Teachers succeed by framing strikes as for common good
Los Angeles teachers who declared a victory after a six-day strike have added momentum to a successful wave of activism by educators framing their cause as a push to improve public education, not just get pay raises.
Teachers in Denver, Oakland, Virginia, Texas, Washington and Illinois are planning rallies, marches and, in some cases, strikes of their own – actions that have fed off one another since the movement began last spring in West Virginia.
"Some of this action breeds more action," said Daniel Montgomery, president of the teachers union in Illinois, where the nation's first strike against a charter school network ended last month in Chicago. "People look around and say, 'It is possible to do this. The teachers walked out in West Virginia and the walls didn't cave in.'"
In several states, governors and lawmakers are moving pre-emptively to address teachers' grievances through proposals to increase money for education.
Texas Gov. Greg Abbott and new House Speaker Dennis Bonnen, both Republicans, emphasized more spending on schools as they were sworn in this month. Elected officials in New Mexico, Georgia, Indiana,Mississippi and Arkansas are among others who have proposed increases in teacher pay early in the new year.
"Some state legislators may get wise and head this off ahead of time," said Kenneth Dau-Schmidt, a labor and employment law professor at Indiana University. "You may see less strikes just because legislatures get out in front of the problem."
In Los Angeles, 30,000 teachers returned to work Wednesday. They settled for the same 6 percent raise offered early on by the nation's second-largest school district, but they also secured promises for smaller class sizes and more nurses and counselors to benefit students.
Labor historian Joseph McCartin, a professor at Georgetown University, said the recent actions have been more popular politically than a series of teacher strikes in the 1970s because of how they are framed.
"What you're seeing in each of these cases is when teachers did engage in militancy, they did so not just to win raises for themselves, and sometimes not even primarily to win raises for themselves," he said, "but to push back against the austerity regime that was undermining public education."
Montgomery said teachers have made a point to discuss things like crowded classrooms and inadequate supplies, an approach that drew public support for Detroit teachers during “sickouts” in 2016.
“They couldn’t strike, but the teachers did a sickout to call attention to rats in school districts and buckled gym floors and standing sewage and things like that, and people see that and they get outraged,” the Illinois union leader said. “It’s bringing it to people’s consciousness in a way that they can see and feel.”
Unions in several districts have been taking cues from the movement that began with the nine-day teacher walkout in West Virginia before spreading to Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and beyond.
Denver teachers were ready to walk out Monday before school officials asked the state to intervene, delaying their plans to strike over the district’s pay scale after more than a year of negotiations.
A Washington state union that represents school employees invited a West Virginia teacher to an assembly last spring after their walkout ended with a 5 percent raise for teachers and other staff.
“West Virginia was inspiring to our folks because the teachers weren’t just saying, ‘Hey, give teachers something,’” said Tricia Schroeder, executive vice president of Local 925 of the Service Employees International Union.
The union represents school health staff and other paraprofessionals from the Issaquah School District east of Seattle who voted earlier this month to authorize a strike amid contentious bargaining.
In Texas, teachers plan to converge March 11 at the state Capitol, where 12 seats in the Republican-led House flipped to Democrats that emphasized education funding during the midterm election.
After teachers in neighboring Oklahoma won an average $6,100 raise with a nine-day walkout last spring, Texas State Teachers Association President Noel Candelaria said he received several calls suggesting a walkout. Striking is illegal in Texas, so teachers organized around the election and plan to keep up the pressure, he said.
Teachers across Virginia plan to march on the Capitol in Richmond on Jan. 28 to demand lawmakers restore funding lost to Great Recession-era cuts and pay teachers in line with the national average. Like Texas, where the march coincides with spring break, it won’t shut down schools.
Virginia educators are requesting leave as they test the waters in a state where teacher strikes are illegal.
“When you take on these things, you really have to do them together. It really has to be big,” said Sarah Pedersen, a middle school history teacher who helped form Virginia Educators United to build unity. “We’re expecting between 1,000 and 3,500 people. We need to ensure that we can grow to 30,000 to 40,000 people.”