A School District Tried to Stifle COVID-19 Organizing by Suspending a Teacher. It Backfired.

Luke Amphlett

San Antonio teacher Luke Amphlett says his administration punished him for organizing against an unsafe school reopening plan. But a campaign led by teachers, students, and community supporters drew on bonds of solidarity developed through years of organizing — and quickly got Amphlett back to work.

San Antonio high school teacher Luke Amphlett. (Courtesy of Luke Amphlett)

Interview by
Meagan Day

In late August, as COVID-19 continued to spread, San Antonio high school teacher Luke Amphlett began organizing meetings with his coworkers to talk about their school’s vague and potentially dangerous reopening plan. His school didn’t have a reputation as a hotbed of teacher organizing. But as the first day of school approached, nearly one-third of the faculty had assembled to draft demands.

Just before they delivered these demands, Amphlett was brought into the principal’s office. He was questioned about his organizing activity, then placed on administrative leave. But the retaliatory move backfired: over the next several days, the teachers’ union, students and former students, and community groups throughout San Antonio demanded Amphlett’s reinstatement — and won.

Jacobin’s Meagan Day spoke to Amphlett about the reinstatement fight’s effect on teachers throughout the district and the vision advanced by the union’s newly-empowered rank-and-file reform caucus. The victory is proof of concept, says Amphlett, that if teachers fight for the entire working class, they can build bonds of solidarity that will serve them well in return.


MD

Why did you and your coworkers write a letter about your campus reopening plan, and what happened after you wrote it?

LA

Organizing around safe reopening was happening all summer at the city and state level. In late August, it was quickly brought down to the campus level, and became a very fast-moving conversation. That conversation was truncated and ended up fitting into about a week.

A lot of educators at the campus where I work, Burbank High School, were very alarmed when the plan for our campus was rolled out. Basically, there was no serious plan for reopening. Very simple and obvious questions which should have been easy to answer were not answered by our administration. Questions about whether we would have students face-to-face, about air conditioning, about whether or not students would be moving between classes weren’t being answered. Pretty much the only answer that we got was: you can choose to come back to work, or you can lose your job.

So on Thursday, August 27, we had a large faculty meeting with about a hundred and fifty people. I asked a lot of questions, but other people did as well. There were several organizing meetings following that meeting: that night, and then the next night, and then on the following Sunday. At those meetings, large groups of us in the campus community, about a third of the entire faculty, met together and discussed what we should do and what steps we should take.

We came up with the idea that we should write a letter for two reasons. First, because putting things in writing solidified the critique and the demands that we had. And second, I and others understood that if we had a document then we could move forward with it if we decided to escalate, to go public or take our concerns above the principal’s level.

But before we got a chance to even send that document to the principal, after having requested a meeting with her to discuss these concerns, I was called in and grilled for about ninety minutes, largely about union activities. I was asked questions about holding these meetings outside of work time, about who was there, about what the passwords to the online meetings were, what was discussed, whether the conversations went beyond giving people space to speak about their concerns and moving toward action, all kinds of crazy stuff.

On Monday, I was placed on administrative leave by both the school and the district while they investigated me. I was not actually told why I was being investigated. It was nebulous.

MD

Shortly afterward, the union, the San Antonio Alliance of Teachers and Support Personnel, did decide to go public with the letter in response to you being placed on administrative leave. I know this because I saw it on Facebook. It seemed like the outpouring of public support for you was pretty big and pretty swift. What was the next phase like?

LA

I had to sign a document that said I wouldn’t speak about this on threat of potential termination. But in the conversation with the American Federation of Teachers Texas lawyer, all of our organizers, and the president of the union, we decided that if we wanted to make this a fight, I had to be named. Instead of some abstract conversation about union-busting which might not go anywhere, it had to be situated on me, even though I couldn’t speak about it.

So we decided to file a grievance, and that grievance named me, which meant that everybody could suddenly speak about me, and the conversation could be centered not only on the reopening plan, but on me. That happened the next day, and it blew up into a fight for about three days.

I was reinstated three days after I was put on leave. That happened because there was a huge backlash. It owed a lot to the union, but also to students and other school community members, and groups we’ve been organizing with for years.

