Teachers, school workers walk out in Pueblo contract struggle

By Helen Meyers
May 21, 2018

PUEBLO, Colo. — “Get up! Get down! Pueblo is a union town,” chanted hundreds of people May 7 as they rallied outside the offices of Pueblo City Schools District 60, the first day of a strike by school workers here. “Education is a right! That is why we have to fight,” they yelled.

Teachers and other school personnel, as well as supporters from area unions and others, came to the noon rally from picket lines at schools and busy intersections across the city. Reflecting the fact that Pueblo is an industrial city and many teachers come from a union background, a number wore “Union Town” buttons.

Two unions were on strike, the Pueblo Education Association and the Pueblo Paraprofessional Education Association. They have been without a contract since last August, but didn’t vote to strike until a couple weeks ago, clearly inspired by the rising movement of school workers across the country. Over 10,000 teachers and supporters rallied outside the state Capitol in Denver April 27, demanding more funding for schools. The last teacher strike in Colorado was in 1994.

Many workers here say it’s not just about getting a raise, it’s about respect and dignity and the dire conditions in the schools created by cuts made by the state government and local board. To save money the school board decided that next year schools will go to a four-day week.

“I have to supply the paper, pencils, notebooks and more to the students,” teacher Christine Hanson told Socialist Workers Party members who joined the strikers to bring solidarity. “The one-time 2 percent payment the board offered doesn’t cover these costs.” Other participants say both pensions and health insurance are at risk.

Area unions supported the rally, including the United Steelworkers, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Laborers Local 5, National Association of Letter Carriers and SMART rail workers’ union.

Pueblo is home to the USW-organized EVRAZ steel mill, the largest manufacturer of rail in North America. The mill, which dates back more than a century, was formerly run by Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, owned by the Rockefeller family. Company bosses there were responsible for the bloody Ludlow massacre of striking coal miners in 1914.

“We had people at different schools this morning to support the picket lines,” said Jerry Bellah, IBEW eighth district vice president. “We’ll raise money, open the union halls for their meetings if they need, help with a food bank. We’ll support them for as long as necessary.”

District officials had said there was no money to meet workers’ demands. But three days before the walkout they suddenly said they’d found money to offer teachers a one-time cash payment, a higher COLA and additional money toward health premiums. But union members said it was unacceptable and attempts by the board to pit teachers and paraprofessionals against each other just made them madder.

The unions set up a food distribution site from noon to 3 p.m. in the parking lot of a former Safeway grocery store. They arranged reduced-cost day care at First Presbyterian Church, so area workers could get to their jobs and know their kids would be cared for and fed. The Pueblo Zoo offered half-price admission, the YMCA had open swim, and all-day activities were offered in the city’s parks.

Raul Gonzalez and Leslie Dork contributed to this article.