Get Ready for the Coming Wave of Teacher Strikes

Dan DiMaggio and Jonah Furman March 27, 2018

Strike fever appears to be spreading among teachers. (West Virginia Education Association)

This arti­cle first appeared in Labor Notes.

It start­ed with a few hun­dred West Vir­ginia teach­ers and school employ­ees pulling one-day walk­outs. It became an unqual­i­fied vic­to­ry in that state, which edu­ca­tors else­where were quick to emulate.

Teach­ers in Okla­homa, Ari­zona, and Ken­tucky are now strik­ing, sick­ing out, ral­ly­ing, and Face­book­ing to push offi­cials to raise their salaries and defend their benefits.

After 13 days on the pick­et line, West Vir­ginia teach­ers won a statewide across-the-board 5 per­cent raise, plus a task force to find a per­ma­nent fix to the state’s under­fund­ed Pub­lic Employ­ees Insur­ance Agency. Oth­er state employ­ees will get the same raise.

By the time the teach­ers went back to work March 7, the whole world was watch­ing. Nation­al and inter­na­tion­al press showed a sea of red shirts and ban­dan­nas flood­ing the statehouse.

Before the strike was over, teach­ers in Okla­homa, Ari­zona, and Ken­tucky had formed Face­book groups that gath­ered tens of thou­sands of mem­bers, with rum­blings of walk­outs and oth­er job actions spreading.

Five states have seen aver­age teacher salaries decline since 2015 – 2016; West Vir­ginia, Okla­homa, and Ari­zona are three of them.

STRIKE FEVER

In Okla­homa, the big, open Face­book group has a sim­ple name: Okla­homa Teacher Walk­out — The Time Is Now!” Lead­ers of the group float­ed a walk­out date of April 2, the start of statewide test­ing. Some teach­ers had already begun orga­niz­ing sickouts.

The Okla­homa Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion, which ini­tial­ly set a strike date three weeks lat­er, agreed to move the date up after an out­cry. Teach­ers are now set to walk on April 2 if the leg­is­la­ture doesn’t grant a $10,000 raise for teach­ers and a $5,000 raise for school sup­port staff.

It’s been a decade since Okla­homa teach­ers got their last raise. Accord­ing to the Bureau of Labor Sta­tis­tics, pay for edu­ca­tors there ranks last in the coun­try, with high school teach­ers aver­ag­ing $42,460.

As in West Vir­ginia, teach­ers are embold­ened by a short­age of qual­i­fied edu­ca­tors. Teach­ers are flee­ing the state,” said Mol­ly Jaynes, a third-grade teacher in Okla­homa City. You can go to Arkansas and make $15,000 more; you can go to Texas and make $20,000 more” — as did Oklahoma’s 2016 Teacher of the Year. The state issues hun­dreds of emer­gency cer­ti­fi­ca­tions every year to any­one with a bachelor’s degree.

Teach­ers have sought sup­port from super­in­ten­dents, and got­ten it (also as in West Vir­ginia). Super­in­ten­dents, frus­trat­ed with high turnover and lack of fund­ing, have promised to shut schools for the first four days of a walk­out, at least, which would mean teach­ers would make up the days lat­er, but would be paid.

Beyond that, it remains to be seen. This is a state that can’t keep teach­ers,” says Jaynes. What are they going to do, fire every­one who goes on strike?”

RED FOR ED

Ari­zona teach­ers signed up in droves for a new Face­book group, Ari­zona Edu­ca­tors Unit­ed.” Thir­ty thou­sand joined in its first 10 days. Teach­ers there are build­ing a grass­roots Red for Ed” move­ment, spread­ing pho­tos of them­selves wear­ing red T‑shirts to school every Wednes­day and assem­bling en masse at leg­isla­tive hear­ings at the Capitol.

