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“This Is a Struggle of Regular Working People”

Nema Brewer

Kentucky schools are shut down today amid a growing grassroots worker rebellion. We spoke with one rank and filer who helped organize the action.

Public employees rallying at the Kentucky state capitol on March 30, 2018. BeckerforKY / Twitter

Interview by
Eric Blanc

Schools across Kentucky were shut last Friday and will be closed again on Monday as teachers and public employees organized sickouts against cuts to their pensions. Jacobin’s Eric Blanc spoke with Nema Brewer, a school district employee and organizer in Fayette County, about the emergence and development of this powerful movement.


EB

Can you tell our readers about the roots of the current struggle?

NB

Kentucky currently has a Republican supermajority. Since 2016, they’ve controlled the House, the Senate, and the Governor’s office — and they’ve made it incredibly difficult for working people in the state. They came in and passed right to work, they got rid of the prevailing wage, and they approved charter schools. Those were the three things that really started the discontent.

There is a blatant offensive to destroy public education in Kentucky. They say that the way to save the schools is to privatize them. And this is clearly part of a national agenda. We see cuts and privatization happening across the country. It’s not a conspiracy theory, we know whose hands are behind this.

But nobody realized exactly what was going to hit us next. Last year in August, Governor Bevin started talking about pension reform. He got a company to commission a study, called the PFM report. Bevin made a big to-do about it; he declared he was going to keep his promise to public employees. But when we read the report, it was hideous, beyond awful. That really started the hornets swarming.

EB

What did the report propose?

NB

First of all, what they’re really trying to do is screw over new hires by getting rid of an inviolable contract for pensions. So if this proposal passes, the legislature can change the contract for these teachers at a whim. Any group of whack-job politicians can then do whatever they want to cut benefits. New hires would move completely out of the current pension system, they’d be put into a hybrid system. Legislators say that this will work out great, but we can’t trust these politicians. The trust is gone and I don’t know if they’ll ever get it back.

The report also proposes getting rid of our right to use sick days to improve our pensions. We don’t get Social Security in Kentucky, so workers here plan on accumulating sick days over the years and rolling these into their pensions. People who’ve been working twenty years have been depending on these sick days to determine when they’d be able to retire. But now they’re trying to take that away from them.

The PFM report also proposed raising the retirement age to sixty-five for the majority of workers. And another one of its recommendations was to eliminate the cost-of-living benefit adjustments that were added to state and local worker pensions between 1996 and 2012. This measure would cut the benefits of a lot of retirees by 25 percent or more.

If these measures pass, people who are just now getting into this profession might feel that it’s not worth it to continue. But if they leave, what will happen to our schools and to the services that we provide?

People need to understand that right now we’re not fighting for anything new — we just want to hold on to what we have. And it’s not just about teachers, it’s about all state employees.

EB

What happened next?

NB

The first battle was around the special sessions. The Legislature started saying they were going to push for a special session to pass the pension cuts.

We formed Kentucky United We Stand as a grassroots group of state employees — all public employees, not just teachers. The purpose was to unify a bunch of folks who don’t have a real union presence; a lot of public employees don’t have a strong union. Katie Hancock, a state employee, was scared and frustrated about the pension cuts. She made a Facebook group, added her friends, and they added more. Almost overnight, the group went up to at least ten thousand members. Kentucky United We Stand was the main organizer of a rally on November 1 to oppose the plans for a special session. About a thousand people came.

Over the next weeks, we called and wrote legislators, we showed up to their meetings — hell, we even joked about resorting to carrier pigeons. And we won the first battle: we successfully stopped the special session from taking place. Now we felt that at least we had a chance, because nobody initially thought that we’d win this. It was a small victory, but we were relieved because it gave us more time to get organized. We knew they’d be coming back at us soon.

The regular session started on January 2, 2018. And it seemed at first like nobody wanted to introduce a pension bill, because the Republican Party was divided over House Speaker Jeff Hoover’s recent sex scandal. But then we started hearing rumors. And lo and behold, the Senate decided to file SB 1 at the end of February. Of course, they had a guy sponsor the bill who’s not up for re-election. People saw that the bill included the main proposals of the PFM report. They got fired up and we started pushing back.

