The Teachers’ “Red for Ed” Movement Is Far From Dead

In 2018, the “Red for Ed” teachers' strike wave exploded, first in West Virginia, then in Oklahoma, Arizona, and beyond. It shook the foundations of public education and teacher unionism in America — and may play a key role in fighting COVID-19–induced education austerity in the near future.

Red for Ed supporters at a protest hosted by the Arizona Education Association in Phoenix, Arizona, 2018. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

In late February 2018, teachers and support staff shuttered schools in all fifty-five counties of West Virginia. Their strike inspired educators across the country and raised hopes that a long-awaited revival of organized labor finally may have arrived.

That spring, school employees in Oklahoma, Arizona, and beyond walked out to demand increased education funding and better pay. Confounding all expectations, these actions erupted in Republican-dominated (Red) states with weak labor unions, bans on public sector strikes, and electorates that voted for Donald Trump. The “Red for Ed” movement soon spread nationwide, with strikes throughout 2019 paralyzing school districts in Democratic cities such as Los Angeles, Oakland, Chicago, and Denver.

How has this Red for Ed movement developed over the two years since West Virginia? Have the walkouts strengthened educator unions and rank-and-file teacher activism? And to what extent has the movement been able to win its demands and effect broader political changes?

The Movement Continues

Though educator militancy predates 2018, one of the novel impacts of West Virginia was that it immediately set off a wave of similar workplace actions, particularly in Republican-led “right to work” states. Despite bans on public sector strikes and relatively weak labor movements, the spring of 2018 witnessed statewide teacher strikes in Oklahoma and Arizona, as well as one-day walkouts in Kentucky, North Carolina, and Colorado.

All in all, over 375,000 education workers engaged in work stoppages in 2018, bringing the total number of strikers that year to 485,000 — the largest number since 1986.

After the spring 2018 upsurge, it remained an open question whether Red for Ed was an ephemeral explosion or the beginning of a sustained nationwide movement. Strike statistics would seem to indicate the latter.

A total of 425,000 workers struck in 2019, with a strong majority (270,000) again coming from the education sector. And this number does not include the numerous examples of school districts such as Las Vegas, where unions organized credible strike threats but management avoided walkouts by granting major last-minute concessions.

The fact that the strike upsurge remains largely limited to education, however, is a significant limitation. There is only so far that educators can go in the absence of a broader revitalization of organized labor. Large numbers of workers across the country may be ready to fight — but faced with powerful corporations, and a much weaker union movement in the private sector, turning that potential into a reality remains easier said than done.

Of the 2019 work stoppages, the most important were certainly January’s strike in Los Angeles and October’s strike in Chicago. Each were offensive actions to reverse the education policies imposed by corporate Democrats over the past two decades; each foregrounded “common good” demands on behalf of students as well as the broader community.

These common good demands, for example, included an increase in the number of nurses and counselors as well as smaller class sizes. Importantly, each of these strikes highlighted the interconnection between the fight for public education and racial justice.

What set Los Angeles apart from other work stoppages in recent memory was the depth and systematic nature of the organizing drive that made it possible. Upon winning the leadership of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) in 2014, the new elected leadership from the Union Power caucus proceeded to reorient UTLA toward a years-long process of deep organizing.

An increase in membership dues and internal staffing served as the scaffolding for training hundreds of rank-and-file leaders, tasked with organizing their school sites and reaching out to parents. Any activist or union interested in systematizing effective organizing methods would do well to study the UTLA strike.

In Chicago (whose 2012 teachers’ strike was the most important precursor to, and inspiration for, Red for Ed), a particularly significant development was that the October 2019 work stoppage was not only of teachers but also school service personnel.

Thousands of special education classroom assistants, custodians, bus aides, and security guards organized into Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 73 and walked picket lines to fight for living wages and better working conditions. As in West Virginia, the result was a significantly stronger strike, one that made clear to the public that it takes more than teachers to make a school run.

As seen in the Los Angeles and Chicago strikes, Red for Ed’s center of gravity in 2019 shifted to “blue” cities and states. In Oakland, a February strike had a similar social justice orientation to Chicago and Los Angeles, though with only six months to prepare its campaign, the union’s contract wins fell somewhat short of gains won elsewhere.

