The Lucky Children of New York City

by

12/22/2005

207th St. & 10th Ave. ny 10034

Neighborhood: Inwood

The public school kids of New York City learned that they could go to school 2 hours late during the strike. At least for the kids who live within walking distance of the school, and didn’t have to take a car service or walk miles in the cold, this was fun and exciting. When I went to pick up my children up at school on the first day of the strike, my older daughter was excited. “Not only did we get to school 2 hours late today,” she said breathlessly, “but we went to see the strikers!”

I asked her what happened, and she said they made signs supporting the TWU, and that they marched over there and said, “TWU – WE LOVE YOU”! I asked her if she understood what was happening, but being in 2nd grade, she couldn’t really remember exactly why they went or what was going on. She did say that the strikers offered students hot chocolate, but that they had all laughed and told the strikers that they were the ones bringing the strikers coffee and doughnuts! She thought it was funny that both sides wanted to give each other hot drinks, and that it was nice that the people walking the picket line were concerned about the children – instead of the other way around. She said they sang “We Shall Overcome” and “Jingle Bells” and a few other songs she couldn’t remember to the strikers. She said that the strikers were really happy to see them and hear the song, and she was glad that they had made them happy. My kindergartner was disappointed, because her class didn’t go. “I hate her,” she whined, pointing to her sister, and said she wished they could have marched around outside. “It was only for 2nd and 3rd graders,” my 2nd grader sniffed, “you kindergartners are just too young to understand about strikes.”

I believe that striking is one of the most important ways in which workers can lawfully assert their rights and effectively demand fair and just treatment. The city officials and judges were not remaining neutral – instead, they were behaving terribly and heavy-handedly by threatening the union leadership with jail and the strikers with steep fines. The media coverage focused on the disgruntled commuters, complaining about the cold and the inconvenience, and editorials denouncing the strikers appeared in all the major papers.

One article quoted a commuter saying that when he and his friends drove by a picket line, they joked about running the strikers over in their car, and another quoted New Yorkers calling the strikers “terrorists” and “rats”. Other stories gleefully reported that 1000 MTA workers and TWU members (less that 1/30 of the union membership) crossed the picket lines and went to work, disobeying the union leadership.

I was incredibly happy that my daughters go to a school where the teachers didn’t follow the media line and just represent the strikers as selfish and militant. Instead, they took their students to see an important social movement in action. They taught their students that the strikers shut down the transit system because they believed that a living wage and decent and fair pension is a human right. Not surprisingly, parents were upset and said that this wasn’t something the teachers should have done. “My husband and I don’t support the strikers,” one parent told me, and said she didn’t think it was an appropriate school activity – especially because they were not told about it in advance as with most field trips. The principal sent a note home defending the teachers, and also noting that the trip was not political or about taking sides, but rather to just observe and witness the event.

I hope these teachers don’t get in any trouble. I live in New York City because I want to live someplace where there is diversity and social consciousness – and someplace where standing up for a cause (particularly a progressive one) isn’t automatically denounced and viewed as subversive. Obviously, this strike isn’t a neutral or apolitical issue, and one might feel (as the mainstream media does) that the strikers are acting selfishly and hurting people. However, to observe a social movement or protest in action is a rare event, particularly in these ominous times of overt hostility and repression towards all progressive – and in particularly labor – movements.

These teachers, who teach a predominantly low-income, minority student body, recognize that neither they nor their students are elites or positions of power. Neither are benefiting from the current social and economic policies that are unsupportive and destructive to labor and working people. They understood that it is necessary to stand up in solidarity with working people, and crucial to teach students that those who stand up for their rights are neither evil nor “thugs” (as Mayor Bloomberg called the strikers). These teachers supported the workers felt that this was one moment where they couldn’t – and shouldn’t – repress and attempt to hide their politics.

The teachers at this school recognize that building a good society involves acknowledging social and material reality. The students in New York City – even those in 2nd grade – know that when the subways and buses aren’t running, something serious and extremely unusual is happening. Ignoring the strike, or sitting in the classroom telling both sides of the story (“well, management says this and the workers say this”) doesn’t help students understand the situation in any context or make it real. The teachers did not stage a sympathy strike or refuse to teach. Instead, they impressively asserted their right to teach their students that those who run our massive and precious public transportation system are entitled to reject an unfair contract when they democratically vote to do so. I’m sure that in few years, these children will look back and respect these teachers for openly taking a righteous stand, and not sitting around pretending that nothing in the outside world matters.

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