Did Bernie’s Campaign Lead to the Teachers Strikes?

Numerous factors contributed to the recent teachers’ strikes. But it is factually accurate, and strategically important, to acknowledge that Bernie Sanders was one of them.

Braving snow and cold temperatures, thousands marched through the streets near City Hall during the eleventh day of an ongoing teachers strike on October 31, 2019 in Chicago, Illinois. Scott Heins / Getty Images

What factors led to the current educators’ revolt, and what role, if any, did the 2016 primary run of Bernie Sanders play? At a moment of continued public school strike activity from Chicago to Little Rock, as well as a looming national Democratic primary, this is a particularly important discussion to have.

The recent piece “Social Movements Gave Rise to the ‘Teachers’ Revolt,’ Not Bernie” should be commended for eloquently describing some of the various factors that led to the strike wave. I agree with much of it. Unfortunately, in their desire to deny that Bernie played any role whatsoever in the emergence or development of the strikes, the authors — Oklahoma State University professor Erin Dyke and Brendan Muckian-Bates, a West Virginia teacher and organizer with the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World — present numerous factual errors and radically distort the argument of my recent article on this topic, as well as my book, Red State Revolt.

The closest the authors get to finding any textual evidence to back their critique is when they cite me as arguing in Red State Revolt that West Virginia’s wildcat strike was “the continuation of a movement that started with Bernie Sanders” [emphasis added]. Yet anybody who bothers to look up this citation on page 101 of my book will see that this quote was in fact made not by me, but rather by a rank-and-file West Virginia educator, Anna Simmons.

This blatant misattribution of quotes is reflective of their article’s general method, which badly mischaracterizes my analysis and, in the process, silences the voices of those teacher leaders in West Virginia and Arizona who did feel that Bernie’s 2016 primary run was an important factor in their activism.

The authors claim that I make the case that “Sanders started the teachers revolt.” This is a strange assertion since my recent Jacobin article actually insists that “Bernie and his supporters, of course, did not single-handedly initiate the red state strikes.” In Red State Revolt, I demonstrate in detail the role of nonsocialist leaders in all the walkouts, and in the article, I explicitly argue that the efforts of radical teachers “depended on working with their unions and nonsocialist teacher activists.”

Moreover, I openly rejected the idea that Bernie’s campaign was a significant factor for a majority of educators: “Obviously, most red state teachers went on strike because of their deeply felt grievances, not because of Bernie.” To explain the roots of the walkouts, my article argues that “many years of bipartisan attacks on public education set the stage” and linked to educator organizer Ellen David Friedman’s excellent article “What’s Behind the Teacher Strikes?”, which shows how “a confluence of factors created kindling for a potential teacher rebellion,” including austerity, de-professionalization, and the rise of rank-and-file caucuses in the wake of the influential 2012 Chicago strike. Similarly, I point to these factors and others in my book’s thirty-five-page chapter on “The Roots of Revolt” — during which I don’t discuss Bernie’s campaign at all.

Though Bernie’s 2016 campaign was certainly not the only, or main, factor explaining the emergence and development of the strikes — not once have I claimed it was — there is more than enough evidence to prove my point that Bernie “helped inspire and cohere key organizers of the most important labor strikes in decades.” My article argued that it was important to tell the story of the movement-building impact Bernie did have in West Virginia, Arizona, and beyond, since this differentiates him from each of the other 2020 Democratic candidates in the most consequential election in generations.

To prove their thesis that Bernie’s campaign played no “significant role,” Dyke and Muckian-Bates would have to somehow demonstrate that the numerous quotes I cite from rank-and-file educators about Bernie’s major impact on them and their organizing efforts were factually inaccurate. But the authors don’t do this. Rather, they only note that numerous factors led to the activism of leaders in West Virginia and beyond, not just Bernie. This is, of course, true — and I actually detail all of these other factors and more in the third chapter of Red State Revolt. But noting that there were various influences on teacher activism does not invalidate the fact that Bernie was one of them.

Along the same lines, the authors point out that the teacher-strike upsurge began not in 2018, but in 2012 in Chicago. I already detailed this in the book as well as the article, however, which notes that “radical teachers in Chicago and Los Angeles began their organizing efforts well before Bernie’s primary run” [emphasis added]. And, in fact, just a few weeks ago, I published a long piece on the impact of Chicago 2012 on the national educators’ movement, in which I argue that “Chicago’s 2012 walkout inspired a national educators’ upsurge across the country” and details how Chicago’s example inspired educators in the red states as well as the blue.

Echoing the unfounded “Bernie Bro” narrative, the authors go on to claim that I believe that “race was not an issue” during the strikes. In fact, I’ve written extensively about race and the need for anti-racist teacher organizing as well as multiracial unity (see, in particular, pages 64–71 of Red State Revolt, as well as my articles about Los Angeles, Oakland, Denver, and anti-oppression socialism). In the book, I highlighted the contributions of teachers of color like Stephanie Price in Oklahoma and Vanessa Arredondo-Aguirre in Arizona. And I underscored the tension between the strikes’ unitary focus and the continued hierarchical stratifications of working people generated by our white supremacist society. This, for instance, is what I wrote about the Kentucky strike on pages 69–70:

In Kentucky, tensions over broader questions of institutionalized oppression proved to be especially problematic. In April, the walkout movement’s interracial unity began to fray after neither the Kentucky Education Association nor the rank-and-file network KY United We Stand agreed to the proposal of a group of Black teachers and white allies in Louisville to include demands against an impending racist “gang bill,” HB 169.

