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Providence Public School Teachers Fight Back at City Hall

The greatest success of the Freedmen’s Bureau lay in the planting of the free school among Negroes, and the idea of free elementary education among all classes in the South. It not only called the school-mistresses through the benevolent agencies and built them schoolhouses, but it helped discover and support such apostles of human culture as Edmund Ware, Samuel Armstrong, and Erastus Cravath. The opposition to Negro education in the South was at first bitter, and showed itself in ashes, insult, and blood; for the South believed an educated Negro to be a dangerous Negro. And the South was not wholly wrong; for education among all kinds of men always has had, and always will have, an element of danger and revolution, of dissatisfaction and discontent. Nevertheless, men strive to know.

-W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

Just over a year ago, I wrote a column for CounterPunch titled Providence Public Schools Under Siege wherein I appealed to readers to call City Hall and advocate for the emergency brake to be pulled on the expansion of the Achievement First charter school which would “break” the public school system, to quote one City Council member. In hindsight the tone might seem a bit hyperbolic and panicked, particularly given that the expansion has not happened yet, but the reasoning was slightly merited by an inconvenient but true fact: at the hour when the fate of literally hundreds of unionized employees was going to be fundamentally changed forever by a corporate hostile takeover of their workplace, the Providence Teachers Union made such a minor appearance that it seemed like CounterPunch would be a necessary wellspring of protest. It bears mentioning here that mere weeks before, on Election Day 2016, the next door Massachusetts labor movement had resoundingly defeated a statewide ballot question to lift the limitation cap on charters in the Commonwealth, which brought home the striking disparity in terms of community-union solidarity as well as internal unionist culture across a state line mere miles from the urban cor.

That was all changed Tuesday, February 6, 2018, by an informational picket and rally held at City Hall by the PTU. Three floors were packed with loud and angry teachers, fellow unionists from across the state, and community members that protested Mayor Jorge Elorza’s State of the City speech. “If the Mayor and administration at City Hall don’t listen to us, this will just be the first in a long series of events that occur until we get the respect that we believe that we deserve,” said union president Maribeth Calabro in an exclusive interview.

The work Calabro has done in the past year to build up an internal culture of unionism within the rank and file of her membership has been substantial. The shortcomings of last year cannot be pegged on her by a long shot, they stemmed from years of mis-leadership spanning back decades. “We are not an organization, as you know, that comes out and fights every little thing. We’re not constantly complaining, we’re not constantly in the news as rabble rousers or people like that. So people have to realize that, in order for us to have gotten to the point that we got to on Tuesday, that says that a lot of things have happened to us,” she says.

News media coverage of the event was diverse and varied. “Like anything else, it got mixed reviews, depends upon who was doing the reporting and who was doing the media coverage. In some cases there was an understanding of what we were trying to accomplish and in other cases I believe there were some people who said that it was rowdy and disrespectful and a wide variety of things. I think I was called ‘rude’ at one point.”

“So I think it was mixed reviews in terms of media but I can honestly say I have gotten nothing but positive feedback from my membership, I have gotten positive feedback from people in the community, I have gotten positive feedback from my own personal neighbors, and so, in general, I was absolutely pleased with what happened and I think that we turned out in large numbers and showed that our teachers are frustrated and ready to talk and hopefully someone will listen.”

The shortcomings of an internal unionist culture are further compounded by the contradictions of the municipal employment laws. In a technical sense, Providence requires that all its employees be residents of the city, the First Source law. However, despite this, many on the payroll live in the surrounding suburbs. As such, the presence of community members of all classes and ethnicities in support of a majority-female majority-European middle class union that works in the low-income urban core is demonstrative of a working to build coalitions within the city. “Our teachers always engage with their families, we have professional development, we go to PTO meetings, we love to hear from our families and we are going to be doing more formalized ‘listening sessions’ (if you will) in the communities in the coming weeks and months.”

“But that’s another thing that people don’t understand. A lot of our students are impacted by ICE and the threat of having their family members deported or even themselves being deported. That’s why it’s critical that we stay focused and let our students know that they are welcome in our schools and that we will do our very best to protect them at all costs while they are in our care,” Calabro says.

The two major issues of contention are with regards to salary and healthcare.

“We co-share our healthcare, which I don’t believe a large amount of people understand that we do co-share, I think that they believe that we get our healthcare for nothing and that is not in fact the case,” she says. “I think it was 2003-2004, we have actually two sets of people who co-share differently based on if they were hired from 2004 and beyond. So those people pay a significant amount of co-share for their health benefits and those of us who were hired prior to 2004 also pay a pretty large amount for a co-share and I know the Mayor says that we got a raise in the last contract in the last day of the school year or whatever but that raise was equivalent to I think it was $19.00 a paycheck so it doesn’t even begin to touch the a) cost of living increases and b) the increases in healthcare [costs].”

