Across the Country, Teachers Are Sharing Lessons on How to Strike
Looking to organize a teacher protest? There’s a support group for that
On a March day in Chicago, the presidents of the teachers' unions in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona all sat down for an in-person chat.
The leaders, who were in the Windy City for a leadership summit with the National Education Association, had much to discuss: West Virginia teachers had just completed a successful nine-day strike, and there were rumblings of teacher walkouts in the other three states.
Dale Lee, the president of the West Virginia Education Association, told the three other union leaders what he learned from the strike and what he wished he knew going in.
"It was really just a support group of leaders that are going through the same thing," said Alicia Priest, the president of the Oklahoma Education Association, in an interview.
Since that conversation, teachers in Oklahoma also went on a nine-day walkout, spurred by frustration over low pay and cuts to education funding. Teachers in Kentucky walked out of their classrooms on three separate occasions to protest pension changes. And teachers in Arizona went on strike on April 26 to call for higher wages and more funding for schools.
These movements have followed similar patterns: In each state, a bulk of the organizing has taken place on social media among rank-and-file teachers. These states all have right-to-work laws, meaning teachers aren't required to pay union dues as a condition of employment, so the unions may be weaker. In most of the states, teachers are demanding the same things: higher pay and more school funding.
All these factors have led to cross-state organizing, among both union leaders and rank-and-file teachers. In addition to the "support group" of union officials, teachers at the grassroots level are communicating with each other on social media, leaving comments of support and encouragement on Facebook posts, and sending advice to the teachers who have emerged as leaders of the movement.
For example, West Virginia teachers told Alberto Morejon, an Oklahoma teacher who led a Facebook organizing group with nearly 80,000 members, that the first day of week two was the most important day of the strike. Morejon passed that advice on to teachers in Oklahoma, who listened: Their turnout on that Monday was the largest of the nine days.
"There seems to be a learning process that's evolved," said Jon Shelton, an assistant professor of democracy and justice studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.
For example, he said, teachers in Oklahoma initially centered their demands around their low salaries and the need for a raise. But as the walkout date grew closer, teachers began "making really profound arguments" about how cuts in education funding have affected students, and that helped garner public support, Shelton said.
And teachers in other states were paying attention: "In Arizona, they really hit the ground running with that argument," Shelton said. "They've been able to really dramatically connect their low salaries with the conditions of [student learning]. ... It enables working people to have a better understanding of what's actually happening."
An 'Unprecedented' Movement
For the union leaders in affected states, their peers across state lines have been a source of advice, reassurance, and comfort.
"Unless you've been in this position, you really don't know the difficulties or the pressures or anything like that," said Lee, of West Virginia. "My role with [other union leaders] is to give them encouragement and advice or things we would have done differently."
Teacher strikes are rare these days, and statewide movements are even rarer, said Shelton, who wrote a book called Teacher Strike! Public Education and the Making of a New American Political Order.
"I've never seen anything like this," he said. "That model of [a statewide strike] coming out of nowhere and then being replicated very dramatically and on this large scale—that's something that at least in terms of teacher organization is really unprecedented."
Because statewide strikes are so rare, the "support group" of union presidents has been even more important, said leaders in Oklahoma and Arizona. The union presidents are on a conference call every couple of weeks.
"I feel for Dale [Lee] because he had to go first," quipped Joe Thomas, the president of the Arizona Education Association.
Lee said he had two main pieces of advice for union leaders in other states: Get the public involved in supporting teachers. And make sure the communication with members is strong.
"One of the best things we did during the nine days was start doing nightly videos," Lee said. "People were getting accurate information from us—it wasn't secondhand."
Priest, of Oklahoma, took that piece of advice, and held near-daily livestreams via Facebook Live during and leading up to the walkout to communicate with teachers across the state. Arizona has adopted a similar strategy as well.
Arizona organizers have also taken a page out of Oklahoma's playbook by holding "walk-ins," in which teachers rally outside their schools, to drum up community support before the walkout.
"It’s not going to be the same in every state, but there are going to be similarities," Thomas said.
The most important advice he heard from Priest and Lee, he said, was threefold: Have thick skin—people outside the education community won't want you to succeed. Be aware that people will try to divide the movement. And most importantly, find ways to listen to the teachers.
"When you get thousands and thousands of teachers together, you don't know how they're going to react to things, and you have to give up any sense of control," Thomas said. "You try to put on a program that gives them information and listens to them and gives them a way to lead in, and you try to do that in a purposeful and effective way."
The wave of teacher activism is continuing with Colorado. Thousands of teachers there demonstrated at the state capitol Thursday and Friday, forcing about a dozen districts to close their doors. Lee said he's received phone calls from union officials in other states as well who are considering orchestrating day-long actions next month—though he declined to name the states. (Some watchers, though, have said North Carolina could be next.)
The momentum seems to be contagious, Shelton said, adding that he wouldn't be surprised if teachers elsewhere began to organize as well.
“The fact that these teachers have seen other teachers, in many cases with unions that aren't particularly strong, win significant salary increases ... it's really energized teachers in other states,” he said.
In Arizona, where nearly 80 percent of the 57,000 school employees who cast a ballot at schools voted to go on strike, West Virginia was certainly the catalyst, said Thomas.
“The frustration was here, the energy was here, but that type of focus wasn't,” he said. “And that's the gift that West Virginia gave us.”
Vol. 37, Issue 29, Page 6Published in Print: May 2, 2018, as Teachers Reach Across State Lines For Help Planning Protests