Even in those places where movement leadership was most actively focused on overcoming racial divisions — like Arizona — significant gaps remained.

Though there is not much substance to most of the authors’ critiques of my piece, one real substantial difference does concern the role of leadership in the strikes. Since Dyke and Muckian-Bates can’t deny the impact of Bernie on the teacher leaders I cite, they instead pivot to claim that the strikes effectively had no leaders.

As they put it, “what good is a leader in a leaderless movement?” [emphasis added]. Such claims are in sync with the anarcho-syndicalist politics of Muckian-Bates, but they are hard to fit with the experience of West Virginia and, particularly, Arizona, which was firmly led by the self-described “leadership team” of Arizona Educators United.

It is true that the red-state strikes developed outside of existing unions and unleashed a particularly bottom-up dynamic, in which tens of thousands of rank-and-file educators got a sense of their power and began to develop their leadership capacities despite the absence of much formal organization. I cite dozens of such teachers in Red State Revolt, the entire second chapter of which consists of illustrating this rank-and-file effervescence:

To make these strikes a success, rank-and-file educators were obliged to step up in dozens of ways. Though labor unions played an important role in the walkouts, movement activities were often improvised from below, with all the strengths and limitations that this entailed. Their contributions included unglamorous tasks like making signs, collecting food for students, reading up on legislation, speaking with confused parents, texting a coworker to remind them to participate in the strike vote, or driving a group of peers to the capitol. Others actions required a bigger leap; for many teachers, this was the first time they’d made a speech at a rally, convinced coworkers to participate in a political action, spoken to the press, chaired a mass meeting, or confronted a politician.

At the same time, however, there were central leaders in all of the strikes, people who took the initiative to get the ball rolling for collective action, those who founded and moderated the Facebook groups, those who led the first local walkouts, those who particularly inspired their peers, and those who helped coalesce incipient networks of teacher activists.

There’s not space here to recapitulate the myriad of ways the founders of the Facebook groups in Arizona and West Virginia helped initiate and shape the walkout; these are examined in detail throughout Red State Revolt. Suffice it to say that claiming that these were “leaderless movements” is factually inaccurate and obscures the strategic importance of continuing to develop and cohere more militant worker leaders to help revitalize and democratize the labor movement.

Of course, as I repeatedly argue in the article and in the book, many of these core leaders were not Bernie supporters. One of Dyke and Muckian-Bates’s multiple factual errors is to claim that I “repeatedly” reference Arizona strike leader Rebecca Garelli — whose path to activism was primarily shaped by her experience in the 2012 Chicago strike — as “evidence for Bernie’s ability to spark class struggle in young radicals.” Not only did I never make such a claim, but my article doesn’t mention Garelli, and my book argues in detail that she was a prime example of a nonsocialist leader of the strike, like the rank-and-file teacher leaders in Mingo County, West Virginia, who played a pivotal role in inspiring the rest of the state to walk out.

But whether Dyke and Muckian-Bates like it or not, some of the central leaders of the West Virginia and Arizona strikes were Bernie supporters who explicitly felt that his 2016 primary run played an important role in their political development and activism. Telling their story does not mean denigrating the stories of others.

I agree with Dyke and Muckian-Bates that numerous factors led to the strikes and that Bernie’s role was not among the most important of these. This, as I explicitly noted in the article, is pretty obvious. Our real political and analytical differences lie elsewhere.

Their unfounded assertion that Bernie had zero significance in the teachers’ movement is reflective of an anarchist-inspired, anti-electoral “movementism” that has hobbled the US left for decades. If our side, the working class, is going to win, we’re going to need both a strategic focus on class-struggle electoral campaigns and bottom-up strikes and social movements.

Yet in a recent piece downplaying the strategic importance of electoral organizing, Muckian-Bates approvingly cites anarchist leader Emma Goldman to claim that “we shouldn’t deceive ourselves into thinking that voting will solve much.” This case, however, misses the point. The entire experience of American politics since 2015 shows how struggle in the workplace, community, and ballot box can and should feed off one another in building up working-class power, organization, and confidence. Candidates like Bernie, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others have not only arisen from movements, but their actions and national profile have contributed to building and amplifying them.

Our best bet to defeat Trump in 2020, stop climate change, end institutionalized racism, and fully fund public schools is to combine grassroots labor activism with a focus on electing working-class fighters to power. So rather than denigrate electoral politics and Bernie’s role in promoting mass struggle, we should celebrate the victories already made and set our sights on building more strikes — and winning the White House in 2020. The stakes are too high to do anything else.