BY HANK REICHMAN
In the wake of last year’s exciting wave of teacher strikes that began in West Virginia and quickly spread to Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Colorado — states where public employees lack collective bargaining rights, unions are weak, and voters supported Donald Trump — the current strike by teachers in Los Angeles, the country’s second largest public school district, suggests that momentum has now spread to so-called “blue states.” There some 98% of teachers voted to walk out, and according to polls they enjoy support levels as high as 80% among the city’s public. Students have joined the picket lines and celebrities and politicians have rushed to show their support. (My personal favorite is seeing Steve Van Zandt on the picket line.) But if it’s surely the biggest, this is not the first “blue state” walkout. Last Fall teachers in Washington state and charter school instructors in Chicago had already joined the strike wave, and in California another strike is looming in Oakland. One might also suggest that the first sign of this wave of teacher strikes came back in 2012, when Chicago’s teachers walked out successfully after electing new militant leaders, who are now a model for those leading the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA).
To be sure, the results of these strikes have been inevitably uneven. Yet, if nothing else, it is clear by now that teachers across the country — under both Republican and Democratic governments — are fed up and willing to walk. Teacher strikes have historically come in waves. In the first half of the 20th century, both the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) maintained no-strike policies. That changed after WWII. More than fifty teacher strikes took place between 1946 and 1949, part of a broader postwar national strike wave. From July 1960 to June 1974, more than 1,000 strikes involved more than 823,000 teachers. But since the 1970s, the number of strikes in general — and not only among teachers — has been in decline. As University of Rhode Island historian Erik Loomis points out in his terrific new book, A History of America in Ten Strikes, “During the 1970s, there were an average of 289 major strikes per year in the United States. By the 1990s, that fell to 35 per year. In 2003, there were only 13 strikes.”
Is the pattern changing? One can certainly hope! “Strikes are special moments,” Loomis says. They “happen with or without unions. They can be spontaneous acts by workers — paid or unpaid, with their union’s support or without it.” As labor organizer John Steuben defined it in his remarkable 1950 book Strike Strategy (also available on the web as a free e-book), recovered for our time by Jane McAlevey in a recent review for the journal Catalyst, “A strike is an organized cessation from work. It is the collective halting of production or services in a plant, industry, or area for the purpose of obtaining concessions from employers. A strike is labor’s weapon to enforce labor’s demands.” Writing soon after passage of the anti-labor Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, Steuben warned that “the chief danger is not that the right to strike may be completely taken away. Rather it is that this right may be so emasculated through federal and state legislation that it would become theoretical.”
Subsequent decades, culminating in the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling last year in the Janus case, have borne out Steuben’s concerns, but at long last one can hope that the pushback has arrived. For the teacher revolt represents, first and foremost, a long-overdue reembrace of the strike as a weapon, the most powerful tool working people have to assert their interests. As Eric Blanc and Meagan Day point out, “Teachers have been rallying and lobbying against public education budget cuts for years – yet it was only once they began striking that politicians were forced to start making concessions.”
The teacher strikes, in “red” and “blue” states, also represent a firm rejection of the austerity and privatization agenda pushed by both Democrats and Republicans. As Miriam Pawel explained in the New York Times,
On paper, negotiations between the 31,000-member United Teachers of Los Angeles and the Los Angeles Unified School District center on traditional issues: salaries that have not kept pace, classes of more than 40 students, counselors and nurses with staggering caseloads. But the most potent and divisive issue is not directly on the bargaining table: the future of charter schools, which now enroll more than 112,000 students, almost one-fifth of all K-through-12 students in the district. They take their state aid with them, siphoning off $600 million a year from the district. The 224 independent charters operate free from many regulations, and all but a few are nonunion.
When California authorized the first charter schools in 1992 as a small experiment, no one envisioned that they would grow into an industry, now educating 10 percent of public school students in the state. To counter demands for greater regulation and transparency, charter advocates have in recent years poured millions into political campaigns. Last year, charter school lobbies spent $54 million on losing candidates for governor and state superintendent of education.
