How teacher walkouts can revive the US labour movement

Submitted by AWL on 15 July, 2018 - 5:06 Author: Lois Weiner
Virginia teachers on strike

Lois Weiner is a socialist and teacher trade unionist based in New York. She is the author of The Future of our Schools: Teacher Unions and Social Justice (2012, Haymarket Books) and a member of the editorial board of the socialist journal New Politics. She answered questions from Cathy Nugent of Solidarity and Daniel Randall of the Labour Days podcast about the recent wave of teacher walkouts in the US, and the struggle to revive and transform the labour movement in the age of Trump. A recording of the interview will appear on Labour Days soon.


Right now it’s clear that activity among teachers, and in teachers’ unions, is very important to the resurgence of the labour movement. That’s partly because the other things that are happening have not been as dramatic, but obviously there’s something very important going on in the US labour movement with the organisation of low-wage workers. The problem is that the unions are too weak to win gains through direct action. Low-wage workers in service industries are scattered, so one of the reasons the activity among teachers has been so dramatic is that it’s a sector in which the state, meaning the federal states, not “the state” in the Marxist sense is, even where it’s not the employer, IS affecting teachers’ wages, working conditions, and benefits to a very great extent. It’s not privatised yet to the extent that hospitals are.

It remains to be seen what will happen in the wake of the Janus decision. [This is a recent Supreme Court ruling to the effect that public sector unions do not have the right to collect the equivalent from non-members the equivalent of monies the union spends bargaining on their behalf or representing them to the employer. These are called agency fees.] Many public employee unions are dependent on the agency fee for varying amounts of their financial base. It’s important to understand that what the elimination of agency fee means is that it’s possible that people who were members because even as non-members they would have to pay almost the equivalent of full dues now have no “incentive” to be members. And I have to say, every time I look at my payslip and see what I’m paying in union dues, I do think “wow, that’s a lot of money.” Before you couldn’t eliminate that expense, as you’d still have to pay agency fee.

No-one knows what percentage of current members will remain members. Most unions adopted quite an apolitical strategy for dealing with it, which was to have people sign cards saying they would continue to be members, without connecting that to a discussion about what the union should be. They didn’t use the card as an organising strategy to get members involved, they used it as a strategy to continue with the status quo.

No-one knows what will happen with Trump’s machinations with tariffs, and how that’ll affect white workers who supported him. There’s no way to separate what’s going to happen in the labour movement with what’s happening in wider society, for example with deportations. Some of the unions have been excellent in fighting the deportations and protecting members, but the labour movement as a whole has been unwilling, as usual, to engage in any kind of direct action. It is obvious that the AFL-CIO is very concerned about the support of white workers for Trump.

When you talk about “organised labour”, you’re talking about service workers, public employees, the building trades, and the very small percentage of workers now in manufacturing. There’s different response from the unions in each of those sectors to Trump. I don’t know enough to comment about building trades unions, for example. Historically their leaderships have been conservative at best, and gangsters at worst.

This past spring, I spoke to a social justice committee drawn from various [teacher union] locals in south San Diego. San Diego is right on the border. They already have a wall, before Trump. When I was there I met women, all elementary school teachers; the locals’ base included two school districts that were solely elementary schools, which hadn’t consolidated with high schools, and 85% of all K through 6 [in the UK, the equivalent of nursery and primary school teachers – Ed.] teachers are women. So these are really unions of women, and their officers are all women as well, which is very unusual. They work in a working-class community that is overwhelmingly Latinx and immigrant, and have been involved in a protracted campaign to win a better contract. A couple of the teachers themselves have been involved in anti-deportation campaigns. I became involved with them and started to advise them informally; there was fear amongst the teachers, and they were looking for support in the community, but the parents were themselves afraid because of the threat of deportations. So we talked about where you could go for support, and as we thought about it, they said that some of the parents are themselves members of unions. They called on those parents to help them, and got resolutions of support – paper resolutions, but resolutions nonetheless – and they got a motion of support from the San Diego Labour Council. So there’s a way in which these grassroots struggles are creating networks, even though union density is very low, which are important for solidarity. These are both labour-movement networks and community networks.

