Liberals and the Strike

The wave of teacher strikes is a challenge not just to GOP austerity, but to Democratic Party neoliberalism.

Stormy Cole, a Stillwater, OK student displays a protest sign during a teachers' rally at the state capitol on Monday in Oklahoma City. J Pat Carter / Getty

I’ve been amazed — in a good way — at how positive is the media coverage of all these teacher wildcat strikes and actions in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona. Particularly from liberal media outlets.

I say this because it was just six years ago that the teachers in Chicago struck. Even though their cause was just as righteous as that of the teachers in these southern states, featuring many of the same grievances you see in the current moment — the Chicago teachers’ final contract included a guarantee of textbooks for all students on the first day of class; a doubling of funds for class supplies; $1.5 million for new special education teachers; and so on — the hostility from media outlets, including liberal media outlets, was palpable.

Time’s education columnist had this to say about the Chicago teachers — many of whom were women of color, in a union led by a woman of color — on the Diane Rehm Show:

Part of this strike, it’s pretty clear, is that the union needed to have some theater for its members, let them blow off some steam, and that’s increasingly obvious.

I got into a Twitter spat with ABC News’s Terry Moran, who tweeted, “I wonder if the Chicago teachers realize how much damage they are doing to their profession — and to so many children and their families.” Moran, who makes $25k to $30k for each talk he gives (at least back in 2012), even had the gall to suggest that the teachers shouldn’t be complaining about their paltry raises.

If you were online during that strike and supported the teachers, you were part of a fairly small crew of folks like Kenzo Shibata, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Megan Erickson, Doug Henwood, and myself, arguing with the likes of Dylan Matthews (then at the Washington Post), Matt Yglesias (then at Slate), and others of that ilk. Almost no one with a national platform, save Diane Ravitch, supported the strikers.

Given the way the discussion of race, gender, and identity politics has gone the past few years, you would have thought that the Chicago teachers would have been a natural cause célèbre for liberal commentators. Their spokesperson was Karen Lewis, a black woman (also Jewish!). Many of the strikers were women of color. They were working in a multiracial city, dealing with all the sorts of challenges liberals claim to care about. Yet so many of the liberal outlets and voices who have made race and gender politics a concern in recent years were either silent or critical of the teachers. (Women of color: cool; women of color in unions: not so cool. That’s how we get to preserve the fiction that when we speak of the working class or union members, we’re only talking about white men.)

There are a lot of reasons for the change in tone and coverage today: Bernie Sanders has helped change the conversation among liberals and in the Democratic Party. Trump and the Republicans have dramatized the cost of policies the nation has been pursuing for some time: less focus on funding, more focus on testing and charter schools.

But one of the big changes is that six years ago, the face of the opposition to the Chicago teachers was Mayor Rahm Emanuel — the Svengali of both the Clinton and Obama White Houses — and, behind Emanuel, the Democratic Party. People have probably already forgotten this, but in the last decade or so, the Democrats — and liberals like Jonathan Chait — have gotten really bad on education, teachers’ unions, and public schools.

One has to wonder if these strikes were happening in blue states, with Democratic governors and state legislatures, what the reception might be. One also has to wonder if the strikers and/or students were of color, what the reception might be. The coverage could turn out quite different, with the concerns of students of color being pitted against the unions, or with the ugly undercurrents of race working against the concerns and interests of both the teachers and the students.

Regardless of the hypothetical, the fact is that these teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona aren’t just challenging the hard right; they’re also, in a way, challenging the neoliberal Dems.

That’s another reason why this strike wave may prove to be so historic: in the same way that the late 1970s signified the Republican Party’s growing willingness to challenge the Democrats and New Deal liberalism, so did it signal a fundamental shift within the Republican Party, with the hard right contesting power at the highest levels of the GOP. Those were the years that saw the rise to prominence of these new faces of the party: Orrin Hatch, Alan Simpson, John Warner (remember when he was considered the hard right?), Thad Cochran, Larry Pressler, and so on. (Both Hatch and Cochran are retiring this year, by the way.)

The challenge of this strike is not just to the Prop 13 Order of the Republican Party; it’s also to the neoliberal order within the Democratic Party.