For the first time in four decades, a genuine strike wave has spread across the United States. Beginning in West Virginia, striking educators have paralysed school systems in the Republican-dominated states of Kentucky, Oklahoma and, most recently, Arizona. There is no sign that this historic wave of labour militancy is letting up anytime soon. On 7th May teachers struck indefinitely in Pueblo, Colorado - a “blue state” headed by a Democratic governor - and North Carolina educators are mobilising for a walkout on 16th May.
The roots of these strikes are easy to find. Year after year of austerity policies imposed by the Republicans - often with Democratic Party support - has eroded the real value of salaries, raised health care costs, and/or decimated the public (state) school systems. At the same time as school funding has been cut, politicians have doled out massive tax cuts to the wealthy and the corporations.
“Is the government purposely neglecting our public schools to give an edge to private and charter [academy] schools?” asked Mickey Miller, a Tulsa teacher and rank-and-file leader. For Christy Cox - a middle-school teacher in Norman, Oklahoma - reversing school funding cuts was her main motivation to strike: “The kids aren’t getting what they need. . . .Though the media doesn’t talk about this as much as salaries, I feel that funding our schools is the primary issue.” In such conditions, it just took the example of West Virginia’s victorious strike to spark a political wildfire.
These movements have taken a particularly explosive form because public sector strikes and collective bargaining are illegal in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona. Given relatively weak unions and the absence of legally recognised bargaining channels, workers had little choice but to adopt militant tactics and novel forms of self-organisation. In each of these states, the push for the strikes came from networks of rank-and-filers organised initially through Facebook.
Despite these broad similarities, the relationship of the ranks to the unions - and the victories that they have been able to collective achieve - have varied across the different states. Given that West Virginia had the strongest union traditions, its rank-and-file militants largely sought to push the unions into strike action. In the course of their nine-day strike, West Virginia’s educators forced the Republican state government to grant a number of important concessions, including a 5% pay increase to all public employees.
Oklahoma had a similar level of mass mobilisation, yet its strike was plagued by the organisational weaknesses of both the trade unions and the rank-and-file networks, which had relied far too heavily on Facebook to build for the strike. Though the state government conceded an important pay increase to teachers on the eve of the walkout, the nine-day strike itself was unable to wrest further concessions on school funding
In many ways the Arizona strike has been the most remarkable action so far. Despite the profound weakness of the state’s unions, and the longstanding strength of Arizona’s right wing establishment, a dynamic young cohort of rank-and-file teachers was able to assemble a well-organised “Red for Ed” mass movement in less than two months. Their six-day strike wrested a promised 20% raise for teachers and, no less significantly, it blocked further tax cuts and moves towards privatisation. Building on their considerable momentum, strike leaders are now organising for a November 2018 ballot initiative to tax the rich to fund the state’s public schools.
Noah Karvelis, a music teacher and Arizona “Red for Ed” organiser, summed up the lessons of their strike: “The types of attacks we’ve seen in Arizona are common to the working class across the whole country. We’re being exploited, we’re being taken advantage of. We’re overworked, we’re underpaid, we’ve been surviving on too little for too long. But what we’ve done in Arizona is stand up and say enough is enough. There always comes a breaking point for the working class. If educators in Arizona could stand up and fight back, anybody can stand up and do the same.”
In each of these states, cuts to education are only one dimension of a more generalised offensive against the public sector. As such, there is an urgent need to deepen the unity between teachers and other state employees. Such an alliance is critical not only for winning broader and deeper concessions, but also in combating Republicans’ attempts to pit teachers versus other state workers by cutting public services to pay for teacher pay increases. Though it remains to be seen whether the strike wave will expand beyond public education, it’s clear that these striking educators have already changed the course of US history.