Teachers Rise Up
by Jon Bekken, Anarcho-Syndicalist Review #74, Summer, 2018, page 10
A wave of teacher revolts swept the United States from March to May, closing schools across the South and Southwest--states where legislators have limited teachers' right to unionize and bargain, and have taken advantage of weakened unions to slash education budgets.
Education funding was slashed when the Great Recession hit, and has continued to decline since. Between 2010 and 2014, spending on public elementary and high school education dropped by 3 percent while student populations grew 1 percent--figures that are not adjusted for inflation. The cuts have been aggravated by states diverting public school funding to charter schools, skipping contributions to pension funds, and by administrative spending and testing that consumes an ever-larger portion of school funds.
More than half of all states (29) now spend less per student on education than they did a decade ago. Teacher salaries have fallen after adjusting for inflation in many states, even before taking rising health care costs and shortfalls in pension funding into account. A recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report found that U.S. teachers work much longer hours (almost twice as many hours in classrooms as their South Korean counterparts) and had "the lowest relative earnings across all OECD countries with data."
The uprising began in West Virginia, where teacher salaries are among the lowest in the country. West Virginian government employees are permitted to unionize but not to bargain over pay and benefits. Nonetheless, many belong to unions and 34,000 teachers and other school employees struck for nine days in April, shutting down every public school across the state. After rejecting a union-negotiated proposal for a 5 percent pay hike for teachers because other staff would receive only 3 percent and proposed increases in healthcare premiums were still on the table, the governor agreed to hold off on premium increases, raise salaries by 5 percent across the board, and drop efforts to divert public school funding to charter schools, eliminate seniority protections, and outlaw payroll deduction of union dues.
"We are actually celebrating a victory," says Mingo County Education Association President Brandon Wolford. "We just got the largest raise that we had received in 28 years. We have successfully abolished charter schools. We secured our seniority."
A Rank-and-File Strike
It was the first statewide teachers strike in West Virginia since 1990, but the 1990 strike did not include support staff such as cafeteria workers (who provided free meals to many students this year during the strike), and included teachers in only 47 of the state's 55 counties. This year the strike included all school workers under the banner 55strong. Indeed, strike support was so strong that superintendents in every school district officially closed the schools, freeing teachers from picket duty to hit the streets. When the governor who ran for election as a Democrat with union support. switching to the Republicans once elected) toured the state trying to persuade counties to reopen their schools, workers flooded the capital chanting "fifty-five united."
While reporters and politicians seem to have been taken by surprise, the strike was the result of two months' planning by the state's three education unions (AFT, NEA, WVSSPA) and by rank-and-file teachers determined to win. A rank-and-file Facebook group included 24,000 members several weeks before the strike began, providing a forum where strategies could be discussed and workers could see that they were not alone. Earlier one-day strikes in 10 counties showed workers' determination and pressured union leaders to extend the statewide strike from the initially planned two days.
A teacher activist from Monongalia County speaking at the Black Rose/Rosa Negra Labor Sector gathering held April 7 on the sidelines of the Labor Notes Conference said militancy picked up after a union-sponsored Martin Luther King Jr. Day lobby day where politicians treated teachers with contempt.
"We all start coming back and...saying 'Look, the legislature is not listening to us, they told us that they were going to privatize education, they were going to start giving out vouchers, they were going to cut corporate property tax...' We focused on working class solidarity and tried to make sure every single person in that state realizes that we're not here for Democrats, we're not here for Republicans, we're here to help organize the working class, and that resonates with people....
"In conservative and reactionary states like West Virginia you can win serious victories because those are the states that have austerity, the states that have been hit hardest by the recession after 2008....These are states that have a strong working class history of militancy and you can build off of that."
West Virginia teachers were soon followed by teachers in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and North Carolina--and by smaller actions in Colorado (the state's 10 largest school districts were closed for two days while teachers protested inadequate school funding, falling salaries, and a 86.6 billion shortfall in payments to their pension plan), California (thousands of service workers struck the University of California for three days, and nurses and technical staff at UC hospitals honored picket lines), and Georgia (where administrators broke a sick-out by school bus drivers by firing several workers they said instigated the action).
