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Virginia Journal of Education

On Point

The Power of 'Us'

by Dorothy Hemenway Carter

The evening after Martin Luther King Day, I met with several VEA members. We had gathered to plan Lobby Day – the day educators descend on Richmond to talk with elected members of the General Assembly about public education and the budget. But after a bit, the conversation turned to memories of teachers marching in Richmond and waving protest signs.

As they shared their experiences, I wondered why teachers are not as passionate now. Yet, as soon as I asked the question, I knew the answer. Two-thirds of us were children of the 1960s and 70s – the years of protest. We grew up watching those fighting and marching for civil rights, protesting the Vietnam War, and demanding equal rights for women.

Those years were painful; however, the end result was valuable. Civil rights became reality, Vietnam ended, and women won equal pay and equal opportunity. And there were more benefits, none of which would have been possible if people had not spoken up. That is the American way – to speak up in the midst of adversity, without being afraid.

One-third of our group was a product of the 1980s: the Reagan years; a more conservative time. In many ways, the peace brought relief. But the bliss of peace traps people. Such a trap occurred in 1981 when The Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association (PATCO) declared a strike. Labor strikes had occurred for decades, and were valuable forerunners of the social protests. Labor unions paved the way for success as they achieved improved working conditions. But this time, Reagan said the strike threatened national safety, so he ordered PATCO back to work because the strike violated the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. The details of this story are easily researched, but most important is that the Act passed over the veto of President Harry Truman. Truman said this bill would violate free speech and conflict with the basic foundations of a democratic society. He was right. While the Taft-Hartley Act was passed to right wrongs, it also created some.

Reagan told air traffic controllers to return to work, or they would be fired and ineligible for rehire. Out of over 13,000 workers, only 1,300 returned. Reagan kept his promise – and weakened unions everywhere. And as unions grew weakened, people began to believe their voices no longer made a difference. Now, too many believe they have to take what they get.

And what are they getting? Maybe what they deserve because if a worker doesn’t expect respect, he or she won’t get it. Perhaps early unions and advocacy groups were too demanding, and perhaps some used questionable methods, even in the midst of their achievements. But they did achieve and we can learn from those achievements and improve upon both them and the methods used. Among the list of accomplishments were child labor laws, compulsory school attendance, 40-hour workweeks, minimum wage laws and time-and-a-half for overtime as established by the Fair Labor Standards Act, the Equal Pay Act of 1963, and the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act of 1983. This is only a sample of what united people working together achieved for the citizens of the United States.

Speaking up for what one believes is an American precept upon which this country was founded. Before the American Revolution, there was a collective voice that cried out to England for representation and relief from taxes. As the voices grew, people united and then they acted. Among those acting heroes were Native Americans and African-Americans who also fought, even though they never gained rights during their lifetimes. Still, they were heroes because those patriots, just like the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment during the Civil War, were composed of people who spoke out and fought for what they believed to be right. And even though it took generations for their descendants to realize their dreams, they did win.

Even so, the issues Americans have organized for have rarely resulted in physical war. But gathering together and speaking out together has made a difference since the formation of our country. Our right to freedom of speech, when exercised, has been the venue that makes us aware of needs and arouses our compassion to meet the needs.

Oh, how I long for similar passion within our associations. How I long for members who are not afraid to voice their opinions with their elected officials. How I long for members who are not afraid to elect new delegates and senators because they know that we, the people, are the government. How I long for members who understand that our association is only as strong as its weakest link.

Carter, president of the Henry County Education Association, teaches English at Magna Vista High School.


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