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Grassroots teachers’ push sidelines union in pay dispute

 Arizona Educators United spokesman Noah Karvelis stands beside dozens of teachers and public education advocates protesting on April 10 as Gov. Doug Ducey gave his monthly KTAR interview. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Arizona Educators United spokesman Noah Karvelis stands beside dozens of teachers and public education advocates protesting on April 10 as Gov. Doug Ducey gave his monthly KTAR interview. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Arizona teachers are done, fed up, over it.

They are willing to take action for their demands – 20 percent raises, competitive pay, additional per pupil funding and no new tax cuts until it happens – and they don’t want to wait much longer.

At 40,000 strong, Arizona Educators United pushed aside the Arizona Education Association, the political group typically charged with imposing their will at the Legislature.

They’re showing the union and others how to organize.

Arizona Educators United and the Red for Ed movement invited public education employees and their supporters to vent their frustrations publicly on Facebook. Within 24 hours, thousands had joined the conversation and many asked the same question: Will Arizona be the next to strike?

At first, Tres Rios Elementary School music teacher Noah Karvelis only envisioned inspiring action in his own district – wearing red on a Wednesday in a show of solidarity. But the Facebook group he created did something no press conference or letter to the Legislature or impassioned call for change had managed to do before.

It harnessed the energy of teachers desperate for more, and its leaders have repeatedly warned that they will soon set a date to walk out of their classrooms and strike.

Their demands and the series of demonstrations at the Capitol with hundreds of teachers clad in red seemed to catch the attention of Gov. Doug Ducey and lawmakers, who offered plans to increase teacher salaries on April 12.

Karvelis (who doubles as campaign manager for Kathy Hoffman, a Democratic candidate for state superintendent of public instruction) said the roughly 40,000 members of the movement sweeping social media remain driven by their demands and a lack of faith in anyone but themselves to see that they’re met.

The Arizona Education Association, the state’s largest union representing about 20,000 public school employees, has taken a backseat, a supportive role, offering infrastructure and advice while Arizona Educators United leads the way forward.

“There are no political parties pulling the strings. There are no candidates pulling the strings or unions behind the scenes pushing agendas,” Karvelis said. “It’s just educators advocating on behalf of other educators and families and their students.”

And that’s where they found the “magic.”

“Something has changed here,” Karvelis said. “Some sort of dynamic has brought people back in to reengage.”

Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas at a press conference Wednesday. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas at a press conference Wednesday. (Capitol Media Services photo by Howard Fischer)

AEA President Joe Thomas called it a reawakening of public education employees and advocates, who have realized that “if we’re going to fix this, we have to fix it ourselves.”

The movement is bigger than AEA, he said, and the union has stepped aside in recent weeks to give Arizona Educators United the space to lead the way.

“It helps the individual recognize that the story of your classroom is what’s going to move people to action,” Thomas said. “Your story is the authentic story of what all of those policies look like in action.”

When teachers understand that, he said, they’ll understand they can leverage change.

Arizona teachers are among the lowest paid in the nation. According to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, Arizona elementary school teachers earned a median wage of $43,280 in 2017 and high school teachers $46,470, the third and sixth lowest in the nation, respectively. Adjusted for the local cost of living, federal figures show elementary teachers actually rank 49th in earnings and high school teachers 48th.

Most of the comments left on the group’s Facebook page have laid blame on Ducey and the Legislature’s perceived apathy toward teachers’ complaints.

But others have pointed to AEA and what some see as a history of ineffective actions.

Russ Cannizzaro, whose Facebook profile page indicated he is the education department chair at Tempe Union High School District, wrote, “The reason why we (are) near last in the nation for teachers’ salaries is because we are near last when it comes to doing anything about it.”

And Kasey Kerber summed up some of her peers’ fear that the window of opportunity is quickly shrinking: “Can we strike already? I feel like we’re a bunch of hamsters on a wheel.”

