is saying, $2,000 for every individual who’s not working — maybe more depending on the local cost of living.

One thing for the teachers, they might use this as a “shock doctrine,” in a way, to change demands on educators and the expectation on how much paperwork we have to do regarding teaching online. Some of the special ed teachers who deal with IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) were told that they had to have all this new paperwork done, out of nowhere, within one day. Luckily, the union negotiated and got them to push that back to April for some of those things. 

But I think this in an ongoing thing, and teachers are going to have to be organized because they’re going to try to put a lot of academic demands and “accountability” on us teaching from home, ignoring the fact that teachers have to take care of their children, their families, and themselves — ignoring the social and emotional needs of teachers and their families.

Also, this whole accountability thing, making sure every student continues their academic progress. They’re saying “we’re not downsizing education, we’re changing it”. But it could be really harmful for the students and their families. And it’s really ignoring the main role of teachers in this time, which should be the social/emotional support of their students and their families. 

Many students or family members who might be sick themselves, are unsure and don’t know what’s happening, and are stuck at home all day. That’s not being paid much attention by the Department of Education, it’s more about having academic demands met, and ignoring students’ social and emotional needs as the main focus.

So I think we’re going to have a fight on our hands for sure. It remains to be seen exactly what yet, because it’s all coming so fast.

TH: In what ways are you keeping your organizing networks alive, since it’s difficult or basically impossible to meet in person?

FL: Basically through group text, like WhatsApp. We’re going to weekly Zoom meetings separate from the administrators, just union members. Both are morale boosters, checking in with each other. And as things come up, it would be a place to discuss what we’re going to do about them. We’re sharing information about ongoing organizing and trying to build a network from different schools to work together across schools and across the city.

I think a lot of people are starting to question the whole system now. How can this be that no one cares about our needs and our health? That will probably translate to more teachers wanting to get involved in union activity and wanting to fight, because they have just gone through an experience like this with the city and the mayor not giving a f*** about you. 

Even our union leadership, basically being very tepid and actually fighting us for wanting a sick-out because that would violate the Taylor Law (a law passed in 1967 prohibiting strikes in exchange for union organizing for public employees). So that will make more people want to get involved.

TH: How can union members use this crisis to bring awareness for the need for fundamental change to their fellow workers?

One way is pointing out and sharing information about the contradictions of capitalism and the priorities of our system. To show how they can bail out Wall Street, airline industries and all these corporations, but when it comes to the needs of the students and teachers? And obviously, the big thing: the hospitals, and all the safety equipment they need. There are obviously contradictions. 

Also, in the schools, it wasn’t necessarily the union leadership, it came from us, from ordinary people, from the bottom up.

But I also think that there are going to be some difficult discussions among each other, because there’s a section of people who, because it’s such a crisis, aren’t sure what to do. They’re following what the administration is telling them, and they’re not necessarily as willing to question some of it. That’s not the majority, but I think there’s still a portion of people at school who are like that. And there’s also a portion of people who don’t trust any of them.

TH: One final question: 70% of our school population live at or below the poverty line, that’s like 700,000 students. They and their families depend on schools for food and childcare. What measures are being taken to make sure that students are still receiving meals? What can unions do, if anything, to support the families that have been impacted by school closures?

FL: For one, I think we should be advocating for some form of universal basic income. Low income families, if they don’t have those protections, can’t afford to pay their rent and food, and are going to have to go to work, exposing themselves and their families more. 

The other one is, in the summer, New York City schools turn basically into food hubs. In the summer the students can still have breakfast and lunch there. So they can do that, continue serving meals.

Also, turning some places into emergency child care centers — for healthcare workers, emergency responders, as well as anyone else who’s in a position where they have to go to work and have nowhere to bring their kids. And obviously, it would be low income families who would rely on that. That’s what the plan is going to be.

So the union should be demanding, along with that, that anyone who’s volunteering or working in those schools gets the right protection, because if you’re going to be working with kids who are children of emergency responders, the emergency responders are going to be more exposed, as are their children. So it could impact the people who are volunteering and working to give students meals and childcare.

But the main thing they should be arguing for is full unemployment, a freeze on rent until the end of this crisis, a freeze on mortgages — basically everything they can do to get people to stay at home without being kicked out now or in the future, and to meet their basic needs. 

Interviewed by Thomas Hummel on March 18, 2020