When my book [The Future of our Schools: Teacher Unions and Social Justice] first came out, people asked me, “what’s this distinction between a social justice union and a social movement union?” For me the distinction has always been that the union has to be the connective tissue of a social movement. In all the teacher walkouts, we began to see that happening.

The states are all different in terms of the legality of unionising and striking. I looked at a summary that was written two years ago about collective bargaining rights in different states: it’s different for police, it’s different for teachers, it’s different for firefighters, it’s different for other public employees. What does it mean to have the right to strike? You can have the formal right to strike, but a judge can still issue an injunction to send you back to work if they rule that your strike is in violation of the public good. So in New Jersey, for example, where teachers formally have the legal right to strike, in practise they do not have this right as the courts almost always send them back to work as soon as the School Board asks for an injunction. But while the legal situation is mixed and unclear, as in many spheres, legality can be trumped by politics.

There have been teacher walkouts in West Virginia, which began it all, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, and a one-day walkout of 30,000 people in North Carolina. Predominantly these states where teacher walkouts have occurred are “red states”, with Republican legislatures. They voted for Trump. North Carolina is slightly distinct in that, until recently, it had a Democratic legislature and a corporate-liberal Republican party.

They are states which have all had severe cuts to school funding, and they are all states which have teacher salaries paid primarily by the state, with local districts having the right to supplement the salaries. That’s a very important difference from, say, Texas, or New York, where schools are funded by local property taxes. There’s a nexus between residential segregation and school segregation because people of colour are kept out of white school districts. They can’t buy property there. At the same time, lower-middle-class and working-class white districts have a hard time funding their schools, because the tax base is not high enough. And teachers’ wages are the main cost for school district. So if you look at property taxes and teachers’ salaries, you just see a one-to-one correlation. But in the states where the walkouts occurred, this isn’t the case. The state legislatures fund the schools directly, and then wealthier districts fund themselves on top of this.

What happened in these states is that teacher activists, some of them union members but most of them not, set up either closed or secret Facebook pages. They often started with local walkouts that were coordinated and grown, county by county, to become statewide walkouts. These movements mushroomed. I was on the Facebook pages, and you saw a process of politicisation that was amazing. Literally day-by-day, you saw people in their comments becoming more political. They would start off by saying, “well, I’m afraid. I’m willing to walk out, but only if others do.” So they devised this strategy, because they’re public employees, of using personal days or sick days. They’d phone in, say they weren’t coming to work, and then the school would have to be closed. And if a whole school district closed, workers didn’t have to use a personal day or sick day. And if too many school districts close, then the whole county has to close. So this was able to sustain the movement for longer.

People were discussing workplace issues prior to this, but rarely about pay. The explosion over pay has occurred as part of social turmoil post-Trump. Also, many teachers were inspired by students’ walkouts following the Parkland school shooting. There has also been a lot of grassroots organising in schools about testing. It’s been going on for years; there’s something called the “opt-out movement”. Both the teacher unions, the American Federation of Teachers [AFT] and the National Education Association [NEA] refused to fight the tying of teacher evaluation to student test scores, so teachers really felt deserted, betrayed, isolated, and demoralised. A group formed several years ago called the “Badass Teachers’ Association”. They were furious; they said, “we refuse to be blamed for everything that’s going on”, because the narrative is that teacher quality is the most important factor in student performance. That narrative fed the rage at poor working conditions, de-professionalisation, and the poor material conditions for teaching. People were actually seeing their paychecks diminish in size, because of factors including rising healthcare costs, and the shifting of healthcare costs onto individual workers.

The right has also launched a big campaign against public employee pension funds, saying they’re going to go under, and can’t be sustained. So people are being told to contribute more to their pension at the same time as state governments are saying, “we can’t afford to pay your pension”, and telling retirees they’re going to have to take pension cuts. So teachers are being attacked from many directions.

