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Denver Teachers Win Steps Forward

Striking Denver teachers reached a tentative contract agreement this morning. Though they did not achieve all of their demands, Denver’s educators have wrested important gains from school privatizers — and shown once again the power of teachers withholding their labor.

Eric Blanc

After an all-night bargaining session, the Denver teachers’ union and the district reached a tentative agreement at 6 AM this morning to end their strike.

Most Denver teachers I’ve spoken with see the contract as a victory and are happy to be returning to school. Before this contract struggle, the district was offering zero base-pay salary increases; because of the push towards a strike, and now the strike itself, all educators will be getting between a 7 and 11 percent pay raise.

As is often the case, the biggest win of this work stoppage was workers’ increased sense of power and political consciousness. As Denver Classroom Teachers Association (DCTA) vice president Christina Medina told me this morning, “This week, a lot of us were able to make our voices heard — and to really see how there’s power in numbers, in workplace action, and in unity.”

Though DCTA was not able to get the district to drastically reduce the existing “merit pay” bonuses, it did win a large number of regular “steps and lanes” for salary increases. Up until now, salary increases in Denver were pegged entirely to contingent criteria like test scores and “Student Learning Objectives,” the benchmarks set by the district that teachers need their students to pass.

As such, getting a 7-11 percent raise, combined with the introduction of these “steps and lanes,” is a major victory for teachers and a significant move away from the corporate reformers’ agenda.

On the whole, Medina’s balance sheet of the agreement was positive: “We didn’t get everything we wanted, but this is a real win — we forced the district to listen to our demands to immediately increase base pay and, by getting regular ‘steps and lanes’ for wage increases, we’re taking a step away from the privatizers’ ‘merit pay’ system.”

Most teachers here are clearly eager to return the classroom, but since the tentative agreement was announced at 6 AM this morning, the majority of students and teachers won’t be in school until tomorrow. At the same time, a lot of educators I spoke with felt that they needed more time to discuss the terms of the agreement before returning to school — the process, in their view, was rushed, especially because there was no agreement reached yet on back pay for the strike.

And some agreed with what one teacher at East High told me this morning: “I think we’d be able to get more if we stay out for longer.” Some teachers have said on social media that they wanted to stay out on strike until teachers ratify the deal. The details on when and how teachers will vote on the agreement will be announced shortly.

It’s important for the growing teachers’ movement to start moving towards better practices for upholding union democracy and collective deliberation at the end of strikes. Doing so while under the gun of employers is no easy task. But it’s worth underscoring the relevance and importance of the Chicago 2012 teachers’ strike, where rank-and-file members took two extra days to discuss the tentative agreement before ratifying it. Such a precedent will be crucial to keep in mind in Oakland, which is next in line for the teachers’ revolt.

All in all, the majority feeling on the ground is that this was another important win for educators. Denver, like Los Angeles before it, hammers home a basic truth that the labor movement as a whole urgently needs to reclaim: strikes work. Whether in a blue state or red state — and whether in public education, Amazon, or the federal government — the greatest power that working people have is withholding our labor.

Perhaps most importantly, Denver’s work stoppage has helped generate the militant energy that will be required in the coming months and years to reverse privatization and to win the schools students deserve. Christina Medina put it well:

Teachers showed working-class collective power this week. We need to leverage and deepen this collective power to bring about the big changes that we have to see in Denver. We’ll need unions to fight for better funding and social justice in our schools, which means not only lower class sizes, but also getting more funding for services and support, hiring more teachers of color, and instituting a culturally relevant curriculum for our students. This is just the beginning.