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“Escalation is Inevitable”: Interview with Arizona Strike Leader Rebecca Garelli on the Fight for Safe Schools

08-Oct-2020Interviews and Report by Alex Stout, Phoenix DSA

In 2018, Arizona teachers used wildcat strikes to win significant concessions including a 20% pay increase for educators. Two years later, the fight for safe schools during a mismanaged pandemic again shows the need for militant collective action. I interview Rebecca Garelli, co-founder of Arizona Educators United, and Jessica Murray, DSA teacher activist, and then report on the exciting solidarity campaign recently launched by Phoenix DSA.

On Monday, August 3rd, educators, parents, and community allies across the country united in a day of action to protest the irresponsible policies of their districts, as well as the callous inaction of their state and federal governments which has led to an unfolding and unnecessary intensification of the health crisis. Millions of children, as well as school staff and the wider community, are facing serious risks as schools threaten to physically reopen without first meeting clear guidelines to do so safely.

Despite months of demands from local educators here in Arizona, on August 3rd there was still no clear, scientifically-backed plan from government health agencies for when and how to reopen schools safely, let alone a commitment to enforce it. The best we had was a “roadmap” from the Arizona Department of Education, which had such helpful tips as to “consider meeting safeguards first” if schools were not yet prepared to meet such minimal CDC guidelines as “promot[ing]...wearing a cloth face covering, as feasible.”

Arizona teachers knew this was entirely inadequate, and demanded a real plan, uniting under the hashtags “#onlywhenitssafe” and “#demandsafeschools” which could be seen written on the dozens of cars in the “motor march” this author attended that day. At least 30 cars snaked their way from a nearby park to the state capitol building. A loud and visible caravan circled repeatedly, students and educators read demands, brandished tombstones and delivered obituaries of beloved teachers out in front of the state capitol--a metaphorical flourish which unfortunately still threatens to become quite literal.

Leading the action in Phoenix was Rebecca Garelli, a science educator and organizer with Arizona Educators United. Rebecca is also a former active member of the Chicago Teachers Union for 11 years and participated in CTU’s historic 2012 strike. Upon moving to Arizona, she co-founded Arizona Educators United (AEU) and played an instrumental role in organizing the Arizona #RedforEd movement.

Rebecca helped develop and successfully execute an 8-week organizing blitz & escalation plan that resulted in the creation of a 2,000 volunteer network in over 1,200 school sites across the state. This organizing also resulted in a six-day strike, a 75,000 person march & increased education funding. The massive wave of teachers’ strikes just two years ago has left teachers and organizers like Rebecca with a strong sense of the potential strength of a mass movement.

I interviewed Rebecca Garelli about the growing fight for safe schools in Arizona.

AS: What motivated you to first get involved in organizing/advocacy for educators/education, and to launch the campaign for safe schools?

RG: Arizona educators United has been organizing around any and everything education related since March 2018, naturally we organized around a safe return. We started organizing around safe schools specifically back in March by first pushing for schools to close in the first place in light of the pandemic.

AS: Can you tell me a bit about the part of the event where attendees held up tombstones and obituaries were read?

RG: We provided folks with multiple ways of participating since many folks could not attend since it was the first day back to school. The tombstones were created by an educator in Mesa and symbolized the reality of this situation- if we make the wrong choices, people will die. Obituaries, "last lectures" and heartfelt letters were also options for people to participate in, they sent them to us via email, we printed and delivered them to the Governor.

AS: How do you see this action fitting into the wider campaign? Will it need to escalate or develop in some way? Do you expect any resistance beyond inaction/negligence?

RG: The campaign for safe schools will continue until this pandemic subsides or there is a vaccine. Escalation is inevitable- when folks are pressed enough, they will resist. We have already seen teachers in two districts resign and/or sickout because of the poor decisions of their governing boards. Queen Creek educators resigned enmasse and 109 JO Combs educators called in sick/participated in a sickout already. Now charter educators at some Legacy charter schools are calling for a sickout on 8/24. Resistance will continue as long as the Governor refuses to act and as long as some district's are making poor decisions that put communities at risk. I could also see a connection to wider campaigns around evictions, lack of unemployment assistance, etc. since many of our student populations and communities are impacted more by COVID and the lack of leadership in this state.

AS: Did anything about this action surprise you?

RG: We had students show up and speak to the media! One of the #RedforEd organizers who has been active since our inception in 2018 is working on organizing students, she brought them and they ended up speaking to the media! Really powerful to have student voices included in this action.