The walkouts were a mass radicalisation. One fact that has not been well publicised, and which should make us hopeful, is that probably a majority of the teachers who walked out voted for Trump. Many of them will also have voted for the governors who have ridiculed and attacked them. But what’s interesting is that Sanders’ showing in the primaries, winning overwhelmingly in West Virginia. The Clinton wing of the Democratic party pushes the idea that Trump voters are “deplorables”. They present Trump voters as being the same as Trump’s hardcore base. This is completely contradicted by the teacher walkouts. We see a very volatile political mix in the white Trump voters, and I think had Sanders won the Democratic nomination we would have seen a very different election.

In terms of the functioning of the walkouts on the ground, on the day, each state had a different rhythm. Those differences have to do with the politics and demographics of each state. West Virginia as a state is 96.4% white. It’s also a state that has a fairly recent history of union militancy. Also in West Virginia, while the first walkouts and demonstrations didn’t occur directly because of the agitation of socialists, socialists were the among the de facto organisers of the walkouts. They were the connective element; in the first place, they were connected to one another. Often, local union representatives assisted them. But it’s important to understand that the unions in many places had memberships of under two digits. Nobody belonged to the union. Why would you? They weren’t even good professional associations. A good professional association would do a better job of educating the public about things like testing than the unions did. So the state unions, in terms of creating the movement, were irrelevant.

The movement in West Virginia was built over a period of months. In Oklahoma the movement was sparked by people who were excited by West Virginia and said, “we can do this”. But as a result it didn’t have the same incubation period, and it was consequently organisationally weaker. The weakness was also to do with racial issues. The epicentres of the walkouts were Tulsa and Oklahoma City, and Tulsa has a history of very violent racial pogroms. It is a completely segregated city, with a completely segregated school system. The teachers hadn’t won the support of the African-American community. The same thing is true in Kentucky, which also didn’t have that preparatory period of developing organisation prior to the walkouts.

The political leadership in Kentucky came from an education advocacy group, “Save Our Schools Kentucky”, of which many teachers were members. It had a cordial relations with the Network for Public Education, the group created by [education policy analyst and former Assistant Secretary of Education] Diane Ravitch. Again, the union was irrelevant in organising the struggle. The other serious problem that occurred in Kentucky was that the Facebook page was less open. There were internal divisions, and the discussion of race and racism was dismissed as “divisive” by one of the people advanced as a spokesperson for the movement.

Arizona was more like the West Virginia model, with a fairly long incubation period. They did “walk-ins”. Parents and teachers would gather outside the school, wearing red [the red t-shirt idea pioneered by the Chicago Teachers’ Union, CTU], and they would walk into the school together. They had “red for ed” bumper stickers; they painted their cars red. They did all of these things to raise public awareness of their struggle, and galvanise workers who were afraid they’d lose their jobs if they identified with the movement.

There were some macho AFT locals in Arizona who kept prematurely calling for a statewide walkout, and pulling their own members out. But the leadership of the Arizona walkouts were in contact with people from West Virginia, and they learned from them and from Chicago. The Arizona Education Association, the state NEA affiliate, also learned from those struggles, so they worked with the Facebook page rather than attempting to subvert it. This was an instance where the unions weren’t a brake on struggle, a force for betrayal.

It flatters the union leaderships to call them a “bureaucracy”. It’s an apparatus of staffers, with a few elected people. They’re politically unsophisticated; they’re not organisers. They mainly function to give the national union a presence in states. The AFT calls itself a “union of professionals”. Several years ago it started to organise nurses, because teachers were facing job cuts and the union was searching for a potential new dues base. By numbers the NEA is the bigger union, but politically the AFT is more important, partly because of its affiliation with the AFL-CIO. The AFT is extremely ideological. It has an explicitly pro-capitalist ideology. It is completely aligned with the Clinton wing of the Democratic party. It is very adept at borrowing the rhetoric of social justice, and in fact now brands itself as a “social justice union”. It is impressively ruthless. The union is widely despised by other public employee unions because its leadership is so self-protective. It’s a machine, run from national headquarters. The NEA is more like other liberal, progressive, or pseudo-progressive, unions, such as SEIU [Service Employees International Union], but less politically sophisticated. It’s sort of a country cousin to SEIU.

