Lessons from the teachers' strike wave

On February 22, 2018, thousands of teachers and staff from public schools across all fifty-five counties in West Virginia shut down the entire public education system. This massive walkout began a nine-day strike, with thousands protesting on the steps of the legislature at the state capitol in Charleston. The strike ultimately won a 5 percent raise for all state employees, a freeze on state funding for charter schools, and set off a wave of strikes and walkouts in public schools across the country, mainly in socalled right-to-work states where public-sector unions do not have the right to collective bargaining.

I was fortunate enough to have witnessed the West Virginia strike firsthand and was in the capitol building on March 6 when teachers and state workers sang a victory round of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and chanted “West Virginia now, Oklahoma next!” after the final bill giving them their raise was signed into law. This struggle was the culmination of months of organizing, weeks of picketing and rallying, and decades of built-up anger at the lack of funding for public education. The energy in the capitol that Tuesday afternoon was that of a group of people who had just gotten a taste of their own power—the power of workers organized in mass numbers against their bosses. This feeling of power is, unfortunately, not a common one for most workers in the labor movement today.

In June, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME Council 31 to end unions’ long-standing ability to collect fees from nonmembers to cover the costs of collective bargaining and contract enforcement. The Janus ruling has essentially made all of America right-to-work, meaning there is no closed-shop system where everyone covered by a contract must, at the very least, pay a fair share to enforce the terms of that agreement with employers.

In a post–Janus world, the labor movement is at an existential crossroads. It can continue to try to resuscitate the private and public-sector union movement through the old practices of business unionism premised on collaborating with private and state employers, servicing existing members, and funneling money into the Democratic Party, or it can take a lesson from the teachers’ strikes and start to wage a serious fight back. The West Virginia teachers, organized in an already post–Janus environment, conducted an illegal strike and won. The labor movement has no choice but to follow West Virginia’s example if it wants to stop the hemorrhaging of members and power after decades of concessionary bargaining and lackluster organizing efforts.

West Virginia was the first of the right-to-work states to strike, but it has become clear that many public education employees are learning from their example, even if it is not clear if labor leaders will make the shift. Teachers in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina have all had mass walkouts and protests demanding increased funding for education salaries and beyond. All of these states, except Colorado, not only have right-towork laws in place; but also went heavily for Trump in the 2016 presidential election, with the exception of Colorado, where Clinton won by a slim margin.

This voting pattern has earned them the label of “red states” by many in the mainstream media. According to some pundits like MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough, these “red states” are home to people who “keep pushing back the tides of history.”1 This narrative of a country split into red (Republican) versus blue (Democrat) states is not the real dividing line in the story of the teacher resistance movement. What has become clear is that rather than backward workers versus more enlightened liberals, the teachers’ strikes have revived the classic battle between the haves and the have-nots; those who make decisions about cutting funding that affects tens of thousands of public sector workers without a second thought, and those who must live with the very real consequences of these cuts.

This strike wave has been truly groundbreaking. A rebellion in right-to-work states, in the heart of Trump country, that was built through rank-and-file organizing efforts and not from the leadership at the top is not one many of us, even those of us in the organized left of the labor movement, expected. In addition, because public school employees had to directly challenge the state legislature for raises and benefits, these strikes became so much more than just a contract battle; they have become a space to talk about the larger priorities of a system that spends billions of dollars on weapons and wars, but just pennies on the well-being of children. These strikes are an important model not only for the labor movement but for the whole working class, because they have shown the pivotal power of workers in the resistance against budget cuts, declining living standards, and the decrepit conditions of public education in our society.

Roots of the resistance

On April 2, Bloomberg News ran the headline, “Teacher Strikes Are Spreading Across the Country with No End in Sight.”2 A few weeks later, the strikes that began in West Virginia in February had spread not only to Oklahoma and Kentucky but also Arizona, Colorado, and North Carolina with teachers in more states talking about following suit. This burst of working-class resistance, though it may have appeared to come out of nowhere, has its roots in the chronic and deliberate underfunding of the public school system.

On the heels of the Great Recession, funding for public education has been slashed in states across the country. Most of these cuts came at the state and local level, with federal funding for education remaining steady at about 10 percent. Republican governors and statehouses bent on cutting income and corporate taxes have gutted school coffers. But they have not been alone; Democrats have enthusiastically joined them in bipartisan attacks on funding for schools and public services across the country. Together they have imposed a bipartisan program of neoliberalism—privatization, deregulation, and deep cuts to state programs, in particular public education, as well as the shifting of public funds to privately-run charter schools.

Let us not forget it was Democrat-appointed Arne Duncan, first as head of Chicago Public Schools and later as President Barack Obama’s secretary of education, who pushed for more high-stakes testing linked to school funding. It was also Duncan and Obama who gave us Race to the Top, a program that forces states to compete for federal money by adopting top-down student and teacher evaluation and accountability systems, and by expanding charter schools in order to keep those funds. The result of policies like Race to the Top has been growing inequality in public education funding nationally.3

Recent tax cuts for the wealthy have further starved education funding: “As of the current 2017-18 school year, at least twelve states have cut general funding, which is the primary form of state support for K-12 schools, by 7 percent or more per student over the last decade,” according to a survey conducted by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Seven of those twelve—Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Michigan, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Oklahoma—enacted income tax rate cuts costing tens or hundreds of millions of dollars each year rather than restore education funding.”4

While these dozen states have seen some of the most brutal cuts, it is also clear that making a living as a public school employee has become almost impossible in most cities and states. National Public Radio, in partnership with the research group EdBuild, created a graph showing teacher salaries adjusted for cost-of-living.5 This graph explains why teachers move across state borders to find better paying jobs, dramatically highlighted by how many teachers in Oklahoma left the state for better paying jobs in Texas and Arkansas. But the numbers also show how little teachers are actually making when you take out monthly housing, food, health care, and utility bills.