Interview with DSA Teacher and Union Activist

The response from the representatives of the state of Arizona has not been satisfactory, to say the least. On August 6th, the Arizona Department of Health Services came out with guidelines for when and when not to reopen schools, using clear metrics and safety measures corresponding to varying levels of risk. But Governor Doug Ducey has so far refused to mandate that schools follow these guidelines, and has instead undercut them by giving his support to districts which decide to reopen physically whether they meet the health and safety benchmarks or not--which, of course, none of them did, in part because of the costs involved with tackling the issue of proper ventilation.

On June 29th, Ducey had also issued orders that schools at least partially reopen for vulnerable students in need of school meals or other support on August 17th. Many struggling under the impact of the coronavirus and the attending capitalist crisis might wonder why support for their children has to take the form of risking their health, and why no serious measures have been taken to address these known problems in the many months leading up to the new school year. This forced “choice” also belies the supposed neutrality of the position many districts have been taking, allowing parents to “choose” how their children will be educated, a “choice” only made more agonizing with the general lack of affordable childcare and food security.

I talked with one Phoenix DSA member, Jessica Murray, a teacher and union activist, to get her perspective on the August 3rd action and the tasks ahead for both the movement and for DSA.

AS: What motivated you to first get involved in the campaign for safe schools? In DSA?

JM: I’m a public school teacher, and have been following the pandemic situation very closely since being furloughed from my last position in March. I had already been following the movement to remove SROs from schools, but since the murder of George Floyd, I am much more committed to connecting these very intertwined issues, all due to systemic racism and inequity. I strongly believe in the demands for the Demand Safe Schools movement, so I knew I’d want to be involved in any direct action they organized.

I joined the DSA for lots of reasons, but the 2016 election season is what finally flipped the “on” switch in my brain to take my political beliefs and translate them to connection and action.

AS: How do you see this action fitting into the wider fight? Will it need to escalate or develop in some way? Do you expect any resistance beyond inaction/negligence?

JM: I hope this sent a clear message to educators, parents, and our state lawmakers that snap decisions that don’t center on safety for ALL students, families, and educators involved in our educational system will be met with resistance. I am also hopeful that we can widen society’s definition of “safety” in schools to not only include preventing illness, but also preventing and stopping discrimination, violence, and oppression against BIPOC students and families. This wider definition of "safety" could (and should) include reevaluating and shutting down racist educational practices or programs, such as school resource officers, standardized testing, and voucher programs.

AS: Do you think DSA could play a role beyond encouraging members to show up to this and following events?

JM: I think having an educationally-focused DSA group that could work on the intersectionality of oppression in its many forms within the educational system could be very powerful. Many teachers are joining DSA, which is very exciting!

Report: Phoenix DSA Steps Up in Solidarity

Phoenix DSA remains a small organization, but our members were inspired by the 2018 #RedforEd movement and were excited to organize in solidarity for teachers in their current struggle. We held a socialist night school event a few days before the August 3rd action to help build for the event. Thirty-three people attended the Phoenix DSA Night School to talk about the role socialists could play in the movement and plan with local educators.

Building from the common ground we saw in the demands of the Demand Safe Schools coalition, calls for police-free schools were extended to calls for defunding the police to fund education. The demand for a safe reopening of schools was discussed directly, but we also talked about how educators themselves might be empowered to decide whether or not it was safe enough to return to the classroom.

Some of these demands made their way onto the cars circling the state capitol. Some Phoenix DSA members, like Jessica, are educators themselves, and saw broad value in having this in-depth discussion on the issue.

We made sure the night school wasn’t just a talk shop, and took time to go over concrete plans, with roughly a dozen attendees committing on the spot to take action! Arizona schools are among the first in the country to start up again in the Fall, and they’d be doing so in what was recently a global hotspot for the virus (a crisis which has ebbed but is still in no way contained). It was important to have a strong showing on August 3rd despite the pressure to attend the opening day of school instead (not to mention the 116 degree weather). In addition to the Facebook advertising we paid for to boost our night school event on the subject, we also held a textbank of our local DSA membership to boost attendance for the motor march itself.

The result? Almost a third of those at the action were DSA members! Leading teacher organizer Rebecca Garelli said she was “very grateful for DSA and community support” and that organizers would ensure a space for future coordination with DSA.

