You Need the Rank and File to Win
It was rank-and-file teachers who built Arizona's #RedforEd movement. And it will be rank-and-file teachers that wage the LA teachers' strike and the many education struggles to come.
Across the nation, from Puerto Rico to Kentucky and Colorado to California, a powerful teachers’ movement has been growing. The potential of this movement first became apparent when West Virginia’s teachers went on strike in February and ultimately won a 5 percent raise for all public employees. Following this, Oklahoma’s educators mobilized and won raises and additional funding. After that strike, teachers in my own state of Arizona went on a six-day strike and won $406 million in funding. (Arizona teachers then went on to collect 277,000 signatures for a ballot initiative for further funding.) And already this school year, thousands of teachers in Washington went on strike and thirty-three thousand educators in Los Angeles are getting ready to walk off the job.
The successes of these movements, as well as the persistent and rampant attacks on public education, have inspired many educators across the nation to build a teachers’ movement in their own state. While every movement has been different, I want to share my experience as one of the teacher-organizers who helped with the Arizona movement. I hope that by breaking down what happened in Arizona, I can help others as they begin to build or grow their own teachers’ movement. With the proliferation of standardized testing, devastating cuts to education funding, and the continual devaluing of educators, teachers must now more than ever continue to fight for the schools that they and their students deserve.
The seeds of a teacher rebellion in Arizona were sown more than a decade ago when a steady barrage of cuts to education funding first began. Years later, and despite a growing economy, this funding was never restored. By the time teachers eventually mobilized in the 2018 #RedForEd movement, Arizona’s schools were suffering from a budget deficit of $1.1 billion, per-pupil spending was forty-eighth in the nation, and Arizona’s teachers were among the lowest paid in the country. For years, Arizona’s teachers taught in crumbling schools as they lived paycheck to paycheck and struggled to have even the most essential resources available for their students such as chairs and textbooks.
When West Virginia teachers went on strike — and won — Arizona teachers saw a glimmer of hope. Following the strike, our union president from the Arizona Education Association (AEA), Joe Thomas, put out a tweet asking Arizona’s teachers if they had been watching what happened in West Virginia and if and how they wanted to mobilize in Arizona. I responded and said that yes, we had been watching and I believed Arizona’s teachers were supportive of going on strike. After a quick back and forth on Twitter, Thomas sent out two tweets:
Talking is good. The first step toward any statewide action are local actions. What can you do locally — at your site — to reveal the level of readiness for a statewide action?
Having everyone wear Red for Ed (a red shirt) on the same day would be a fine indicator.
I never really imagined anything would come of this exchange. I thought I would be lucky to even get a handful of my friends and colleagues to participate. Teachers, far too often, view teaching as a passion and an act of martyrdom and Arizona was no exception. But in the wake of West Virginia, the atmosphere was different. There was hope for change.
As I started sharing a simple Facebook event and a call to action, word of the first #RedForEd day spread quickly. A few days later, the Facebook page had more than seven thousand people who said that they were interested or participating. And on March 7, Arizona’s schools were a sea of red as thousands of teachers showed that they were ready to fight back.
The first #RedForEd Facebook event quickly ballooned into a massive form of protest. As interest grew, it was clear that there was both a need and desire for something beyond a single day of action. In the days leading up to it, I met Rebecca Garelli, Derek Harris, and Dylan Wegela in the comment section of another Facebook group for teachers that Rebecca had created. A few hours after first meeting and discussing with each other, we created the Facebook group Arizona Educators United (AEU) as a space to plan further action and get organized. Much like the #RedForEd Facebook event, this Facebook group quickly swelled to several thousand members.
The page functioned, and continues to function, as the central element of the Arizona teachers’ movement. The five teachers who serve as the group’s “administrators” post events, share information, organize mobilizations, vote on the demands of the movement, and discuss our actions among fifty-two thousand other educators and supporters. Another team of about twelve teachers review content, screen requests to join the group, and moderate the Facebook page. It was on this page that the fundamental goals of our movement were developed as educators discussed staggeringly low wages, awful classroom conditions, a lack of teaching materials, and a desire to take action and reverse the decline of education in Arizona.
While several other teachers’ movements such as Oklahoma and West Virginia utilized Facebook to organize, we embraced the platform in a different way. Instead of having one group page where educators executed essentially all elements of the movement, we created a network of Facebook pages.
