A Different Kind of Teachers’ Strike Wave

The teachers strikes of the 1960s and ‘70s embraced workplace militancy but alienated parents and other communities who should have been allies. By striking on behalf of the entire working class, today’s teachers aren’t making that same mistake.

Oakland Unified School District students, teachers and parents gather at Oakland City Hall before marching to the Oakland Unified School District headquarters on February 21, 2019 in Oakland, California. Justin Sullivan / Getty

After decades of decline, the past year has seen a dramatic revival in labor militancy. Public school teachers have been at the forefront of this resurgence, starting with a dramatic wildcat strike in West Virginia in February 2018, then a wave of teacher strikes that swept the nation, moving from red states like Arizona and Oklahoma to blue California and Colorado.

This is not the first time teachers have taken mass, militant labor action in the United States; the 1970s saw a similar strike wave. But today’s strikes have centered antiracist class-struggle demands that unite teachers and school communities, particularly in LA, Oakland, and Chicago; the strikes of the 1970s exacerbated tensions between mostly white teachers and the communities of color they served. Striking teachers have also made clear that public education must be funded by reappropriating the wealth of corporations and the ultrarich, not by higher taxes or benefit cuts to working people.

The legacy of these toxic conflicts was division among working people, who should have been uniting to fight the opening salvos of austerity politics and neoliberal privatization. By the early 1980s, teachers found themselves politically isolated and vulnerable to increasingly aggressive right-wing attacks.

The recent teacher strikes are significant because of the kinds of demands teachers are pressing: smaller class sizes, more support staff for students, and ends to school closures and charter school expansion. Teachers have won widespread public support for their cause by presenting demands on behalf of the entire working class, and by building solidarity against a common enemy: the billionaires hoarding obscene wealth and trying to destroy public education.

Today, the teachers’ victories are victories for the working class. The solidarity being rebuilt through the current strike wave could be a seed of the kind of mass movement necessary to fundamentally reorder society: a movement of the multiracial working class, fighting to democratize our economy and break the stranglehold of the ultrarich over our political system.

Teacher Strikes in the Late ‘60s and ‘70s

As historian Jon Shelton reports in his recent history of teacher militancy in the second half of the twentieth century, Teacher Strike!, teacher strikes were common throughout the 1960s. But around the turn of the decade, the strikes spiked dramatically, peaking at more than 200 in the 1975–76 school year. (By contrast, there were only 300 strikes throughout all of the ‘60s.) They also took on a more militant character, with teachers engaging in illegal labor action and shutting down schools for weeks or months on end. Teachers engaged in major strikes in St Louis, Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and New York City, as well as in smaller cities.

Shelton cites two main issues driving the ‘70s strike wave. The first was the conflict, in the early part of the decade, between majority-white teachers unions and Black Power advocates, who pushed for greater community control of urban schools and wanted teachers to shoulder more care-taking responsibilities. The second was the fiscal crises many cities faced in the mid- to late ’70s, which forced city governments to reduce public employee payrolls and cut benefits.

Structural economic changes led to fiscal pressure in many cities. Deindustrialization and “white flight” of higher-income taxpayers to the suburbs had decimated cities’ tax bases, while spending on public services and welfare increased as poorer people (predominantly people of color) continued to migrate to the cities and unemployment grew — a history recounted by William Julius Wilson in The Truly Disadvantaged.

While teachers often won their strike demands throughout this period, the victories would prove pyrrhic. Resistance to black communities’ desire for more control over their schools alienated teachers from parents and students of color. Later on, when unions fought against municipal governments’ attempts to lay off teachers and cut pay and benefits, mayors and local media often succeeded in portraying teachers and other urban public employees as irresponsible, unproductive leeches. White workers and business owners (disproportionately located in the suburbs) were positioned as productive taxpayers, forced to pay for urban greed and excess. Ironically, this narrative lumped the mostly white teachers in with black people in the cities, who were stereotyped as undeserving welfare recipients.

Shelton recounts this political dynamic playing out in many cities, including New York, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. These developments marked the beginning of the neoliberal turn: governments and policymakers rejected the postwar truce between capital and labor, embarking on a large-scale project of privatization and destruction of unions. As a result of the divisive strikes that did not build support or solidarity beyond educators, teachers unions were a politically vulnerable target for elites who wanted to attack labor and enact a corporate school reform agenda.

In some ways, teachers were victims of conditions beyond their control. A global crisis of profitability spurred an aggressive capitalist assault on labor unions and public services generally, of which the attack on teachers was only a small part. Yet the character of teacher militancy in that era contributed to the weak position in which teachers unions eventually found themselves. Instead of unifying a broad coalition around shared material interests and uplifting school communities along with the teachers who served them, the teachers’ demands put them at odds with other segments of the working class.

Teacher Strikes and Racial Conflict

The Ocean Hill-Brownsville episode of 1968 is the most notorious instance of racial conflict between a mostly white teachers union and communities of color. In response to New York City’s failure to integrate its schools in the ‘50s and ‘60s, black and Puerto Rican families demanded more community control over schools.

As Mike Stivers explains, in 1967, in response to pressure from parents and community groups, the NYC Board of Education designated three districts as experimental community-control districts. In these districts, community members were given limited power to set school policy and curricula and select administrators. One of these districts was Ocean Hill-Brownsville in Brooklyn.

