The momentum from the historic wave of statewide teacher strikes last spring seems set to continue this school year.
After thousands of teachers in a half-dozen states walked out of their classrooms to protest issues like low pay and cuts to school funding—to varying degrees of success—some onlookers are predicting this school year will see continued activism.
Already, teachers in more than a dozen districts in Washington state have gone on strike over contract negotiations. Teachers in Los Angeles, the second-largest district in the nation, have overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike, which could take place next month. And teachers in North Carolina, who protested in droves at the state capital in May, forcing schools across the state to close, are weighing future collective actions this year.
“The critical issue is really the extent to which teachers feel confident and empowered to challenge the political status quo,” said Lois Weiner, a New York-based researcher and independent consultant on teachers’ union transformation. “I think that’s really the question, and I don’t see the rising activism slowing at all. I see it accelerating.”
So far, any concrete labor actions taken in this young school year have been at the district level and are much smaller than the six widescale protests, walkouts, and strikes that happened in Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and West Virginia last spring.
Still, educators across the country say they feel inspired by the teacher activism in those mostly red states. At the nation’s two largest teachers’ union conferences this summer, educators discussed measures to support future strikes.
And public opinion is on the teachers’ side: Two recent national polls found that Americans both are largely in favor of higher teacher pay and support teachers’ right to go on strike. An Education Next poll found that nearly half of people who were told the average teacher salary in their state said the pay should increase—that’s 13 percent higher than last year, a significant jump the researchers attributed to the teacher walkouts.
A ‘More Militant Direction’?
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a blow to teachers’ unions with a decision that some warned could lead to an increase in labor unrest. The decision in Janus v. the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees prohibits public-employee unions from collecting “agency” or “fair share” fees from workers who decline to become members.
Those fees were meant to cover the cost of collective bargaining, but the justices ruled that they forced nonmembers to subsidize speech they might not support. The decision is expected to dent both unions’ treasuries and their membership numbers.
Although teachers’ strikes have been relatively infrequent in the last two decades, even in states that already prohibited agency fees, union leaders have said that the Supreme Court decision could lead to more political activism. That’s because agency fees have long been the trade-off for labor peace, according to the union’s attorney in the Janus case.
"[When you] combine the red-state actions in the spring with a real state of galvanization in the aftermath of the Janus case, it really wouldn’t surprise me to see teachers moving in a more militant direction in blue states as well,” said Jon Shelton, an associate professor of democracy and justice studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.
He pointed to the tensions bubbling over in Los Angeles, where nearly all of the union members who cast a ballot voted to authorize a strike. The union is demanding a pay raise for teachers, class-size reductions, and more school nurses, librarians, and restorative-justice advisers.
United Teachers Los Angeles, and potentially teachers’ unions elsewhere, seem inspired by the wave of teacher activism last spring, even adopting similar strategies, Shelton said.
“You’re seeing teachers’ unions ... specifically linking the needs of teachers with the needs of students,” he said. “That’s something that happened in the red states.”
Future Work Stoppages
Shelton, who wrote a book about the 1960s and ‘70s teachers’ strikes, said he’s also watching Louisiana, a state where the average teacher salary in 2016-17 was $50,000, which is on par with North Carolina. In May, the Louisiana Federation of Teachers surveyed about 4,000 educators to see who would support a mass strike. Just over 60 percent of respondents said they would support a statewide walkout.
Meanwhile, the ongoing situation in Washington state, where teachers in 14 districts have gone on strike this fall, is an unusual one. Schools have received an additional $2 billion in state funding for teacher salaries—raising the stakes in contract negotiations.
The extra money is the result of a 2012 Washington supreme court ruling that declared the state was not amply funding schools. Since then, the state, with prodding by the court, has poured billions of dollars into public education. It was required to fully fund teacher salary increases by this school year.
In many districts across the state, teachers’ unions have negotiated double-digit salary increases, said Washington Education Association spokesman Rich Wood.
In some districts, however, it’s been a tougher fight: During contract negotiations, teachers in more than a dozen districts have voted to authorize strikes. In some places, like Seattle, strikes were narrowly avoided, and some strikes have already concluded. But as of press time, nine districts, including Tacoma, had canceled classes due to strikes.
“This has been a long time coming,” Wood said. “This has been a long-standing fight for fully funded basic education, which includes competitive salaries for teachers and support staff.”
In North Carolina, grassroots organizers are testing the waters of future collective action. Schools across the state were forced to close May 16, when thousands of teachers took personal days to march to the North Carolina Legislative Building to protest low pay and cuts to school funding.
Now, the grassroots group Red4EdNC is trying to harness that energy into legislative change. On the Fourth of July, the group released a “declaration in defense of North Carolina’s public schoolchildren,” which called for per-pupil funding and teacher salaries to be brought back up to pre-recession levels, adjusted for inflation. Teachers in nearly all of the state’s 115 districts have signed on.
“We really are in kind of a critical moment here in North Carolina,” said Angie Scioli, a social studies teacher and the founder of Red4EdNC.
But before any future statewide work stoppage, Scioli said educators in North Carolina need to first come together with a common goal and vision.
“If we’re going to do something of consequence, it needs to be done in unity across the state,” Scioli said. “There’s no point in running forward off the cliff if you’re 10,000 teachers strong. There are 100,000 teachers in North Carolina.”
Michael Hansen, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, said the fact that the Republican-controlled legislature in North Carolina passed a 6.5 percent average pay raise for teachers this summer might quash some of the complaints among educators and avert a future walkout.
“Those kinds of things certainly don’t satisfy everyone in the crowd, but they probably do satisfy many,” he said. “Those kinds of actions from the state can certainly knock the wind out of the sails from those who want more.”
Still, the progressive Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reports that average teacher pay in North Carolina has fallen 5 percent since 2010, after adjusting for inflation. And Scioli said there’s a long list of legislative decisions teachers there are angry about.
“You’ve got to get people pretty mad before they even start to talk about collective action,” Scioli said. “The question is, how mad are North Carolina teachers? And time is going to tell.”
A version of this article appeared in the September 12, 2018 edition of Education Week as Teacher Activism Shows Momentum