Our main page existed solely for movement leaders to disperse information and organize the rank-and-file educators on the page. On other pages, such as the AEU Discussion Hub and local #RedForEd Facebook groups organized by district or town, teachers and supporters were encouraged to discuss the movement and plan actions in their community. In addition, we collected data and contact information from the very beginning so that we could reach teachers outside of Facebook through email blasts, calls, and texts.
Without any funding or resources, this was done primarily through the work of Vanessa Arredondo, a teacher and AEU organizer in Yuma, Arizona, who dedicated herself to developing the infrastructure through countless email lists and Google Forms. In doing so, Arizona’s movement circumvented one of the primary drawbacks to organizing through Facebook — the fact that (especially in a group of forty thousand to sixty thousand) the amount of content and information on the page can be overwhelming and vital information is consequently quickly buried or lost.
Arizona’s movement was also unique in the way the grassroots activists in AEU were able to work with our AEA union leadership. Our union leaders realized that we had been able to ignite a spark that they were unable to cultivate and told AEU that they wanted the teachers to remain at the helm of the movement. We worked hand in hand with the union as we built a movement that was designed to engage all educators, regardless of union membership. Through this relationship, our grassroots energy was matched with the institutional power and experience of the union to create a mass movement in a “right-to-work” state. This relationship between rank-and-file activists and union leaders was vital to the successes in Arizona.
Along with the Facebook pages and the close relationship between the union and grassroots leaders, we also built a “site liaison” network. The site liaison network was, and still is, a network of more than two thousand individual teachers who are organizers for their campus. These teachers are volunteer organizers who communicate with movement leaders primarily through the AEU Site Liaisons Facebook group and email as they direct the day-to-day activism of the teachers at their school. Most of these teachers were also union site representatives, but for many this was their first experience in organizing. By developing the liaison network, we were able to create a bottom-up infrastructure that allowed teachers and advocates to engage in meaningful, local actions as well as lead the larger statewide fight.
Site liaisons are in charge of dispersing information to all of their colleagues at their campus. For many, this means utilizing tools such as Remind — a texting app commonly used by teachers for parent communication, email blasts, and after-school meetings. Site liaisons also perform essential tasks such as organizing and hosting the strike vote, which was facilitated by both AEU and AEA. Through this structure, local leaders become empowered to not only perform these tasks and help sustain the movement, but are also encouraged to organize their own local actions.
Many site liaisons began organizing tactics such as “bridge takeovers” where dozens of teachers stand on overpasses with signs bearing education facts and phrases like “Don’t make me go West Virginia on you!” while wearing red shirts. In other schools, liaisons organized individual sick-outs that shut down entire districts, local marches, car painting events, and employed dozens of other tactics to help increase momentum and grow power. As movement leader and teacher Dylan Wegela put it, “The site liaisons are essential to the movement. They organize at the ground level to build power of #RedForEd.” Without their involvement, #RedForEd would never have built the power that we have now.
We knew that the grounds for a teacher strike, if present at all in Arizona, had to be developed through a series of deliberate tactics focused on increasing our power and support. And one strategy we borrowed from West Virginia was a slow escalation of tactics.
Our first tactic in this gradual process was the #RedForEd T-shirt action in early March when thousands of teachers wore red on the same day to signal that they were ready to take action. We encouraged teachers to not only wear red, but also to post images of themselves in red shirts on social media and use the hashtag #RedForEd. Then we engaged teachers in another simple, yet intentionally more personal ask. We asked teachers to wear red again, but this time to post a picture with a piece of paper and the three reasons why they were #RedForEd. Through this tactic, we showed the faces of the teachers and began to tell the stories of why we were fighting back. For example, eighth-grade English language arts teacher Chad Schafer held up a sign with these three reasons:
I live with three other teachers just so we can afford rent.
Schools and students are losing amazing teachers because they cannot survive on their salaries for educators.
We elementary teachers are more than 20 percent below the national average for teacher salary.
About two weeks later, the union had its annual “Day at the Capitol” where educators on spring break lobby legislators and learn about the bills being heard. The union invited both members and non-members to the event and more than one hundred teachers arrived in red shirts to begin lobbying legislators. A week later, around 350 teachers arrived for the second part of this event. By opening this event up to all teachers, the union showed that it was willing to work with the rank-and-file members of AEU. This event proved that the #RedForEd movement was not simply a social media phenomenon but was prepared to mobilize in person and hold legislators accountable.
