In the last few months a wave of rank-and-file teacher strikes has swept the US. Rebel spoke with Dana Blanchard—a former elementary school teacher and union organiser in California for almost fifteen years, who reported on the strikes for Socialist Worker (US)—about this industrial action, and its wider significance for the labour movement in the US.
1. There was some media attention concerning the teacher strike in West Virginia at the beginning of April, but at this point there have been major strikes, protests and/or walk-outs in multiple states and school districts (Arizona, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico). Can you describe this teacher strike wave?
As someone who taught in public schools for over fifteen years, through the economic crisis of 2008 and the severe budget cuts that came afterwards where we lost tens of thousands of educator jobs, it has been so incredible to see our profession finally standing up and fighting back. It has been in many ways a long time coming—the cuts to education spending and the culture of punishment created by high stakes testing being tied to school funding have been devastating to public schools for teachers, staff, students and their families. While this anger has been building up over a decade these strikes, especially the fact they happened in so-called republican-stronghold “red states,” took many people by surprise. For example, West Virginia, the first state to strike, is a state that went more heavily for Trump in the 2016 presidential election than any other state. Many liberals and even some folks on the Left, had written off that part of the country as being hopelessly backwards. Wow, were they wrong. West Virginia became the epicenter of class struggle in February 2018 by waging an illegal strike that shut down public schools for nearly two weeks and won a halt to increases in health care costs and their first significant raise in years; 5% across the board for all state employees.
It has been incredible to see the way in which teachers and staff across states have taken up the strike action. There is a real sense of not only solidarity—this fight is all of our fight—but also workers learning key lessons from each other. In West Virginia, for example, some of the initial organising happened over Facebook that then led to in-person organising meetings across the state. The connections built between workers from different counties and different unions, and even workers not in a union at all, was what led to all 55 counties being out on strike for nine days, shutting down the schools and winning a 5% raise for all state workers.
In Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and North Carolina teachers and staff also started Facebook groups to build some of the infrastructure they needed because they are in “right-to-work” states—regions governed by strict anti-union laws—where not all teachers are in the union. They got this idea from the teachers in West Virginia. It is one of the ways you can see the real connections being made between the struggles in different states.
The roots of this resistance are of course also shared across these states: massive tax breaks for the rich and corporations have led to gutting social spending and plummeting school funds. Teachers in these states are some of the lowest paid in the country and the lack of teachers to fill jobs had led to chronic staffing shortages and precarity in many districts. This has put even more pressure on the teachers and staff who work at these understaffed schools—they are asked to do more and more with less resources and support.
In addition to the larger school funding issues the rising cost of health care is a common concern among educators across the country. Many benefits programs, like the one in West Virginia, are administered and funded by the state so cuts to state revenue means the state raises costs for the workers’ benefits at the same time they are not getting any raises. Put this together and you have all the ingredients for a rebellion.
2. You have traveled down to West Virginia, one of the strike epicenters. Any stories that stick with you?
There are so many amazing stories it is hard to decide what to share. Here are a few of my favorites from my time in West Virginia.
I was actually in the capitol in Charleston, WV the day they won the strike. Walking up the to building and going through security you could hear this kind of dull roar coming from inside. As I rounded the corner into the center rotunda inside the roar became deafening—it was the sound of thousands of voices echoing off the walls outside the legislature floor. People were chanting “55 United, “We are worthy!” and singing rounds of “Take Me Home Country Road,” at the top of their lungs. The acoustics made everything louder and fuller—I can only imagine what the politicians felt like inside having to hear this all day. I am sure it had an impact on their decision.
Another interesting moment during that final day in the capitol was when Governor Jim Justice came out to address the crowd and say basically, we almost have a deal for your raise. The crowd encircled him and starting yelling “We’re not leaving ‘til you sign it!” and “We’ll believe you when you put it in writing!” over and over again. It was so empowering to literally see people shouting down the head politician in the state and watch him scamper away back behind the closed doors of legislature. People did end up staying until the bill was signed and held aloft for everyone in the building to see. It felt like for once we had held the politicians accountable and made them do what they said they would do.
