- Interview by
- Peter Lucas
Four years ago, Dylan Wegela was organizing his coworkers to strike against austerity in Arizona public schools as a part of the “Red for Ed” teacher strike wave. After helping to found Arizona Educators United and secure the investment of over $400 million for public education in the state, Wegela became the president of his union local, the Cartwright Education Association.
Wegela has since moved back to his home state of Michigan, where he ran for state representative and won his primary. He will continue to teach through the fall before his presumed inauguration this coming January. He sat down with Jacobin’s Peter Lucas to discuss what the transition from shop-floor militant to class-struggle elected official might look like.
Can you tell us about your upbringing and political development as a labor leader? Were unions a big part of your life growing up?
I grew up in a firmly working-class household. When I was younger both my parents worked for a grocery store, Danny’s Foods at the time, but my dad eventually started his own business. He co-owned a bakery and a small business owning and operating vending machines, which he still owns to this day. My mom ended up getting a job at a factory that makes the machines that package eggs. My grandparents were both members of the United Auto Workers working for Ford and General Motors plants. But as far as politics? I would say we had a nonpolitical family growing up. It wasn’t something that was talked about at all at home.
We were paycheck to paycheck growing up. It was the kind of household where at the start of the year you get shoes for school, and then you wait until you put holes in them to get new ones. I grew up in Livonia, Michigan, where I attended public schools. It’s a majority white city with a mixture of working-class, middle-class, and even some upper-class families, depending on where you live. We lived on the side of town that was majority working-class.
It wasn’t until I got to Eastern Michigan University that I started to awaken to the corruptions of our current crony capitalist system, and the struggles that the working class was facing. Two major things happened when I was in college. First was Occupy Wall Street, which really started to pique my interest in the world and its problems. I observed from afar, but never got involved. After that was Bernie [Sanders]’s 2016 run for president, which is where I would say I cut my teeth organizing.
You were part of one of the most notable labor upticks in recent American history. Can you tell us about your role during the Arizona teacher strike?
After graduating, I taught abroad in South Korea for six months, and then I moved to Arizona. My first year there they wanted to give us a 1 percent raise, which I thought was ludicrous. I did the math to see how long it would take me to make $50,000 if I got a 1 percent raise each year, and it was something like I wouldn’t get to $50,000 until twenty years into teaching. After speaking up about this at a school board meeting, one of my coworkers convinced me to run for executive board of the union. I won the election for secretary just by putting my name on the ballot. I didn’t campaign, but engagement was so low out there that that was enough to win.
West Virginia and Oklahoma teachers went on strike in the middle of my first term. I eventually got added to a teacher Facebook page with a bunch of people, but shortly afterward the owners of the page shut it down. After this, some union siblings and I created our own page, Arizona Educators United, and we ended up getting about fifty thousand people in the group. We started building structures similar to a union. We had site liaisons, instead of the traditional site leader, which was intentional. We made it visibly different from the union, so that educators — a decent portion of which are nonunion because of right-to-work laws — would see it as such.
We wanted to build a movement that was broad and inclusive of people who were not paying the union dues, because there’s more power in solidarity and numbers. My role in that organization was working with a couple others as a site liaison coordinator, supporting those leaders at the schools — communicating with them, training them, and helping them build organizational networks.
I became known as the strike person in the group, the one who continuously kept pushing that we go on strike. I was vocal about that, not only because I think that was the right tactic, but also because I think there is also something transformative in a mass of people waking up to their own power by withholding their labor. That was something that I think we really needed in Arizona, even just to show people that they could. Now that I’ve moved back to Michigan, you still hear a lot of people say, “Well, it’s illegal to go on strike.” And my response to that is, “Well, it was illegal for us to do it in Arizona, but we did it anyway.”
Going on strike, let alone leading one, is not something that many people do. How did that experience influence you personally and politically?
It set the foundation for all of my organizing since. After the strike, I got elected as the president and lead negotiator of my local, the Cartwright Education Association. As local union president I oversaw the highest raises that we had seen in our history; we expanded the amount of time that we got for lunch for students and staff; we organized around the breakfast program; we got them to start limiting some of the standardized testing. We did all of that through signature gathering and involving the rank and file of the union.
I think too often unions want to build relationships with management instead of fighting them, and think that’s how you win. You can’t get away from organizing because then that muscle atrophies and won’t be usable when you need it — and you will need it, even if you have good relationships with your management.