As both energy and participation grew, we continued to mobilize largely in person. After building the confidence and power of teachers through social media actions and the Day at the Capitol events, we knew that we could then move away from online organizing and begin to ask teachers to show up at events and protests in person. The actions that followed included protesting Gov. Doug Ducey’s appearances on a local radio station, testifying in legislative committee hearings, and the near-constant efforts of site liaisons in local protests. While these actions were taking place, it became clear that a full-fledged teachers’ movement was truly developing.
We hosted a series of polls in the main AEU Facebook page that allowed teachers to offer suggestions for demands and vote on what was most important to them. Ultimately, these polls developed what became the five demands of the movement. These demands included a 20 percent raise for teachers, competitive wages for all classified staff, no new tax cuts until Arizona’s per-pupil spending reaches the national average, a return to 2008 funding levels, and yearly raises until Arizona’s average teacher salary reaches the national average.
Middle school science teacher and Arizona Educators United organizer Rebecca Garelli summarized the demands as intended to “secure the future of public education in Arizona and fight for the schools our students and educators deserve.” We officially announced these demands at a rally on the Capitol grounds that was attended by several thousand teachers and education advocates. It was clear educators were prepared to take radical action and talk of a strike began to spread quickly.
However, this had all taken place in roughly four weeks. Beyond our network of educators and advocates, our communities were largely unaware of the desperate state of our schools, as well as the goals of the Arizona #RedForEd movement. We knew that we must engage with our communities and ensure that before any further escalation we have their support. We’re in a conservative “right-to-work” state, and without their support, we were destined to fail.
So, in order to gain the support of our communities, we utilized the walk-in tactic that was used in West Virginia. We created Facebook events and encouraged site liaisons to communicate with parents to tell them that we would be holding walk-ins and what could be expected. And for two consecutive Wednesdays, teachers wore red as they met with parents and students outside of school before classes began to discuss the issues that we all faced in Arizona schools, as well as the #RedForEd movement’s goals. Then, teachers and community members walked into their schools together in a show of solidarity.
These walk-ins proved to be essential as they successfully secured the support of the community. On one walk-in day, more than 110,000 community members and educators entered schools together in bold solidarity and sent a resounding message throughout the state. Just days before, after an interview at the local radio station KTAR, the governor had brushed the movement off and claimed that it was “political theater” and that he has a “day job” and no time to concern himself with our demands. Yet one day after the massive walk-in mobilization, the governor announced that he had a plan for 20 percent raises for all teachers.
The tactic of the walk-in was, and is, the defining moment of the Arizona #RedForEd movement. By engaging with our community and winning their support, the entire playing field shifted. Suddenly, the movement was no longer just angry teachers in red shirts. Now, the entire community was behind us. The governor simply had to act or be crushed by the sheer force of the movement and the community.
However, the governor’s pay plan in response to the walk-ins was riddled with holes. It ignored four of our five demands, left out pay raises for our colleagues such as bus drivers and paraprofessionals, stole funding from other public services, and had no sustained revenue source. It was a sham, so we continued to escalate our actions and soon called for a strike vote.
Before the vote, there was a sense among movement leaders that many educators were now satisfied and willing to accept the governor’s pay proposal. We wondered if educators would stand with their students and colleagues and continue to fight or if they would take off their red shirts and take the governor’s 20 percent pay raise. But when the results of the vote came in, the answer was clear as 78 percent of all school staff across Arizona — union and non-union, AEU member and non-member — voted to authorize a walkout.
While the strike eventually secured a $406 million investment in public education, resulting in significant raises for many teachers and school employees, it also became clear that the governor and the legislature were not willing to replace the remaining $700 million still missing from our schools.
We were left with a difficult decision. With the legislative session closed and the legislators leaving the building, do we stay out of our classrooms and continue the strike, or do we need to turn to a new tactic? Could we force a special session? We had to act quickly as the budget passed and another school day slowly crept nearer and nearer.
In response, we quickly sent teams of leaders and union staff to talk to teachers on the ground at the Capitol and see what they wanted to do. We asked the teachers, “If the budget passes, do we stay out on strike or change tactics?” While we were not able to conduct a full, democratic vote (one of my personal regrets from the entire movement), the teachers at the Capitol told us overwhelmingly that if the budget passes, they wished to return to their classrooms.
In response, we called for an end to the strike. However, the movement’s leaders understood that teachers could not go back to our classrooms and accept pay raises without winning anything for our students, and our colleagues who went on strike with us. We needed to change our tactics. AEU’s leadership endorsed the InvestInEd initiative — a tax increase on the top 1 percent of income earners to generate $700 million for education. In roughly five weeks, teachers and advocates gathered more than 227,000 signatures to put the InvestInEd initiative on the November ballot. However, in August the Arizona Supreme Court, overturning three prior rulings, controversially pulled the InvestInEd initiative from the ballot.