It is not possible for most households in many states to support a family on a teacher’s salary. Many public educators work multiple side jobs in order to make ends meet and pay off student loans accumulated through years of higher education required for certification. An AJ+ video on Facebook featuring teachers in Arizona talking about their second and third jobs put a human face on this struggle.6 According to a study from the Economic Policy Institute, public teachers’ weekly wages are on average 17 percent lower than workers who have comparable education and job situations. This gap between teaching and other comparable jobs has increased by nearly ten times since 1994.7

The attacks on teachers go beyond just the salary scale and rising costs of benefits like health care and pension funding. Since No Child Left Behind became law in 2001, the federal and state governments have imposed highstakes standardized testing on public education. Now teacher evaluations and school funding are linked to how well students perform on tests that often have little to do with what students are actually learning. This education regime has reduced teachers to “teaching for the test,” undermining their sense of self-worth, and placing enormous pressure on them to perform in deteriorating conditions––dilapidated and sometimes dangerous buildings, overcrowded classrooms, out-of-date textbooks, and inadequate supplies.

The horrific impact of the economic attack on public education has sharp sexist and racist dimensions. Because teachers are overwhelmingly women, these cuts have impacted the ability for women workers to close the wage gap and provide for themselves and their dependents. At the same time, states have invested heavily in policing the schools as part of the so-called war on drugs, producing what activists now call the school-to-prison pipeline, disproportionately affecting Black and Brown students. This racist dynamic within schools has been compounded by the mass layoffs of teachers of color.

These economic and social conditions are the reasons why teachers in the current struggle are angry about the lack of dignity they feel at work. In West Virginia, the chant “We are worthy” is about more than just educators being able to pay bills; it is about creating a respectful workplace and collaborative spaces for teachers to have a voice in what their students learn and the conditions in which they are learning. With these underlying conditions it is less than surprising that the public school workers around the country have begun to rebel and that the rebellion is spreading.

Decades of bipartisan neoliberal restructuring of public education, in both “red” and “blue” states, has previously led to paralysis on the part of teachers and public sector workers. But the conditions also stoked a subterranean fire of anger among teachers as well as students, parents, and entire working-class communities. Such anger can only be contained for so long before it bursts forward in resistance. It was thus a question not of if, but when, the teachers would rise up and fight back. When they did, they were able to galvanize popular support for increased wages and public funding for schools because the working conditions of teachers are the learning conditions for their students, and people across the working class want more for both teachers and students. Once it started and won in West Virginia, the power of a positive and inspiring example turned it into a strike wave.

Common dynamics of the teachers revolt

The rich narrative of the teacher strikes is impossible to capture in a single article. Here I can only summarize some of the key aspects of the strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, and North Carolina, but can in no way do justice to the depth of the struggle that has been captured in so many great articles in Socialist Worker and Jacobin, among other publications.8 In analyzing the dynamics of the struggle, it is clear that while specific situations in each state led to differences in the trajectory of the struggle, there are some common features.

The first one to draw out is the contradictory impact of right-to-work laws on unions and the class struggle in education. On the one hand, they gutted the unions of their capacity to bargain and also their membership, but on the other hand, they opened up space for struggle from below. Rank-and-file activists did not face entrenched, often conservative, union leaderships and their business-union methods.

Yet at the same time, the absence of organization posed an enormous challenge. In each state, small layers of radicalized teachers provided leadership in knitting people together and building the infrastructure of resistance for those who wanted to fight back. But this organizing was not easy, and how effectively they created new, independent, and democratic structures had an enormous impact on the outcome of the battles.

A second common feature of the strike wave was the use of social media organizing. In all the struggles, militant teachers used Facebook groups to build important connections across schools in the absence of official union structures. These groups were a key part of initiating conversations about striking, and also enabled teachers across states to communicate with one another, exposing the commonality of their conditions. However, if these groups had only stayed in the realm of social media they would not have been effective. The key to their utility was the ability of teacher organizers to translate these groups into on the ground organizing efforts that turned sentiments and ideas into effective action.

A final common challenge in all the battles was how to confront not only the economic dimensions of the crisis in the schools, but also the social ones, especially the education system’s institutional sexism and racism. In some cases, the economic and social were mistakenly counterposed, instead of combined. For the movement to go forward, teachers will have to develop an intersectional approach to the class struggle that recognizes the gender and racial dimensions of the education crisis and raises specific reforms to redress them.

West Virginia: Where it began

The 20,000 public teachers and education workers in West Virginia were, in the words of Mingo County high school teacher Katie Endicott, “The spark that became the flame.”9 They were the workers who decided that enough was enough, and after years of stagnant salaries and rising health care costs, decided to walk off the job. It is important to note that while West Virginia has been framed as the first “red state” rebellion, it had only recently gone Republican. For the last eighty years West Virginia politics have been dominated by the Democratic Party—Democrats, in partnership with Republicans, created the conditions that led the teachers to strike.

The West Virginia teachers’ strike was a surprise when it burst into most people’s news feeds, but not for teachers in the state. They had been involved in months of organizing that turned initial one-day walkouts into a successful nine-day statewide strike. Small numbers of teachers and staff started conversations about their key common grievances over low wages, high premiums and deductibles in the Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA), and invasive policies that tracked their personal health choices.