The fight is certainly not over yet! As Rebecca put it, “the campaign for safe schools will continue until this pandemic subsides or there is a vaccine. Escalation is inevitable--when folks are pressed enough, they will resist.” Under pressure from the national day of action and activated and organized teachers, most districts readily agreed to delay full in-person reopening at least until September 8th or even the end of the first quarter, but some chose to provoke resistance.

And resistance is what they got. Queen Creek educators resigned enmasse, and 109 JO Combs educators staged a wildcat sickout--almost 20% of the staff--forcing the school board to cancel classes and to delay in-person reopening until September 8th. Again and again, workers in education have shown that they hold the power if they act together. Just like in 2018, the movement has grown from below, outside the official structures of the unions, although many local union leaders are involved in the organizing efforts. On the state level, unions like the Arizona Education Association (AEA) have been generally supportive, but have also trailed behind the initiatives of the rank and file. For example, AEA recommends that schools close and run virtually, but doesn’t have a coordinated campaign around the issue, focusing instead on the “Invest in Ed” ballot measure (Prop 208) which may finally tax the rich to fund Arizona schools at the level before the cuts implemented during the Great Recession. While welcome, this valuable work is kept isolated from the related struggles teachers and students are facing.

Many teachers have had to lead the fight themselves because charter schools are so prevalent in Arizona, and they generally are not affiliated with the big educator unions in the state. Another complication is that teachers’ “strikes” have been illegal in Arizona for decades, leading to the more common term for such actions as “walkouts,” but again, just like with the 2018 Red for Ed movement spearheaded by AEU we are seeing the unions trailing the movement. Back in May, it didn’t seem like the president of AEA had strong feelings about so-called “hybrid” versus fully distanced learning, and although they had initiated a task force to start looking into the issue, they didn’t yet have a clear plan to fight for safe schools.

Again, this left the leg work to educators on the ground and groups like AEU, which had been organizing for fully distanced learning since March. Union leadership could be doing more than playing a supportive role, calling for an escalation in the actions, and a coordinated plan threatening the “walkout” or “sickout” of teachers across all districts--even those in districts with virtual learning, in order to increase the impact via a united show of solidarity. But it seems like such militant action may have to be organized by the rank and file educators themselves.

For their part, AEU has been actively encouraging those in safer districts to get involved in the fight to protect fellow workers in districts which have not yet gotten the memo that human lives are more important than getting back to business as usual. But this fight should be injected into the unions as well, and if the formal channels are unfriendly, it might be time to build a socialist caucus within educator unions, one which will raise the steps necessary to win the fight as well as broaden the campaign to the issues that rank and file educators can see are interconnected, such as the demand for police-free schools. Members of a socialist caucus could also work to popularize the demand for free and universal childcare, a necessity revealed by the increased strain on parents of school children now learning from home. This strain is itself a barrier to unified public support of school staff, and the demand for universal childcare grows out of this immediate challenge.

As the various upcoming deadlines loom, and Ducey continues his strategy of cruel negligence, educators are again faced with the need to escalate for the common good of themselves, their students, and the wider community.

Phoenix DSA is looking forward to being an active participant in this fight, along with interconnected struggles. In mid September, Phoenix DSA resolved to join the Invest in Ed campaign for a Yes vote on Prop 208, which would transfer almost one billion dollars a year from the 1% to our education system, educators, and school staff. We did so on politically independent grounds, arguing from the perspective that this is not about stabilizing the capitalist economy through smarter public management, but about winning a reform needed by the 99% and making the 1% pay for it. We know that this fight is a direct threat to their profits, because there is a direct conflict between their profits and our wellbeing. We need that money not only to treat school staff with respect and improve their pay, but also to reopen schools safely at all!

Alongside this central push to vote yes on prop. 208, we seek to connect the fight to other organically linked struggles, like the fight for safe schools, but also the BLM uprising--we need money for jobs and education, not police and prisons! Arizona has the worst student-to-counselor ratio in the country, almost a thousand to one, which is a major threat to the health and safety of students. To fight for quality schools and against police oppression at once, we call for “Counselors Not Cops!” in our schools. We will need the money from prop. 208 to accomplish this, along with what we can take from the police budget (which is over half the budget in the city of Phoenix!). After the election, calls to defund the police will continue, and we seek to lay groundwork now to be part of that coalition and play a uniting role in these struggles, bringing increased strength to every aspect of the fight.

I encourage other chapters to connect with the growing struggle for safe schools in your areas too, and take every step necessary to build and strengthen the movement!