And the strike wave finally reached the East Coast in October, when educators in Dedham, Massachusetts walked out in an illegal action that consciously challenged the state’s ban on public sector strikes. Though it took place in a small district, Dedham’s victory was politically significant because it again showed that anti-strike laws — which remain on the books in most parts of the country — can be surmounted through collective action.

Republican-led states also witnessed important work stoppages in 2019. In February, West Virginia educators organized another victorious statewide strike, which succeeded in stopping the introduction of charter schools. Nashville, Tennessee educators organized wildcat sick-outs in May against budget cuts.

On November 14, educators in Little Rock, Arkansas, organized a one-day strike to stop racial resegregation and to demand democratic local control of their school district. And Indiana teachers followed suit on November 19, in a statewide walkout to demand more funding, better pay, and an end to over-testing.

Whereas most of these work stoppages raised social justice issues and were led either by militant union leaders or unruly rank-and-filers, one of the less reported developments of 2019 has been the spread of strikes narrowly focused on wages and led by relatively moderate union officials.

Examples of such actions include the February strike in Denver, the May-June strike in California’s New Haven school district, and the November walkout in West Sonoma, California, as well as numerous walkouts in smaller school districts across the country.

Though the results of these work stoppages were mixed, it is a sign of the times that even some old-school union leaderships have felt the pressure to take action.

Organizational Growth

Have the educator strikes since 2018 resulted in a quantitative and qualitative revitalization of organized labor? One important criterion for assessing this question is growth in union membership. From February 2018 through February 2019 — i. e. in the year following West Virginia’s walkout — the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) grew by a hundred thousand members.

And despite the passage of the anti-union Janus Supreme Court decision in the summer of 2018, the National Education Association (NEA) similarly saw an uptick in membership. To quote Education Week journalist, Madeline Will, “the groundswell of teacher activism across the country over the past year might have attracted more members.”

Data from the specific unions that coordinated statewide strikes confirms a hypothetical link between strike militancy and union revitalization, though with an important caveat. The available evidence suggests that union membership grew in the wake of successful union-led strikes — ineffectual strikes, in contrast, led to a decrease in dues-payers. (Unfortunately, the absence of membership data from the district-wide unions precludes incorporating their experience into our analysis. As such, we rely on the membership numbers for the statewide unions.)

Arizona and West Virginia were the two states in the spring of 2018 where unions helped lead what educators generally felt to be victorious strikes. In West Virginia, the push for a work stoppage forced the state to withdraw its controversial rate hikes to the public employee health insurance plan.

Then, after almost two weeks of shuttered schools in late February and early March, West Virginia’s legislature caved to the strikers and granted a five percent raise to all public employees, not only educators.

In Arizona, the April-May strike forced the legislature to grant teachers an average 20 percent pay raise — a remarkable outcome given that legislators had until this point refused to consider anything more than a one percent raise. The work stoppage also successfully pressured the legislature to rescind its new proposed tax cuts and its efforts to take an anti-privatization referendum off the November 2018 ballot.

In contrast, Oklahoma’s April walkout wrested no gains from the state government. A 15 percent pay increase had been approved by the legislature on the eve of the strike, but the walkout itself, unlike in Arizona and West Virginia, was unable to force any more concessions. Perhaps most damaging, the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA) controversially called off the walkout before most teachers were ready to return to work, resulting in widespread denunciations of the union from rank-and-file educators.

Following the actions in West Virginia and Arizona, union membership grew by the thousands. The affiliate of the NEA in Arizona experienced a 10.3 percent increase in members. And in West Virginia, the NEA affiliate grew by 3.8 percent and the American Federation of Teachers grew by 4.6 percent. (Since AFT locals are disproportionately clustered in large cities on the coasts and the Midwest, West Virginia was the only state during the spring 2018 upsurge in which there existed a significant AFT affiliate.)

Oklahoma presented a different picture. Given the disappointing outcome of the strike and the union’s controversial role, one should not be surprised that the OEA’s membership dropped by 1.7 percent. In short, the spring 2018 upsurge suggests that while there is no automatic link between strikes and increased union membership, successful strikes do tend to quantitatively strengthen organized labor.

As one Arizonan teacher argued on a Facebook thread concerning the lessons of the strike: “The word ‘union’ does not scare me anymore. I joined [the Arizona Education Association] and plan on continuing to fight for what is right for educators and students. I feel the most empowered I have ever felt as an educator and now do believe that change is possible.”