In Puerto Rico, thousands of teachers joined walk-outs in March and April to protest plans to close more than 300 schools as the U.S. territory struggles to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Maria. The strikes targeted standardized testing days, and parents and students joined teachers to occupy some schools targeted for closure. On May Day more than 50,000 people marched in San Juan to protest the austerity measures.
On April 26, Arizona teachers and other education workers struck, demanding increases in school funding to (inflation-adjusted) 2008 levels and pay raises. In the lead-up to the strike, the governor switched from offering a 1 percent pay hike to pledging 20 percent by 2020. However, he didn't put any money in the budget to fund the higher salaries, and said nothing about raises for other school workers. Arizona ranks 43rd in teacher salaries, well below many states with lower living costs. After slashing corporate taxes in recent years, the legislature insists it can not afford to pay teachers a living wage or to properly fund the schools in which they teach.
The Arizona actions began with teachers wearing "red for ed" on Wednesdays, gradually escalating to demonstrations and marches across the state that engaged thousands of teachers from almost every public school in the state. Some 75,000 teachers and supporters marched through the state capital, Phoenix, on the first day of what became a five-day statewide strike. The strike ended only after the governor signed legislation raising salaries 9 percent this fall, and 5 percent in each of the next two years. While the unions were quick to claim victory, several issues were not addressed, including raises for support staff, student-to-counselor ratios, and inadequate funding for everything from maintenance of school buildings to textbooks and supplies.
In Oklahoma, teachers similarly won significant gains through the threat of strike action, but when politicians refused to engage the rest of their demands during a statewide strike unions called it off, saying they would instead focus on the November elections to replace anti-education zealots with more reasonable politicians. Even if the unions are able to maintain the commitment and energy that led to the nine-day strike over the summer and through the beginning of the new school year, there is no reason to believe that new politicians would honor their commitments any better than did West Virginia's governor, Jim Justice, a billionaire mining boss elected with the support of the teachers' and other unions.
Oklahoma teachers are the worst-paid in the country (some rank them at 49), and hadn't received a raise in ten years. State funding has declined 28 percent since 2008, with devastating consequences. Public schools are so crowded students have to sit on the floor, sharing disintegrating, outdated textbooks. A fifth of school districts have switched to four-day work weeks to cut operating costs, while many teachers make ends meet by working second jobs as airport baggage handlers and fast-food workers. And teachers were also demanding pay hikes for support staff, bus drivers and custodians.
Oklahoma teachers last held a statewide strike in April 1990, a four-day shutdown over low pay and inadequate school funding that ended when the legislature approved tax hikes to fund education. That strike was called by union officials trying to pressure legislators to act on a stalled education bill. This time, the strike was fueled by grassroots pressure, largely organized through social media.
The Oklahoma Education Association, the state's largest teachers union, originally announced plans for a late August strike if legislators did not increase school funding. But rank-and-file activists pressed for quicker, more decisive action, and the strike was set for April 2, lining up with standardized testing dates. As teachers walked off their jobs to protest at their state capitol, bus drivers prepared and drove free meals to designated pick-up points to make sure students Were not left hungry.
The Ballot or the Strike?
Legislators passed an education budget on the eve of the walk-out offering teachers increases averaging $6,000 (instead of the $10,000 they sought) and other school employees $1,250 (a deep discount from the $5,000 strikers were demanding). The OEA and AFT (which represents teachers in Oklahoma City) went ahead With the strike when their members made it clear that much more was needed. But legislators refused to negotiate. After nine days, OEA officials called off the strike--instead pledging to take the fight to the ballot box. A record number of state legislators will face opponents on the November ballot, which is likely to also carry a ballot measure to reverse the taxes put in place to fund the education bill.
Many strikers were angered by the capitulation. "Members felt like our voice was not being heard," the president of the OEA's Mid Del local told Labor Notes. "We were not asked. That's what angered people.- Nonetheless, even though Oklahoma's education workers got much less than they needed, the threat of strike action did force the first real pay increases in many, many years.