In Los Angeles, they have had more success. After his plan to move half of the Los Angeles district students into charter schools failed to get traction, the billionaire and charter school supporter Eli Broad [a big Democratic donor] and a group of allies spent almost $10 million in 2017 to win a majority on the school board. The board rammed through the appointment of a superintendent, Austin Beutner, with no educational background. Mr. Beutner, a former investment banker, is the seventh in 10 years and has proposed dividing the district into 32 “networks,” a so-called portfolio plan designed in part by the consultant who engineered the radical restructuring of Newark schools [which, I might add, failed miserably].
“In my 17 years working with labor unions, I have been called on to help settle countless bargaining disputes in mediation,” wrote Vern Gates, the union-appointed member of the fact-finding panel called in to help mediate the Los Angeles stalemate last month. “I have never seen an employer that was intent on its own demise.”
It’s a vicious cycle: The more overcrowded and burdened the regular schools, the easier for charters to recruit students. The more students the district loses, the less money, and the worse its finances. The more the district gives charters space in traditional schools, the more overcrowded the regular classrooms.
Or, as one Los Angeles teacher, a veteran of previous strikes, put it,
In my two strikes, and in virtually all strikes of the past, we could make one assumption safely–that as much as we disagreed about the means, everyone wanted, in their own way, to see the public school district remain healthy and whole.
This is no longer a safe assumption on the local, state or national level.
LAUSD Superintendent Austin Beutner came to the job with no background in education. This is no longer unusual in large districts, nor in state school leadership positions [nor, I might add, in colleges and universities]. Increasingly the agenda of many people taking positions of authority over public education is to dismantle public education and replace it with a network of private charter schools, a process often accelerated by starving public schools for funding in order to manufacture a crisis. And lest we forget, current secretary of education Betsy DeVos once declared that public schools are a “dead end.” Beutner’s comment to a reporter regarding the strike was “There are ways to educate kids that don’t rely on a physical body.” Teachers are not necessary. . . .
Teachers in many school districts and many states across the country find themselves in the unusual position of working in an institution led by people who want to see that institution fail. Back in the day, teacher strikes were about how best to keep a school district healthy, but these modern walkouts are about the very idea that public schools should be kept healthy at all. UTLA demands for smaller classes, more support staff, safer schools, community schools, and charter school oversight are not about making their working conditions a little better, but about keeping public education alive and healthy.
Teachers across the country are dealing with the problems created by systematic underfunding of public schools and a systematic devaluing of the teaching profession by leaders who believe that public education should be swept aside to make room for a system of private free market education.
The Los Angeles Unified School District now educates just under a half-million students. More than 80 percent are poor, about three-quarters are Latino, and about one-quarter are English-language learners. With well-to-do and white parents abandoning the district for private schools or charters, the irony is that the teachers are in a stronger position to win the backing of parents and students. All the more so because Latino educators account for 43 percent of LAUSD’s teaching force this school year, district data show, up from 41 percent the year before, while their white counterparts make up 34 percent. (Black and non-Filipino Asian teachers each account for about 10 percent, while 3 percent of educators are Filipino and just under 1 percent are either Native American or Pacific Islander.)
These figures are unique among urban school districts. As The Atlantic reported, “Of the millions of educators who teach in the country’s public schools—where more than half of the nearly 51 million students are children of color—a whopping 80 percent are white. And Los Angeles stands out even when compared with nearby districts such as San Diego Unified, where close to half of all students are Latino compared with only 18 percent of their teachers. Across California, a recent EdSource analysis found, the rate of Latino public-school teachers is half what it is in LAUSD.”
Particularly troubling at the national level is that the share of minority educators has changed little over the years. A study by the AFT’s Shanker Institute concluded that despite recruitment efforts teachers of color leave the profession at a higher rate than their white counterparts—a trend that’s particularly pronounced among black educators. According to the Shanker Institute, teachers of color tend to be concentrated in urban schools serving high-poverty, minority communities, where a limited say in decision making and a lack of professional autonomy in the classroom eventually burn them out. According to the report, Los Angeles was the only city that saw sizable growth in the share of Latino educators, with turnover rates lowest for LAUSD’s Latino teachers—with three in 10 of them leaving the profession after three years, compared with four in 10 of their white, black, and Asian counterparts.