State employees in West Virginia are all covered by PEIA and have no other option unless they want to pay for far more expensive private plans on their own. Over the last decade PEIA has implemented the same shameful practices of denying coverage and raising rates at levels similar to those of private insurance companies.

But this year, a small number of teachers and staff were no longer willing to sit on their grievances any more. They launched a Facebook page in the fall of 2017, West Virginia Public Employees United, in order to build across counties toward possible statewide actions and even a strike to demand a decent raise and to stop the cost increases in the PEIA. The small group   of teachers who initially launched the Facebook group are self-identified radicals and some consider themselves socialists. Their radical worldview grounded in the belief in the power of the working class led them to build mass resistance instead of traditional business union strategies like lobbying and electoral campaigns.10

The organizers faced a real challenge in building this movement in a right-to-work state where not all teachers and staff are part of the same union or even in a union. The state’s three education unions together, moreover, do not have a large membership. The West Virginia Teachers Association (WVEA), which has 15,000 members, represents a majority of the organized teachers in the state, while the American Federation of Teachers and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association are much smaller.

To organize effectively, therefore, organizers had to open their meetings and Facebook group to every public education worker regardless of what union they were in or whether they were in a union or not. Some commentaries have highlighted the role of social media in the organizing. While it brought people together in a common conversation about the crisis teachers and staff face, what really mattered was the way it facilitated real-life meetings and face-to-face organizing that catalyzed anger into action.

Out of these initial meetings, teachers and staff organized local walkins where teachers met up before school, gave some speeches about their demands, and then walked in all together. Then, in early 2019, teachers and staff in two southern counties, Mingo and Wyoming, decided to hold a oneday sick out on February 2 where teachers would call in sick en masse and close the schools for a day. The sick out idea spread quickly to other counties, building further grassroots connections and conversations about larger, statewide actions. The success of these actions and the solidarity between them built the confidence and determination of teachers and staff to shut the education system down throughout the state.

The nine-day strike was popularly supported because it tapped into a vein of deep working-class anger across the state. According to Carol Roskos, a music teacher in Monongalia County, the issues raised by the strike are just the surface of a much bigger problem: “I feel that West Virginia has been taken advantage of for the past 150 years. We’ve allowed big energy companies to come in and take and take and take and look at how poor we still are. That’s not right and it needs to be fixed. So yes, this is not about a pay raise— this is about a movement to do something better for our state.”11

The strike focused most of its efforts on holding mass rallies at the capitol building in Charleston in order to directly pressure politicians, because in right-to-work conditions, public workers had to push for legislation to get a raise and freeze the proposed increases in PEIA costs. Teachers staged unrelenting protests at the capitol and at the same time organized pickets at the schools. The strike and mass demonstrations eventually led to a significant victory for all state employees: a 5 percent pay raise, a temporary halt to PEIA increases, and a moratorium on the state opening new charter schools.

In some ways West Virginia was a unique situation because some of the common enemies of public school teachers, like politicians and often school superintendents, ended up standing with teachers. But pressure from below was responsible for the victory. The teachers’ mass militancy was decisive in key moments, like when the politicians and union leadership tried to give the teachers 5 percent and the remaining state workers 3 percent. Rank-and-file teachers organized to reject that deal, continuing the struggle until victory.

At several points during the capitol rallies, workers met up with other workers from their districts to discuss next steps and take votes on how to proceed. During these discussions, it became clear that workers refused to compromise on demands and refused to be divided. One of the best chants from the final day of the strike in the state capitol was when Governor Jim Justice came out into the crowd and said, “We have a deal, y’all can go home now.” The crowd responded by chanting “We’ll believe you when you put it in writing, we’re not leaving till you sign it.”

Getting full funding for PEIA is the next fight and the workers will likely be at odds with some of their temporary allies in the strike, especially state politicians, who have made it clear they do not want to raise taxes on the rich or the extraction industry to fund health care.12 The organizers who helped lead the strike are working on this next battle—and understand that they need to continue to build grassroots, bottom-up organizing in order to win; a lesson they learned firsthand from the strike. One of the teacher strike leaders, Jay O’Neal, launched an opening volley in this fight when, in an impassioned speech, he told the PEIA task force meeting June 11 in Charleston that the only way to solve the crisis is to tax the rich and the extraction industry.13

Oklahoma: A victory fraught with setbacks

Inspired by West Virginia, teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky began to organize their own statewide actions to demand raises and better working conditions through increased education funding. They formed Facebook groups—Oklahoma Teachers United and KY 120 United—to network with other militants and build mass walkouts of their own. As in West Virginia, these Facebook groups grew rapidly as organizers connected with the sentiment of mass discontent and also explicitly pointed to the example of West Virginia. As Jessica Lightle, a teacher from McAlester, Oklahoma, put it, “Facebook became our town hall.”14

This virtual town hall was important in spreading the word. Oklahoma has roughly twice as many public school teachers and staff as West Virginia, and only about one-third are unionized, mostly in the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), with a few in American Federation of Teachers. Because of the lack of official union structures and a reluctant union leadership, the strike organizing began, like in West Virginia, with Facebook groups. But unlike in West Virginia these groups lacked large, on the ground networks to organize mass in-person meetings—actual town halls—prior to the walkout. In addition, not all the local superintendents were supportive of the teachers, which meant that despite a lack of staff, many school districts stayed open during the nine-day strike.

The politicians, wary of their state becoming the next West Virginia, and facing massive protests of militant educators on their doorstep demanding money, offered a $6,000 raise to preempt a strike. The first test of the teachers’ organizing efforts was whether this would be enough to cancel the action or not. Overwhelmingly educators voiced support for going forward with their plans and began to plan in earnest for a strike.