In Kentucky, several schools were closed in April by sick-outs by teachers sickened at the legislature's decision to gut their pension plan. The scheme, tacked on to a sewer regulation bill at the last minute, boots new teachers out of the pension plan altogether, instead placing them in a cheaper defined-contribution plan. Several days later, dozens of schools were closed as teachers rallied at the state capitol, successfully pressuring legislators to override the governor's veto of a bill to modestly increase school funding (though leaving schools well behind 2008 funding levels). In Kentucky, too, teachers' unions are running candidates and looking to the elections to win what they were reluctant to fight for on the job and in the streets.
The strike wave hit North Carolina May 16 as 20,000 educators swarmed the state's capital demanding higher pay and more money for education. The one-day walkout prompted 40 school districts across the state to cancel classes, affecting more than 1 million students.
Education spending in North Carolina has dropped by 8 percent in the last decade, leading to low salaries, crumbling schools, and a shortage of badly needed counselors, social workers and psychologists. "We have not had a textbook adoption in 15 years. We have school districts deciding whether or not to pay the light bill or buy toilet paper," said Mark Jewell, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators. "We have classrooms...that are 35 students and higher in some instances." (This is apparently new to North Carolina, but even larger class sizes--70 students for some classes--are increasingly common. Excessive class size has a well-documented effect on student learning.)
The teachers' union is campaigning to get legislators to increase per-pupil spending to the national average, and said the massive rally (it was careful not to call it a strike) would kick off a six-month push to elect new politicians. "Our end game, obviously, is Nov. 6 when we elect pro-public education policymakers to the General Assembly," Jewell said.
All four states hit by statewide srike action were carried by Trump in the last election, and have Republican-dominated legislatures which owe their seats in part to gerrymandering and voter suppression. But even when they elect Democrats (as two did in the last election, though one of those quickly flipped to the Republicans) to statewide office, politicians are still devoted to cutting taxes and funneling the remaining tax dollars to corporations and prisons. Education is simply not on their list of priorities.
All four are "right-to-work" states where the Government has systematically imposed as many legal barriers to union organization as possible. But precisely because public sector unions are barred from negotiating contracts, they have not signed the no-strike clauses that cripple so many unions. Public worker strikes are explicitly outlawed in some of the states, in others government officials take the position that the absence of laws legalizing strikes mean that they are illegal. But the wave of teacher revolts proves that it does not matter in the end whether workers have the legal right to strike or not.
When workers strike one school or one district at a time it might be possible to bully them into submission by jailing union leaders or firing activists. (Replacing an entire teaching force is not really practical, given the low pay rates and the extensive training that is required). But when teachers and other education workers across an entire state go on strike, politicians can't jail or punish them all, and they can't run the classrooms without them.
This is the basis of the entire public sector union movement. In the 1950s, public employee unions barely existed outside of the schools--and even there most were prohibited from striking and had only limited legal rights to represent their members. Public employee unions were the product of a great strike wave in the 1960s and 1970s--by postal workers, teachers, sanitation workers, etc. Those strikes were, for the most part, illegal. Yet legality has a way of drifting into the background when workers organize and exercise their power.
During the public sector strike wave millions of government workers were involved in strikes. Unionists realized, "There is no illegal strike, just an unsuccessful one." Courts could issue injunctions, the boss press could rant and rave, union officials could even be thrown in jail. But if the strike was strong and community support was robust, harsh penalties were rarely imposed. Indeed, strikes occurred more frequently in states that prohibited collective bargaining and striking, because workers in those states had no choice but to illegally strike to get their demands addressed.
Even if, as seems likely, the Supreme Court strips public sector unions of the right to collect representation fees from workers who refuse to join the union (some have religious objections; others seek out union jobs because they prefer the better pay and greater workplace rights that have been won through generations of workers' struggles, but like to see themselves as rugged individualists whose interests lie not with their fellow workers but with the corporate titans who are working non-stop to defend their agencies), this need not cripple the labor movement. At root, unions have never derived their power from deals with politicians, but through the power workers hold by virtue of the fact that we are the ones who do the work--without our labor, the entire system screeches to a halt.