“[The healthcare demarcation after 2004 occurred because] the PTU had to come forward and had to basically find their own raises within the contract that they currently had and what we decided at that time, the membership voted on, was to have anyone who was hired after 2004 pay a different amount for co-share which at the time may have sounded like a good idea,” she says.  “But now that we’re in 2017, thirteen years later, we have a significant amount of people paying a different co-share and that’s not good. It’s not good for our membership, it’s not good for morale, and it’s not equitable.”

“We used to have a ten step salary scale and we, once again, in negotiations, we moved to a twelve step salary scale, and those of us who were at top step, which would be myself for one and many other teachers, we only realize a raise in terms of contract negotiations when other people moving up the steps, which we had moved up in previous years, get a step increase plus a raise, so those of us who were there when we took the zero, we got nothing. And at least those people who had a step got their step increased. So there’s a lot of nuances to contracts that cities don’t express widely.”

“It needs to be clear to people and the taxpayers of Providence that we’ve already taken several pay freezes and we’ve taken zeroes. We took step freezes. We went from paying nothing for healthcare, which obviously is not a realistic thing, but we went from paying nothing for co-sharing healthcare and now we’re up in 20% co-share!”

Another issue is how the district negotiators say they are short of funding until they find their own project to spend on.

“I don’t have, nor does any of my membership have, any concerns with materials that are being purchased that directly impact student learning because that’s what we’re here for! At the end of the day, our goal and our focus is to student achievement. That being said, when the District wants to find money for their pet projects or the next shiny thing, they find the money. [School Business Manager and City Controller] Mr. [Michael] D’Antuono went off and purchased a million dollar timekeeping system and that money would be better spent either a) on kids, or b) at least to offer some kind of compensation to teachers. They are well within their rights as management to maintain and assure that their employees are arriving to work on time. That is in their purview as management. So why we had to invest in a million dollar timekeeping operation to have checks and balances on the lowest-paid clerks and secretaries and teachers is just nonsensical…It’s counter-intuitive to what we’re doing.”

“My concern is that if you’re telling us there’s no money for raises, then how is it you found $500,000 to pay [newly-hired] Culture Coordinators for these new positions to go into the schools and you’re going to pay them at a salary takes most tenured teachers ten years to get to! What is that saying to those teachers?”

All of these issues are on the front burner in an ongoing labor dispute while the expansion of the Achievement First charter school is in the background.

“First of all, the Mayor sits on the charter school board [of directors] of Achievement First, so I personally find that to be a conflict of interest when you as Mayor are making decisions that will adversely impact the financial outcomes of the City. If you’re all-in for education, you need to be all-in for public education because the majority of our students are in those public schools. And to take $35 million away from public schools to promote your charter that you are on the board of to me is unconscionable,” she says.

“It’s always in the back of our minds and don’t think that it’s lost on any teacher that he made that decision to expand Achievement First at the expense of our kids in our district, that always plays in the back of our minds,” says Calabro.

“At the end of the day, we all know that he is going to do exactly what he wants to do with Achievement First, which is expand it and make himself and his charter school proponents and [Gov.] Gina Raimondo happy! That’s the bottom line.”

“From the beginning we had had fits and starts. I am very transparent with my membership in terms of the progress or the progression of negotiations,” she says. “And I think that when, on January 3rd, the Mayor boasted of a $5.4 million surplus and sixteen days later he sent his negotiator to tell me that there was no money for raises for us, that’s extremely frustrating. We found it to be disrespectful and a little disingenuous because, basically, we want to know where $5.4 million went in sixteen days! And all throughout the process, I’ve stated before that I didn’t think we were being taken seriously to begin with!”

She indicates the staffing of the negotiations team itself is indicative of this.

“When you send a team of two [negotiators] and the first person gets fired the next day and they send a team of two again and that person takes a job with the Governor’s office two weeks later, and we’ve had a variety of revolving door people come in from the City side. And our team has been consistent from the get-go in terms of everything that we’ve asked for, we’ve been consistent in our membership. I don’t substitute in and out. This isn’t a game. It’s not a soccer game or a football game where you tag people in and out. We were serious from the get-go and I’m not quite sure that the City was.”

In his classic The Souls of Black Folk, the great W.E.B. Du Bois put forward in an essay about Reconstruction the pivotal role of public education in the creation of democracy. His indication of the schoolteacher as a major engine in this project is noteworthy. Du Bis understood that solidarity with Black workers would require and be based around the intimacy and care that Northern teachers sent by benevolent societies to the South showed African American children. In the age of the nasty narcissistic white nationalist game show host president, it is clear that the work of urban school teachers who refuse to buckle in the face of banditry by ICE seeks to emulate the features of what Du Bois referenced.

A version of this column previously appeared at RIRelevant.com.

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Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.

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