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In the wake of the largest teacher protests this century over teacher salaries and benefits, Florida teachers unions have been remarkably silent.  It’s as if the crimson tsunami of teacher rebellion sweeping across the nation from West Virginia to Oklahoma and now Arizona has completely bi-passed the Sunshine state. Are we somehow better off than teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona? I would argue that other than a closer drive to Disney World and a free annual pass to Legoland, the answer is a resounding “No!”

The situation is even more dire for teachers in Miami-Dade who face some of the highest housing costs in the nation but have median salaries similar to those of teachers in Oklahoma and Arizona. According to the Florida Department of Education, the median teacher salary for teachers in Miami-Dade in the 2016-17 school year was only $45,236.

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Compare that to a median salary of $50,919 in Tucson, Arizona. Note that housing costs in Miami are nearly double that of housing in Tucson and someone earning $50,919 in Tucson would need a salary of $65,800 in Miami just to compensate for the cost of living difference.

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Similarly, although median teacher salary in Oklahoma is comparable to median teacher salary in Miami-Dade a teacher would have to make almost $74,000 in Miami to compensate for the higher cost of living!

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The reaction of Florida teachers unions to this unprecedented widespread teacher activism has been a deafening silence.  Scroll through the Facebook page of the United Teachers of Dade and you won’t find one post about either the illegal yet successful strike in West Virginia, the threat of a strike in Oklahoma and their legislature’s immediate response with a bill promising a 5% pay raise, and now Arizona teachers’ protests demanding a 20% raise. Instead, you’ll find a post about women workers striking in Spain and a worker walkout over the fight for a $15 an hour minimum wage.

So what gives? Why are Florida teachers unions choosing not to ride this wave of teacher activism and gather up the troops for a rally in Tally over inadequate teacher salaries? Granted, this is a rally that should have taken place last month while the legislature was still in session and the budget hadn’t been signed yet. Why did the FEA not seize this historical moment to finally make some demands of the Florida legislature and governor?

For the past decade teachers in this country have been vilified in the media as lazy vacation lovers with bloated pensions.  Now the tide has finally turned and we are being portrayed in a more sympathetic light, as underpaid and devoted public servants who risk their lives every day for other people’s children. The fact that we are getting any media attention at all, let alone positive attention, is an important step in the right direction. I turned on the Today show this morning and the lead story was about teachers in Arizona demanding a 20% raise.  Even The Talk held a brief discussion about Miami’s plan to house teachers at schools and when Sara Gilbert commented, “Well, if it’s such a rich area pay your teachers more,” the audience actually applauded!

For the first time in years teachers have the public’s support and the media’s attention. Unions need to capitalize on this critical moment in order to try to win back some of the financial losses teachers have incurred over the past decade.

So where are Florida teachers unions at this pivotal juncture?

Perhaps many unions with faltering membership like UTD are more concerned about possible decertification than being part of this teacher salary zeitgeist. But the sad fact is that when your median teacher salary is $45,000 and teachers can’t even afford housing in the city where they teach, they don’t have an extra $90 a month to pay the highest union dues in the country with a promised return on investment of 0-3%.  When teachers in Arizona are demanding a 20% raise and our union settles for 2% repeating the annual mantra of “something is better than nothing,” teachers start to lose faith in their union’s ability to negotiate a fair salary.

Since the decertification bill was passed this year, Florida unions are desperate to increase membership. But instead of calling for radical action, they have turned to blaming the teachers themselves for the sad state of their profession.  Based on recent Facebook comments of  union leadership and people representing union leadership, their talking points seem to consist of: A) What have you done for your union? and B) Teachers need to go out and vote.

Who the hell is telling unions the best way to recruit new members is to blame the victim? What kind of sick and twisted marketing strategy is that? What if Weight Watchers’ marketing strategy consisted of “Hey you fat lazy tub of lard, put down that donut and go for a jog! Now pay me $88 a month and be grateful that you don’t gain even more weight on our program. What? You only lost half a pound after 6 months of Weight Watchers? Well something is better than nothing. Be grateful you didn’t gain five pounds. Now drop and give me 15 push ups.”

I don’t even understand what it means when unions ask, “What have I done for my union?” What exactly is it that I’m supposed to be doing? You asked me to wear black, I wore black. Nothing changed. You asked me to email the School Board. I emailed the School Board. Nothing changed. I went and voted. My candidate won. Nothing changed. You asked me to work to the contract? I worked to the contract. Nothing changed. Please ask me to do something more meaningful, more radical, more effective because the status quo is not working. When teachers in West Virginia rocked the status quo, it worked. When teachers in Oklahoma threatened similar action, their legislature  suddenly found $447 million for a 5% raise. Teachers in Arizona are aiming high. Will they get a 20% raise? Probably not, but I bet they end up with more than 2%.

It may be too late to effect change in Tallahassee this year. But local bargaining sessions for the 2018-19 school year are about to begin. Stand strong Florida teachers. Don’t back down and don’t settle for less than you are worth. Organize at the local level and ride that crimson tide of teacher activism. The time is now because now is the only time. Carpe Diem.

 

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