The unions have state-level organisations, and some school district-level organisations. But in many school districts they don’t even have the pretence of organisation, which is part of the reason why they have so few members. Overwhelmingly the participants in the walkout are not union members. The debate about how to organise is at different places in different states. In Oklahoma and Kentucky the movement was crushed. They were betrayed by the state union. The union cut a deal with the state legislature, that was not at all reflective of what people wanted. No-one had the opportunity to vote on these deals, not even those teachers who were members of the unions making them. The unions just said, “it’s over”. And they used all of their political clout to call off the walkouts, and the people who had organised the walkouts were too tired and confused to figure out what they should, and they had no organisation that could have provided a counterweight to the union apparatus.

Of the four states that had extended walkouts, only the workers of West Virginia and Arizona understood in advance the threat of betrayal and sell-out from the state union. The weeks and weeks of preparatory organising had shown them the importance of workplace organisation, and they saw the state union was not supporting them in that, which seasoned them. In Oklahoma and Kentucky they didn’t have that extended experience of organising. Their walkouts really emerged following West Virginia, and were shut down before they could gain experience.

In West Virginia, a lot of people have joined the union. The grassroots leaders understand that they have to have a rank-and-file caucus; they need a different kind of union, they need to transform the union. In Arizona, the existing union leadership worked with the walkout leaders. They understand now that they need to go into the union and bring the experience that they have had into the union. But in Oklahoma and Kentucky that is not the case. Many people are demoralised.

The one state which has been looked at less, which is very important, is North Carolina. North Carolina teachers have a caucus within the union that was formed by liberals, radicals and socialists, called Organise 2020. But it’s not limited to the union; it’s more of a social movement. It has hooked up with civil rights movements. Its membership is multiracial, and its programme is race conscious, but in a way that combines taking on racism with a class analysis. They understand their role in helping to rebuild the labour movement in the south. So after the walkouts started elsewhere, this caucus, which has won the leadership of key locals in cities, said, “we should be doing something”. They didn’t wait for some spontaneous self-organisation to occur, they took leadership. They realised that they could turn a routine lobby of the legislature, where maybe 200 people might attend to beg the legislature to pass bills, into a mass demonstration, which in turn could be used to grow the caucus.

There’s a tension around electoral action, which is very apparent on the Facebook pages. Some people say, “we need direct action”, others say, “we need to elect different people”. I think an exclusive focus on electing individuals is a completely dead end, but that doesn’t mean the debate about electoral activity is wrong. In Arizona, they have organised to put a proposal on the ballot for legislature elections to attempt to win via a referendum what they could win via electing different people to the legislature.

So while it’s still the case that there is enthusiasm in all the states for electing people who are pro-education, from both parties, and while I don’t want to encourage the idea that electoral activity is an alternative to direct action, I do want to discuss these questions: how are we going to engage in politics? Are we going to engage primarily by trying to get good individuals elected, or are we going to build a political movement, which may run candidates? There’s a lot of naivete, and there’s going to be disappointment, about the fact that any individuals that are elected aren’t going to be able to do very much. They’ll be up against the incredible resources the far right has poured into winning these legislatures. That is where the resources of ALEC [the American Legislative Exchange Council, a hard-right think-tank-type organisation via which right-wing politicians formulate legislation to propose to state legislatures] have gone, into taking over state legislatures.

Fundamentally the walkout movement was a fantastic example of the self-organisation of the working class. It appeared to explode out of nowhere, but of course nothing really comes out of nowhere. There was organising that went on, on a molecular level. In terms of the future, I think in Arizona and West Virginia we will see the transformation of the unions, at the state level. At the local level, it’s won’t be about challenging an existing local leadership, because local organisation simply doesn’t exist. It’ll be about creating unions, which will depend on who’s there in particular schools and counties. There’s a reciprocal effect between having a dynamic state-level union organisation which encourages dynamic local organisation, which then encourage other locals.