They also broadened their message to include more than just a raise  for teachers, but also increased school funding. The call for more education funding by taxing the rich helped bring students, like Hanaa Bensaoud, from Edmond Santa Fe High School, into the struggle. “Teachers are  teaching  us more than just lesson plans,” said Bensaoud. “They’re teaching us to be adults with a voice. This isn’t just about getting a living wage. It’s about us raising the future.”15

Oklahoma teachers also faced some initial challenges around the date of the walkout, with union officials trying to push the strike from April 2—the date supported by teachers and staff—to April 24. The workers ultimately won this battle and school walkouts began April 2, putting close to half a million students out of school that day. Over the course of the strike, thousands of teachers rallied at the state capitol and tried to push for more than just a

$6,000 a year pay increase. The Republican-led legislature dug in their heels and refused to grant more. Governor Mary Fallin went so far as to publicly accuse teachers of being greedy and stated, “It’s like kind of having a teenage kid that wants a better car.”16

Like in West Virginia, teachers in Oklahoma hadwidespread community support, with 72 percent of people polled in the state saying they supported the strike after the first week.17 With public support and large numbers at the capitol—numbers that actually grew over the course of the strike—why then were teachers ultimately unable to win more than the $6,000 raise that was initially offered?

Part of the explanation is the lack of democratic structures on the ground to both mobilize people and also create spaces for debate and votes about what next steps to take and which demands to fight for. Teachers came out, and stayed out, because they were angry and had even higher numbers out beginning the second week, because they felt the power of the mass actions at the capitol. They felt their collective strength; but without a democratic union or bases of organization at the school and district level, they were unable to keep the walkout going after the OEA leadership struck a deal with the politicians based on promised funding, not real legislation.

On Thursday, April 12, OEA union officials pulled support for the walkout, declared victory, and committed to intensified lobbying efforts. This sparked outrage among rank-and-file workers who tried to quickly pull together a polling structure for school sites to gauge support for continuing the walkout without the union. But without an infrastructure on the ground to force school closures or a strike fund to support the walkout financially, it was impossible for it to continue. Because of the lack of union protections and contract protections, there was virtually no legal backing for rank-andfile leaders to continue the strike without the support of union leadership.

The relative lack of rank and file organizing combined with the role the union played in selling out workers were critical differences between Oklahoma and West Virginia. These differences meant that rather than cohering a movement of education workers to fight for more, it has fractured forces on the ground and created real questions about building the union movement in the long term.

While the strike had an unsatisfactory ending in many ways, the movement itself taught a whole generation of Oklahoma teachers what it means to fight back and how struggle must rely on militancy and networks of workers from below, not promises from union leaders or politicians from above. What Oklahoma illustrated is that while workers can go on strike in right-to-work states, there are real challenges when most workers on strike are not union members. The common infrastructure to discuss and organize together is not already there and you have to build it on the fly, something that is very hard to do. There was also no organized campaign for a strike fund, which meant a great deal of economic pressure on teachers to return to work.

An important result of the strike is that militants met other militants for the first time and those networks will be critical for the fights ahead. Future success will require a more formalized way for that militant network to work collaboratively.  A key next step for teacher  militants in Oklahoma will be  to build the union and force it to be more democratic and militant through leveraging the power of the rank-and-file membership. This will be of decisive importance in the ongoing struggle as Republican lawmakers are, as this article was being written, angling to halt the tax hikes passed to pay for the promised teachers’ salary increases.18

Kentucky: Will struggle transcend electoralism?

Like their fellow educators in Oklahoma, Kentucky teachers and education workers held a mass rally at the Frankfort capitol building on April 2. Nearly 12,000 people rallied at the statehouse, during what was for most counties their spring break, and demanded a fully-funded pension program, a moratorium on charter schools, and a raise for all school employees. On March 29, lawmakers snuck through a pension reform bill that would gut funding for retired teachers by attaching it to a sewage service bill. This bill helped to escalate the struggle and mobilize people for April 2.

When the legislature returned to session on April 13, thousands of education workers showed up again at the capitol, shutting down schools in 30 of the 120 districts statewide. Tea Party Governor Matt Bevin was vocal in his disdain for teachers and publicly refused to support increased funding for public education. He went so far as to state in a press conference, “I guarantee you somewhere in Kentucky today, a child was sexually assaulted that was left at home because there was nobody there to watch them. I guarantee you somewhere today, a child was physically harmed or ingested poison because they were home alone.”19

Faced with hard political opposition from the legislature and a union leadership that did not want to have an open-ended strike, teachers returned to work after April 13 without having won any significant demands. The deal that was reached between the Kentucky Education Association (KEA) leadership (the largest statewide teacher union) and state lawmakers was based on a funding plan that slashed social spending in other areas, like higher education, and increased regressive tax measures.

In addition to striking a deal that essentially pitted one form of social spending against another, something which has become common practice for both Democrat and Republican politicians, the silence from some of the key protest leaders and the KEA leadership on another state bill around youth incarceration was problematic. House Bill 169, the “Youth Incarceration Bill,” passed on March 27 at the same time as the walkouts were being organized, budgeted nineteen million dollars for locking up youth. Framed as gang prevention legislation, it will continue to strengthen the school-to-prison pipeline and criminalize youth, particularly youth of color, while taking away funding desperately needed for social services and schools. It was both a tactical and political mistake for teachers not to be part of the struggle to stop youth incarceration and integrate this into their fight for school funding.

