Labor Renaissance in the Heartland

Red state teachers are reviving the labor movement’s core values: respect for democracy and the dignity of work.

Thousands rallied at the Oklahoma state Capitol building during the third day of a statewide education walkout on April 4, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Scott Heins / Getty

Pundits have had a hard time grasping what is fueling the explosive walkouts in red states. Their confusion is understandable because the transformation of teaching since Democrats and Republicans collaborated in passing reforms that were purportedly aimed at “leaving no child behind” has been ignored. Teaching has become work that offers few opportunities to satisfy the desires motivating most people to choose it as a career: a love of working with children and deep pleasure engaging with the subject matter. The deteriorated conditions of teaching — and learning — result from a global assault on teaching, teachers, and teachers’ unions few in education and even fewer not involved in resistance to it understand.

Since their beginnings, teachers’ walkouts in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky (and the fast-emerging movement in Arizona) have repeatedly been cast as primarily struggles over economic concerns. For conservative media, the walkouts are the work of greedy public employees who want better pay and benefits than other workers get from their employers. As the wave of actions grows across the country, the media has finally started to move beyond the idea the strikes are just about pensions and salaries. Some recognize it’s about respect as well as lack of funding, but mistakenly insist that teachers are angry because they are not paid enough given their credentials.

Teachers are angry, but their anger is about far more than how much they paid for their master’s degrees. They are angry because the work they do — and the way we define the nature and purpose of schooling — have been greatly changed by neoliberal reforms which took hold twenty years ago in this country, with bipartisan consensus. Standardized testing and mandates for “data-driven instruction” have made teachers’ work less rewarding and more stressful, reducing professional autonomy and curtailing opportunities for teachers and students to have meaningful personal interactions with students and colleagues. At the same time, as West Virginia strikers have pointed out, states have refused to fund teachers’ salaries, health care, and pensions adequately. These matter to teachers because they need the money, and also because wages reflect the value society puts on our labor.

An array of conditions have created the perfect storm for militant protests. Foremost is the immediate model of West Virginia. Many teachers have been inspired by student protests over gun violence. But the seeds of this movement were planted years ago. Teachers and parents became allies in many places in the struggle to stop standardized testing from controlling what students learn, reducing the curriculum to test preparation. The traditional “bread and butter” labor union narrative has obscured the work of grassroots organizations like Save our Schools Kentucky, an activist group of parents and teachers working together to push a progressive program for school reform that goes far beyond teachers’ pensions. For years, “Bad Ass Teachers” (BATS) have been working with parents in the “opt-out” of testing movement, in red states and blue, without support from teachers unions.

An important similarity between these walkouts is that they are organized outside the official unions, often by teachers who have been radicalized by the Sanders campaign and are activists in socialist organizations. The organizations that have formed, like Oklahoma Teachers United, KY120United, and Arizona Educators United (#RedForEd) are not only outside of the union, they are often in conflict with state union officials or staff — though these conflicts are wisely muted in public amid statements of solidarity. Both NEA and AFT have in different states played what one leader described as a “rogue” role trying to dictate pacing of actions and the movement’s political and economic demands.

In their closed Facebook groups numbering tens of thousands and my private conversations with activist leaders, teachers are explicit that the state unions, and often their locals too, have not defended their professional interests. Historically teachers unions have been strongest in cities. Both leadership and activity tend to be male and high-school dominated. But the majority of teachers are women, the majority working in elementary schools. The walkouts are massive because elementary school teachers have joined the protests. Teachers have become politicized and radicalized, in a stunningly rapid process visible mainly to participants.

Whether knowingly or not, these grassroots movements challenge the premises on which teachers unions have operated for four decades, a form of business unionism inflected by rhetoric about professionalism, and failure to mobilize or even educate teachers about the “reforms” that have made life in schools drudgery for students and teachers. However, a factor in the unions’ atrophy that still lurks as a problem in the current movement is teacher unionism’s historic failure to forge alliances with communities of color. Pyrrhic strikes in the 1960s and ‘70s that pitted teachers against civil rights activists, perhaps most violently in Newark, NJ and New York City, accelerated the unions’ demise as democratic, militant organizations capable of winning substantial victories for members. That pattern was interrupted in 2012 when the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) organized against school closings and won leadership in the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), foregrounding the gross inequities the city perpetuated against students of color. In addition to the reform caucuses that have sprung up in teachers’ unions in many cities and states, this wave of red-state strikers is a new, vibrant ally for the CTU and reformers.

One challenge for the red-state movement is how to discuss and act on historic inequalities in educational opportunity for students of color. Stating the need for “quality education for all” as do the unions — at their best — isn’t enough. Especially for teachers unions in most cities, weak alliances with communities of color and immigrants is an imminent danger, for practical reasons. The Right has been able to erode union support through its control of media and politicians and its vicious union-busting, but public-employee unions have handicapped themselves in fighting these attacks by acting as if two decades of right-wing propaganda can be ignored. Labor is isolated and vulnerable. Coming to the aid of social movements is a moral imperative that’s also practical. As one CTU leader has told me, to have allies show up for you, you must start by showing up for them in their struggles — first. The Right has exploited the distrust between communities of color and teachers, fostered by the labor movement’s mixed track record on racial discrimination, to cast its reforms as equalizing educational opportunity. Billionaires and hedge funds have lavished money to create nonprofit groups that advocate for charter schools and vouchers in low-income minority communities. The only way for unions to win the support and trust of parents who feel estranged from schools, and often from teachers unions, is for the unions to be physically present in community struggles, like those against police shootings and deportations.

Though they may not see this — yet — these movements are rebuilding the labor movement in the South. To accomplish that longer-term goal, they need to present a truly progressive program for tax reform and provision of services like hiking the tax rates for corporations to fund schools; fighting for Medicare for all, not only reductions in health care costs for public employees. They may have to settle at some point for less than they’ve demanded, but it’s a losing strategy to focus on economic demands without embedding them in a social vision for making working people’s lives better.

One of the greatest contributions of this movement has been to redefine what it means to be a worker. Even the Left has had trouble understanding that teachers’ work, though it is defined as “women’s work,” is real work — that teachers are real workers; and their unions, real unions. I saw this in the “turn to the working class” in the 1970s, when socialists abandoned their activity in public-employee unions with robust reform caucuses in order to influence industrial workers, in steel, auto, communications, and transportation. In doing so, they decimated the radical presence in the AFT and NEA. It is an irony that teachers, mostly women, are now reviving labor in the South. This is a #MeToo movement, bread and roses, even though it doesn’t announce itself as such. Participants, many of whom self-identify as conservative and are Republicans, might even disavow that description. Still, in countless signs, slogans, and messages on social media, teachers in these red states announce that they will be heard.

By demanding recognition and respect for their labor and the rights of their students, teachers are reviving the most essential element of labor unionism: respect for democracy and the dignity of work.