Thomas recalled a recent encounter with a man who said the union should be ashamed. The man told him the governor and the Legislature had been allowed to cut education funding on AEA’s watch.

But Thomas rejected that.

“They did that on all of our watch,” he said. “It wasn’t just AEA’s watch. It was every teacher in the state. You can’t just say one group or one entity let that happen. We all let that happen.”

But Karvelis said AEA taking a backseat in this moment has been part of the dynamic that seems to be working.

AEA members and non-members make up Arizona Educators United’s ranks. Democrats and Republicans. District and charter school employees.

Karvelis said they don’t align with a specific candidate or a specific stance, and that’s fine. That’s what makes it work.

That’s what it has taken to gain the trust of people all across the state.

“They saw that educators and teachers were standing up,” Karvelis said. “They felt safe in that place, and that’s been powerful for us.”

Jennifer Samuels marches with dozens of her peers, students and other supporters of the Arizona Educators United movement on April 10. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Jennifer Samuels marches with dozens of her peers, students and other supporters of the Arizona Educators United movement on April 10. (Photo by Katie Campbell/Arizona Capitol Times)

Jennifer Samuels, an eighth grade English teacher at Desert Shadows Middle School, marched outside of the KTAR 92.3 studio on April 10 while Ducey gave his monthly interview. Her sixth grade daughter joined her in matching red shirts, carrying signs as temperatures hit 100 degrees – the first triple-digit day of the year.

Samuels has been teaching in Arizona for six years. She said she works with about 90 kids every day, and she’s fighting for them. It’s her obligation, she said.

She doesn’t want to strike, but she said she will because “the short-term plan of leaving our class for a little while is so much better than” the alternative of sitting idle.

She’s a member of AEA and said the union has done all it could with what they have.

But she said it took Arizona Educators United to give teachers the courage to rise up.

“Every day, the people involved in Red for Ed are escalating our action,” she said. “Every day we get stronger. Every week we get stronger. As Noah Karvelis says, our backs are against the walls.”

If they’re going to strike, they have an ever-shrinking window of time to do it while it can still make a difference. The budget is already being negotiated, and the Legislature is nearing the 100th day of session.

But Karvelis said all options are still on the table, including a walk-out.

“We have to win no matter what,” he said, adding that if it does not get done this year, they’ll start next school year by taking action.

For now, Arizona Educators United leaders are waiting to see what Ducey will do.

“If they don’t respond to the citizens, if they don’t respond to the educators, they’re making a terrible mistake,” he said. “We’ve organized 40,000 people who need answers. To ignore that is to ignore your duty as an elected representative, especially a governor.”

Ducey’s office did not return requests for comment.

2 comments

  1. Note to Mr. Karvellis: How much backbone do you REALLY have? DEMAND that the Superintendents and School Boards direct revenues to the Classroom at a minimum of the national AVERAGE!! If that happens, each teacher will receive at least a $10,000 increase. The administration has been ripping off the teachers for the last 18 years. Go to the Auditor General Dollars to the Classroom Report for proof.

    https://www.azauditor.gov/reports-publications/school-districts/multiple-school-district/report/arizona-school-district-2

    Clean up the graft and corruption in your own industry, then come back to the taxpayers for more funds if needed.

  2. The reason the union is taking a back seat is that so few of the 40,000 members who are putting on red shirts and marching in crowds, are willing to pay $26 per paycheck to belong to the teacher’s union, Arizona Education Association. All I hear is, “It’s a right to work state”, and “I can’t afford the union dues”.
    Putting on T-shirts and marching in a large crowd is not as effective as belonging to a union year in and year out and making this clear to our elected leaders, and delivering votes. It was a “right to work” nation before people formed unions from 1890 to the 1930’s. People in the 1930’s often could not afford union dues either but managed to form and participate in unions. If we as teachers are unwilling to pay and participate to represent the cause of education, we should not complain when no one else does.

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