In May 1968, the district’s administrator, Rhody McCoy, attempted to dismiss twelve teachers who were seen as enemies of community control. The United Federation of Teachers (UFT), the teachers union, regarded the firings as illegal and ordered the teachers back to work. This move set off a disastrous conflict between the UFT and community members of color, who supported McCoy’s decision.

The battle culminated in three citywide strikes, which grew increasingly acrimonious and racially charged — sometimes resulting in physical violence between white teachers and black and brown community-control supporters. Eventually, the UFT forced the Board of Ed to reinstate the twelve fired teachers and prevent local school boards from replacing teachers.

The strike severely damaged relations between the teachers unions and black and brown communities. The long-term results were tragic. As Stivers says, “If the two had managed to build and maintain an alliance, New York City’s working class might have had a coalition strong enough to resist the worst of the onslaught of austerity that was to come.”

Ocean-Hill Brownsville was not an isolated incident. Conflicts between black activists and teachers unions broke out in Newark, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Detroit, according to Shelton. He describes the case of Newark in detail. The city’s teachers went on strike in early 1971. Jesse Jacob, president of the Newark Board of Education, denied union demands for pay increases; he also wanted teachers give up rights to binding arbitration (a procedure to resolve workplace disputes without traditional litigation), and to supervise children outside the classroom. Jacob was a strong ally of influential Black Power activist Amiri Baraka, who fiercely opposed the strike and rallied the black community against it.

Both sides framed the conflict in racial terms. Baraka said that “the majority of NewArk’s teachers share neither space nor values with the Black community of NewArk, plus the fact that they are 75 percent white.” Meanwhile, white City Council president Louis Turco sided with the teachers and called for Board president Jacob’s removal. As in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, the strike turned violent, with black militants attacking striking teachers and teacher unionists assaulting (mostly black) strikebreakers. The union allied themselves with the vigilantes led by the Italian-American New Jersey General Assemblyman Tony Imperiale, a fierce enemy of Baraka and Black Power.

The bitter strike ended after about three months, with teachers getting to keep binding arbitration but agreeing to take on some non-classroom supervisory duties. As in New York City, the episode shredded relations between white teachers and black residents of Newark.

Building Solidarity Through Strikes

The narratives that solidified around teacher strikes in the late ‘70s in many cities, pitting teachers and other public employees against “productive” private sector workers and business owners, left teachers politically isolated, making them easy scapegoats for politicians and billionaires looking to attack labor unions and privatize public education. Those strikes were anti-solidaristic, because they failed to incorporate demands for racial justice and other community needs. Consequently, working-class people were left unable to present a united front against austerity.

The current strike wave is reconfiguring political battle lines. The teacher strikes of the late ‘60s and ‘70s ended up weakening the working class’s ability to fight neoliberalism. By contrast, the present strike wave comes at a time when the neoliberal consensus is collapsing.

This political moment has given birth to a different kind of teacher strike. Rather than fighting against communities of color, teachers today are fighting for their communities, especially by putting antiracist demands front and center. In Los Angeles, a mostly nonwhite teaching force demanded and won more community schools, resources for ethnic studies programs, language limiting random searches of students, and immigrant defense support. (The 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike, which teachers saw as a struggle for racial justice against enemies of public education, provided an early model for this year’s strikes in LA and Oakland.)

Striking teachers have united parents and students around a common enemy: billionaires determined to destroy public education and subvert democracy. Teachers have made clear that badly needed funds for public education must come primarily from corporations and the wealthy. West Virginia teachers demanded that public education be funded by reversing corporate tax cuts and raising taxes on the state’s highly profitable natural gas industry rather than by cuts to social programs. In Arizona, striking teachers beat back a budget proposal that would have taken additional education funding from Medicaid and other social programs, instead putting forward a ballot initiative to fund schools by taxing the rich. LA teachers were clear that their fight is a fight for students and the community against privatizing billionaires.

The teachers’ message seems to be getting a sympathetic hearing. A national poll last summer showed that the vast majority of the public supported striking teachers. And in the run-up to LA’s massive strike, almost 80 percent of LA County residents expressed support for the teachers. When the city’s teachers went on strike, working class people of color rallied en masse to support them.

In their recent strike, Oakland teachers followed in the footsteps of these other strikers. By demanding the district suspend its plans to close up to twenty-four schools that serve predominantly black and brown populations, the Oakland Education Association (OEA) made antiracist class struggle the centerpiece of the strike. The union successfully united parents, students, and other community members against billionaire privatizers, their front groups, and a bought-off school board.

In a contract agreement ratified on Sunday, February 3, Oakland teachers made historic gains. They won class-size reductions; reduced caseloads for counselors, nurses, and other support staff; and significant pay raises for teachers and nurses. Significantly, they won a promise from the Board of Education president to introduce a resolution calling for a five-month pause on school closures and a promise from the Board of Ed to vote on a resolution calling for an end to charter school growth in the Oakland Unified School District.

Perhaps the teachers’ most important win lay in demonstrating their ability — to themselves, their community, and people across the country — to organize and fight back against the forces that are arrayed against them, their students, and their communities. The teachers showed once again that, when working people band together to withhold their labor, the bosses must listen.

Hopefully, the Oakland victory will inspire other teachers and communities to carry on the current strike wave. Continued teacher militancy in the service of class-wide demands has the potential to spark broader labor struggles; such struggles will be essential to any program that aims for an end to austerity and privatization, the redistribution of wealth, and the establishment of genuine democracy.