In a few places, the start of the school year has already been disrupted—not by virus outbreaks, but by teacher strikes.
Teachers in Columbus, Ohio, went on strike for the first time in 47 years last month, coinciding with the first day of school. The district started the year instead with substitute teachers and non-union staff leading remote instruction. The teachers secured and approved a new contract that included pay raises, a commitment to add heating and air conditioning to student learning areas, a reduction in class sizes, and a paid parental-leave program for teachers.
Then, more than 6,000 teachers in Seattle went on strike for five days. Teachers there won a 7 percent pay raise in the first year of the new contract, with an additional 4 percent and then 3 percent bump the following years. The tentative agreement, which will be voted on by members this week, would also add workload protections for teachers, school counselors, nurses, and social workers, according to the Seattle Times.
Also this fall, teachers in Kent and Ridgefield, cities in Washington state, went on strike. In both districts, the strikes lasted for more than a week.
Since 2018, there has been a historic wave of teacher activism, with statewide teacher walkouts in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona, as well as smaller-scale statewide protests in North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, and Colorado. There have also been several big-city teacher strikes, including in Los Angeles, Chicago, Denver, Minneapolis, and St. Paul, Minn.
Much of this activism fell under the umbrella of RedforEd, a rallying cry for higher teacher wages and more school funding.
To understand how the latest strikes fit into this pattern and whether they signal the possibility for more activism to come, Education Week spoke to Jon Shelton, the associate professor and chair of democracy and justice studies at the University of Wisconsin Green Bay and the author of the book Teacher Strike! Public Education and the Making of a New American Political Order.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
With the strikes this fall, are there any common themes that you’re seeing? Or are they localized issues?
I think this trend that we’ve seen with teacher unions for about a decade now, going back to the Chicago Teachers Union in 2011, is teachers really putting the needs of students front and center. Just like in other strikes that have happened over the past decade, teachers are concerned about their salaries and benefits, and that’s always a part of the negotiations—especially now given that inflation means that without a significant salary increase, teachers are getting a pay cut.
In Seattle, a big part of those demands, in addition to salary increases, was enhanced access to special education services. And that really builds on the social justice orientation the [teachers’ union there] has had for at least a decade now. They’ve in the past negotiated over things like racial equity.
And then, in Columbus, it’s literally going on strike over climate-controlled classrooms, which is obviously about the working conditions of the teachers, but it’s also about the learning conditions of students. Imagine trying to teach 30 5th graders when it’s 95 degrees in a classroom—it’s impossible.
When teachers are willing to go on strike, increasingly it’s because they feel like the school district that they’re working in is not actually providing what it is that students need. And so they have to take that action in order to force them to do it.
The focus on student well-being was particularly a big theme with the strikes in 2018 and 2019. Do you think that wave of teacher strikes pre-pandemic has set up the foundation for what’s coming now?
Yes, absolutely. Unions across the country are looking at the ways that other actions have been successful. And the way they’ve been successful is really through two things.
One is deep member-to-member organizing—organizing a rank-and-file that doesn’t see the union as something that’s external to themselves, but really sees themselves as an important part of the decisionmaking process. ... Deep organizing to ensure that all of the members of the union in a school district are really on board and behind that sort of action. That was a huge part of the success of L.A. teachers.
And then the second thing is organizing for demands that people in the community, especially parents, see as valuable because there’s been really a priority on only going on strike when the community supports it. This goes back to the red state teacher strikes in 2018. And in L.A., Chicago, Columbus, Seattle, what you see is the community that understands that these teachers are advocating for things that are gonna help their kids.
So these strikes have been enormously popular. I think we shouldn’t take that for granted because there have been times in the past when teacher strikes weren’t as popular. Not every union has been able to powerfully articulate how what they’re fighting for makes students’ lives better and improves the community.
Many parents are hoping this school year will be the first normal one since the pandemic began, with fewer disruptions and school closures. Do you think teachers who are going on strike are running the risk of losing community support?
I don’t think necessarily going on strike risks that support. I think it’s really important that unions are able to make their case to the public—why it is they’re doing what they’re doing. To my knowledge, there wasn’t a huge public backlash in either Columbus or Seattle. As a parent, if my [children’s] teachers are like, “Hey, we’re not gonna work until we get air conditioning for your kids,” it’s pretty easy for me to see why I would support that.
I think unions are conscious of those dynamics that you mentioned. I think probably any union out there that’s even considering a work stoppage is thinking about that. But what that means is, let’s really make sure that we can strongly articulate what it is that we’re fighting for. Obviously a lot of parents, a lot of teachers want normalcy. Teachers never want to go on strike. It’s a huge risk, you know? They never want to do it whimsically or without a good reason for it.
Teacher job dissatisfaction has increased since the pandemic. Does that play a role in the willingness to strike?
Absolutely. ... The teaching profession is one in which teachers are like a lot of workers today, feeling like they’re constantly being asked to do more with less. But then you’re adding to that a lot of the political pressures on them.
And then the next thing that’s going to happen is in a year or so, when federal COVID [recovery] funding starts to run out, you’re going to start seeing budget crunches in a lot of school districts. I think a lot of teachers and unions are sort of proactively worrying about that and making sure that their students have the things that they think they need and setting up the groundwork for that now.
This conflict isn’t going to go away because there’s so much pressure on teachers. Teachers are either leaving the profession or they’re deciding, no, we’re going to actually organize and stand up and fight for the things that our students need. I think labor relations for teachers is going to continue to be tumultuous for some time.
Do you think that we’ll see again strikes and walkouts on as large of a scale as we did in 2018?
It’s really hard to predict that. There are lots of variables—when collective [bargaining] agreements run out, what city and school board administrations look like.
But I do think paying attention to how budgets are going to look for school districts after that funding from the federal government cuts off—that is something that is going to more than likely precipitate more conflicts. Right now that funding has papered over, in a lot of places, potential budget crunches, and that funding won’t be there. There will be pressure on state governments to backfill in some cases, and you could see labor conflict over that, where a group of teachers somewhere or a union goes on strike in order to basically force the state to backfill a budget deficit to avert layoffs or something like that.
I think that’s a dynamic to pay attention to. Again, it’s hard to predict what’s going to happen, but I would not predict smoothness and stability in teacher labor relations in the next few years.
A version of this article appeared in the September 28, 2022 edition of Education Week as Why Teachers Are Going on Strike This Fall—and What Could Come Next