The struggle in Kentucky faces a couple of key challenges to overcome. First, rank-andfile teachers will have to build their independent networks within and around the union like KY120 so that they push union leaders to follow West Virginia’s example of using the strike to advance their demands. This is the alternative to the union leadership’s traditional strategy of subordinating organizing to lobbying and electoral efforts in support of Democrats. Second, radical teachers will have to do patient work to win their fellow teachers in KY120 United to include social, especially antiracist, demands with their economic ones.20

These two efforts will be essential in building the rank-and-file power and solidarity necessary to win. That said, if educators like Jason Miller, who teaches high school in Louisville are right, the struggle is far from over: “There are too many unknowns to predict the future. . . . But one thing will not change: Kentucky teachers are angry, and they will not be easily placated. . . . The future is unpredictable, but it will belong to us.”21

Arizona: Building #RedforEd networks for long-term struggle

On April 26, an estimated 75,000 educators and support staff from Arizona’s public schools marched on the state capitol in Phoenix, demanding a budget with increased revenues for schools that would come from raising taxes, not cutting social services. Teachers rejected Republican Governor Doug Ducey’s initial offer of a 20 percent raise that would come either from cuts to social services or projected increased state revenue that had no clear funding source. Public school employees were not fooled—they walked out to demand a clear stream of funding for public schools to begin to fill in the gap in the state education budget out of the 2008–2009 recession cutbacks. In order to make up the $1.1 billion cuts that public schools have taken in Arizona since the recession, teachers and staff demanded that the state legislature increase corporate taxes and tax the rich who have benefited from a regressive income tax structure for years, while the poorest households have seen no relief.

At its peak, Arizona’s six-day walkout closed 1,000-plus schools and impacted 850,000 students. Because of the power of this strike, education workers were able to force lawmakers to pass a budget that provides an additional $400 million for public schools, the most significant increase in education funding in more than a decade, which includes about $273 million for teacher pay raises and $100 million in funding for things such as new textbooks, buses, and support staff pay increases.

As in West Virginia, teachers in schools across Arizona built for the strike through a series of school by school organizing campaigns that began in early spring and culminated in the massive march on April 26. While the formation of groups like Arizona Educators United,22 which spread the word and organized people through Facebook, was an important step in early 2018, the work on the ground to build grassroots walk-ins and meetings at schools across the state is what solidified the successful strike action. Out of this work a grassroots network of thousands of teachers representing more than half the schools in the state has been created.

The #RedForEd movement in Arizona began in late February with the simple idea of getting education workers to wear red to school on the same day and putting out a call for others in solidarity with their struggle to wear red, too. This call was based on similar actions during both the Chicago Teachers Union strike in 2012 and the more recent actions in West Virginia and other places, like Jersey City. Over time these #RedForEd days expanded into organized walk-ins, which were a powerful way to build unity and also organize support from students and families who often joined them.

In the lead up to April 26, education workers staged several escalating actions. This campaign helped to unite the movement further, and also to give organizers a sense of what would be possible if they called for an openended strike action. On March 28, over 5,000 people rallied at the state capitol in Phoenix, while educators gathered simultaneously at fifteen different regional events around the state. For two straight months, teachers also picketed outside the governor’s monthly radio show in Phoenix.

Then on April 11, more than 110,000 people across the state participated in a walk-in at their schools. The next day, Governor Ducey, for the first time, had to state publicly that he would consider giving teachers a 20 percent raise and significantly increase education funding. It was the ongoing pressure created by a growing movement that forced his hand.

Through this campaign, rank-and-file militants created comprehensive district email lists of teachers to organize these pre-strike actions and later the mass walkout. They also created a structure of democratic building representatives for each school.

In addition to work done on the ground in Arizona, a national call was put out for everyone in support of the strike, especially teachers, to wear red on Wednesdays across the country. These national #RedForEd days have been incredibly successful, with the Wednesday after the strike ended being the largest. These actions created a way for workers around the country both to show solidarity with the demands of the strike in Arizona and spread the spirit of militancy to other unionists.

As Arizona teachers gear up for the next round of the battle for funding they have learned a critical lesson that militant, mass struggle is the way to win demands. They have also built some of the basic infrastructure, within the union and beyond, that will help organize that struggle moving forward. On the horizon is a “Tax the Rich” campaign to increase state funding for schools, modeled in some respects after the 2012 Millionaires Tax in California, that would raise income taxes for people making more than $250,000 a year.23 The anger and spirit of struggle has not been abated and organizers are confident that they can keep pushing for more, because, according to music teacher and strike leader Noah Karvalis, “We have teachers who have been woken from a slumber here.”24

North Carolina: The next battleground?

On May 16, more than 30,000 education workers rallied at the North Carolina state capitol in Raleigh. Over one million students did not go to school that day, making it possibly the single largest work stoppage in state history. Like many of the states before them, North Carolina is facing down an intransigent Republican-led state government that has refused to fund education and has kept teacher salaries near the bottom of the list nationwide. Also, like in other states, North Carolina education workers used walk-ins and social media groups, like the Facebook group North Carolina Teachers United, to build capacity at both the school site and statewide level for a mass day of action.

Borrowing a page from Arizona, North Carolina education workers called for #RedforEd Wednesdays leading up to and again after May 16. These seemingly small acts of solidarity have built unity and confidence among school workers. The May 16 rally was important in showing educators their power and when teachers return to school in the fall, organizers are hopeful that the fight for funding and raises will not only continue but also spread.