In Wisconsin, public employee unions' membership was decimated when the legislature imposed Act 10. But some unions seized on its requirement that they re-sign up their members every year to strengthen member engagement and as a foundation for continuing workplace struggles. Amy Mizialko, a special education teacher and vice president of the Milwaukee Teachers Union, says:
"We are taking it floor by floor, department by department...We have to win the recertification and I am going to be honest with you, the first couple of years that we did it, it made me so mad.... But then, it was like, 'No, this is an organizing opportunity.' Because it is not just making a phone call. We are doing this for our students and for our union."
Teachers enter these fights with widespread public support. As the strike wave was getting under way, an Associated Press survey found that 78 percent of respondents knew teachers are paid too little, and a solid majority supported their right to strike. This reality has left the anti-education zealots scrambling for points. The State Policy Network (which links think tanks pushing the right-wing agenda in statehouses across the country, put out a messaging guide that admits:
"A message that focuses on teacher hours and vacations will sound tone-deaf when there are dozens of videos and social media posts going viral from teachers about their second jobs, teachers having to rely on food pantries and classroom books that are falling apart, paper rationing, etc."
instead, they suggest politicians claim that strikes hurt children and low-income families.
In the 1940s the IWW suggested to Cleveland teachers facing this argument (and a legal prohibition on striking) that they continue teaching, but strike the curriculum. Instead of teaching math in the traditional way, they might teach students how to calculate the rate of exploitation. Music classes could learn labor songs; reading classes could focus on working-class literature. The possibilities are endless, and the howls of outrage that would erupt from the politicians might help clear the air.
Fighting to Win
For years, teachers and other workers have been playing by the rules. But they're not our rules--the rules were put in place during periods of enormous social upheaval in an effort to control unrest and tame the unions. In exchange, the bosses threw a few crumbs our way to help manage the discontent. But the crumbs have gotten smaller, and the rules have slowly tightened their grip. Union membership has been steadily declining, benefits are vanishing, the hours of toil invade ever more of our life, and our pay, on average, still hovers around 1973 levels. (Some are doing better, but many workers are doing much, much worse.)
When we fight the boss alone we lose. That's why workers organize unions. We do better when we fight in groups, relying on our skills or our ability to disrupt a single workplace. This is the model that contemporary U.S. unions are organized around: signing up workers in particular crafts (teachers, bus drivers, support staff, etc.) and workplaces (individual schools or school districts) to negotiate with the employers.
This model was always flawed, which is why the IWW was organized in 1905. But it has only become more obsolete in the decades that have followed--not only does dividing workers along craft lines weaken us immeasurably in our struggles with the bosses, but so does organizing workplace by workplace. We are not fighting conditions on a particular job, bad as they may be, but rather an entire system of exploitation. Pay and working conditions for education workers are not fundamentally determined by local school boards (even though they can make our lives much more difficult)--they are shaped by budgets and policies made at the state and federal level. Similarly, the individual workplace is as often as not controlled by larger entities that determine our conditions.
Organizing locally can improve things, to be sure, but for the most part we will be whittling at the edges of our exploitation. What is needed for real change is solidarity--not just in any given workplace, but across society.
Employers hate solidarity. They work to isolate workplace disputes, to make us address them individually or in small groups. They do this because they know that individually we are weak, but when we act together, in solidarity, there is no power that can stand before us. The teachers strikes have been successful precisely because they went big--fighting not school by school or district by district, but across entire states, sparking a national rebellion.
This was a bottom-up rebellion, organized by rank-and-file teachers, with unions scrambling to catch up. Teacher activists worked with the unions where they could, drawing upon their networks to broaden the struggle, but they also built their own networks and sparked a rebellion that could not be ignored.
We need to follow their example, to dream big, to raise and fight for the important issues, to refuse the shackles the bosses and politicians offer in exchange for "recognition." If we stand together in solidarity, there is no power great enough to keep us down.