Membership increases tell only part of the labor revitalization story, for there were many members who did not become active participants in the union until these work stoppages. Tanya Asleson’s experience in Ravenswood, West Virginia was illustrative: “I went from not wanting to be a building rep, to being aggravated and involved, to now becoming president of the AFT in our county. The strike forced me to find leadership skills within myself. We’ve all really grown in the last couple of months; it makes us proud.”

Another significant organizational development since 2018 has been the growth and increased influence of rank-and-file reform efforts across the country, which promise to sustain the educator upsurge over the years to come. Though teachers’ unions have generally become more assertive since 2018, this has not overcome tensions between risk-averse officials and more combative activists oriented to workplace militancy and social justice issues.

Indeed, the post–West Virginia upsurge has led to the growth and spread of reform caucuses hoping to replicate the democratic organizing methods, anti-racist focus, and strike-oriented strategies promoted by reform union leaderships in Chicago, Los Angeles, and beyond.

Many of these reform groups have coalesced around the United Caucuses of Rank-and-File Educators (UCORE), including the new West Virginia United Caucus led by many of the organizers who helped initiate the 2018 strike.

And these forces experienced some notable successes this past year, with the election of rank-and-file reformers to union leadership in Baltimore, Denver, and Nashville. Yet, as seen in the January 2020 defeat of a well-organized electoral challenge waged by the Caucus of Working Educators in Philadelphia, incumbent leaderships generally remain in the driver’s seat.

Shaping the Political Narrative

Red for Ed has also brought about important changes in the political arena. Perhaps the movement’s most important win has been to change public perceptions of the crisis facing education. Only a few years ago, the mainstream media, as well as leading Democrats and Republicans, routinely scapegoated educators and championed a billionaire-backed “education reform” agenda, focused on privatization, high-stakes testing, and union-busting.

The strike upsurge has succeeded in pushing the national and statewide political conversation in a new direction. Low wages for teachers and the systematic underfunding of schools are now the most commonly cited explanations for public education’s travails.

To cite one example, Time magazine, went from publishing laudatory cover stories about privatization advocates like Michelle Rhee to running a September 2018 cover story titled, “I Have a Master’s Degree, 16 Years of Experience, Work Two Extra Jobs, and Donate Blood Plasma to Pay the Bills. I am a Teacher in America.”

Polls show that a strong majority of the population supports the education strikes; believes that teacher salaries are too low; and would support teachers locally if they decided to strike. Scholars have also documented how the walkouts have directly impacted public opinion in effected regions.

An original survey conducted by Columbia University sociologists in the six states that experienced walkouts in 2018 found that “the strikes had large, direct, and positive effects on mass attitudes, even nearly a year after the strikes originally occurred.”

Noting that the impact upon parents was particularly pronounced for “conservatives, Republicans, and those without personal experience with unions,” the study concludes that “[n]ot only did the teacher strikes appear to succeed in establishing a greater sense of common fate between parents and the teachers, but the strikes also increased individuals’ own interest in labor action (though not necessarily through traditional unions), suggesting a potential multiplier effect that could inspire greater labor mobilization, especially strikes.”

Policy Changes

In terms of policy concessions and changes at work, the gains have been more uneven. As noted earlier, some of the strikes failed to win any concessions. This was less common in 2018, when state legislators were generally caught off guard by the strikes; by 2019, however, they were clearly better prepared.

In June 2019, the West Virginia legislature took advantage of the end of the school year to ram through the same charter legislation that striking educators had defeated just a few months earlier. Arizona’s movement still has not recovered from the blow delivered by the right-wing state Supreme Court’s decision to unilaterally remove a progressive funding initiative from the ballot. And in New Haven, California, educators returned to school after fourteen days of striking without wresting any major concessions from the district.

That said, most strikes since 2018 have won significant pay raises for educators and, as such, have been experienced as at least partial victories. These wage gains have eased material survival for thousands of teachers and simultaneously served to confirm that teachers deserve respect in the community and dignity at work.

Gains beyond pay raises have been more limited. While the Los Angeles and Chicago strikes were able to win some “common good” demands, these broader victories were the exception rather than the rule. Nor have any of the strikes reversed systematic school underfunding, particularly in communities of color, or the draconian test-driven “accountability” measures that remain the norm across the country.