One of the challenges in North Carolina, like in other right-to-work states, is that many teachers are not part of a statewide union. However, according to North Carolina educator, Matt Casella, the union can be built precisely through struggles like this one. “The most common argument I hear about why we can’t strike is that ‘we don’t have a union.’ But this gets the order backward. Fighting for better schools will build our union. Striking will make our union. Every teacher in the state should be a member of North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE), but we aren’t going to achieve that without fighting to improve our schools and for better working conditions.”25 The other challenge they face is the union leadership’s traditional business unionist strategy of diverting struggle into electoral campaigns for the Democratic Party. The lesson of West Virginia and Arizona show an alternative way forward. As Casella argues, legislatures there

are also dominated by Republicans. Teachers in those states didn’t win by waiting years to replace those Republicans in office with Democrats. It was statewide strikes that forced Republicans to cave in to demands that would have been dismissed as unrealistic without educators showing their power. In Arizona, Democrats actually voted against the bill teachers were fighting for—not the first time workers have been betrayed by the party that’s supposed to be our ally. But no matter. The strike forced Republicans and Democrats alike to meet teachers’ demands. We must do the same.26

Lessons from the strike wave

The most important thing that the teachers’ strike wave has demonstrated is that there is an alternative to the failed business unionist strategy. Since the strike at United Parcel Service in 1997, there has not been such a galvanizing and exciting moment in the national labor movement. The fact that these strikes have taken place in predominantly right-to-work states and have been led by rank-and-file workers both within and outside of official union structures is even more impressive. As workers around the country organize in the hostile conditions of a post-Janus America, it is critical to see the return of grassroots militancy in the labor movement as the very thing that will help unions not only to survive, but to grow and challenge right-to-work conditions.

More than perhaps anything, this strike showed the distinctive power of workers. The past decade of rising wealth inequality has given birth to a new radicalization in America, starting with #Occupy and finding expression in the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders. It has also given rise to movements against oppression like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo. While this radicalization has raised class consciousness, it has done so largely in the absence of significant strikes that demonstrate workers’ unique power to shut down the system and win demands.

In addition to putting class struggle in the workplace back on the agenda, the teachers’ revolt has also shown that strikes can be more than just about getting a better wage for a layer of workers; they can be places where larger demands about what kind of world we want can be raised for the entire working class. While declining teacher salaries are at the heart of what fueled the strikes, nowhere were demands or messaging simply limited to pay or benefits. Public sector strikes must take on larger social justice issues because they are about how the government prioritizes, or doesn’t prioritize, spending on the things most people think are important like health care, social services, and quality public schools for all. These strikes were situated in the larger context of public spending and social justice demands and this is important to deepen moving forward in the next round of struggle.

Another critical aspect of these strikes is how quickly they spread from state to state and how much the posture of militancy was contagious. In the West Virginia capitol on the last day of the strike, protesters chanted “West Virginia now, Oklahoma next!” This explicit solidarity across state lines marks an important consciousness shift in public sector labor work that has been dominated by a focus on state and local budget processes. Seeing teachers unite across state lines in solidarity has built consciousness nationally about the deep crisis in public education and has begun to the lay foundations for a national movement of teachers using the strike weapon to force our government to increase pay, fund schools, and redress the manifold inequalities of race and class among many others in the education system.

This struggle shows how workers can use social media to build networks to air grievances, begin organizing, and spread the word about their struggle. Once the strikes and protests started, these rank-and-file formations used their social media channels to broadcast their message across the country, bypassing their national unions and the mainstream media, which both initially failed to recognize the significance of these battles. As a result of this effort, teachers themselves took over the national discussion of education crisis and showed that they themselves had the power to force state bosses to begin to remedy it. In the process they changed the national conversation. Poll after poll showed widespread support for the teacher strikes, including a recent national poll showing “just 1 in 4 Americans believe teachers in this country are paid fairly. Nearly two-thirds approve of national teachers’ unions, and three-quarters agree teachers have the right to strike.”27

While the solidarity and support for the strikes has been large, it is still not clear what the trajectory of the growing resistance of public education workers will be in the long term. Moving forward this period of resistance will continue to be volatile, with struggles popping up in places where we might not expect them, even in states that voted heavily for Trump. It is clear that the underlying structural problems with public education will not go away and will continue to be a point of contention between workers and the state. Whether these struggles have a base in workplace organization and strikes or take on a more electoral focus remains to be seen. Hopefully the most important lesson workers have learned from these struggles is that our power is in the workplace, we need to use this power to demand funding for schools, and instead of relying on any so-called friends in elected office to champion our cause, we must do it for ourselves.

In this regard the teachers’ strikes have shown a way forward not only for teachers, but for the entire labor movement. The Janus ruling is devastating for the union movement. It significantly reduces the resources unions have to fight and makes it harder for workers to bargain collectively and enforce basic contracts. On the other hand, the teachers’ strikes have shown us a ray of hope, hope that the self-activity of workers, organizing from the bottom up, can move both the labor movement and the entire working class forward. In some ways this moment is about returning to the combative, class struggle battles that built the union movement in the first place, but it is also about organizing connections with the social justice struggles against racism, sexism, homophobia, and anti-immigrant attacks that have arisen in more recent periods of struggle. If the working class can build on this hope and learn the lessons of militancy and solidarity the teachers have taught us all then we will be prepared to fight back in the face of the continued assaults from the ruling class.

Socialists in the class struggle

This wave of strikes confirmed an argument that socialists have long made that workplace organizing is key in building the resistance to neoliberalism and austerity. Using our power there is ultimately the only way we will win back what we have lost. Strikes are also ways for workers themselves to learn about their own power and for the working class to see the way in which the capitalist system is fundamentally organized, not around meeting human needs but around the drive to defend class exploitation and inequality at all costs.

