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The Hill

AFT Authorizes Teacher Safety Strikes

The union says that locals can strike, as a last resort, to protect their members

Brian Young's picture
Jul 28, 2020

With COVID-19 cases surging in some areas of the country, Trump and some Governors are demanding that schools reopen for full in-person learning. In places like Florida, the Governor is demanding that schools reopen, while other Governors like Missouri’s Mike Parson has made flippant comments that show how little they care about children getting sick.

With teachers rightfully fearing for their safety and parents concerned that sending their children to school could put them at risk of contracting COVID-19, many teachers unions are pushing back. In Florida, the union has sued to stop the implementation of the state’s reopening plan. If lawsuits fail, unions may need to go further to protect their members and their students. That is why the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) announced at their biennial convention that the union will be supporting “safety strikes” in the coming weeks.

The announcement was made during President Randi Weingarten’s State of the Union speech. In the speech, she unveiled a resolution, which was passed by the 45 members of the union's executive council, that says the union will “back locally authorized “safety strikes”—on a case-by-case basis and as a last resort—to ensure safety amid the absence of urgency by federal and some state officials to tackle the coronavirus surge.”

“Let’s be clear,” Weingarten told delegates. “Just as we have done with our healthcare workers, we will fight on all fronts for the safety of our students and their educators. But if the authorities don’t get it right, and they don’t protect the safety and health of those we represent and those we serve, nothing is off the table—not advocacy or protests, negotiations, grievances or lawsuits, or, if necessary as a last resort, safety strikes.”

For the last few months both the AFT and the National Education Association (NEA), along with their state and local affiliates, have been working on plans to safely reopen schools. Both have made the point that teachers want to return to schools as quickly as possible, but they aren’t willing to put their lives or the lives of their loved ones at risk to do it.

The union has already lost 200 members to the virus and had countless teachers and nurses get sick and currently has thousands of nurses working on the frontlines treating COVID-19 patients. The union believes that schools that plan to reopen must meet the criteria set forward in the union’s Reopening School Buildings Safely plan. Some of the key points in this plan include low infection rates and adequate testing, public health safeguards to help prevent the spread of the virus in schools, and the resources and funding to make it happen. While the union says that states with a positive testing rate of less than 5% could reopen, as of July 28th, only 18 states would meet that requirement.

Facing pressure from their teachers and the reality of rapidly rising cases, some of the nation’s largest public school districts are starting the school year online, including in Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Houston. Even in a state that has successfully bent the curve and met the AFT’s reopening criteria, the nation’s biggest school district, New York City, has proposed a hybrid plan that would mix in-person and online learning. While the plan is not official yet, New York State has said they will announce in the first week of August whether this plan is approved, even teachers in New York are wary about the dangers of reopening with the virus still raging across the country.

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