How Bernie Helped Spark the Teachers’ Revolt

Most Democratic presidential contenders are now saying they support striking teachers. But only one candidate can take credit for helping inspire the nationwide educators’ strike wave: Bernie Sanders.

Putnam City West band director Edward Hudson leads the The Oklahoma Teacher Walkout Band, an improvised group of music teachers from across the state, in a pep rally on the steps of the state Capitol on April 4, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Scott Heins / Getty

It’s nice to see presidential candidates bending over backwards to profess their support for public school teachers. Faced with the largest educators’ strike wave in US history, the Democratic Party mainstream has, at least in words, reversed its commitment to privatization, austerity, and corporate education reform. Even Mr Charter School himself, Cory Booker, recently showed up in Chicago to support striking educators.

But only one candidate deserves credit for helping spark the teacher upsurge in the first place. And that person’s name is Bernie Sanders.

Bernie’s 2016 primary run played a crucial role in legitimizing class-struggle politics and inspiring strike leaders in each of the red states that experienced illegal statewide walkouts in early 2018 — West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona. This behind-the-scenes story was not well publicized at the time, since strike leaders in the heat of the battle were understandably reluctant to give Republican red-baiters further ammunition to denounce the movement.

Obviously, most red state teachers went on strike because of their deeply felt grievances, not because of Bernie. But with educators and their unions debating which candidate to endorse in 2020, it’s important to understand how Bernie helped inspire the deepest labor upsurge in generations.

Bernie and the Red State Strikes

Well before he coined the slogan “Not Me, Us,” Bernie Sanders demonstrated how class-struggle candidates can bolster working-class confidence and self-organization. Xavier Doolittle, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in Tulsa, recalled the campaign’s catalyzing effect on the state, which Sanders soundly won in the 2016 primary:

Bernie showed how radical Oklahoma was under the surface. Those rallies when he came really inspired and electrified people. He won the Democratic primary by a huge margin — and he gave an outlet to the deep dissatisfaction that existed with the status quo. People who had been isolated now felt confident and mobilized.

Sanders’s impact proved to be even more significant in West Virginia and Arizona, where the 2016 primary run inspired and brought together the young democratic-socialist teachers who two years later played a central role in launching statewide education strikes.

At a sold-out rally in Huntington, West Virginia, Bernie announced in April 2016 that “we are going to create an economy that works for all of us, not just the people on top” and exhorted West Virginians to “join the political revolution.” Nicole McCormick — who would go on to become a key 2018 strike leader and, eventually, local union president — explained what this looked like in Mercer County:

I’ve been politically aware and involved with the union for probably at least the past seven or eight years. But really it was when Bernie started campaigning that I became heavily entrenched in the ideology that “everyone deserves health care, everyone deserves a decent life.” That’s when I really got hardcore about all this. Bernie put forward class politics in a way that was approachable to a lot of people I work with, they didn’t look at him as something scary: he was just saying we deserved a better life.

Matt McCormick — Nicole’s husband and fellow teacher activist — described how this played out for him personally. McCormick had felt politically isolated until the Sanders campaign:

Before Bernie, you could only vote for Republicans or Democrats that act that like Republicans. When Bernie came along, it was a chance for us leftists to seize that progressive platform he put out there. Now there was a glimmer of hope, because he was saying what we believed all along. Bernie provided that outlet and gave a sense of legitimacy to our viewpoints.

Bernie’s economic platform had a particular urgency for the McCormicks. “We’ve got a constant fear of missing payments on our credit card and we’ve had real conversations about moving into a camper. We often have to feed our four kids at McDonalds and sometimes it feels like my fault,” explained Nicole. “We’re white knuckling ’til pay day.” One of Matt’s viral Facebook posts on the eve of the walkout displayed a photo of his $1.14 bank balance, with the caption: “I call this portrait ‘Two days until payday on a teacher’s salary.’”

In addition to spreading and legitimating working-class demands, the Sanders campaign — which defeated Hillary Clinton in every single county of West Virginia — helped coalesce a new socialist movement in the form of a reborn DSA. One of the organization’s most influential young members was South Charleston teacher Emily Comer. In her view,

the role of the Bernie campaign of 2016 on organizing in West Virginia really cannot be overstated. After his run, a few DSA chapters started to pop up around the state because Bernie’s campaign had gotten folks really excited for class politics. And it got people, especially young people, plugged in who before had been feeling hopeless and who would not have made their way into organizing before. It established a network of really likeminded activists committed to fighting for working people.

Of all the people Comer met inside DSA, the most important was Jay O’Neal, a fellow Charleston educator who coalesced the circle of teachers that first initiated the collective push towards a strike.

“Bernie was huge for me — that label democratic socialist, it definitely stopped being scary,” O’Neal explains. “And it felt like there was a real popular shift in West Virginia, Bernie was super popular here. But the Democratic Party establishment iced him out, leading to Trump’s victory. After the election, like a bunch of other people, I said to myself ‘Man, I’ve got to do something.’ So when I saw that there was now a DSA chapter here, I decided to check it out.”

Together with Comer, O’Neal set up the West Virginia Public Employees United Facebook group in the fall of 2017 to connect educators across the state to resist the Republican legislature’s looming attacks. O’Neal, Comer, and the McCormicks (who became admins after Facebook group went viral in early January) saw that the labor movement needed a new approach if teachers and support staff were going win their demands for affordable health care, higher pay, and quality public schools.

