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How Teacher Strikes Could Factor in 2020 Elections

Contracts are up in key states, as is educator activism
By Andrew Ujifusa — November 26, 2019 5 min read
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The recent Chicago Teachers Union strike drew up-close attention from Democratic presidential candidates in Illinois, a state won by Democrats in the last White House contest. For 2020, it’s possible we could see a twist on that story: big-city teacher strikes in states where the outcome is far less predictable.

That’s because teachers’ contracts with both Detroit and Philadelphia public schools expire next year. The deal between the Detroit Federation of Teachers and the district expires at the end of June, while the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ contract with city schools runs out at the end of August.

President Donald Trump’s 2016 election win rested in large part on his victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, which had traditionally voted for Democrats in recent presidential races. (If Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had taken those three states, she would have won the presidency.) The potential political mix of the 2020 White House race, and labor unrest among educators that could affect a couple of those same states, is intriguing—up to a point.

At a basic level, it’s possible that a Democratic presidential nominee could protest with teachers during such strikes, bringing national media attention along for the ride. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., a current candidate, did the latter during the recent Chicago strike. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., another 2020 hopeful, also backed the teachers’ demands in person.

Strikes might capitalize on political momentum generated by #RedforEd—a movement that advocates for teacher pay raises and more resources for schools—that could affect the White House race or any number of other elections. Just last week, thousands of teachers wearing red T-shirts rallied at the Indiana Statehouse to push for better pay and greater respect for teachers in that state.

“You could see some cross-pollination there in terms of turnout in swing states” between the 2020 race and labor action, said Jon Shelton, an associate professor of democracy and justice studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay who focuses on teachers’ unions. But Shelton also sounded a note of caution: “The thing you have to remember is that the local context is everything for a teacher union.”

In Milwaukee, the city that will host the Democratic National Convention next year, the situation is different. Act 10, signed by ousted Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2011, prevents unions from collectively bargaining about issues beyond base pay, and pay increases are capped. In addition, every year, local unions like the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association have to recertify, meaning that members must vote annually to have the union represent educators as its collective bargaining unit. That process is now underway.

What do teachers’ union leaders have to say about this situation?

Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan said in an interview that his union won’t enter negotiations with the goal of going on strike, and that it would be a last resort. Asked if the prospect of a 2020 Philadelphia teachers’ strike mixing with presidential politics in Pennsylvania excited or unnerved him, Jordan responded, “It does neither. This is not the first time we’ve negotiated in a year of a presidential election. ... We’re going to be focused on the teaching and learning conditions in Philadelphia for our kids and for our members.”

While his union will have endorsed a presidential candidate and be actively involved in the race by August, he added, “the contract negotiations are on a separate track.”

Detroit Federation of Teachers President Terrence Martin struck a similar tone. Although he would welcome a presidential candidate’s support if his members went on strike (a decision he noted would be a last resort), Martin said the federation would want to make sure the candidate wasn’t simply using the union for his or her own purposes.

Cautious Stance

“Our ideals and our priorities have to be aligned,” Martin said. “We don’t run from it, but we’re certainly very cautious.” He also said that among his members, there’s “moderate interest” in the 2020 presidential campaign right now.

As a member of a central labor council, the DFT participates in presidential campaigns through door-knocking, phone-banking, and other traditional activities, Martin said. Asked about his union’s relationship with the district at the moment, Martin said, “I wouldn’t say it’s a bad relationship. I wouldn’t say it’s a great relationship. It’s one that’s somewhere in the middle.” The union reached a deal with the district on pay increases earlier this year.

Both the DFT and the PFT are affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers.

The key date for the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, a National Education Association affiliate, might be April 7. That’s when the city will likely consider a referendum to raise taxes to increase school funding—the exact terms of that referendum haven’t been set yet. It also happens to be the same day as the presidential- primary vote, the Milwaukee mayoral election, and elections for the state supreme court.

The results of that referendum could have a major impact on the approach the union (which is legally prohibited from striking) decides to take heading into the summer, when the Democratic National Convention comes to town, and how much pressure it puts on the state legislature to increase K-12 aid through some kind of labor action.

Teachers don’t necessarily go on strike the day their contract runs out. Because some negotiations are complicated, educators can work without a new contract for weeks or months while those take place before teachers head to the picket lines. However, Martin said that Detroit teachers have never worked without a contract, although sometimes contracts have been extended before new ones are agreed to.

The Philadelphia union is dealing with an internal division between current leaders and a group within the union seeking a sharper focus on progressive causes. That development, Shelton noted, mirrors a trend in the Democratic Party wherein progressives are in a tug of war with establishment, more-moderate Democrats. As a result, former Vice President Joe Biden, a top Democratic candidate, might hesitate to fully embrace a Philadelphia teacher strike, depending on what issues are in play, while it’s more likely Sanders and Warren would quickly move to support one, Shelton said.

A version of this article appeared in the November 27, 2019 edition of Education Week as How Teacher Strikes Could Factor in 2020 Elections

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