Pinellas County teachers’ union rallies against right-wing attacks on public education
St. Petersburg, FL – The Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association and Pinellas Educational Support Professionals Association rallied dozens of their members, members of the community, and other supportive groups on Saturday, April 1, in response to a slew of right-wing attacks on public education in the state.
The teachers and support staff aimed the message at legislators. They demanded relief from staffing shortages, raised awareness of the impact of these attacks on their working conditions and students’ learning conditions, and pushed back against the attempt to gut their union.
The rally began at the Saint Pete City Hall, and marched to the Tomlinson Adult Learning Center, nearby, which before it was closed and sold by the county, taught GED seekers and immigrants for 100 years. The county cited high cost of living downtown as a reason that enrollment declined and turned around to sell the lot to build high-priced luxury condos, according to event organizers.
As the protesters made their way through downtown, they were met with cheers and honks from supportive members of the community.
“We won’t be fooled,” said PCTA President Nancy Velardi, as she explained that the so called “teachers bill of rights,” SB 244, and the bill targeting public sector unions, SB 256, would do anything but protect teachers, as it requires 60% representation of teachers or face decertification. Decertifying the union would leave the teachers without representation in bargaining and negotiations with school boards. As bad as this part of the bill is, it also bans all union materials in the workplace, and bans direct withdrawals from members’ paychecks toward their union dues.
Leaving the Department of Education to protect teachers’ rights is like, “your principal, or your boss, telling you they’re going to look out for you. That’s why we have unions in the first place,” according to Velardi.
The teachers’ union has been a vocal advocate for their members, speaking out recently against the state’s drive to re-open schools in the height of the COVID-19 pandemic that would and has resulted in children and teachers getting sick, worsening the staffing crisis that the legislature has complained about.
Speakers from the PESPA, members of both unions, the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Students for a Democratic Society, and the Pinellas Tenant’s Union, all spoke about the intertwined attacks on housing affordability, attacks on higher education, and against African Americans, with the recent banning of a Ruby Bridges movie – which tells the story of the six-year-old African American girl who first integrated New Orleans public schools – because one Pinellas parent objected.
DeSantis has unleashed a torrent of right-wing garbage this legislative session, as his right-wing minions scramble to do his bidding, the bidding of big business and a host of other reactionaries. Because when he targets teachers unions, the most unionized profession in Florida, DeSantis and his backers really are also targeting workers in general, hoping to terrorize them into accepting substandard and unsafe conditions and pay and leaving them without a voice in negotiations.
DeSantis has also pushed through a “school choice” bill, that would gut funding of public education. It would provide $8000 coupons for anyone to send their children to charter schools, which would be free to discriminate against special needs students. PESPA President Nelly Henjes explained that would result in, “those students coming back to us, in the public schools, after we’ve had our money taken away.” This giveaway to millionaires aligns perfectly with DeSantis’ tax giveaways to his big business backers over the past few years.
But in light of all these attacks on workers, students and parents, today’s rally disproved the expectation in Tallahassee that workers would roll over and not stand up against these attacks, or that the community wouldn’t rally to the side their teachers. Speakers emphasized the importance of joining militant unions that fight for their members, now more than ever.