Through months of build-up actions, workplace organizing, and countless online debates, West Virginia’s young rank-and-file radicals — in alliance with militant, nonsocialist teacher leaders in southern counties like Mingo — eventually succeeded in pressuring their unions to call a strike in February 2018. After nine days of shuttered schools, West Virginia’s teachers and school staff defeated the Republican legislature and, virtually overnight, set educators across the country on fire. For their efforts, O’Neal and Comer were featured on Time Magazine and Politico’s “most influential” political figures lists — yet, unsurprisingly, the mainstream media failed to note their Sanders-inspired political vision.

As in West Virginia, many of the core strike leaders that founded Arizona Educators United (AEU) — the rank-and-file organization that initiated and led Arizona’s strike — were also first politicized by the Sanders campaign. Noah Karvelis, an AEU co-founder who issued the first viral call for Arizona educators to wear red, recalls that Bernie’s primary run was the catalyst for him personally:

Bernie’s campaign showed me a new set of politics, that there was something beyond just being a Democrat – you could really fight for working-class people and marginalized people … It felt personal, it felt fresh, and it spoke to the problems of my family and my friends. So it was a really big moment for me – it was the first time I really volunteered on campaign or got involved in politics.

Dylan Wegela, a Phoenix teacher who became AEU’s site liaison coordinator and the Red for Ed movement’s leading strike proponent, experienced a similar evolution. It wasn’t until the Sanders’s 2016 run that Wegela started organizing. Soon after jumping into canvassing, he organized his first action — a keg party for his fellow college students to raise funds for Bernie. Wegela recalls that the campaign was a game-changer:

Bernie definitely made me call myself a democratic socialist — I had socialist ideals already, but honestly I hadn’t even heard the label until the campaign. And it showed me that large number of people actually wanted to fight to improve things. Those massive rallies convinced me that sometime had to change. So when I started teaching [in 2016 in Arizona], I got immediately involved here.

Arizona’s union leaders were initially reluctant to call for a strike — an illegal act that could have landed educators in jail or out of work. But for Wegela,

a strike was the only way forward, because nothing else had worked. Electing Democrats didn’t work — all across the country they’ve also cut school funds. But strikes work. My argument was basically: “We can win. We’re the gears of the machine, if we stop showing up, everything shuts down.” And even if we didn’t end up winning everything, people needed to know they could do this, they needed to feel powerful.

Aiming to discredit the nascent movement, Arizona’s defenders of the status quo turned to red-baiting. Pointing to Karvelis’s involvement in the Sanders campaign and his authorship of articles such as “From Marx to Trump: Labor’s Role in Revolution,” the twenty-three-year-old music teacher was their favorite target. On April 24, Republican House representative Maria Syms published a widely read op-ed accusing the entire education movement of being a socialist plot.

But the red-baiting in Arizona — as with Bernie nationally — proved to be remarkably ineffective. Most educators in the state came to the defense of Red for Ed and its rank-and-file representatives; social media was instantly filled with educator rebuttals to Republican smears.

Some posters noted that red-baiting was fundamentally a tool of the powers-that-be. In the words of one teacher, “anything that benefits people that aren’t rich is always marked as ‘socialism.’” Others argued for the importance of having radicals in the struggle: “We are fighting a corrupt political environment and to purge ourselves of leftists seems authoritarian and stupid at the same time. You really think conservative Republicans are capable of leading the fight for change?”

A few insisted that Jesus was a true socialist — right-wing politicians like Republican legislator Kelly Townsend, in their view, were Christians “in name only.” A Phoenix teacher posted that “Kelly Townsend wagged her finger in my face and called me a communist at the Capitol and I took it as a badge of honor. Being the exact opposite of whatever she is is nothing to be ashamed of.”

Ultimately, teachers voted with their feet by sticking with Arizona Educators United (AEU). In alliance with the teachers’ union, AEU organized a successful statewide strike in late April — the largest political mobilization in Arizona history.

Not only did the Koch-backed right fail to turn educators and the public against AEU, but its smear campaign helped generate an even broader audience for democratic-socialist politics — and Bernie Sanders — in Arizona. A sign of just how far things had come in the span of two months was a May 4 Phoenix New Times piece titled “No, #RedForEd Isn’t A Socialist Plot, But It Would Be Awesome If It Were.” The author reached a conclusion common to a growing number of Americans: “if the leftist revolution that we’ve been warned about results in an energized labor movement and better funding for education, health care, roads, and other public institutions, that actually would be pretty great.”

A Future Within Reach

Bernie and his supporters, of course, did not single-handedly initiate the red state strikes. Many years of bipartisan attacks on public education set the stage. Radical teachers in Chicago and Los Angeles began their organizing efforts well before Bernie’s primary run. And while rank-and-file democratic socialists were central leaders in West Virginia and Arizona, the success of their efforts depended on working with their unions and nonsocialist teacher activists.

Yet the fact remains that Bernie’s 2016 primary bid helped inspire and cohere key organizers of the most important labor strikes in decades. That’s a very big deal — and it’s a testament to Bernie’s unique ability to embolden working people to take on the ruling elite.

Other Democratic candidates can talk about building a movement, but only Bernie is actually doing it. Others may show up to picket lines on the campaign trail, but only Bernie has used his resources to promote the strikes themselves. And while others may make good campaign promises about public education, only Bernie has a decades-long track record of fighting for workers and an ambitious plan to rebuild public education.

Just by running for president in 2016, Bernie helped catalyze the deepest labor fight-back in decades. Imagine what could become possible by electing him “organizer-in-chief” in 2020. Combine heightened working-class expectations with a democratic-socialist White House, and you have the recipe for a potentially unprecedented strike upsurge — one capable of obliging Congress to pass Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and the Thurgood Marshall Plan for Public Education.

That future is finally within reach. It’s time to fight like hell to get there.