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The Teacher Strikes That Could Hit Presidential Swing States in 2020

By Andrew Ujifusa — November 17, 2019 6 min read
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The recent Chicago Teachers Union strike was a big story this year. For 2020, it’s possible we could see a twist on that story: big-city teacher strikes in presidential swing states.

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, Wisconsin, which had traditionally voted for Democrats in recent presidential races. (If Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton had won 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 impact the White House race or any number of other elections. Perhaps they would also prompt a Trump tweet or other public remarks from the president, who’s no fan of teachers’ unions and vice versa. Trump won Michigan and Pennsylvania, as well as Wisconsin, by a very small margin, and both parties will be looking for whatever edge they can get.

How big a deal could a crossover of campaigns and strikes be? Maybe don’t rush to black-and-white conclusions one way or the other.

“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 former Republican Gov. Scott Walker in 2011, prevents unions from collectively bargaining about issues beyond base pay, and pay increases are capped. In addition, local unions like the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association have to recertify every year; that process is now under way.

What do teachers’ union leaders have to say about this situation? Here’s what they told us:

  • Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President Jerry Jordan told us 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.”

    He added that while by August 2020 his union will have endorsed a presidential candidate and be actively involved in the race, “The contract negotiations are on a separate track.”

    A local school board in Philadelphia resumed control over city schools in 2018, after many years of state control over public schools.

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

    “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 last summer. After many years under state control, a local school board assumed control of Detroit schools in 2017.

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

  • The key date for the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association 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 DNC comes to town, and how much pressure it puts on the state legislature to increase K-12 aid through some kind of labor action. That could provide a window for presidential candidates to get involved in some way. For example, it will be interesting to see if any Democratic White House hopefuls call on Milwaukee voters to approve that referendum shortly before April 7.

The Political Calculus Around Strikes

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

Detroit teachers went on a mass “sickout” in 2016. It’s hard to say what if any impact the brief sickout had on Michigan’s place in the 2016 election, although the politics of teacher power have changed since then thanks in part to #RedforEd. This past summer, Detroit teachers and the district reached a deal on a pay raise.

The Philadelphia union is dealing with an internal division between current leaders and a group within the union seeking a bigger focus on progressive causes. This 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 a strike, Shelton said.

(The City of Brotherly Love hosted the Democratic National Convention in 2016; although that took place during the summer, imagine the volatile mix that a presidential race, a teachers’ strike, and a nominating convention might have created.)

Jordan said his team is currently surveying members for their top concerns and wants to begin the negotiating process with the district before 2019 ends. So far, he said, the issues his members want address range from class size to the reduction of unnecessary paperwork. These negotiations, he noted, are never easy.

It’s also entirely possible that a swarm of national attention on teacher strikes due in part to where they take place would complicate any resolution for those strikes, irrespective of how excited some union members might get if a presidential candidate were to show up in support.

Photo: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts calls for people across the country to support striking Chicago teachers after joining educators picketing outside an elementary school, Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2019, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Teresa Crawford)