As the School Year Begins, More Teachers Across the Country Could Soon Strike

Barbara Madeloni and Samantha Winslow August 28, 2018

As the school year starts, teachers in states across the country are taking moving toward taking militant action. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

As teach­ers, school employ­ees, and stu­dents head back to school, what’s ahead for the #Red­forEd movement?

This spring, teach­ers mobi­lized on an unprece­dent­ed scale in West Vir­ginia, Okla­homa, Ken­tucky, Ari­zona, North Car­oli­na, and Col­orado. They protest­ed, walked out, and even held statewide strikes — in states with lim­it­ed to no col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights, where school unions have tra­di­tion­al­ly focused on state politics.

The spring­time actions, led by rank and fil­ers, inspired edu­ca­tors and union­ists across the coun­try. It looks like the cusp of a labor upsurge that could spread beyond schools.

The mobi­liz­ers met with vary­ing degrees of sup­port or resis­tance from their own state union lead­ers. The mil­i­tan­cy made lead­ers anx­ious, but many were also savvy enough to see that the upris­ings were effec­tive — and that they’d bet­ter not get in the way.

Teach­ers saw just how pow­er­ful they can be when they act col­lec­tive­ly. But now with midterm elec­tions com­ing up, the impulse to turn toward elec­toral pol­i­tics — and a strong push from statewide edu­ca­tion unions to elect new faces into the state­hous­es — presents a challenge.

Will mem­bers go back to think­ing that pow­er resides main­ly in elec­toral pol­i­tics? Or will their new­born rank-and-file move­ment be able to use bal­lot mea­sures and elec­tions to extend their net­works at the grassroots?

Here’s a state-by-state run­down of where the cam­paigns stand and what it might mean for ongo­ing organizing:

West Vir­ginia Digs In

While West Vir­ginia teach­ers were furi­ous at Gov­er­nor Jim Justice’s ini­tial offer of a 1 per­cent raise, their nine-day strike was prompt­ed in large part by cost increas­es in their state health plan, the Pub­lic Employ­ees Insur­ance Agency (PEIA).

Now the teach­ers are await­ing rec­om­men­da­tions from the PEIA Task Force, estab­lished in the March agree­ment that end­ed the strike. With GOP heav­ies like Sen­ate Pres­i­dent Mitch Carmichael — teacher ene­my num­ber one — on the Task Force, many expect the rec­om­men­da­tions to fall far short of what’s needed.

But teach­ers are get­ting ready, focus­ing on form­ing real­ly sol­id friend­ships and con­nec­tions across the state,” said Jay O’Neal, a Charleston teacher who start­ed the Face­book page that played a crit­i­cal role in the strike. We know we have to be a real­ly bot­tom-up orga­ni­za­tion across unions, across each coun­ty, and across the state to with­stand this.”

The teach­ers’ demands are the same as ever, he said: a cor­po­rate tax, increase of the tax on extract­ing nat­ur­al gas — this is the num­ber one solu­tion the task force heard from the people.”

Ari­zona in Vests

Arizona’s week-long strike end­ed in May when state leg­is­la­tors added $400 mil­lion to the edu­ca­tion bud­get, includ­ing a 20 per­cent raise for teachers.

When we end­ed the walk­out we said, The fight’s not over,’” said Rebec­ca Garel­li, a leader in the grass­roots net­work Ari­zona Edu­ca­tors United.

The bud­get increase fell short of the demand, pro­mot­ed joint­ly by AEU and the statewide teach­ers union, to restore fund­ing to 2008 lev­els. So both groups worked all sum­mer gath­er­ing sig­na­tures for a bal­lot ini­tia­tive to fill the $700 mil­lion fund­ing gap by tax­ing the state’s rich­est residents.

Though it start­ed as a Face­book group, AEU made the strike pos­si­ble by devel­op­ing a struc­ture of con­tacts with­in schools to share infor­ma­tion across the state. This same net­work allowed AEU to gath­er 150,000 sig­na­tures — all with vol­un­teers. The statewide union got the remain­ing 120,000 signatures.

The mea­sure is on the Novem­ber bal­lot and teach­ers, in sup­port of the ini­tia­tive, are con­tin­u­ing to wear red for ed” on Wednes­days — and tak­ing it up a notch on Fri­days by wear­ing vests, for #inVESTinEd.

Okla­homa Pivot

Teach­ers who struck statewide in Okla­homa fell short of their demands for rais­es of $10,000 for teach­ers and $5,000 for sup­port staff, plus $200 mil­lion in addi­tion­al fund­ing for classrooms.

But they did win a big raise, offered up in an eleventh-hour bid to stop them from strik­ing. The rais­es are kick­ing in as the school year starts. Teach­ers will get a boost of at least $5,000 per year, and school employ­ees will get about $2,500.

After this par­tial vic­to­ry, the statewide Okla­homa Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion piv­ot­ed towards pol­i­tics. The pri­ma­ry was excit­ing,” said Lori Bur­ris, pres­i­dent of the local union for the Mid-Del School Dis­trict, which includes part of Okla­homa City. A lot of leg­is­la­tors were pushed out.”

Six Repub­li­can law­mak­ers lost their pri­maries after vot­ing to block the increase in teacher pay. Mean­while, more than half of the 100 teach­ers who decid­ed to run for state leg­is­la­ture post-strike made it through their pri­maries, most­ly as Democ­rats. That means teach­ers are vying for one-third of the total seats in the state legislature.

