When teachers in Columbus went on strike last week for better working conditions, CEA was right by their side—literally.
CEA board member and Vernon teacher David Jedidian (at right) along with CEA UniServ Representatives Justin Zartman, Gloria Dimon, and Herman Whitter made the 700-mile trip from Connecticut to Ohio last week to help with preparations, logistics, and security for the citywide strike that drew thousands of participants, garnered national attention, and brought multiple wins for teachers and their students.
“The four of us arrived in Columbus the weekend of August 20-21, and that Sunday afternoon, nearly all of the roughly 4,300 members of the Columbus Education Association—the other CEA—voted to strike,” Whitter says.
Columbus teachers had been without a contract since June, when their previous agreement expired and their demands for safe, well-staffed, and well-maintained schools went unmet.
Problems plaguing the city’s schools have included classrooms without air conditioning or adequate heat, rodent and insect infestations along with other unsanitary building conditions, class sizes topping 34 students, and the district’s refusal to hire full-time art, music, and physical education teachers—leaving Columbus students vastly shortchanged compared to their peers in nearby suburbs.
Boots on the ground
“We had a meeting, received our assignments, and as soon as the strike vote was taken, we began unloading trucks, organizing registration, and doing setup and sound checks at the Columbus Convention Center,” Jedidian recalls. Initially, he says, a lot of the work was physical.
“We assembled and transported thousands of picket signs, taping and stapling sticks and getting them out to the 20 different picket sites throughout the city,” he says. “We helped set up strike headquarters on either side of the city, where there were daily debriefs and issues on the picket line were addressed.”
Dimon, whose strike site represented five Columbus schools and more than 200 teachers, worked with picket captains on logistical issues, coordinating lunch breaks so that the picket line was always manned, ensuring teachers were properly hydrated, helping manage the press, which included several news outlets, and facilitating parking, bathroom breaks, and carpooling to places of respite.
Picket lines were set up outside many of the district’s schools, but because teachers were striking, school buildings and parking lots were off-limits to them.
“That made it challenging to coordinate bathroom breaks, meal breaks, parking, phone charging, and more,” Dimon said, adding that strike coordinators worked with local churches as respite locations.
“Strike shifts were long—seven or eight hours—and temperatures were hot, so all of this required a great deal of planning and coordination,” says Jedidian.
Aside from handling logistics, Dimon says she and her Connecticut colleagues “kept teachers energized, helped them stay focused on the mission, and spoke to their concerns about such a momentous act of courage.”
Their efforts paid off.
Countdown to victory
With school set to begin on Wednesday—and with parents clearly on their side—Columbus teachers were in a powerful position. After the Columbus Board of Education’s executive session Monday night, however, the chair doubled down—refusing to meet educators’ demands.
Undeterred, the union kept up the pressure. Even the board chair’s mother—an educator herself—joined the strike.
Picket lines formed again the next morning, and the outpouring of community support was tremendous, Zartman says. Motorists honked and waved in support. Fire engines flashed their lights, police sirens wailed, church officials and police officers dropped off cases of bottled water and food, volunteers brought snacks, and community members cooked out and barbecued for the picketers. Several organized GoFundMe pages for the strike.
“The media were everywhere,” said Whitter. “It was an awesome scene. We had music and dancing, and a lot of locations had chants going. A subcontracting crew that was working on the school at my assigned picketing site walked off the job, pledging that they wouldn’t cross the picket line. Solidarity forever!”
The district’s music teachers even formed their own Strike Band, playing Twisted Sister’s battle cry ‘We’re Not Gonna Take It.’
“You could feel the energy on the line,” says Zartman. “It was highly emotional.”
“I’ll tell you, walking the line, I felt like I walked a marathon,” Jedidian describes his experience. “To hear about the horrific working conditions for our Columbus colleagues, from air quality to crowded classrooms to dead mice in the copier paper, it was so important for us to stand with them. I was thrilled at the level of public support for Columbus teachers and so appreciative that I could be there to help them fight for a good contract.”
Whitter recalls one child on the picket line holding a sign that read, “These should not be my classmates.” On it were photos of cockroaches and rats.
Many parents had reported to the media that they weren’t going to allow their children to log into school remotely the next day, which had been scheduled as the first day of classes. On Tuesday, the district saw that its plan to use substitutes to teach students remotely was going to fail.
On Wednesday, the board returned to the bargaining table, ready to begin negotiations.
Talks between the board and the union continued past midnight—almost 14 hours—and at 3:05 a.m. on Thursday, after three full days of picketing, Jedidian, Dimon, Zartman, and Whitter got the text they’d all been waiting for.
Zartman, who had been awake when his screen lit up, has the message saved on his phone: “Breaking. Comprehensive conceptual agreement has been reached.”
“I was elated,” he says.
Highlights and takeaways
Dimon points out that the experience in Columbus opened many members’ eyes to the use of NEA dues dollars, which includes the shared staffing that’s an integral part of union work. Members from various states traveled to Ohio to help with the strike, and that kind of turnout has a direct impact on members in crisis.
“It gets their message out to the public,” Dimon says, “and gives them a better shot at the outcome they deserve.”
“I know Ohio Education Association staff very well and wanted to go out there to support them,” Zartman reflects. “It was my first strike, and it was incredible to see the buildup of work—months of work—with the membership willing to take the ultimate step to fight for better conditions for their students. There was such a groundswell of support and solidarity that the board of education had no choice but to meet teachers’ demands. They got not only a fair contract with pay raises but also a guarantee of improved HVAC systems and so much more. Returning to Connecticut, I’m reminded that when educators stand together, we can accomplish a lot.”
Participating in the Columbus strike, Dimon agrees, has energized her to continue her work with Connecticut educators in her position as an organizer. “I’m excited to help our teachers here at home use their voices, their expertise, and their ability to act collectively to bring about needed changes for their profession and for public education generally.”
Diana Watson-Urban, labor relations consultant for the Ohio Education Association, told Connecticut’s volunteers, “I will never be able to properly thank you for taking a week of your lives and devoting it to our members here in Ohio. We are tremendously grateful. We are happy to report that the successor agreement has been both ratified and board-approved. Our members are back to work today under a new three-year agreement, which brings our students in Columbus closer to the schools #columbusstudentsdeserve.”
She added, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. The Columbus Education Association took that step, and we were all here to support them.”
Among the many provisions of the Columbus Education Association’s new contract are the following:
- A guarantee that all student-learning areas will be climate-controlled by 2025-2026 and that all schools will have heating and air-conditioning
- Reductions in class-size caps at every level, lowering the number of students in every classroom by two over the course of the contract
- The first-ever limits on the number of buildings assigned to art, music, and PE teachers, with scheduling intended to achieve one specialist per subject per building
- Limits on the number of district jobs that can be outsourced to out-of-town corporations
- A groundbreaking parental leave program for teachers
- Salary increases for all teachers