A fiery blaze of Maine teachers — all dressed in red — filled the legislature’s Labor and Housing Committee on Wednesday, demanding the right to have equal footing at the bargaining table with school administrators.
Teachers showed up by the hundreds to support LD 900, a bill that offers a path to overcoming the power imbalance they’ve said is plaguing their profession and hurting Maine students. The bill would give most public employees, besides public safety workers, the option to go on strike, making it easier for Maine teachers to join thousands of educators in other states who have threatened work stoppages and have sometimes even held wildcat strikes to win better working conditions over the last few years.
Maryann White, a Gardiner resident who’s been a middle-grade math teacher for 17 years, described the right to strike not as something teachers want to use recklessly, but an option to make administrators pay attention.
“Educators want simply that: a voice. A voice and a shift,” she said at the bill’s public hearing Wednesday. “We’re working firsthand with our students, and we would appreciate a shift in the balance of power back towards us. We want to be able to bargain equally. We do not want to strike, but simply the right to do so.”
Thomas Moore, a Bingham resident and teacher since 1963, said educators have been “ignored at best, abused at worst by school management” for decades without having the leverage LD 900 provides.
“The stark reality has demonstrated that far too many school boards and superintendents have acted as guardians of the public purse by justifying an overloaded workload, curtailing student services and programs, freezing teacher salaries and education staff wages,” he said, “often on the advice of cynical and well-paid law firms and lawyers, who have little or no expertise in the educational field.”
State Senate President Troy Jackson (D-Allagash), House Speaker Sara Gideon (D-Freeport), and bill sponsor Rep. Mike Sylvester (D-Portland) advocated for the bill at a rally before the public hearing.
“You all are my heroes,” said Gideon. “We have your back.”
The public hearing coincided with the Maine Education Association’s #RedforEd Day, an offshoot of the national #RedforEd movement advocating for better working conditions for educators. Teachers testifying at the hearing wore red in solidarity with the movement.
New polling from the PDK Educational Foundation shows that, nationally, 78 percent of public school parents would support teachers in their communities going on strike for higher pay. In Maine, 61 percent believe public school teachers should have the right to strike if they are unable to make improvements for their students or fail to reach a contract agreement through normal means.
(Top photo, left: Teachers gather for #RedforEd Day press conference. Right: Bill sponsor Rep. Mike Sylvester stands next to an educator as Maine Education Association President Grace Leavitt introduces speakers. | Cara DeRose)