While this was a devastating development in the movement, Arizona’s teachers remain dedicated to the fight for public education. We simply changed our focus once again as we continued to mobilize. We focused on the November elections and asked candidates to sign a pledge of support to the movement and its demands. By Election Day, we had seventy-eight candidates who signed their support. Teachers then knocked on more than eighty thousand doors to help secure seats for these pro-public education legislators.
We saw the results of these efforts as several teachers and public education advocates such as Kathy Hoffman, a public school speech therapist, first-time candidate, and now Arizona superintendent of public instruction, won major electoral victories. While these victories are exciting, teachers in Arizona understand that this movement is about more than electoral politics. We realize that in order to win, we must build lasting, localized power throughout our union and state. That is why we are currently planning our next actions for this legislative session, building a stronger union, and focusing on growing our power both locally and statewide.
The first lesson I hope people take away from Arizona #RedForEd is that a grassroots, rank-and-file movement is absolutely necessary — particularly in “right-to-work” states. Whether the rank and file assume leadership through Facebook pages, forming local collectives, or by getting elected to official union leadership positions, it is clear that the energy and leadership of teachers themselves is what is needed to lead these battles.
And while the rank and file must lead, they should also be deliberate in securing the support of their union leadership in order to create a powerful partnership. And simultaneously, union leadership must be willing to not only work with rank-and-file teachers, but also to allow them to assume authentic, meaningful leadership roles.
It is important to recognize that for many teachers, they simply need to be allowed the space to grow as leaders. As Jay Barbuto, a middle school English teacher and now established movement leader and union organizer said: “I’m passionate about teaching. I’m the teacher that goes above and beyond for his students. They’re family. So, when #RedForEd became a thing in Arizona, it just seemed like an opportunity for me to show these leadership skills and enthusiasm in a different light.” Leaders in both union and grassroots organizations must constantly recognize that teachers like Jay are waiting for their opportunity. We must deliberately foster new leaders as we simultaneously create the spaces necessary for their leadership.
Second is a community-centric orientation to teachers’ movements. In Arizona, the turning point occurred when we went into our communities and spoke with our neighbors and friends about what was happening. In response to walk-ins, town halls, and car-window painting events for parents, the community threw their support behind the teachers and the entire tide shifted. Suddenly, #RedForEd signs were in the windows of homes on every block, car windows were painted with education facts, and the force of the movement was felt far beyond the walls of the school. This community-based approach to a labor movement was what made transformative change possible in Arizona.
The third lesson is that democratic organizing, whether through union reforms or establishing new structures such as Arizona Educators United, must be embraced. Arizona’s movement allowed teachers to not simply participate, but to lead. Through the site liaison network, thousands of teachers became powerful local leaders. And by using online platforms such as Facebook to vote on tactics and demands, the voices of the teachers were not only heard, but also were acted on.
This authentic engagement of the rank and file created spaces for teachers — regardless of political affiliation or union membership — to participate. As elementary school substitute teacher and #RedForEd supporter Allison Ryal-Bagley told the New York Times as she voiced her support for new taxes to fund public education, “I’m a die-hard Republican, and I’m dying inside. Republicans aren’t taking care of our kids.” By engaging in democratic organizing that both respected and welcomed people like Allison, we were able to create a movement that cut across partisan lines and mobilized thousands of public education supporters.
Another lesson is that the gradual escalation of tactics that was embraced in Arizona, and originally mobilized in West Virginia, is a vital strategy that can be duplicated in nearly any setting. We realized that we could not simply dive headfirst into a statewide strike. We needed to bring more teachers into the movement, develop our message, and add nuance to our actions. Most importantly, we also needed to provide time to engage with our community, gain their support, and recognize their values and ideas. Through gradually escalating our actions, we were able to accomplish this as we simultaneously built structures such as the liaison network, which allowed us to begin building toward lasting power and not simply a strike.
Finally, the most important lesson to be learned is that teachers have tremendous power. It is simply undeniable. Across the nation, we have seen the power of teachers when they unite and fight for what they believe in. And as conservative and neoliberal attacks on our schools continue, it only becomes clearer that there is no hero waiting in the wings to save us. Teachers themselves must become the very leaders who will save our schools. And there isn’t a second to lose. It is time to fight back.