Moreover, class struggle is how workers change themselves, realize their own social power, dramatically raise their class consciousness, and recognize the commonality of interests across divisions and the solidarity needed to win. In the strikes, teachers who previously identified as conservatives and even voted for Trump began to break with reactionary ideas, especially those of austerity, to demand more for themselves as workers, for the public education system, and for their fellow workers, parents, and students.

Calling attention to this mass self-transformation is not to downplay the key role working-class leaders can play in getting people organized and lending political clarity to a developing struggle. But understanding how quickly people can develop through struggle is the basis of the socialist strategy in the labor movement—the democratic self-organization of the rank and file as the core of effective union struggle, fighting for change in the education system, and indeed the transformation of our society as a whole.

This understanding is at odds with the prevailing liberal and social democratic idea that elections should be the left’s primary strategy. The strike wave proved the exact opposite—that class struggle, not the politicians or the union officials, are essential to win. Socialists must underscore this point since this fall the Democratic Party will attempt to pull teachers to divert their time, money and energy from organizing and striking into electoral campaigns with the promise of change from above. Teachers must resist this temptation to subordinate their struggle to a party that only pretends to be their friend.

We cannot forget that Democrats have partnered with the Republicans to cut school spending and drive down wages for public sector workers. The evidence in the so-called blue states like California proves the bipartisan nature of the attack on teachers and public education beyond a shadow of a doubt. Despite the state having both a liberal Democratic governor, Jerry Brown, and a super majority of Democrats in the state legislature, the state funding for education that goes to schools and districts hasn’t increased for more than a decade.28

An even more devastating example of the costs of the diversion of organizing and struggle into Democratic Party elections is the experience of the rebellion against Scott Walker’s right-to-work legislation in Wisconsin. Public sector workers rose up in mass protests against this in 2011, occupying the state capitol building in Madison. But the combination of the Democratic Party and the union officialdom ended the occupation by promising a recall election to fix the problem, an effort that failed on its own terms and demobilized the struggle, leading to a dramatic decline in union membership in the state.29 Electing sympathetic politicians to office or relying on the lobbying efforts and pleas of union leaders in the statehouse will not bring about real changes workers so desperately need—only struggle will do that.

Socialists must continue to push for an alternative strategy of class struggle unionism—building rank-and-file organizations of workers and preparing those formations to push for strikes, sometimes with support of union leaders, and, if necessary, at other times in defiance of them. That strategy, as the strike wave proves, is the only way to win.

To advance this argument, socialists must play a role in cohering the emerging layer of militants that have drawn the right lessons from the strike wave. That layer can help expand the struggle from the so-called “red states” to the “blue states.” They will also be key to winning the argument that it’s essential to integrate demands against racism, sexism, and other oppressions with bread and butter ones about wages and school funding.

In this effort, socialists can draw from history of their forebears in the 1930s. The various tendencies of socialists that helped build and organize within the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) saw their project as being one of not only taking on capitalist bosses and politicians, but also organizing across gender and ethnic divisions to fight oppression. They championed organizing as open socialists at work and in the union movement.30

Tragically, these networks of socialist labor activists were systematically destroyed by both the bankrupt politics of Stalinism and state-sponsored red-hunts that drove radicals out of the labor movement. The result has been a labor movement today that is largely devoid of an open socialist current made up of experienced trade union militants who also carry with them ideas about the need to challenge the system of capitalism.

This layer of socialists in workplaces and unions across the country cannot be rebuilt overnight or through one struggle, even one as exciting as the teachers’ strikes. However, knitting together a self-conscious layer of radicals can take a huge step forward in moments like this one. Helping create opportunities for recreating this connective tissue is one important way the socialist movement can support the current fight and build for future struggles, in public schools and beyond.

While the final trajectory of these struggles is not completely clear as we head into a new school year, what is clear is that the teacher strikes have fundamentally changed the conversation about working-class resistance in this country. They have also fundamentally changed the consciousness of many education workers who “are done being the frog that is being boiled,” as Kristin Beller, a North Carolina kindergarten teacher, put in an interview in The Guardian.31

Building a new labor movement in the post–Janus era—one based on the self-organization of ordinary workers who are willing to strike to win— will not be easy. However, in spite of these challenges ahead in this moment public school workers have truly become a voice for all of us. They have shown us how to fight for a better world, a world where we no longer accept the austerity measures of the ruling class, where schools and social services are well-funded and where everyone, including those who work in public education, can have a living wage. That is the fight that must continue and now has the powerful example of a successful strike wave to build upon.