If anything, the rapidly raised expectations generated by strike participation have put into sharper relief the distance between educator aspirations and day-to-day working conditions. Though this gap fuels ongoing mobilization campaigns, it has also led to considerable individual demoralization and collective frustration beyond educator activist milieus.

There is also only so much that one walkout can do to turn around decades of public school neglect, particularly when limited to a single district. Even the most powerful of the strikes since 2018 were not able to win all their demands.

The mixed results we have seen suggests that strikes, while likely necessary for the revival of labor and the transformation of public education, are not sufficient on their own to wrest the structural reforms proposed by educators and their unions. Without political solutions like ballot initiatives to tax the rich and without electing firmly pro-education representatives to office, it is hard to imagine how Red for Ed will be able to ultimately reach its ambitious goals.

For a glimpse at how the energy of workplace action can potentially feed into changes in political office, consider the case of Kentucky, where a teacher-led political insurgency took down Republican governor Matt Bevin.

In response to the governor’s push for austerity, Kentucky educators walked out by the tens of thousands in the spring of 2018 to save their pensions and fund public education. Over the following eighteen months, they formed the backbone of a “Won’t Be Bullied by Bevin” election crusade that was buoyed by $1.2 million in teacher union donations. Faced with this grassroots upsurge, even Donald Trump’s last-minute campaign rally was not enough to save Bevin, who lost in November 2019 by five thousand votes to Andy Beshear, a mainstream Democrat who nevertheless ran on a strong pro–public education platform.

On election night, Beshear acknowledged the decisive role of unionized school workers: “To our educators, your courage to stand up and fight up against all the bullying and name calling helped galvanize our entire state.”

It remains to be seen whether the Red for Ed movement can find the means in other states and on a national level to bring about a major reprioritization of public education. With wind in their sails, unions are increasingly pointing their fingers at the billionaires and corporations who many hold responsible for undermining the school system.

When asked about how to re-fund public education, Chicago Teachers Union vice president Stacy Davis Gates put it well: “Where will the money come from? Rich people.”

One important test is looming in California, where a coalition of unions have spearheaded a statewide coalition to pass a progressive taxation initiative in the November 2020 elections that would raise $13 billion for schools and public services by reforming Proposition 13, a landmark anti-tax initiative passed in 1978.

On a national level, teachers were the number one funders of the Bernie Sanders campaign. In large measure, this stemmed from Sanders’s active support for the school strikes and his adoption of their core demands. Some of the unions that led work stoppages in 2019 — including UTLA and the Oakland Education Association — also endorsed Sanders, breaking with the labor movement’s longstanding attachment to the Democratic Party establishment.

Most other progressive educator unions, however, remained paralyzed by divisions between supporters of Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Eventually, both the NEA and AFT national leaderships endorsed Joe Biden.

Though Biden presided over years of austerity, privatization, and high-stakes testing as part of the Obama administration, it is a testament to the strength of Red for Ed and the changing political tides that Biden’s campaign has, at least rhetorically, significantly distanced itself from those anti-educator policies.

Whether Biden will stick to his campaign promises if elected will very likely depend on the extent to which the movement can pressure him through strikes, protests, and community organizing.

Looking Ahead

What comes next? The already challenging task of predicting future political developments has been made much more difficult by the unexpected eruption of the coronavirus crisis, which has quickly upended schools as well as protest activities.

In March, a strike in St Paul was cut short for health safety reasons. In New York City, rank-and-file educators led by the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators caucus forced the mayor to close public schools, a step soon after followed by districts across the country.

Right now, school reopenings across the country have been uneven, some remaining shuttered in response to teacher protests in cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, while many others have reopened only to immediately see COVID-19 spikes.

Teachers and students throughout the country continue to be exposed to unsafe and unhealthy working and learning conditions, particularly those whose unions did not lead a strong pushback to their districts’ reopening plans.

A virus-induced funding crunch for local and state governments could lead to an even more severe reprise of the bipartisan austerity, privatization, and union-busting that prevailed after the 2008 recession.

But there is at least one big difference from the last economic crisis: a robust educators’ movement now exists and is ready to resist any such attacks. As such, the future of America’s public schools will remain tied to the Red for Ed movement for the foreseeable future.