A Field Guide to the New Red-Baiting

Faced with a historic public-sector strike wave, anti-labor forces are sharpening their rhetorical weapons.

Aude Odeh, an english teacher at Barry Goldwater High School, cheers in support of the #REDforED movement during a rally in front of the State Capitol on April 26, 2018 in Phoenix, Arizona. Ralph Freso / Getty

“It turns out our friends at #RedForEd are more red than many people know,” wrote Arizona Republican state representative Maria Syms in an op-ed last week, as tens of thousands of Arizona educators prepared to strike. Teachers in Arizona joined those in Colorado and followed in the wake of teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma in withholding their labor to demand better pay and working conditions.

Attempting to undermine the wildly popular teachers’ strike, which began last Thursday, Syms named two teacher-organizers who she claimed were “political operatives who moved here within the last two years to use teachers and our children to carry out their socialist movement.” She presented social-media evidence that these organizers intended “more harm than good by politicizing Arizona education in pursuit of their self-proclaimed agenda — a national socialist revolution.”

Syms’s condemnation is reminiscent of the red-baiting that drove radicals out of the labor movement in the mid-twentieth century. Back then, the strategic intent was to sever the ties between socialism and the labor movement. With that task more or less complete today, the purpose of a comment like Syms’s is more modest — namely to turn the tide of public sentiment against workers by connecting their strike action to an unpopular ideology.

It’s just one of many contemporary tactics used to delegitimize public-sector strikes. These rhetorical maneuvers — used by conservative and, frequently, liberal politicians and commentators — fall into three broad categories: accusations of betraying the public, stealing from other workers, and failing to live up to American values. Once we know what they look like, we can spot them from a mile away.

Betraying the Public

Because public-sector workers do important jobs that are needed to keep society running, when they strike, they’re easy targets for a particular type of allegation: betraying the public. Transit workers are accused of stranding commuters, UPS workers are said to hold the nation hostage, and sanitation workers are blamed for plunging cities into filth instead of being recognized for their daily work keeping them clean. And of course the most common denunciation of teachers’ strikes is that educators who withhold their labor are harming the state’s children.

Politicians and pundits often invoke children’s well-being when what they’re really after is defeating a strike. When school superintendent Stephen Paine urged teachers not to go on strike in West Virginia, he said, “Families will be forced to seek out alternative safe locations for their children, and our many students who depend on schools for daily nutrition will face an additional burden. I encourage our educators to advocate for the benefits they deserve, but to seek courses of action that have the least possible disruption for our students.”

Such predictable accusations are precisely why West Virginia teachers packed lunches and delivered them to students in need. The gesture was both a genuine expression of concern for students and a savvy public-relations move meant to ward off the accusation that teachers were abandoning children and even forcing them to go hungry. It also doubled as an implicit rebuke of the state’s failure to provide a decent standard of living for its residents, such that many are on the brink of malnutrition.

But try as they might to fend off such charges, teachers still come under fire for harming kids. Betsy DeVos offered a diplomatic version of this line when she inveighed against the recent Oklahoma teachers’ strike, commenting, “I think we need to stay focused on what’s right for kids. And I hope that adults would keep adult disagreements and disputes in a separate place, and serve the students that are there to be served.”

During Kentucky’s teacher walkout, Governor Matt Bevin took this indictment to its most ludicrous extreme, saying, “Children were harmed — some physically, some sexually, some were introduced to drugs for the first time — because they were vulnerable and left alone.… I guarantee you somewhere in Kentucky today, a child was sexually assaulted that was left at home because there was nobody there to watch them.”

Stealing From Other Workers

The second type of complaint against public-sector workers is more insidious. When the West Virginia teachers’ strike started gaining steam, Republican lawmakers began to say in the media that if the pay raise and health care fix teachers demanded were conceded, the money would have to come out of Medicaid — never mind that corporate tax cuts have diminished the state’s revenue by an estimated $425 million a year over the last decade.

Of course, Republican — and some Democratic — lawmakers are always going to go after programs for the poor to balance their budgets without biting the hand that feeds them. They do this every year, teachers’ strike or not. Raising the specter of Medicaid cuts was less a prediction than a stratagem: a method of dividing the working class and tanking public opinion of the strike.