One of the group’s first big actions was a hun­dreds-strong pick­et out­side Gov­er­nor Doug Ducey’s week­ly radio appear­ance. Ducey, the mul­ti­mil­lion­aire for­mer CEO of Cold Stone Cream­ery, has dis­missed the move­ment as a par­ti­san ploy. He’s up for reelec­tion in November.

A strike has yet to be called in Ari­zona. But the first shut­downs came on March 21, when sick­outs closed nine Phoenix ele­men­tary schools.

I was fed up with buy­ing mate­ri­als out of my own pock­et and tired of liv­ing pay­check to pay­check,” said Kas­san­dra Dominguez, a dual-lan­guage teacher at Sun­set Ridge Ele­men­tary who pushed the sick­out idea, along with her co-teacher. With­in a few hours, oth­er teach­ers in the build­ing agreed to join in, and soon, nine schools were on board. The orga­niz­ing had tak­en less than 24 hours.

With five years’ teach­ing expe­ri­ence and a master’s degree, Dominguez makes $38,000. When cost of liv­ing is fac­tored in, some mea­sures rank Ari­zona last in teacher pay.

The next big day of action is a march on the Capi­tol March 28, along­side the Ari­zona Par­ent Teacher Asso­ci­a­tion and the grass­roots group Save Our Schools Arizona.

Teach­ers are fired up here because we actu­al­ly have momen­tum,” said Rebec­ca Garel­li, a math and sci­ence teacher in Phoenix. I heard a lot of com­ments: I think it’s going to stick this time. I think this time it’s for real.’

KEN­TUCKY

The lat­est state to join the strike talk is Ken­tucky, where the fight is about pen­sions and fund­ing cuts to schools. Hav­ing sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly under­fund­ed pen­sions for over a decade, the leg­is­la­ture is now push­ing to cut cost-of-liv­ing adjust­ments for teach­ers and oth­er employ­ees. Like teach­ers in 14 oth­er states, Ken­tucky teach­ers do not col­lect Social Secu­ri­ty, so they rely entire­ly on the state pen­sion system.

The Ken­tucky Sen­ate has intro­duced a bud­get that would cut fund­ing for fam­i­ly resource cen­ters in schools and for pre‑K while increas­ing mon­ey for char­ter schools. Teach­ers who retire before 65 would pay more for health insurance.

Thou­sands of active employ­ees and retirees have been ral­ly­ing at the Capi­tol. Teach­ers are orga­niz­ing walk-ins at schools to edu­cate par­ents and build com­mu­ni­ty support.

On March 21, teach­ers coor­di­nat­ed with their super­in­ten­dents in sev­en dis­tricts in east­ern Ken­tucky to close schools so they could mobi­lize to the state capital.

The state’s Repub­li­can Gov­er­nor, Matt Bevin, has said protest­ing teach­ers have a thug men­tal­i­ty,” a com­ment that only fired teach­ers up, said Nema Brew­er, a founder of the Face­book group KY120 Unit­ed, which has 32,000 members.

To date, the union has yet to call for a statewide walk­out, which Brew­er thinks is a mistake.

The teach­ers at the grass­roots are fired up and seri­ous about strik­ing, but the union is being over­ly cau­tious,” she said.

So KY120 Unit­ed has orga­nized a statewide struc­ture to facil­i­tate walk­outs in all 120 of the state’s counties.

We have zone lead­ers, bro­ken down by con­gres­sion­al dis­trict,” explained Brew­er. Each zone leader then iden­ti­fies coun­ty lead­ers in each coun­ty in their zone. Then the coun­ty lead­ers iden­ti­fy school site leaders.

We think we have every coun­ty cov­ered now. We don’t have every school cov­ered, but we are close.

As in West Vir­ginia, teach­ers are think­ing about their stu­dents who receive free lunch­es. We have asked peo­ple to col­lect food in case we have a work stop­page,” Brew­er said. We want to make sure that our chil­dren are tak­en care of.”

Kentucky’s leg­isla­tive ses­sion ends April 13.

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