That Latino identity may be one (of several) powerful forces motivating the strikers, suggests something deeper. As Philadelphia columnist Will Bunch put it, “the L.A. teacher strike feels more like the cutting edge of a wider social revolution.” He added,
Timing is everything. And the thousands of red-shirted teachers and students flooding the uncharacteristically rain-soaked streets of Los Angeles this past week are showing what protest can do at the exact same moment when things are unraveling everywhere else, when 800,000 federal workers have been working without pay for a month, when many more who depend on Washington for income or vital services are also about to be slammed by the government shutdown, and when our deer-in-the-headlights Establishment seems flummoxed by a growing case for impeachment of a dangerous president. . . .
If the teachers of Los Angeles can win back in the streets what they so passively watched slip away over the last decade, it’s possible — likely, really — that other citizens will start to speak out and act up more aggressively as well, in a year when increasingly America’s center is not holding.
Which brings me back to the importance of strikes themselves. As McAlevey reminds us, “The gap between the rhetoric of the broader progressive movement, the ‘We are the 99%’ and the ability to actually manifest anything close to the 99 percent, are as vast as the Grand Canyon. It simply doesn’t matter what percent you claim are with you in your rhetoric if you can’t first organize — that means unify — supermajorities, then mobilize the base for collective action.”
The upsurge among teachers points the way forward for unions and the entire working class, defined broadly and not in the racialized and gendered form too often found in the media. But strikes alone are not enough. They must build political as well as economic power. As Erik Loomis argues persuasively in his informative strike history, “There is simply no evidence from American history that unions can succeed if the government and employers combine to crush them. All the other factors are secondary: the structure of a union, how democratic it is, how radical its leaders or the rank-and-file are, their tactics. . . . That was true in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and it is true under the Trump administration. . . . Having friends in government, or at least not having enemies there, makes all the difference in the history of American workers.”
But strikes themselves can build political support. As McAlevey argues, strikes “serve as the most effective form of mass political education . . . because strikes clarify the two sides.” Oklahoma educators didn’t win a lot in the immediate aftermath of their walkout, but last Fall they defeated fourteen of the nineteen legislators who opposed their demands. They were replaced with — TEACHERS!
This lesson and the other lessons of this strike wave should not be lost on those of us in higher education. The forces of privatization and corporatization, of what some scholars have called “academic capitalism,” are reshaping our sector in ways not all that dissimilar to what our K-12 colleagues face. As I wrote last spring in response to the West Virginia walkouts, “One after another the supposed ‘leaders’ of our public higher education institutions have cravenly capitulated to political assaults on, first, their budgets, but then their faculties, their students, and their very missions.”
That truth is well illustrated by what is happening at Wright State University in Ohio, where the faculty — tenured and contingent — will, barring a miracle, be joining the K-12 teachers of Los Angeles on strike on Tuesday. From Ohio to California the struggle is the same. Confronting administrators and politicians won’t come easy to some union leaders and educators, but the success of our movement depends on it. As Blanc and Day conclude,
The stakes are high. Public education remains one of the few remaining public goods in the United States. For that very reason, corporate politicians are doing everything they can to dismantle and privatize the school system. But if the teachers’ upsurge can reverse this offensive, there’s little reason to assume that working people will stop there. Saving public education may be the first step towards building a revitalized labor movement capable of bringing many of society’s basic necessities – from healthcare to energy production – into the public sphere.
I will conclude by quoting once more from what I wrote in response to the West Virginia strikes last spring. Our success will “depend on our willingness to learn from and follow the lead of those tens of thousands of courageous West Virginia teachers who stood up for themselves, their students and their communities . . . I’m not sure our administrators, trustees, and other so-called educational ‘leaders’ are totally hopeless, but they clearly lack the will or even perhaps the ability to stand up for themselves, much less their faculties and students. So, as it was for the teachers in West Virginia, the solution — the future — is in our hands. If we lead, others will follow.”
From West Virginia to Los Angeles, from Los Angeles to Dayton, teachers are leading!