With 29 percent of West Virginians on Medicaid, the threat of strike-related Medicaid cuts put hundreds of thousands of people in a position where their (overall, high) support for the strike suddenly conflicted with their own material interests. Politicians in states like West Virginia know this tactic can be effective because in poorer, more rural states, lurking just beneath the surface, there’s often widespread resentment of public-sector workers with supposedly “cushy” jobs.

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker alluded to this in 2010 when he said, “We can no longer have a society where the public-sector employees are the ‘haves’ and the people who foot the bill, the taxpayers, are the ‘have-nots’.” As Katherine Cramer found in researching her book The Politics of Resentment: Rural Consciousness in Wisconsin:

People in small towns resented university employees and public employees in general because they received great benefits. And who paid for these benefits? Taxpayers, like themselves. They perceived that they worked harder than other people to make ends meet because they had to survive in a rural economy.… But their hard-earned money was going to pay for wages and benefits for people who they did not think were working very hard and whom they therefore perceived as undeserving.

West Virginia teachers made a smart decision, demanding that the funds for their raise and health benefits come from a proposed coal and severance tax — in other words that industry, not poor West Virginians, should pay for teachers’ raises. With picket line slogans like “Pass the Gas Tax!,” teachers pushed back against the fallacy that public revenue is a fixed quantity and that the working class must compete for scraps.

West Virginia teachers managed to keep public support high for the strike in spite of this rhetoric. But it wasn’t long before Arizona governor Doug Ducey dangled a 20 percent raise in front of his state’s teachers threatening to strike — on condition that it would be funded by cuts to Medicaid and other programs. Fortunately, Arizona teachers didn’t fall for it.

Failing to Represent American Values

The third category of public-sector strike disparagement is a broad one: failing to represent American values. Usually this involves denigrating the work ethic of whichever public employees are striking. Oklahoma governor Mary Fallin likened striking teachers in her state to “a teenage kid that wants a better car.” Teachers in particular bear the brunt of this accusations of laziness. In 2014, New Mexico governor Susana Martinez typified the attitude when she said:

We can’t say it, I guess, because it’s education, but I really keep going back to that … keeping the teachers from feeling the pain when they already don’t work, you know, two and a half months out of the year or three months out of the year but earn salaries at the same rate of people who do work twelve months a year.

When teachers bristled at the governor’s comments, Martinez used their attacks in her fundraising pitch, pushing the narrative that ungrateful teachers were attacking her for telling the truth about their outrageous demands and poor work ethic.

The work ethic is one of the sturdiest, most central pillars of American collective self-perception. Americans work over 25 percent more hours than Europeans. Not only do we get about half the vacation time of Europeans, we usually only take three-quarters of it. Work and virtue are virtually synonymous for this theoretically meritocratic nation of immigrants. So the “laziness” rhetoric deployed against striking public-sector workers (particularly teachers; the Chicago 2012 teachers’ strike featured many examples) cuts to the quick, and paints teachers as out of step with the rest of the public — not just concerning the justice of their demands, but on a deeper cultural level as well.

The red-baiting we saw in Arizona is just an extension of this phenomenon. The subtext is that striking teachers seek to skate by on the taxpayer dime. To many Americans, especially in red states, that’s also the definition of socialism. When Representative Maria Syms talks about the Arizona strike being hijacked by socialists, this is essentially what she means: not that it’s being led by a core group of radical organizers who believe in expanding democratic control of the economy, but that collective bargaining itself is out of step with American values, particularly the virtue of individual hard work.

But here’s the good news: it isn’t working very well. In her op-ed, Syms tried to get a hashtag started — #TooRedForEd (a play on Arizona teachers’ #RedForEd). It flopped — social media that week was instead filled with stunning photographs of thousands of teachers in red t-shirts flooding the streets of Phoenix, headed toward the capitol to demand a fair contract. New polls show that 78 percent of Americans think teacher pay is too low, while more than half are supportive of the strikes.

This surge in public approval shows that old anti-worker tropes are wearing thin and the accusations are falling on deaf ears. Politicians and pundits still wag their fingers and warn of betrayal — but fewer and fewer people are listening.