Matt Driscoll

Angry over Tacoma and Puyallup teacher strikes? Economic insecurity might play a part in that

Puyallup teachers begin picketing

A strike by teachers in the Puyallup School District began Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018, with picketing at Puyallup High School.
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A strike by teachers in the Puyallup School District began Wednesday, Sept. 5, 2018, with picketing at Puyallup High School.

The votes are in.

Teachers from Tacoma, Puyallup and several other districts will hit the picket lines this week.

As they gather their signs, there’s something worth considering — especially when things get nasty, as they assuredly will.

The anger teachers will be subjected to — oh, and there will be plenty of it —likely has little to do with the educators themselves, or their specific demands.

At its root, the caustic vitriol has much more to do with the economic security so many of us have lost over the years.

That’s the uncomfortable, unavoidable truth hanging over all of this.

In our economic race to the bottom, too many of us no longer enjoy the kinds of things that were once commonplace and taken for granted — pensions, raises, living wages, home ownership and the chance for retirement that doesn’t involve eating cat food from a can.

Like it or not, much of that can be attributed to the dismantling of private sector unions. Predictably, this has been embraced on the right. More frustratingly, it’s been allowed by too many so-called progressives on the left.

Meanwhile, public sector unions — at least in Washington — have managed to withstand. That’s good for teachers, and all the other public employees who benefit from their existence.

But for the rest of us?

Too often, the economic unease that the disappearance of private sector unions has created lends itself to a toxic and simplistic way of looking at things. It’s easy to fall into, and is grounded in a collective insecurity that can’t help but color our politics and our dialogue, and polarize our interaction with the world.

Again, this goes far beyond the teacher strikes. Have hatred, bigotry and division always existed? Sure. Have some people never fully experienced the security described above, because of overt and institutional racism and other forms of oppression? Absolutely.

Is there an economic panacea for all our country’s ills? Of course not. That’s silly, and it would be lazy and insulting to suggest otherwise.

But is the worst in people more easily unleashed and exploited when the masses are tired, hungry and scared?

I think we know the answer.

I was reminded of this a few nights ago, as I tried to explain the situation of Tacoma Public Schools to our 11-year-old daughter.

She’s starting middle school this year. Turns out, that’s kind of a big deal for her.

She wanted to know why school might not start on time, which is a fair question. It’s also difficult to answer, at least in any satisfying way, especially to a would-be sixth grader.

Far less difficult to diagnose is how the conversation landed where it did, even if the answer is hard to admit.

It all started when our daughter overheard me discussing the looming possibility of a district strike.

You likely know the conversation I’m talking about. It starts with calculations about how a teacher with so many years’ experience in Tacoma and a certain amount of education earns this much money.

It ends somewhere like this:

“Boy, that level of pay and benefits is more than I’ll ever enjoy. I mean, I support teachers, but … shouldn’t they be more content? Should they really be asking for more?”

Even as someone who stands firmly in the corner of teachers, I was momentarily susceptible to the allure of this thinking. I’m sure I’m not alone in this.

Why? Because, unfortunately, there’s something satisfying about looking at things other people have, and then focusing on why they don’t deserve more, instead of asking why everyone doesn’t deserve the same things.

That’s how pervasive, permeating and tempting it can be. It’s also the wrong conversation to have, especially in times like these.

So tonight, I’ll have a different talk with my daughter. This time, I won’t try to describe McCleary or levy swaps or the way a majority of Democratic legislators in Olympia passed a last-minute plan that ended up hurting districts up and down the Interstate 5 corridor —things I’m sure I failed miserably at the first time anyway.

Instead, I’ll broach the subject the way it deserves to be approached.

I’ll talk about what her teachers are fighting for — and the principles behind it. I’ll talk about the importance of unions, how they’re being eroded, and how the implications of that stretch far beyond the current spate of teachers strikes.

Most of all, I’ll make clear that economic security is something every hardworking person deserves.

And I’ll tell her the world would be a far better place — in so many ways — if people had it.