Teaching Profession

The Teachers Are Winning. What Does It Mean for the Profession?

By Stephen Sawchuk — May 07, 2018 8 min read
Teachers crowd the lobby of the Arizona Senate last week as lawmakers debate a budget negotiated by majority Republicans and GOP Gov. Doug Ducey.
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The extraordinary wave of teacher strikes highlights these crucial but often forgotten facts: In number, teachers are the largest profession in the United States. And collectively, they have the power to demand and win changes to funding and salaries.

It’s a stark reminder in an era characterized by diminishing labor influence. And yet political scientists, researchers, and labor-watchers say it’s tough to predict how teachers’ reawakened activism will continue to evolve.

“Teachers are very humble. They just go about their business—we do the best with what we have and we don’t complain,” said Alberto Morejon, a teacher and the grassroots organizer of the Oklahoma walkout last month. But now, “People are finally realizing what we’re dealing with. … They didn’t know the truth, and now they know the truth. It’s slowly going to spread around the country.”

Perhaps, but there are other possibilities, too. The activism could fade slowly away, as Occupy Wall Street and other protest movements of the past decade did. Or it could find a more permanent channel for its energy, perhaps through the regeneration of teachers’ unions—which are facing the probable loss of dollars and members as the result of an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court decision.

With Arizona teachers seemingly inking another win—Gov. Doug Ducey signed a 20 percent pay raise into law alongside an education funding increase last week—eyes are turning toward North Carolina, where teachers are preparing for a May 16 walkout.

Teacher Christina Quintero, left, readies her classroom for the return of students after a budget deal ended a week-long teachers’ strike in Arizona. Teachers have been flexing their muscles nationwide over salaries and funding.

Here are summaries of some of the strikes’ implications for policy, salaries, and the teachers’ unions.

Effects on Salaries and Funding

More than anything else, the strikes have brought widespread attention to the fact that teachers in Arizona, Oklahoma, and West Virginia had among the lowest take-home pay in the country.

That the strikes have occurred in states with histories of tax cuts is no surprise. The bulk of school spending goes to personnel, and so over a time, a smaller spending pie translates into diminishing pay. (Some economists have also noted the tendency of districts to hire more aides and nonclassroom staff as a factor in low pay.)

One of the striking teachers’ innovations, particularly in Arizona and Oklahoma, has been to make the link between teacher pay and overall school funding explicit, policy experts note.

“Your run-of-the-mill teacher strike revolves almost squarely around salaries,” said Michael Hansen, the director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank. “In Oklahoma, where they got half of what they were asking for on salaries, but kept striking [for education funding]—to me, that feels qualitatively different.”

What’s not clear is whether the shorter-term salary hikes they’ve won in the states will help shake down solutions to long-term, structural budget issues.

Anti-tax fervor is so prevalent in Arizona, Colorado, and Oklahoma that each state makes passing legislation to raise taxes a political odyssey. And while national polls show that a majority of Americans support the teachers’ efforts in theory, that’s a far cry from favoring higher taxes in practice.

Largely lost in the debate about teacher pay, meanwhile, is that state education budgets are increasingly being allocated to the rising costs of health care and pensions, putting downward pressure on salaries, said Martin West, an associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Balancing those competing priorities poses no easy solutions, but as the Kentucky walkouts proved, attempts to alter things like pensions without consulting with teachers first are likely to be met with consequences.

“It’s fair to say that if you’re a competent or especially a good teacher and looked at your paycheck, you feel massively underpaid, and I’ve got no quarrel with that,” said Frederick Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, a right-leaning think tank. “It’s also true that these teachers cost a boatload more than they realize to taxpayers” when benefits are taken into account.

Policy experts have struggled to explain why most of the strikes have occurred in states where unions are weaker. It could be a function of pay decisions being more local in stronger union states, higher salaries overall, or possibly because states such as California, New York, and Oregon tend to lean Democratic and thus unions there enjoy better relationships with lawmakers.

Narrow Policy Focus

One of the most conspicuous elements of the walkouts is their comparatively narrow focus on school spending, not on other education policies.

It is a strong contrast to the 2012 Chicago strike, in which issues of teacher seniority and evaluation were front and center, and a sharp turn away from the dominant focus of the past decade.

Evaluation of teachers, in part based on test scores, was unquestionably a central concern of the Obama administration. And as the issue gained momentum in states, it was paired with the not-so-subtle implication, fueled by the mainstream media, that too many teachers weren’t up to the job.

