Teachers, nurses, counselors, and support staff in Mars, Pennsylvania are planning to go on strike if a fair contract cannot be signed in the coming weeks. The Mars Area School District serves just over 3,000 students in the small boroughs of Mars and Valencia, as well as two surrounding rural townships in western Pennsylvania, and employs just 200 teachers. Having worked without a contract since June 30 of last year, the teachers notified the superintendent, Dr. Mark Gross, that they are prepared to strike by February 19. According to the Mars Area Education Association (MAEA), some of the contentious points include salary, health care, early retirement, and working conditions.
Without a contract, teachers and other district employees have still been paid and have worked under the terms of their previous contract. However, new contracts are an opportunity for salary increases and a renegotiation of benefits, which are sorely needed as the pandemic drags on. Teachers in the Mars Area School District (MASD) have put their lives at risk by working in person since the beginning of the school year, with students in and out of the classrooms at varying points in the year.
On February 3, district and union officials met without reaching an agreement. The next day, the district put out a statement describing the district’s “disappointment” with the teachers’ threat to strike. It also contains the district’s latest proposal, including:
- a $1,500 bonus for year one;
- a 3.75% salary increase for year four;
- the same healthcare benefits;
- the same early retirement plan.
The district’s statement unfairly blamed the teachers for ushering in “more uncertainty in disruption” to the students and parents served by the MASD. Teachers, who have the most direct contact with the community, should not shoulder the blame for the disastrous government response to the pandemic. Rather, they should continue to make use of their strategic position — the fact that teachers are essential to the functioning of society — and bring their full demands to the negotiating table. This is about defending their own interests but also the interests of the whole community.
The union responded shortly thereafter with a statement on its website, claiming the proposal posted by the district had never been seen by the negotiating team. According to the union, teachers were told to “do what you need to do” and to not expect a further offer before February 17. The union ended by inviting the district back to the negotiating table “as often as they would like.”
Teachers should demand the contract and working conditions they deserve, including the option to work remotely until a sufficient number of education workers and families are vaccinated. While remote learning certainly poses challenges for parents and teachers in the short term, it does not compare to the incalculable loss of an avoidable death by Covid-19. Moreover, the opportunity to witness teachers, nurses, counselors, and support staff struggling for control over their working conditions could be an invaluable learning experience for students.
This potential teachers’ strike comes amid clashes between unions and school districts across the state and country. In Philadelphia, the union president has called on teachers to stay home Monday, citing hazardous conditions, such as poorly-ventilated classrooms, that would increase risk of Covid transmission. In Chicago, the mayor and Chicago Public Schools have threatened to lock out teachers who do not show up for work on Monday, barring them from teaching remotely.
Teachers are a powerful segment of the working class. They have the power to halt the ruling class’s strategy to “reopen the economy” by endangering the lives of essential workers. Whether fighting for a fair contract or pushing back against premature and hazardous reopening plans, we should continue to support teachers’ struggles.