Five Take-Aways from the Educator Strike Wave
Stan Strasner is an educator and vice president of the Seattle Substitutes Association within the Seattle Education Association (SEA).
When many were ready to write the obituary for public sector unions, the teachers strike wave has shaken the US and opened up an exciting new chapter in working-class struggle. This is the largest public sector strike wave in over 40 years. What lessons can we learn from these educators?
1) West Virginia asked: What is a union anyway?
In West Virginia, unions were under attack from Tea Party Republicans who had just recently passed “Right to Work” legislation. Union membership was on the decline, and those unions weren’t putting up much resistance against attacks on education. So when the West Virginia educators voted in their buildings to strike, they went around the official unions. They organized the vote themselves, and didn’t limit the vote just to unionized educators. Instead, all the staff in every building voted together. Strike votes are normally only taken by union members, but in this case, a lot of the workers weren’t in any union at all.
West Virginia educators broke all the rules of how contemporary strikes are ‘supposed’ to be. At one point, the union leadership tried to send their members back to classrooms after securing a 5% raise for teachers and a 3% raise for all other public workers in the state from the Republican-controlled legislature. After decades of defeats under Democratic and Republican majorities, any victory was huge. But since educators were organizing alongside other public sector workers, they rejected the divisive deal with shouts of “We are the union bosses!” in a rebuke of the authority and failed strategy of the conservative leaders. They voted to stay on strike until they won a 5% pay increase for all public sector workers.
West Virginia educators were able to unite, fight and win. Although the actions they took only form the outlines of a real new effective union, they showed a new generation of workers how this idea of fighting for a much wider layer of workers is immensely effective.
2) Los Angeles Put the Community in the Union
Corporate education reformers often push the lie that educators and their unions are only interested in increased teacher pay. This is designed with one purpose in mind: to divide educators from the communities that they serve. So before going on strike, educators are often rightly concerned that parents and the community might not be on their side.
Four years before the Los Angeles strike, a left-wing caucus won a leadership election. They held public forums where they listened to the needs of the community and then championed those needs at the bargaining table and on the picket lines. They called this strategy “Bargaining for the Common Good.”
One example that community members put forward was to turn vacant lots owned by the district into green spaces to provide equitable access for kids, especially for low-income areas. The union won this demand for the community.
Immigrant families faced the threat of deportation, so the union successfully bargained for immigrant defence funds so the families could get a lawyer. Bringing these community demands to the bargaining table cut across this idea that ‘greedy educators’ were just out for themselves.
This model contributed to the mass turnout of tens of thousands of community members during the strike. They found that unions that stand for wider community issues get community support. With solid active community support, the elected officials were forced to give in.
3) Denver “Likes” its Bargaining Strategy
Unions often tell their bargaining team members not to share things outside of the bargaining room, but in Denver, they took a radically different approach by live-streaming their bargaining sessions on Facebook for all to see.
“There was a law that required we had some form of public bargaining,” recounted Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teacher’s Association (DCTA) in a phone interview. “It was put together by the right wing in Colorado, but we embraced it. They used it with the intent of causing some sort of lasting damage, but we ran with it.”
“The district was against it. We definitely were for it. We generally talk about transparency. Whenever the district talks about it, they don’t walk their talk. We have absolutely nothing to hide. People can see what we’re advocating for… we got amazing support from our members, from parents, and from the community. For us, it has been a win-win. We have absolutely nothing to hide. At the end of the day, when we’re advocating for the working conditions of educators, we’re advocating for learning conditions for our students.”
4) Around the Country, Strikes Work
West Virginia educators’ successful fight against the Republican-dominated legislature in a Trump-majority state showed that political strikes can take on even the most right-wing political bodies. They inspired other educators to imagine what else is possible. A year after that, the West Virginia legislature attempted to retaliate against public schools and educators who had dared to fight back. They introduced a bill in the dead of night that would grant an educator raise, while attacking public education in every other way. Educators across the state wouldn’t be divided, and quickly voted on a one-day walkout aimed at this attack. All 55 districts participated and marched on the state capital. They won again, this time within hours of the walkout.
As educators wage a political revolution, the counter revolution follows right after. More political battles are ahead for the growing #RedForEd movement, and we need to be well prepared. The privatization of public schools has been a bipartisan neoliberal project for decades, backed by billionaires who want to loot the coffers of public education. It’s our job to make sure they don’t get a penny.
5) Socialists Have a Key Role to Play
“The core group of organizers that for months built up to the West Virginia strike first got involved organizing with each other through the DSA” (Democratic Socialists of America) reports Eric Blanc, author of Red State Revolt.
Socialists have played a key role not just in West Virginia, but in their unions across the country. In many places they are forming rank-and-file caucuses to organize and challenge conservative union leadership. The most developed of these would be UCORE (United Caucus Of Rank-and-file Educators) local chapters in LA and Chicago. These caucuses actually won leadership elections on a platform for changing their unions into organizations collectively run by ordinary educators, and willing to fight for themselves and the communities they serve.
DSA has been highly involved in one way or another with most of the teacher strikes across the country. DSA members have provided food to striking educators and the community with campaigns like Tacos for Teachers in LA and Bread for Ed in Oakland. Democratic Socialists also provided support by organizing flying squadrons that travel from picket line to picket line strengthening and giving a boost of morale.
Socialists know the power working people have to change society. Socialists do not constrain our demands to what the capitalist system considers acceptable; we base our demands on the needs of working people, regardless of the objections of those in power. We socialists are workers who believe that a better world is possible.
“We taught Los Angeles and the United States how to fight and how to win. Can we teach people how to fight and win? That’s the best thing that teachers do and you just taught the best lesson of your life!” - United Teachers of Los Angeles President Alex Caputo-Pearl at the victory rally 1/22/19.