I teach US history to eleventh grade students. My students made a petition which blew up, and in a couple of days got almost two thousand signatures. They started making calls and tweeting. I have a great relationship with students at my school, but I haven’t done explicit organizing with them. But across the district, I have. The San Antonio Independent School District [SAISD] Student Coalition started about a year ago. It’s a group of high school students from across the SAISD who have been working on student rights, school policing, sex ed issues, and lately reopening issues.

This is a group of students that works closely with our radical caucus in the union, PODER. I had actually already lined up the possibility that we were going to need to lean on them in the fight for safe reopening, so I’d already had conversations with them about what it might look like. But then it turned out that things were moving at my school in a way that was more militant than any other campus. So these students were already set up to act. It just so happened that they ended up being centered on me. They did a lot of calls, a lot of emails, a lot of good social media work, and made some great art.

And then a bunch of graduates came out, too. The students that I’ve taught over the last five years at Burbank are really cool kids. A lot of my former students are really radical. Some of them are in a group we started called the San Antonio Youth Scholars Collective, which does research projects with radical academics in the city. These are nineteen- and twenty-year-olds whose idea of a good time is to get together and rescue texts from academia and link them to practice. So they came out and got all of the other graduates to move really quickly on this issue.

I’m one of the founders of PODER, a radical rank-and-file caucus in the union that took power in May of this year, winning the presidency, four out of six offices, and eight out of ten races that we ran. We ran on a platform of rank-and-file union democracy, social justice unionism, racial justice in our schools, equity, and organizing. We are trying to follow the example of CTU [Chicago Teachers Union] and UTLA [United Teachers Los Angeles], and transform our union into a fighting and organizing union.

Our work over the last few years before we came into power has put us in coalition with a bunch of community groups working around immigration and criminal justice reform issues. So we have developed deep and rich relationships with a bunch of different organizations in the city, which often aren’t closely connected to local labor struggles, which have largely taken the shape of business unionism or service-oriented unionism. But because of the way that we’ve been using our union as a space to organize for broader common-good demands, these organizations have allied with us.

So they came out hard. SA Stands, which is an immigration coalition of about thirty different organizations in the city including our union and which we’ve stood beside through many different struggles, started getting everybody to make calls. The Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, which has a radical history going back to the seventies, came out really hard for us.

The Democratic Socialists of America came out super hard as well, making calls, emailing, and doing a lot of online work. And the vestiges of the Bernie campaign came out hard too. Some people who had been running the campaign here and trying to get Bernie to win here — and he did win here — came out and set up phone banks, gave action steps online for people to call school board members, the principal, and the superintendent of SAISD to demand I be reinstated.

The union definitely played an important role, providing the infrastructure and filing the grievance. But what really drove the reinstatement struggle was the deep connections of solidarity built through the work we’ve done over the last few years. They came out for me, but really they came out for someone who has been materially in the struggle with them.

MD

Is your own reinstatement the only thing you’ve achieved through this fight, or do you think you’re walking away with other victories as well?

LA

The most obvious manifestation of that power we exerted is me being reinstated. But what we have also seen is a bunch of teachers from my school who’ve never stood up for themselves in their lives standing up for themselves now. There’s a large group of people on my campus who are now on an email chain talking consistently about what the next steps are. And while it’s hard to quantify, I think our reopening was much safer than it would have been before this happened. Additionally this fight has emboldened a bunch of people at my campus to join the union who weren’t members before.

And teachers across the district are speaking up more now about safe reopening. We heard very quickly that other campuses were writing letters to their principals outlining the issues they were seeing, asking for more time or specific demands before reopening. Three of those letters have been shared publicly since the reinstatement struggle began. There has been a galvanizing effect in the district. I think the plan was to get me off campus and shut me up in order to stop teachers from organizing, but it’s had the opposite effect on people.

For the union, the biggest thing we’ve gotten from it is validation that the organizing work we’ve been doing around social justice unionism has paid off. Even though PODER sweepingly won the elections inside the union, we’ve faced plenty of remaining opposition to the idea that we should be focusing on common-good demands and organizing in the broader community, not just bread-and-butter demands. This has really demonstrated the seriousness of our strategy and the ability to get real results when we organize.

We’ve been building deep ties in the community and making it clear that we will fight our asses off for each other. This was a validating moment for our leadership, a real victory that we can point to. Hopefully it shows our members that if you organize around immigration and evictions and policing, then when you have an issue as an educator, the people you’ve struggled alongside are going to be there for you too.