It made me realize the power of organizing. I’d say right now there is hardly anything that I believe is impossible so long as you can organize behind it. A lot of times people in office say, “Oh, you don’t have the votes for that.” And I think, yeah, sure, maybe you don’t, but when we went on strike in Arizona, the Democrats didn’t have any control over the House, Senate, or governorship, and we still forced an investment of $400 million. The role of our people in elected office should be to organize and amplify the voices of organizers, not just capitalize on their work, because the only way to really make sustained change is through people realizing their own power. If you don’t have control over your elected officials, then you’re leaving it up to the lobbyists and the corporations and the donors.
Another thing I noticed while on strike was that while we had some people in office who stood with the movement from the start, that was the exception, not the rule. Let me be even a little critical of Democrats: a lot of politicians only showed up after we mobilized some fifty thousand people, thirty thousand of whom were educators, trying to capitalize on the movement for the photo op and jump on board after the fact.
Assuming you win the general election, how do you see your role in office?
It’s going to be about putting pressure on elected officials from both parties to do what’s right by the people and using my office to educate, mobilize, and amplify the voices of the people and organizers to make sure that the right things are either blocked or passed. For example, one of the cities I will represent is Inkster, where public schools got into some financial trouble under the previous governor, and they got their schools shut down. Now the city’s strapped with a sizable debt attached to an impossible interest rate.
I want to get that debt wiped. It’s a social injustice that the state shut their schools down, and left one of the most impoverished cities in Michigan strapped with more than $15 million dollars in debt and an interest rate that’s impossible to pay off. I believe building a coalition around the canceling of that debt, among other issues, is possible if we can organize the community around it because most people in office will cave to organized public pressure. We’ve seen that time and time again throughout history.
We don’t see a lot of union members running for office. How do you think your background in labor will translate to politics?
It’s interesting because I don’t personally believe all union leaders are the same. There’s a segment of our unions who have more of a top-down approach — same as some people in office — rather than a bottom-up one. One of the things that differentiates me is I have grassroots organizing experience. It remains to be seen if I will be able to effectively and strategically press the right buttons and organize the people around certain causes for effective change. I think it’s tough. It all depends on if I can mobilize people, and build coalitions with unions and community organizations.
Like you said, not all union leaders and union members are the same. Labor in America has had this failed strategy of unions hitching all their hopes and dreams to the Democratic Party, which hasn’t yielded much in quite some time. Do you think labor needs to take a different approach overall to electoral politics?
At the end of the day what labor and what the people want is effective policy change that puts people first over corporate interests. It’s a bit ironic for me to say this as someone trying to be an elected official, but I still think that the labor movement is the best route to mass change. I think electoral organizing is a role that I’ve been able to play effectively and I want to explore that, but ultimately I believe in mass movements, the people standing up. I believe that withholding labor to make change is the most effective way to achieve real progress.
Labor has got to find a way to get back to its roots, and stop being afraid. A common problem we see, and hopefully I’ll be able to buck this trend, is people get into union office and want to maintain positive relationships with management, or people get into legislative office and end up getting stuck playing politics. I’m hoping that my grassroots organizing will be what drives and leads me because it does seem like for labor leaders and for politicians, it’s really easy to get lost in that. But at the same time we need to do a better job of holding our leaders accountable.
It’s tough because everyone has to work all the time in our society just to barely get by, so a lot of people’s major concern is how do I get food on my table, not politics. So the question is, how do we tap into people’s free time when they don’t have any? Which is, of course, by design.
What is the message you are trying to impart to voters and future constituents?
We need people to wake up to their own power. A lot of politicians are trying to do whatever they can to stay in office, and it’s time they realize that the best way to stay in office moving forward is to fight for the working class. If we can mobilize enough people around popular causes, I think those politicians will get the message. Even if you look across the aisle, there are certain “conservative” issues that conservative people do not agree with. I think there are a lot of people who end up voting for Republicans, but don’t necessarily support things that Republican politicians are doing, like in Michigan where they are taxing retiree pensions. Nobody thinks that that’s a good idea.
Universal background checks are another issue. I would say most of the voters in my district on either side of the political spectrum believe that we should have universal background checks. I think most people believe that billionaires should be taxed. Yet we have politicians on both sides of the aisle protecting them because they’re taking money from them. If people start to fight back through mobilization and higher voting turnout, and stay engaged, I think we have power to make more change than we believe possible. I don’t think things are too far gone. I think people are looking for candidates who believe that.