From now through Novem­ber, Bur­ris said, elec­tions are the focus. After that we assess what our leg­is­la­ture looks like and fig­ure out how we attack next.”
Ken­tucky on Defense

In Ken­tucky, teach­ers and school employ­ees joined the spring upris­ing to defend their state-man­aged pen­sion. They ral­lied at schools and at the capi­tol, and held scat­tered walkouts.

In the end, the state leg­is­la­ture passed a weak­er ver­sion of the pen­sion restruc­tur­ing bill. It has since been thrown out in court, though the gov­er­nor is appeal­ing that deci­sion. Through their mobi­liza­tions, teach­ers were able to win $85 mil­lion more for edu­ca­tion funding.

Mean­while, the governor’s edu­ca­tion board announced that the state would try to take over the schools of its largest dis­trict, Jef­fer­son Coun­ty, which includes Louisville. Nom­i­nal­ly on the grounds of poor stu­dent per­for­mance and safe­ty con­cerns, the takeover would strip the elect­ed school board of its author­i­ty and hand the reins to Kentucky’s chief school offi­cer — a step that has been used in cities such as New Orleans and Detroit to open the door to char­ters and privatization.

Fresh from fight­ing pen­sion cuts, the union is work­ing with the school dis­trict to oppose the state takeover, which teach­ers say would under­mine the bus­ing sys­tem that is part of an ongo­ing effort to deseg­re­gate Jef­fer­son Coun­ty schools. Last night, the dis­trict reached a com­pro­mise with the state that will main­tain local control.

We knew they were tar­get­ing Black and brown com­mu­ni­ties,” said Jef­fer­son Coun­ty teacher Tia Edi­son. She said the state’s even­tu­al goal is to pri­va­tize: The sec­ond phase would be bring­ing in char­ter schools.”

Col­orado, North Carolina

The excite­ment of the upris­ings sent rip­ples across the coun­try. Mem­bers start­ed see­ing West Vir­ginia, Okla­homa, and Ken­tucky tak­ing action, and said, Wait, things are just as bad for us,’” said Amie Baca, pres­i­dent of the Col­orado Edu­ca­tors Asso­ci­a­tion. We start­ed to hear from the rank and file that we need­ed to do something.”

But each state had its own polit­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions. In Col­orado, the chal­lenge was a Tax­pay­er Bill of Rights that restricts any tax increas­es to those approved by vot­ers. In North Car­oli­na, it was a vin­dic­tive GOP super­ma­jor­i­ty unlike­ly to respond to any demands.

So walk­outs in those two states were less about winnable demands and more about teach­ers tak­ing action togeth­er to expose how under­fund­ed pub­lic schools are. Still, the expe­ri­ence of act­ing col­lec­tive­ly has ignit­ed ongo­ing work.

We sparked people’s imag­i­na­tion that we can do things like this and be suc­cess­ful and not get fired for it,” said Todd War­ren, the teacher union pres­i­dent in Guil­ford Coun­ty, North Car­oli­na. Teach­ers in his dis­trict were among the 30,000 who flood­ed the state cap­i­tal in a May 16 walkout.

His union will be focused on the Novem­ber elec­tion, in which teach­ers hope to dis­rupt the GOP super­ma­jor­i­ty. But War­ren believes teach­ers need to stop focus­ing sim­ply on elec­tions and learn how to orga­nize mem­bers in each school for power.

Because of the walk­outs, he said, mem­bers have a new appre­ci­a­tion for the neces­si­ty of nuts-and-bolts orga­niz­ing, includ­ing main­tain­ing lists of co-work­ers, map­ping the work­place, and set­ting up com­mu­ni­ca­tion systems.

That means mov­ing from activists to orga­niz­ers,” he said, the dif­fer­ence between those who show up for a one-day event and those who want to do the nit­ty grit­ty work of build­ing power.”

In Col­orado, the walk­outs spurred a bal­lot ini­tia­tive to increase tax­es on the wealthy and use those funds to sup­port pub­lic edu­ca­tion. The mea­sure would deliv­er $1.6 bil­lion for pub­lic schools. In July the Great Schools, Thriv­ing Com­mu­ni­ties coali­tion, which includes the union, deliv­ered more than dou­ble the required num­ber of sig­na­tures to put the ques­tion on the ballot.

Tak­ing Stock

As edu­ca­tors across the coun­try step back into schools this fall, the com­bat­ive spir­it that first took root in West Vir­ginia is still spreading.

In Wash­ing­ton state, teach­ers unions in at least 13 dis­tricts have vot­ed to autho­rize strikes to kick off the school year. A cou­ple have since set­tled, but teach­ers in Longview, Ever­green, and Washou­gal are hit­ting the pick­et lines this week, with more dis­tricts like­ly to fol­low. Teach­ers in Seat­tle recent­ly vot­ed to autho­rize a strike.

In Puer­to Rico, teach­ers struck on the third day of school, August 15, in an ongo­ing bat­tle against school closures.

And in the nation’s sec­ond-largest school dis­trict, mem­bers of Unit­ed Teach­ers Los Ange­les are vot­ing as we go to press on whether to autho­rize a strike.

With bal­lot ques­tions and elec­toral pol­i­tics the focus through Novem­ber in many loca­tions, the chal­lenge for orga­niz­ers is to keep mem­bers’ voic­es and activ­i­ty at the cen­ter of their campaigns.

This arti­cle first appeared on Labor Notes

Bar­bara Made­loni is a writer for Labor Notes and Saman­tha Winslow is co-direc­tor of Labor Notes.
Limited Time:

SUBSCRIBE TO IN THESE TIMES MAGAZINE FOR JUST $1 A MONTH