The new federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, undid requirements related to evaluations, leaving those decisions up to states. And by focusing on the much more traditional issue of wages, the recent wave of teacher activism could fuel retrenchment.

Notably, the Oklahoma and West Virginia lawmakers who have cut deals with striking teachers haven’t tried to attach any performance-related strings to them.

“Even supporters [of teacher-performance policies] want to keep those efforts under the radar screen, and that’s why you’re not seeing people connecting the issue of teacher compensation and performance in this outbreak of labor unrest,” West said.

The tenor of media coverage has changed, too. If it hasn’t entirely avoided the temptation to sentimentalize teachers, it has nevertheless succeeded in illustrating the hard realities that teachers in the states with strikes have faced: disintegrating classrooms, decades-old textbooks, and the necessity of holding second jobs.

The political implications of the activism, meanwhile, are still unfolding. Democrats are hoping to capitalize on the momentum among teachers in the midterm elections, but teacher activism doesn’t always fall along traditional political lines.

Take Oklahoma teachers, who lean Republican but clearly don’t hold to the state party’s anti-tax orthodoxy. In a sense, the striking teachers are displaying their own distinct and independent breed of populism: Automation and trade may not be taking their jobs, but they feel equally left out of the post-2008 economic recovery.

“We’ve spent 18 months talking about working-class and middle-class Americans who have been overlooked. If you’re thinking about those folks, teachers are sort of exhibits 1-A,” Hess said.

It’s a question few have bothered to ask yet: Are the strikes the beginning of a long-awaited and long-promised renewal of teacher unionism, or are they a crystal-ball glimpse into a world in which grassroots groups, not the teachers’ unions, dominate organizing?

On the one hand, the strikes prove how powerful organizing can be. Activists and unions alike are sharing what they’ve learned about new organizing tactics and strategies, which are heavily dependent on social media rather than traditional door-knocking.

Texts from West Virginia activist Ryan Frankenberry, in green, to another organizer show the development of the Facebook page that helped fuel a successful strike in the state.

Yet the strikes have been prompted by independent activists—some union members and some not—while the teachers’ unions have played an important, but secondary role. They have lent key support, communications assistance, and focus to the protests, but have not been catalysts.

“If we were going to build a movement to have the power to actually get a strike, it had to be bigger than any one organization. It needed to be a place where the grassroots could communicate,” said Ryan Frankenberry, a former AFT West Virginia political director and one of the core activists in that state. “Having worked for [a teachers’ union] before, I knew they would respond to their membership, and they absolutely did. But you have to have people buying into it for their own reasons before it gets to the organization level.”

The relationships between activists and labor unions have often been productive, but they have also generated some tension. In Oklahoma, some teacher-activists are bristling at how the state union’s leadership handled the strike and are now calling for impeaching its officers.

The Future of Unions

Where does all that leave unions in general?

“To the extent that the unions are really a viable and important player here, I think the likelihood is that these strikes strengthen the unions,” said Bill Raabe, a former longtime National Education Association staffer, now a consultant. “The challenge becomes if the union is viewed as a bit player.”

It is not merely an academic question. Bargaining is prohibited in Arizona, while labor-representation fees cannot be collected from nonmembers in Colorado, Oklahoma, or West Virginia. And a looming Supreme Court decision, Janus v. AFSCME, could end unions’ ability to charge such fees for good elsewhere.

So the unions face tough choices, including whether they will move away from the service model that has characterized them for the past few decades (for instance, the emphasis on offering members liability insurance) and move more fully toward an organizing model.

If they do, the recent strikes offer clues about some strategies unions might think about emulating, Raabe said, including having a clear, concise message, communicating effectively, and finding those issues that spur teachers to passionate response.

Frankenberry concurred. “I’ve had this conversation with a couple of labor leaders across the country. Basically my answer is that you have to know your membership and be engaged, and not just through the traditional hierarchical structure. It’s easy to fall into that.”

There are lessons for the activists to learn from labor, too, noted Julia Koppich, a longtime labor analyst and consultant—like knowing when further wins aren’t viable.

“One of the things I learned many, many years ago is when you go on strike, you have to know how you’re going to get back in. You have to know when it ends,” she said. “I think for the grassroots teachers who want to be in their classrooms teaching, they can’t sustain this kind of energy around the fights that need to be had, without at some point the unions being involved.”

Staff Writer Madeline Will contributed reporting.
A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2018 edition of Education Week as Teacher Strikes Show Power in Numbers

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