In addition to the sheer energy and emotional experience of being in West Virginia for such an incredible victory, the stories of the teachers I met there were so inspiring. One woman I spoke to talked about how she was standing in the tradition of her grandmother who helped to rip up railroad ties to block the Baldwin-Felts agents from coming to gun down miners during the Mine War strikes in the 1920’s. She said she was proud of the history of rebellion of workers in her state and the coal bosses had been getting away with way too much for way too long. It was time to “make them pay their fair share.”
Another teacher I spoke to talked about how she prepared for the strike by making her classroom “unscabbable” in case the principal tried to open it up and staff it with administrators. She hid all the TV remotes, basic supplies and changed the passwords on the computers. She said, “without us the schools don’t run and they need to remember that.” It was stories like these that gave me a real sense of how powerful people felt as workers and that they knew without their labour the whole operation doesn’t work. That is an important lesson for us all to remember, and, sadly, one the US labour movement has not been able to teach us much in the last few decades.
3. Though any strike wave is impressive, can you explain why we are seeing them in the education sector, in the schools, and not, for example, in other sectors?
I think I answered most of this in the first question about the conditions education-funding cuts have created. Public sector unions are the last bastions of unionisation in the US. The private sector is less than 10% unionised while the public sector is about 30% unionised. For a long time the right-to-work and anti-union forces in big business and government have been attacking the working standards for public sector workers and literally starving them with wage cuts and increased benefits costs. These conditions have made it ripe for workers in public sector jobs, especially public schools, to fight back.
However, I think the larger question is one I cannot really answer about why the deep anger among workers in the US has not been matched equally by struggle on the ground. The failed strategies of US labour unions in both relying on Democratic Party allies who have betrayed them and focusing on lobbying, not organising, has left unions weak and demobilised, right at the time we need to be fighting back the most. I am hoping that these strikes can show a different way forward for the labour movement. One that puts class struggle and mass action at the center of our work, as opposed to looking to elected officials to do anything for us. To the extent that this lesson can be generalised will determine what comes next out of this strike wave—whether it is sustained and spreads or not.
4. Are there any generalisations you can make about the relationship of the strikers and the unions? Or groups of active rank-and-file teachers and the unions/teachers in general?
In every state there were networks of radicals and organisers who led the strikes. In West Virginia a handful of radical teachers started the Facebook group to try to initiate resistance to the health care cost increases. This network then connected to teachers in other counties and led to organising meetings across the state. It was clear that rank and file teachers initiated the organising and in many ways created the structures needed to push for the strike outside of the labour leadership bodies. Arizona had a similar network of radicals in the rank and file who built walk-ins at school sites leading up to the strike to build momentum and make connections with teachers and families.
In some states the union leadership got on board with rank and file organising efforts to a certain degree, like West Virginia and Arizona. In other states like Oklahoma and Kentucky, union leaders sold out the movement and called for teachers to stop striking at key moments when they could have pushed for more. Whether or not rank and file union members will be able to continue to build these networks of workers that can pressure the unions from below is a key question the strike leaders are organizing around on going into the fall. For too long the leaders of the national teachers unions (AFT and NEA) have been totally passive in the fight for better jobs and better working conditions for teachers. When they have fought for funding they have done so by electing “education friendly” politicians, not by building mass struggle. These teachers’ strikes have shown a more effective way forward, one we all hope the teacher union movement can build on for the fights to come.
5. What now? What has been the aftermath? Has it impacted national politics, such as Trump or Secretary of Education Betsy De Vos, or mainly state or local politics?
The aftermath is yet to be seen I think. The national education leaders, like Betsy DeVos, are completely clueless and have not addressed the strikes in any way. I do hope they have felt a little fear in the face of this kind of action as it shows them all that workers are what make the schools run, not people like DeVos who has never spent a day in a public school classroom.
At a local and state level there have been conversations about how to tax the rich to get more funding and several states are looking at trying to win extraction taxes or new business taxes in order to increase school revenues in the coming years. Whether or not these campaigns get traction among a larger layer of workers is yet to be seen.
But this doesn’t mean the strikes haven’t fundamentally changed things. I think the largest impact has been on working class consciousness and the fact that these strikes have shown a new way to resist the policies of austerity and neoliberalism. They have shown all of us if we organise as workers and fight back we can actually beat back the attacks. To what degree this change in consciousness has spread is unclear—that will be seen in the struggles to come and whether or not the US labour movement decides to “go all West Virginia” on the bosses moving forward.