On Friday, September 21, 2012 the first annual LaborFest Hawai’i was held in downtown Honolulu’s Chinatown at a community venue called Mark’s Garage. People had registered in advance for this free screening of “The Inconvenient Truth Behind Waiting for Superman”and there were about 55 people in attendance. The film is a counter-argument to Davis Guggenheim’s “Waiting for Superman” which targeted teacher unions and pushed privatization, charter schools, and the business model of education.
The event was co-sponsored by the ACLU Hawai’i. Pride at Work Hawai’i provided the food, even handing out mochi-crunch popcorn during the film. Both groups provided information at tables in the reception area.Prior to the screening, the organizers provided some historical context to the film and shared information about LaborFest in other states. After the film, a panel of six consisting of a Hawai’i public school teacher, public high school students, UH Mānoa graduate students, and UH Mānoa College of Education Professors related the narrative of the film to their personal experiences.
The first panelist, a parent of public charter school students, shared her account of a sit-in at the governor’s office in protest of “furlough Fridays.” From 2009 to 2010, public school students lost 23 instructional days as a result of state budget cuts to education, and demands by the Governor, Linda Lingle that teachers take pay cuts. In response, parents organized anti-furlough rallies at the state capital. The panelist explained that her group Save Our Schools (SOS) met with resistance from the Hawai’i State Teachers Association (HSTA) initially,until they realized SOS was not hostile to unions regarding furloughs.
The next two panelists represented the Graduate Student Organization (GSO) at UH Mānoa. They are both graduate assistants under contract to work 20hours a week, and are instead assigned a full-time workload of up to three classes, with no pay increase. These workers have not received a raise since 2003, and they recounted their attempts to start a union. At issue is how their compensation is defined. They are currently given a stipend because they are classified as graduate assistants, and are not eligible for certain benefits. They want to be classified as salaried state employees, which would qualify them for more benefits and union representation, once they carried a certain workload or number of credit hours.
A University of Hawai’i professor spoke next. He had attended the National Education Association (NEA) conference as a delegate. He was disappointed in, but not surprised by, the NEA focus on supporting Barack Obama, with little or no critique of the administration’s educational policies, such as Race To The Top.
Next up was a Public School Teacher with a couple of interesting analogies relating educational policy to current events. Just as the Iraq War was an unnecessary and created crisis (supported by the media), so is the current “crisis of education.” While the Iraq war opened up avenues to dominate and privatize resources and labor abroad, the educational “crisis” has had a similar effect on the domestic workforce and public schools. The corporate focus on test scores can distort and limit the mission of teaching. The panelist noted that even teachers sometimes buy into the focus on improving test scores, viewing a rise in the numbers in much the same way a stockbroker sees a rise in market numbers. The first is not a meaningful indicator in and of itself as to student learning, as the second is not an indicator of how the average citizen is faring in an economy.
The last two panelists were high school students. The first student’s intent was to become a teacher, with a special interest in serving the needs of Asian and Pacific Islander students. The second student described a climate of fear in which public school teachers are experiencing psychological bullying rivaling that of bullied students. He saw one teacher break down in tears from the stress created by the mandates of the high stakes testing regime.
The floor was then opened up to the audience for questions and comments. Comments ranged from problems faced by the teachers stemming from reforms implemented from outside their schools on to them, and how it made their jobs harder, to calls for future organizing, and questions over what forms that might take. Time ran out, although more people had their hands raised to speak. It was announced that LaborFest Hawai’i would have monthly meetings to prepare for next year’s event.