The fight was on. A few weeks later the bill went to the floor — and there were about eight hundred of us there, we yelled and chanted outside the Senate chambers the whole time.

Then about a month ago they released the state budget plan. It’s horrific. They’re refusing to raise any new revenue, for example by closing tax loopholes or taxing medical marijuana. They’re cutting university funding, pre-K funding, library funding, and funding for family resource centers. They’re trying to squeeze blood out of a turnip.

EB

When did you all found #KY United 120 Strong?

NB

It was right after the budget plan was announced. There was a rally in Louisville organized by the unions and I was invited to give a speech. I was pretty fiery. I said, “We need to shut the whole state down.” Real soon after that a friend of a friend reached out to me, asking “What are you thinking, what can we do? You’re right, we need to shut it down.”

I heard West Virginia had started organizing for their strike by using a closed Facebook group. So in homage to West Virginia, me and my friend Blair called ours “KY United 120 Strong.” We started the group not even a month ago and now we have thirty-six thousand members.

West Virginia showed all of us that it can be done. West Virginia is our neighbor, we share a lot of similarities. My daddy was a mineworker and I remember what it’s like to fight for your job, for your livelihood. But a lot of people in Kentucky have forgotten.

West Virginia showed us that we’re not dead if we stand together. People saw that if you stand together you have better chance than if you stand alone — or if you just bitch about things on Facebook. When we started our Facebook group, it was consciously for action. We were very clear and upfront from the beginning. If you’re not ready to fight, then this group’s not for you.

We have two rules for who can join: no scabs and no elected legislators. We cut off about twenty five legislators who tried to sneak onto the page. We called them out and then booted them off. Another important thing is that we’re not going to let people fight each other over party lines. This is a non-partisan issue, we’re focusing on the immediate problem that affects us all.

EB

How have you related to the main union, the Kentucky Education Association (KEA)?

NB

I don’t want to talk bad about the union. The KEA put out a good call to educate the people in our community about the attacks on pensions and schools. And they’ve done a good job of getting people to the capitol every day over last few weeks. We’ve had rolling protests in Frankfort throughout this whole session.

But my biggest reason for starting #120 Strong was that the union leaders haven’t been aggressive enough. Our general message was: “We need to be more aggressive and we need to be united.” We realized that if we didn’t build unity, this struggle wasn’t going to win. Western Kentucky and Eastern Kentucky are very different places. And there are a lot of social silos, not just among teachers, but with public employees too. For example, I’m a member of the KEA because I work for the school district, but Katie Hancock from the Kentucky United We Stand group can’t be a member of the KEA because she’s a state worker. There are a lot of people like her.

At first the union was concerned about who we were and what we were doing. But I spoke with the president and I told her that we’re not here to try to take things over. We’re just trying to help get people connected across the whole state.

In the recent protests, the lines get blurred. A lot of KEA chapters have been doing rallies in their home community and at the capitol — we always try to show up and support. And when #120 Strong held another big rally, the KEA co-sponsored it. There hasn’t been a sharp divide between us. One organization hasn’t owned the movement, it’s all towards the same goals. And there have been a ton of actions. For example, people picketed the tire store of the senator who introduced the bill. Folks did that on their own, there wasn’t any order from on high. It’s been awesome to see.

EB

What happened last week?

NB

Last Thursday was the fifty-eighth day of the legislative session, so the session was almost finished. That day, I got a text at 2 PM, saying, “They’re going to try to push this through, you probably want to come to Frankfort.” I got there and sure enough there were a bunch of shenanigans.

But we weren’t surprised. I knew they were going to push something through at the last minute, so we were ready. I figured it was going to get ugly. So on Wednesday evening, I closed comments on the main Facebook group — which we call the Motherpage — and I called on people to start organizing through the six geographic zones we had set up earlier. We have separate Facebook groups for each of our six zones, so that people can rapidly organize at their county and at their schools. It helps us respond to things quickly.

I’m in the gallery watching these legislators and others are watching the livestream on the Kentucky PBS station website. At the last minute, the legislators slid the pension changes into a sewer bill. To add insult to injury, I think they thought that they were being cute.

