How the Arizona teachers got organized

This spring's rebellion of the teachers has reached Arizona, where educators have been building actions like a statewide "walk-in" that could culminate in a walkout and protests at the state Capitol, as in West Virginia, Oklahoma and elsewhere. The state's Republican governor has proposed a funding plan that would supposedly raise teachers' salaries by 20 percent immediately--but educators are adamant that they are also fighting for full restoration of funds for public education cut since the 2007-08 Great Recession.

A number of activists from Arizona Educators United, which has been leading the organizing, attended the Labor Notes conference in Chicago earlier this month. Vanessa Arredondo-Aguierre, a second-grade teacher in Somerton in the southwest corner of the state; Rebecca Garelli, a seventh-grade math and science teacher in Phoenix and former member of the Chicago Teachers Union; and Dylan Wegela, a seventh-grade science teacher in Phoenix; talked with Lee Sustar about what's at stake as the teachers continue their actions.

Teachers turn out #RedForEd in PhoenixTeachers turn out #RedForEd in Phoenix

HOW DID you all, with your different experiences with unions and different experiences of teaching, come together?

Rebecca: Facebook. We didn't know each other before this. We all stepped up on the Facebook page and said we'd like to be a part of this resistance.

THAT'S THE tool that brought you together, but what was the content?

Rebecca: The content is the struggles in Arizona for public education funding.

There's a crisis in Arizona. In 2008, there was a $1.5 billion cut in funding, and $1.1 billion hasn't been restored yet. What's trickled down as a result are large class sizes, big student-to-teacher ratios, big student-to-counselor ratios, low teacher salaries--50th in the nation--and low per-pupil funding.

Plus, we're pretty much ground zero for the charter schools movement. Charter schools have been taking public dollars from our public education fund and funneling them into private schools, via vouchers and ESAs [Empowerment Scholarship Accounts] and STOs [School Tuition Organizations].

WHAT DOES that look like in Phoenix? Do you have a percentage of how many students are in charter schools? Are there statewide figures?

Vanessa: Just in Maricopa County, there's a long list of charter schools. I created a list of public schools and charter schools so we can see how many are on both, and the charter school listings, especially in Maricopa County, are long.

OBVIOUSLY, YOU'RE all squeezed in terms of pay and so on. Do you know how conditions for charter schools compare?

Vanessa: I know their pay isn't as good as ours in public education. But they do it differently than we do in public schools. We have bigger class sizes and fewer resources in public schools.

Rebecca: And they can get bonus incentives, too. So it looks like their pay is greater overall, though their base pay isn't.

PLUS THEY have lower class sizes, right? And in your schools, I hear that that 40 students per class isn't uncommon.

Rebecca: A class size of 32 students is pretty average where I'm at, but that can go up. Because there are 2,000 open teaching positions in Arizona currently, kids who don't have a permanent teacher at all--or who don't have a substitute if their regular teacher is sick--do what are called "splits." If a teacher calls in sick or there's a classroom vacancy, or if a teacher quits because the situation is so bad--which happens all the time--those kids get split up and randomly put into other classrooms.

I teach seventh-grade science, and normally I have 32 kids. The other day, I prepared materials for 32 kids, but I got an extra eight that day who I didn't know were coming because a teacher called in sick.

SO RATHER than have a sub, they simply--

Rebecca: There are no substitutes.

SO YOU'RE covering somebody else's class at the same time you're trying to teach your own?

Rebecca: You're covering vacancies, correct.

Dylan: My school does something a little different than splitting. Instead, teachers cover another class in their prep period. I've covered another class 25 times this year, which kind of kills my prep time, as you can imagine. That's 25 hours of prep I've lost covering another class.

I personally think that's a better system than splitting, because when you split, like Rebecca said--

Rebecca: You tank every single other lesson of the day. It's done.

BUT STILL, those 25 hours have to come from somewhere. So you're doing them after class or after school, right? You're effectively working longer for less.

Dylan: We get paid for it. And I'm sure Rebecca gets paid for splitting.

Rebecca: No, we don't. Basically, we just have to deal with it.

Vanessa: I never got paid either.