  1. Douglas Ernst, “Scarborough likens ‘Red State’ Voters to Iranians Who Want ‘Mullahs in Charge’,” Washington Times, January 5, 2018, https://www.washingtontimes.com/ news/2018/jan/5/joe-scarborough-likens-red-state-voters-to-iranian/.
  2. Josh Eidelson, “Teachers Strikes Are Spreading Across the Country with No End in Sight,” Bloomberg News, April 2, 2018, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/ articles/2018-04-02/teacher-strikes-are-spreading-across-america.
  3. Adam Sanchez, “Race to the Top or Bottom,” Socialist Worker, November 2, 2009, http://socialistworker.org/2009/11/02/race-to-the-top-or-bottom; Valerie Strauss, “Obama’s Real Education Legacy: Common Core, Testing, Charter Schools,” Washington Post, October 21, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer- sheet/wp/2016/10/21/obamas-real-education-legacy-common-core-testing-charterschools/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.49a71c067599.
  4. Michael Leachman, Kathleen Masterson, and Eric Figueroa, “A Punishing Decade for School Funding,” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, November 29, 2017, https://www.cbpp.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/11-29-17sfp.pdf.
  5. Cory Turner, “A Fight Over the Teachers’ Salaries: A Look at the Numbers,” National Public Radio, March 16, 2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/ ed/2018/03/16/592221378/the-fight-over-teacher-salaries-a-look-at-the-numbers.
  6. AJ+ Video, “Arizona Teachers Grind to Survive,” https://www. facebook.com/ajplusenglish/videos/1180632275411611/ UzpfSTYxMjQ0NTQ3OToxMDE1NjI5MzU3NTE5NTQ4MA/. 
  7. Sylvia Allegretto and Lawrence Mishel, “The Teacher Pay Gap is Wider than Ever,” Economic Policy Institute, August 9, 2016, https://www.epi.org/publication/the- teacher-pay-gap-is-wider-than-ever-teachers-pay-continues-to-fall-further-behindpay-of-comparable-workers/.
  8. Alan Maass, ed., “Recent Stories on Teachers,” Socialist Worker, http://socialistworker. org/featured/teachers; See many articles on Jacobin, but especially those by Eric Blanc at https://www.jacobinmag.com.
  9. Katie Endicott, “How the Spark Became a Flame in West Virginia,” interview by author, Socialist Worker, March 12, 2018, https://socialistworker.org/2018/03/12/ how-the-spark-became-a-flame-in-w-virginia.
  10. Eric Blanc, “The Lessons of West Virginia,” Jacobin, March 9, 2018, https://www. jacobinmag.com/2018/03/west-virginia-wildcat-strike-militancy-peia.
  11. Tyler Barton and Lori Boegershausen, “Inside the West Virginia Teachers Rebellion,” Socialist Worker, March 5, 2018, https://socialistworker.org/2018/03/05/i....
  12. Tyler Barton and Ryan Powers, “The Energy Bosses Can Afford to Pay,” Socialist Worker, June 18, 2017, https://socialistworker.org/2018/06/18/t....
  1. Jay O’Neal, Speech to the PEIA Task Force, video on Facebook, June 11, 2018, https://www.facebook.com/100016074791303/videos/259578847921273.
  2. Hannah Utain-Evans, Elizabeth Lalasz, and Sean Larson, “Meet the Oklahoma Teachers Who Said Enough,” Socialist Worker, April 9, 2018, https://socialistworker. org/2018/04/09/meet-the-oklahoma-teachers-who-said-enough.
  3. Hannah Utain-Evans, et al,“Meet the Oklahoma Teachers Who Said Enough.”
  4. Ray Sanchez, “Oklahoma Governor Compares Teachers to ‘A Teenage Kid that Wants a Better Car’,” CNN, April 4, 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/04/04/us/ oklahoma-governor-mary-fallin-teacher-comment/.
  5. Heidi Brandes, “Oklahoma Teachers Press Lawmakers for Tax Plan to End Strike,” Reuters, April 9, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-oklahoma-education/ oklahoma-teachers-strike-enters-second-week-with-rally-at-capitol.
  6. Caleb Gayle, “Oklahoma Teachers Salary Raise in Limbo Following Historic Win,” The Guardian, June 16, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jun/16/ oklahoma-teachers-strikes-salary-raise-taxes-petition.
  7. Pranav Jani and Flynn Murray, “What Road Will Lead Kentucky Teachers Forward?”, Socialist Worker, April 23, 2018, https://socialistworker.org/2018/04/23/w....
  8. See Tithi Bhattacharya, "Why the Teachers’ Revolt Must Confront Racism Head On," Dissent, May 1, 2018, https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_a....
  9. Pranav Jani, “Where Will the Struggle Lead Kentucky Teachers?,” Socialist Worker, April 13, 2018, https://socialistworker.org/2018/04/13/w....
  10. Arizona Educator United, http://arizonaeducatorsunited.com/.
  11. Melissa Daniels, “Arizona Teachers Push Proposal to Tax Rich for Education,” The National Post, June 8, 2018, http://nationalpost.com/pmn/news-pmn/energized- arizona-teachers-turn-attention-to-tax-proposal.
  12. Darrin Hoop, “ How Arizona Teachers Got from A to Z,” Socialist Worker, May 17, 2018, https://socialistworker.org/2018/05/17/how-arizona-teachers-got-from-ato-z.
  13. Matt Casella, “ How Will We  Build Tar  Heel Teacher Power?,” Socialist Worker, June 7, 2018, http://socialistworker.org/2018/06/07/how-will-we-build-tar-heel-teacher- power.
  14. Matt Casella, “How Will We Build Tar Heel Teacher Power?”
  15. Anya Kamenetz, “NPR/Ipsos Poll: Most Americans Support Teachers’ Right To Strike,” National Public Radio, April 26, 2018, https://www.npr.org/sections/ ed/2018/04/26/604117045/npr-ipsos-poll-most-americans-support-teachers-rightto-strike.
  16. Ty Alper and Judy Appel, “Public Education Funding in California is Anything but Progressive,” The Daily Californian, June 6, 2018, http://www.dailycal. org/2018/06/06/public-education-funding-california-anything-progressive/.
  17. Lee Sustar, “The Lessons of Wisconsin,” Socialist Worker, June 21, 2012, https:// socialistworker.org/2012/06/21/the-lessons-of-wisconsin.
  18. For a summary of this history, see Sharon Smith, Subterranean Fire (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2018).
  19. Mike Elk, “America’s Teachers on Strike: ‘We are Done Being the Frog that is Being Boiled’,” Guardian, May 5, 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/ may/05/americas-teachers-on-strike-we-are-done-being-the-frog-that-is-beingboiled.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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