Bam Carney, the teacher-legislator who had filed the charter bill and now this sewer bill, is a scab. So he stands up on the House floor and starts yelling about teachers have been so unprofessional with these protests, that they’re a minority, etc. It was a disgusting display of arrogance; the guy’s completely out of touch with reality.

This new bill basically includes all of the old attacks on the pension system. The one concession is that they weren’t taking away the cost of living increases. And they tried to make this seem like they were doing us a huge favor, making a so-called compromise. But the cost of living increase is already ours. It’s crazy. I can’t believe we’ve had to fight so hard for something we already have. The real democracy was outside, where everybody was screaming at them, making their voices heard.

So I started talking to our zone leaders. They’re telling me, “Our folks want to take action.” As I’m sitting in the gallery, I posted the following on our Facebook group: “I’m watching democracy die. I can’t tell you all what to do, but I won’t be at work tomorrow. Follow your heart.”

The Legislature passed the bill and I went to get something to eat with other state workers and teachers. We’re all glued to our phones, looking at the Fayette County SubFinder list, where we can see how many substitute positions are needed for the next day. It starts going up and up. First 70, then 574, then higher.

We’re watching this together. And we saw that they were going to have to shut down Fayette County schools. I’m getting emotional talking about this, it was really beautiful. When someone writes a book about this, readers aren’t going to believe it happened.

We didn’t know people had it in them. But they did. I didn’t think other people knew they had it in them. But they’ve showed themselves that they have worth. We lost the bill that night, but we won something big because we were able to stand together.

After Fayette County went, we saw that if we could get one county, then the others would follow. Our local organization worked well — county after county shut down. Fayette led the way and I’m proud of that because it’s my county.

All in all, there were about twenty counties that closed their schools on Friday because people called in sick. We really shut it down, it was the most amazing thing. We had a spontaneous rally on Friday and five to six hundred people show up. Nobody was leading it, but people were madder than hell.

One thing I’ve laughed about is that the politicians blame the teachers’ union for all these rallies, uprisings, and actions. They’ve vilified the unions. So when the sickouts happened, I hope the legislators shit their pants. Because the sickouts had nothing to do with the union — workers just said enough is enough. The Republicans have been lying to themselves, saying that this is all happening because of the big bad unions. But it’s actually the work of pissed off moms and dads.

And now Monday is going to be huge. A lot schools are on spring break, so teachers and staff will be coming from all around. I anticipate that this will be one of the largest rallies Kentucky has every seen. And of the schools that aren’t on break next week, there are only three left that haven’t yet announced that they’re closing.

The governor hasn’t signed the bill yet. But I have about as much confidence that unicorns exist as I have in Governor Bevin doing something in the interest of working people out of the goodness of his heart. He only cares about his fat cat buddies.

The struggle is far from over. The attorney general is saying that he thinks this sewer pension bill is illegal, because of its violation of workers’ inviolable contracts. He said he’s going to file a lawsuit over it. The KEA is going to join in on the suit and it’ll go to court.

The next step for us is that now we’re going to fight to stop this horrific budget. It’s going to be a huge battle.

EB

This is some pretty amazing work that you’ve done. Have you been involved in organizing anything like this before?

NB

Not really. I’ve never been a labor leader or had any experience organizing on this scale. But my dad is a mineworker and he’s fighting for his pension. I said two years ago that I was going to fight for my dad’s pension, so I started trying to get involved and I started following state issues.

Working people, that’s my focus. But I’ve never done anything like this before. I’m a mom, I have a ten-year old. I like to drink beer, have a cigar every so often, and cuss a lot.

I’ve been telling everyone in the struggle: This isn’t about me, this is your movement. I just helped open the door. This is a struggle of regular working people. I’m not anything, not a labor organizer. I’m just a mom that got really pissed off — and really tired of getting kicked by the people in power.

This movement is what America should be. Nobody is going to change the world for you. If you’re waiting for superman, he’s not showing. You have to be your own hero.

End Mark

About the Author

Nema Brewer is a school district employee and organizer in Fayette County, Kentucky.

About the Interviewer

Eric Blanc writes on labor movements past and present. He is a doctoral student in the Sociology department at New York University.