Teacher strikes that started in West Virginia and are now raging in Oklahoma and whipping up in Kentucky and Arizona are being called a "nationwide movement." But a nationwide movement for what?
The Wall Street Journal calls the teacher rebellions a "response to years of steep cuts to state education budgets." Similar articles in other outlets make the argument that because strikes are currently confined to "teachers in states governed by Republicans," they are mostly about challenging "GOP austerity."
While there is much more than a grain of truth to these observations, they are short-sighted.
These striking teachers, in saying "We've had enough," are taking a stand not only about their own financial situation, but also about the conditions of their students, their schools, and their communities.
These teachers – who span the political spectrum – are taking their grievances beyond the normal confines of partisan politics and labor disputes to decry the dire conditions in struggling communities across the nation. Their ultimate aim is to have an effect at the ballot box.
Uniting a Range of Issues
For sure, a theme uniting the strikes is the need to pay teachers more and fix their broken health insurance and retirement programs. And for good reason.
As the Economic Policy Institute reports, teachers "are burdened by growing pay inequities. Over the last two decades, teachers are contributing more and more toward health care and retirement costs as their pay falls further behind. Teacher pay (accounting for inflation) actually fell by $30 per week from 1996 to 2015, while pay for other college graduates increased by $124."
But teachers who are striking "are concerned with a range of issues," EPI reports, and their grievances have been calling attention to much more of the problems in our communities.
Striking for Communities
Since the 2012 Chicago teachers' strike, teachers have been aligning their labor actions to the tenets of social-justice unionism, that extend teacher grievances beyond the defense of their own wage and benefits to fighting for the rights and needs of students and the broader community.
What followed the Chicago strike was a series of generally successful strikes where teachers embedded their demands for better pay with calls for improving the learning conditions of students and increasing community-enhancing supports in schools.
In 2014, teacher unions in Portland, Oregon and St. Paul, Minnesota averted threatened strikes and won significant contract struggles by asserting a bargaining platform based on "the schools our students deserve" and increased supports for struggling students and families, including expansions of pre-kindergarten programs and smaller classes.
In 2015, striking teachers in Seattle not only won increased salaries, but they also were successful in winning student-centered demands for recess, discipline reform, and physical and mental health supports. These were school improvements parents also demanded.
In 2018, St. Paul teachers again averted a strike and won their negotiations, not only for wage increases, but also for student-centered issues, including reducing class sizes, improving education services for English learners and special education students, and funding the implementation of restorative practices – an approach to school discipline that focuses on reconciliation rather than harsh punishments.
Similarly, striking teachers across the nation this year are making demands that go far beyond wages and benefits.
Beyond Wages and Benefits
The wage and benefit demands West Virginia teachers made were accompanied by demands for a five-percent pay raise for all public employees, a realistic commitment from the state to address a broken public employee health insurance program, limits on charter school expansions, and the ability of all public employee unions to deduct dues through payroll collection.
The Oklahoma strike demands also go beyond issues of teacher pay to propose increased taxes on the states' oil and gas industry so all schools can return to five day weeks, reduce class sizes, renew outdated textbooks, and address chronic teacher shortages.
There's evidence that public opinion in Oklahoma aligns with the teachers. A recent poll conducted by the Oklahoma association of teachers found, "93 percent of Oklahomans believe the state legislature has not done enough to increase funding for Oklahoma students and public schools. Public support continues to be strong for teachers at 77 percent, while support for the state legislature (17 percent) and Governor [Mary] Fallin at (18 percent) remains very low. The poll also found public support for the walk-out is increasing."
Seizing Political Power
The message from the current round of teacher strikes is that not only have governing policies made teachers an unappreciated, underpaid workforce, but that lawmakers have forced teachers into becoming first responders on the front lines of communities that are being disinvested and decimated.
Students who are increasingly living in impoverished households are bringing the problems of increasing wage inequality and a declining healthcare system into classrooms while teachers have fewer resources to deal with those problems.
The teacher strikes currently taking place are in states where children are among the most under privileged in the nation. None of these states rank high in health care, and wage growth is exceedingly slow.
Thus, the strikes are an understandable response as teachers in these states are increasingly challenged to deal with the fallout of political systems that are negligent of the student populations they have to serve. It's no wonder teachers are making their voices heard and calling on allies to come to their support.
Politicians Take Heed
Striking teachers have an eye on November elections.
The strikes, Dana Goldstein observes for the New York Times, "are occurring in states and districts with important midterm races in November, suggesting that thousands of teachers, with their pent-up rage over years of pay freezes and budget cuts, are set to become a powerful political force this fall."
Teachers in West Virginia made a point of saying their protests were about making a difference at the ballot box. And teachers in Oklahoma and Arizona are making lawmakers in those states choose between demands for lower taxes and smaller government versus upholding the needs of students and communities.
Striking teachers are making it very plain the nationwide movement they represent is reflective of widespread feelings everywhere that political governance has gotten woefully out of touch with what the vast majority of people want. What's not clear is if politicians will listen.