I’m also very hopeful about North Carolina. The caucus has a base in the major cities, and also has significant support in both black and white rural communities in North Carolina. I’m very optimistic about that. In Kentucky and Oklahoma, it remains to be seen. I can’t make any predictions about those states; people were very demoralised, but sometimes out of demoralisation you get a more politically sophisticated cadre.

Labor Notes has provided a network for people to support each other. At the last Labor Notes conference, there was a panel on the walkouts, which I’m told was extraordinary. It was packed. However, in that panel there was no discussion of gender, and no discussions of race. The only discussions of race that occurred were in panels organised by people from the CTU. I support the work that Labor Notes does, although I think they have been too close to the existing leaders of the so-called “progressive” unions, and insufficiently critical of them. In that relationship between support and critique, I’d like to see Labor Notes move more towards critique.

In the big picture here, the CTU set the bar. Following their examples, rank-and-file reform caucus have won the leadership of locals in many major cities, and even where they haven’t, they have succeeded in changing narratives. I don’t think the existing union leaderships will last a decade. The burgeoning forces of reform in both unions are too strong.

There are differences between reform caucuses. You can have something which calls itself a reform caucus but is really just a slate to exist a new leadership. What was significant about the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators [CORE] in the CTU was that it built its base before it became a contender for leadership. This meant that when they were able to win the leadership, they totally transformed everything. When you don’t have that base, you can’t transform things in the way CORE did. Among the caucuses we’ve seen develop, Organise 2020 in North Carolina is the closest to being what you might call CORE’s inheritor. There are also strong reform caucus is Baltimore, Philadelphia, and elsewhere. So we are seeing the emergence of potential leaderships, but whether these new leaderships will be able to break from past practise depends on whether there’s prior and ongoing mobilisation of a base.

It is not automatic that this movement will link up with other growing movements of social resistance to the Trump regime and its policies. That’s why it’s important for socialists to raise these questions. In my experience, these connections are not made automatically. Someone has to ask the question. For instance, in West Virginia that main demand was over funding of health insurance for public employees, so I asked them if they were linking up with community groups campaigning for single-payer healthcare [a model of semi-socialised healthcare]. Sometimes it takes people from the outside, or socialists inside struggles, to raise the idea that connections need to be made. The connections aren’t necessarily part of people’s lived experience, but often, as soon as you raise it, the lightbulb goes on and people get it. As socialists I think we understand the connectedness of struggles. That’s something we bring in our involvement with struggles, and we shouldn’t be afraid to do that, even as supporters.

Union density in the US is terrible, around 4-5%. I shared a panel at the Left Forum [a large left-wing convention which takes place annually in New York] with Keith Benson, an African-American educator from Camden, New Jersey, a very poor city, who got active in the union after reading The Future of Our Schools, and he’s now president of his local union, the Camden Education Association, which is an NEA affiliate. I refused to participate in a panel that was all white, so I suggested Keith’s name to the Left Forum organisers and he agreed to speak.

At the panel, someone asked a question about teachers’ unions linking up with other public sector workers’ unions. Keith said, “in the city of Camden, teachers earn on average about $65,000 a year. Most Camden residents earn about $9 an hour. And they aren’t in unions.” So we can’t understand rebuilding the labour movement as just being about connecting with people who are already in unions, but about building solidarity with people who aren’t yet in unions. I thought Keith’s perspective was extremely important. As, or more, important than linking up with other existing public employee unions is linking up with Fight for $15 [the fast food workers’ movement] and organising the unorganised.

Teachers are in every community in every state. So I’m hopeful that they can be a grounding for creating networks and alliances that haven’t existed before between social movements and workers’ struggles. It’s about building a movement of self-organisation of the class.

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