Democrats see energy behind teachers strikes as force in 2020

2020 could become the year of the teacher.

After teachers in California, Kentucky, Oklahoma and a host of other states went on strike for a series of demands in 2018 and 2019, ranging from better pay to more support in the classroom, Democratic presidential candidates and operatives within their campaigns have stepped up their outreach to teachers’ unions, hoping to seize on the energy that propelled nationwide teachers strikes.

To do that, candidates are putting policy behind their push for support. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont wants to create a $60,000 salary floor for public school teachers and a ban on new for-profit charter schools. Sen. Kamala Harris of California is pitching an average teacher pay raise of $13,500. And Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts is pledging to name a teacher as her education secretary should she win in 2020.

“Part of how I’m going to make education better is to make sure that we pay teachers more,” Harris said in Michigan this month. “And it’s also going to be about making sure there are the resources in the classrooms that help you have all the tools you want so that you can discover the wonders of science and math and art and music, and so you can do whatever you want to do.”

The American Federation of Teachers, which represents 1.7 million educators across the country, has held public town halls with the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. Former Vice President Joe Biden will headline a federation event with a town hall in Houston on Tuesday. And over the last few months, Sens. Harris, Sanders, Warren and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio have all participated in the federation town halls.

The National Education Association, which boasts nearly 3 million members, has seen focused attention from nearly every 2020 candidate, including personal meetings with union President Lily Eskelsen García. Candidates, according to a union operative, have solicited the union’s ideas on their respective education plans and the union has reciprocated by looking to put candidates in front of audiences full of teachers.

The early and sustained engagement represents a widely held belief inside Democratic presidential campaigns: Teachers unions are fired up, hungry to protest and eager to back a candidate who understands why they walked out of classrooms.

“It’s not politics as usual,” said Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers. “No one reflexively votes in a certain way. They may have, but they certainly don’t now.”

At the federation town hall in Detroit for Harris, Weingarten told CNN that the teacher union vote was awakening for the 2020 election, fueled by the strikes of the last two years.

“If people don’t sit on the sidelines and think things can be better in the United States than what we currently have, if people really feel empowered and believe, then it’s going to be a very, very effective and potent force,” Weingarten said.

García, the head of the National Education Association, said her union is “without a doubt seeing more energy than we have ever seen before” and that has led to an uptick in interest from 2020 candidates.

“We are kind of on everyone’s speed dial,” said García. “And it hasn’t always been that way.”

García said 2020 candidates are, so far, reaching out more for information than outright support and are asking the union about research on teacher pay, support inside the classroom and general funding for education in different states.

“They are asking all the right questions,” she said.

Needing a second job

One reason Democratic presidential candidates have seized on issues involving teachers is the personal nature of many of their stories, especially those who spend hours in the classroom and then have to pick up second jobs to make ends meet.

Zachary Viscidi works as a middle school social studies teacher by day and then drives a pedicab by night here in historic Charleston. His days often begin at 7 a.m., and sometimes he carts tourist from site to site until 2 a.m.

“This is a young man’s game,” said Viscidi, 31, pedaling past two other pedicab drivers who look to be in their early 20s. Viscidi has been a part-time pedicab driver for four years. “I’m the oldest out here.”

On this particular day, the official temperature in Charleston’s historic French Quarter is 95, but Viscidi could tell it felt well over 100 degrees as the sweat trickled down his slim face and neck.

“It’s really hard,” Viscidi told CNN. He’d brought his teacher pay stub along, which showed a two-week take-home salary of $1,100. It’s not enough to pay for his mortgage. “You’ve got to really wrap your head around where we place our value as a society. It’s kind of unfortunate.”

The weekends are the most exhausting, but at the end of the day, when he counted his tips and hourly wages, Viscidi found, once again, that one weekend of being a pedicab driver had netted more money than his two-week salary as a teacher.

And his situation is far from unusual.

“Every single teacher I know is working a second job,” he said. “Every single one. Whether they’re serving tables or bartending on weekends.”

Amiable, long-limbed and thin, Viscidi is physically suited to biking tourism. His scholarly training in history makes him a dream guide in a city steeped in it. He admitted he likes talking to tourists — he just wishes he didn’t have to. But the strikes across the country have given the teacher-turned-biker hope.

“Those strikes that are going on, they’re out for their students,” Viscidi said. “They’re not out for themselves. People should listen to them.”

Learning from 2016

Starting in February 2018, a wave of statewide teacher strikes swept through the country. Teachers walked off the job in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, North Carolina and Colorado, with the strikes lasting from a day to 10 days.

This year, teachers in Los Angeles and Oakland, California, went on strike, demanding increased wages, larger school budgets and smaller classrooms.

In every state, teachers held up similar signs, often listing their part-time jobs as waitresses, Uber drivers and caterers.

The advocacy has put a focus on the politics of teachers, something that did not happen as extensively ahead of the 2016 election, when both the major teachers’ unions went all in on backing Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primary over Sanders.

This time around, Weingarten said her union will not endorse for many more months and will allow its membership to decide, avoiding the internal disputes the American Federation of Teachers experienced in 2015 and 2016 after the union — led by Weingarten — backed Clinton in July 2015.

Comparably, the National Education Association endorsed Clinton months later — in October 2015 — still well before the primary between Clinton and Sanders was over.

When asked if the union envisions making a recommendation in October, like it did four years earlier, García repeated that it was “too early to be talking about a decision right now.”

While the 2020 race is significantly different — only five candidates appeared during the first Democratic primary debate in 2015, while a whopping 20 will qualify for the first Democratic primary debates in 2019 — Weingarten and García say they have learned lessons from four years ago.

“You have to be strategic when you make a decision to recommend a candidate,” García said. “And it is always going to be different in terms of when is it strategic to make that recommendation. At this point, right now, it is so early in the process, what we want to do is give our members as much information about these candidates as possible.”