Dylan: We get paid sub rates for taking classes during prep time.

LET'S TALK about the dynamic of how teachers came together in Arizona. So see West Virginia making headlines, you reach out people you know and establish contact, you start a Facebook page and you get in cyberspace, you make some connections. How do real-life connections start to come together? How does "face time" start to happen?

Vanessa: At this Labor Notes conference is the first time we've spent more than about an hour together looking at each other! We've had meetings online and through video, but we're complete strangers otherwise. We just came together.

Rebecca: We created an organizational chart to divide up responsibilities and said, "Who thinks their strengths are in media?" And so we designated a media person. We designated people to work with the liaisons--to create the network that we needed within sites and also to branch out to all parts of the state.

Somebody stepped up and organized the actions. Somebody stepped up and took care of the Facebook page.

So we delegated roles and responsibilities, and then stuck in those roles and tried to be the most effective we could be.

Dylan: I think a lot of the face-to-face stuff began when we started doing actions. People started meeting each other in person and finding that they faced the same struggles.

I think that was what was really powerful: We had schools getting organized and having conversations, and we facilitated people coming together and saying, "It's time." We gave people a way to organize, and then they did it.

ARE YOU seeing organization take shape in different schools or districts or areas of the city where people can network more?

Rebecca: We created district pages. Whether there's 10 or 30 or 40 schools in that district, those district pages serve as a discussion hub for that community, so people can organize at that level, and not have to be on the broader, bigger page if they don't want to. They can organize events and put them put on the page.

People have been able to come together in a big way. I dropped off signs at a meeting in my neighborhood the other day, and there were 50 people at a restaurant. It was amazing.

Dylan: I called a meeting in my district, where we have about 20 schools, on one day's notice via e-mail, and we had 30 leaders come out.

Rebecca: These are people who have stepped up, and they're just natural leaders. They take the reins, and people are following them.

HOW DOES this mesh--or not--with people who have been active around the AEA and identified with the union? Are people joining the union?

Dylan: We haven't pushed membership, and I don't think we intend to. If that's something people decide to do, we're all for that. Most of us, if not all of us, are members of the AEA actually.

However, we're operating on the idea that if you want to help our movement, you're more than welcome to. At the meeting I organized, I invited all of the local, already in-place leaders, along with people I knew to be leaders, so that they could organize together, rather than working separately.

Rebecca: I'm in Alhambra District Education Association, so my local is part of the statewide union. Those people are on the same page about working together. Mainly, I handle the actions in my district, and they handle the more formal things: getting permission and approval from the powers that be. That doesn't work everywhere, but some people are stepping up and doing that.

HOW DO you see the teachers focusing attention on a target? Who are you trying to extract concessions from? The governor, the legislature, the school districts? In a situation where it's a statewide struggle, how do you identify and decide that?

Dylan: I think our goal now is definitely at the state level. We're going after the state for funding, so that's the legislature and the governor. But--and this is maybe just me speaking for myself--in the future, the organizational setup we have could be used in beneficial ways that our local areas need, because people are learning how to organize and be a team.

If there's some local issue in the future, I could see the groups that we've created through Arizona Educators United going ahead and taking care of it.

DO YOU anticipate Arizona Educators United becoming more formal in organizational terms in order to be able to determine the will of those involved?

Rebecca: I'll answer the last part about determining what people want.

We have different links where people sign up so we can gather data--we need the metrics as evidence that we have the power of our numbers. So we have a link to sign up for the statewide walk-in action. We need 1,000 walk-ins, which means we need 1,000 liaisons--one representative from 1,000 schools throughout the state. I think we've already hit that target.

Our next target was 40,000 people supporting our demands. We had a URL link to sign our petition to agree with our demands. Then we're going to have 30,000 people pledge to commit to a walkout or support a walkout. That's coming next.

Those are the steps we've taken to gain our metrics, look at our data and say whether we're ready to do this--do we have enough power in numbers? Because once we do that, maybe we go on to something bigger like a strike. So we're proving our power and showing that we're continuing this momentum. After that, we will see what the future holds for the AEU.

