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Teachers Are Organizing. But What About Teachers' Unions?

As teachers take the lead in pay-raise protests, their unions face an uncertain future

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Bruce Fuller, Opinion Contributor
—Photo: Craig Sherod Photography
Bruce Fuller, a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, works on how schools and civic activists push to advance pluralistic communities. He is a regular opinion contributor to edweek.org where he trades views with Lance Izumi, on the other side of the political aisle. Read Lance Izumi's take on teacher strikes.

This blossoming spring of teacher uprisings—marching on state capitols, winning hefty pay raises—cheers any citizen who knows that robust societies depend on vibrant schools.

But arid summers may await the nation’s educators, as the Trump-tweaked U.S. Supreme Court seems ready to eviscerate these same teacher associations who battle each day for better schools.

While hearing oral arguments in the Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 31 case in February, justices voiced skepticism over compulsory union dues, the life blood of local associations that mobilize the nation’s 3.2 million teachers.

From left to right, #RedForEd supporters Dylan Wegela, Derek Harris, and Rebecca Garelli celebrate their pay-raise victory in Scottsdale, Ariz. earlier this month.
From left to right, #RedForEd supporters Dylan Wegela, Derek Harris, and Rebecca Garelli celebrate their pay-raise victory in Scottsdale, Ariz. earlier this month.
—Sheenae Shannon

Still, it’s the wildcat strikes moving across the nation—ignited mostly by young and passionate teachers—that may reshape the future of labor unions.

Right-wing backers of Janus are scratching their heads over the red-state teacher uprisings. Critics, who see the unions as protecting mediocre schools, have spent millions to disembowel aging unions. Instead, it’s the youngsters among the rank-and-file—taking to social media and pop-up protests—who pull thousands of teachers to state capitols and deliver hefty raises for a profession that, most Americans agree, has long been underpaid.

Take Rebecca Garelli, a young teacher at her wit’s end over aging textbooks who is struggling to teach science to Phoenix middle schoolers with what she describes as “out of date” lab equipment. She “just wasn’t being treated like a professional,” Garelli told me. Nor could she fathom why Arizona’s Gov. Doug Ducey did little to reverse a billion-dollar recession-era cut in school spending, despite Arizona’s now-booming economy.

So, like any 30-something, she created a fresh Facebook page one Friday evening last March, at first calling it Teachers United.

After a busy weekend filled with her own children’s activities, Garelli returned online that Monday to find that more than 1,200 teachers had signed up to join Teachers United, many eager to go on strike. “I just wanted to have a conversation,” she recalled, “I considered shutting down the site.”

"Unless aging union bosses squarely face their shifting environs and build youthful alliances, they face a dismal future."

Yet, two weeks later, thousands of teachers descended on the state capitol, donned in bright red T-shirts, colorfully punctuating the slogan that went viral, Red for Ed. The governor soon agreed to a 20 percent pay hike, implemented over the next three years.

So, what’s the use of staid teachers’ unions if youthful renegades, many with no history in the labor movement, can prove so potent? Might rebellious teachers like Garelli further splinter pro-education groups, thinning the political heft that union chiefs once enjoyed?

It’s unclear how cathartic labor action by the new young guard will translate into long-term policy or budget gains. Overall suspicion of public organizing has not shifted in conservative states, like Oklahoma, where Republican governors had cut per-pupil state funding by 28 percent over the past decade, until teachers won a $6,100 average pay raise this spring.

The rookie agitators are succeeding with a strategy that any shrewd organizer knows: rally around a shared and viscerally felt grievance, like dismal pay for challenging jobs. But will these hard-won salary bumps prove to elevate student achievement?

“We originally suggested broader aid for education,” David Blatt, the head of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, told me, “But we were really a lonely voice.” Ultimately, legislators only approved a pay raise, ignoring longer term funding demands, in the face of a threatened walkout, he noted.

Nor has the teacher vanguard yet to consider which taxpayers finance higher salaries. Arizona enacted a new car-registration fee, along with capturing savings from a falling count of Medicaid patients, rather than raise taxes on corporations or wealthy citizens.

Oklahoma legislators gingerly raised levies on gas and oil production. But over two-thirds of the pay package is funded by higher taxes at the gas pump, on tobacco products and tribal gaming, regressive burdens on the very working-class families that suffer from lower quality schools, according to an analysis by the Oklahoma Policy Institute.

The instant lightning sparked by novice organizers, when unaligned with traditional unions, may suck energy from their older brethren. Established labor chiefs already face criticism from social-justice groups, which accuse them of harboring lousy teachers and sacred pension plans, rather than rallying to equitably fund public schools.

Select unions are becoming less insular, such as service employees who back expanded preschool for their own kids or charter-school leaders who open their doors to union representation.

Still, unless aging union bosses squarely face their shifting environs and build youthful alliances, they face a dismal future. A inventive unity among diffuse education lobbies will become all the more necessary if the Supreme Court subverts union financing.

“It’s really hard to do this work without union investment,” Blatt said in Oklahoma City. Although labor leaders did not initiate the grassroots efforts, they quickly provided the “permits, pizza, and porta-potties” as the youth-led rank-and-file swarmed the capitol, he said.

Back in Arizona, Teachers United is bonding with old-line labor to focus on a ballot initiative. If approved by voters, the measure—which Garelli reports is “totally spearheaded by the union”—would boost taxes on the top 0.8 percent—restoring that billion-dollar cut largely ignored by the past two governors.

Bruce Fuller is a sociologist at the University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of Organizing Locally.

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