Who told you life was gonna be fair?

Union members and supporters outside Ohio Statehouse 2/22/11 waiting to be let in to hear testimony on S.B.5

Today I stood shoulder to shoulder with hundreds of Ohio’s unionized state workers, teachers, firefighters, and F.O.P. members as we listened to the introduction of S.B. 5 by one of its co-sponsors, a bill that seeks to completely eliminate collective bargaining in the state of Ohio. Our numbers—which some estimate to be as much as 1500—filled the chambers of the Senate Hearing room at Ohio’s Statehouse, overflowing into the hallways, packing the atrium, and filling several secondary hearing rooms into which they had to pipe the audio of the hearing’s proceedings so the multitude of concerned workers could hear every word uttered in the hearing.

For those who may not know it, last year’s Ohio election mirrored many others in the country, turning over many state offices previously held by Democrats into the hands of Republicans. And as one of their first orders of business, the now Republican majority seeks to bust the state workers’ union and every other union in the public sector in this state with the sole intention of disarming the unions in order to take back the White House in 2012.

Needless to say, having two union teachers in the family and two family members that work directly for a union, I stand with my union brothers and sisters for their right to have a place at the table to collectively bargain their work contracts with the State of Ohio.

But my support for the right of workers to bargain collectively is not something I came upon late in life, or even as a young adult. I was 11 years old and in the sixth grade when the teachers in my school district went out on strike. It was during this strike that I learned about the right of workers to organize.

I got the sense from my mother that some kids’ parents were very upset about the strike. Many had vowed to cross the picket line and teach in order to keep the schools from shutting down. I don’t remember who’s mother taught our sixth grade class, but my mother crossed the picket line to teach first grade, and my younger sister had to endure the trauma of having her mother for a teacher.

What I remember most about that week is recess. During recess, a handful of other students and I walked around the perimeter of the school (the picket line) with Mr. “E.”, which was our nickname for the gym teacher, Mr. Elias.

Mr. E. gave us an education I have never forgotten. He talked to us about fair wages for teachers. He talked about the personal hardship involved in being on strike, not just for him but for others he knew that had families and were now on strike. He talked candidly and openly, not lecturing, not proselytizing, not angry. He answered our questions and then signaled when it was time for us to go back into the school. And with his answers, I began to understand that working people sometimes had to fight in order to be treated fairly.

Other similar thoughts started to occur to me around the same age. I had been placed in the “gifted” program in both 5th and 6th grade. In each of those grades, we had three classrooms of kids. One out of the three classrooms in each grade was designated as “gifted.” The majority of the kids in each of those classes came from our school, but in each class there were two or three kids who were bused in from other elementary schools on the north end of town. I knew it was not possible that out of all those schools on the north end of town, there were only a handful of kids who were as smart as the 50 of us that came from my school to fill those two classrooms.

And it started to register with me that the schools north of us were in poorer school districts. My elementary school sat squarely in between poorer neighborhoods and more affluent neighborhoods to the south, which most assuredly had their own “gifted” classrooms. But the schools on the north end didn’t have gifted classrooms. And even in my young mind, I knew that it simply was not possible that these two girls—for their were only two girls in my 6th grade class that came from other schools—were the only smart kids in 6th grade at their schools. And why exactly wouldn’t they have their own “gifted” class at their schools?

I began to ask questions that lead me to understand that school funding in our state was (and still is) dependent upon property taxes and that the property taxes in poorer school districts simply wouldn’t afford those schools the same advantages that we had.

So 6th grade is a crucial time for a lot of reasons, I guess. It’s the year that I became aware of class issues even within the middle class, aware of how working people have to fight to be treated fairly, even if they are college-educated, and aware of how some kids will never have the advantages I have had, no matter how smart they are. My father had often defused us kids when we were complaining about this or that by saying “Who told you life was gonna be fair?” At age 11, I was beginning to understand exactly what that meant. And by the same token, I was beginning to understand that life was gonna be a little fairer to me than it would be to a lot of others.