THE ARIZONA Education Association is obviously tracking all this, and some chapter leaders are involved. How will that relationship play out?

Rebecca: It's too soon to say. People are very wary of our relationship with them, and rightfully so, because they feel, as in the past, that the AEA hasn't had the power to do anything. Why would I give you dues? Where's the reciprocity, what am I going to get from this relationship?

I think people are wary that we even brought the AEA on board, but we need them, and they need us. And we'll know more in a couple months where people stand with that whole issue.

Dylan: The way I see it, the only way to get the win is if everyone is involved and on the same page. I don't think having fractions is going to help what we're trying to attain. For all of us, including AEA and other organizations in Arizona, we want to get the win above anything else. It's not about credit, it's about the victory.

SO WHAT is a win? What's the working definition of a victory for teachers?

Rebecca: There's the issue of funding restoration in general. One of our demands is for funding levels to be restored to 2008 levels. We're not asking for any more than that--we just want it back the way it was, just in terms of dollars.

THAT WOULD still be a cut based on population growth and inflation, right?

Rebecca: Correct, but can we just have it back? We want the $1.1 billion restored.

And of course, we want teacher salary increases, because we're at the bottom of the barrel, and people are leaving the state to teach in neighboring states where they can get big salary increases. We're demanding an immediate 20 percent increase.

HOW DID #RedForEd--where teachers and others wear red to show solidarity and unity--suddenly become the thing?

Dylan: It started with a tweet. Noah Karvelis tweeted AEA President Joe Thomas and asked him when we were going on strike. And Thomas said, "Don't wait for me," so Noah started #RedForEd, and Rebecca created Arizona Teachers United, and we merged the two into Arizona Educators United, and that was that.

Rebecca: About two weeks ago, we put out "Paint the state #RedForEd" as an action. We asked people to get out in their communities, wear your red shirt, and set up events in parks, recreation centers, parking lots, wherever. Then people will start asking questions, and you can invite them into a conversation and give them some information flyers.

That cascaded. We got some #RedForEd signs made and started distributing those, and once one business put it up, we made them famous on Facebook and more businesses wanted to get on board. We painted cars #RedForEd, and now it's widespread.

A LOT of the media coverage has described the teacher organizing and protests as a "red-state revolt." What do you think of that? Is that accurate about Arizona--that you have to struggle to break through a high level of conservatism?

Dylan: I think that's tough. I don't see this is a red state-blue state issue. I think both Republicans and Democrats are to blame for the scenario we're in, where education funding has gone down the drain.

I wouldn't say it's a partisan issue. It's a funding issue. It's about fundamental respect for education, and I think all around the country, we're going to start to see a domino effect. I don't think Arizona is the last state to go.

Rebecca: I haven't lived there very long, so my perspective is slightly different. I'm used to a blue-state mentality, so to me, Arizona is very red.

There's the mindset of people being passive and saying this is the way it is--we're a right-to-work state, so what can we do? Some teachers in Arizona are Republican, and that's a very different mindset for me. I think: Wait, you're a public education employee!

So my perspective is a little bit different, but I think Dylan is right in saying that it wasn't just the Republicans who created this mess--the entire government created this mess.

Vanessa: I agree with both Dylan and Rebecca. I see both of these points as valid. People thought for a long time that this is the way it is, but they're now seeing that if we can come together, we can get things going, and we have the same common goals.

Dylan: I definitely agree that the mentality is different in our state in terms of people getting involved and being clear on what they can and can't do now. It's the legislature and the governors in these states who are completely ignorant about what education means.

I think we see that pretty much among most politicians around the country. Most politicians probably haven't taught or substitute-taught or even been in a classroom in a long time. I think that's a big problem, and we need to get more educators to step up and run for office. That's not something a normal educator would do, but I think we need to start asking people.

Rebecca: What's happened is that you sign up to be a teacher, and you end up being an activist. That's just the nature of our job now, because all we do is fight and fight and fight. You're not a teacher anymore, you're an activist.

OR MAYBE you're teaching in a different kind of way.

Rebecca: Definitely. It's a lesson in civics.

Transcription by Nicole Colson and Eric Ruder