It was only eight years ago that seething hostility towards teacher unions was the status quo. The national media lauded their demonization in liberal documentarian Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for Superman and corporate-backed education reform policies enjoyed a bipartisan consensus — from Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s Act 10 to Democratic president Barack Obama’s Race to the Top.
The 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike was the first real public challenge to the business elite’s education agenda. Now, it appears that the teacher strike wave rolling across the country has the potential to finally turn the tide.
What started as a walkout in three West Virginia counties quickly spread to the entire state. Since then, walkouts and mass rallies have taken place in Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. The audacity of the West Virginia teachers is clearly contagious. This is an inspiring moment, one that will hopefully leave hundreds if not thousands of activists fundamentally transformed by their experience of collective power.
But that is no guarantee that it will result in stronger or more militant unions. Waves ebb and flow. As momentous as the teacher strikes are, they will recede. If unions hope to build off this momentum and become a more powerful voice for teachers and public education, then they will have to make some profound changes and not simply return to business as usual.
Striking Back from a Position of Weakness
One of the most important lessons coming out of the strike wave is that prohibitions against striking aren’t laws of nature — they can be broken. Participating teachers all took a big risk, but they took that risk together. They could have lost their jobs or been targeted for retaliation. In some states, striking educators can be stripped of their license and barred from teaching. But that has yet to happen because they acted collectively, proving yet again that a union’s greatest strength lies in unified action.
And yet, the strike wave is being born from a place of deep institutional weakness. Most states have simultaneously slashed funding for public education while providing tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy. This has had a dramatic impact on teacher pay and benefits. Teachers with graduate degrees and tens of thousands of dollars in student debt are making poverty wages. Many hold down multiple part-time jobs. The plight of education workers is so universal that Feeding America, the largest US hunger-relief organization, ran a television ad featuring a pre-K teacher who comes home from her full-time job and doesn’t have enough food to feed her family.
Education workers are being squeezed with no relief in sight — and the teacher unions that represent them have been unable to stop the downward slide.
In many rural communities, the local school system is the largest employer. Tens of thousands of education workers are employed in every state. It is no surprise then that the National Education Association (NEA) is the largest union in the country, with over three million members, and many NEA state affiliates are the largest union in their respective states. The sheer size of the current and retired education workforce — and the fact that generations of voters have personal connections to them — should be a major source of leverage for teacher unions when it comes to setting a clear education agenda in their communities and state.
Yet that is often not the case. Many NEA state affiliates operate primarily in a legalistic fashion, selling union services as the primary basis for membership and relying heavily on political and communications professionals to lobby legislators. The highest demand typically placed on members is to show up for the annual lobby day at the state capitol — a routine action that often only mobilizes a tiny fraction of the state association’s total membership.
Lacking a history of organizing education workers and building supermajorities around meaningful fights, the staff-driven, top-down structure of the state associations leaves many teachers and school support personnel feeling only loosely connected to the union.
This is one of the underlying reasons why alternative organizations to the union have popped up in almost every state where walkouts and rallies have happened: West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona.
In some cases, these new networks have had an uneasy relationship with existing union leaders. In other cases, they have been greeted with open arms.
According to rank-and-file teacher Rebecca Garelli, a leader in the activist group Arizona Educators United, she and other activists worked very closely with the leaders in the Arizona Education Association, an NEA state affiliate, to organize the first successful statewide teacher strike in the state’s history.
“We are on calls with them every night,” Garelli said. “The union has resources, we don’t. We have the voices of teachers, and they don’t.”
Country Roads Not Taken
The statewide teacher strikes are providing the unions with the ability to lobby with leverage. But after the legislative session ends, the state associations run the risk of once again becoming largely irrelevant to the lives of their members. Especially if their own strategy for building power is only to “Remember in November.”
According to several West Virginia strike activists, this has unfortunately been the case.
“The union is not trying to keep members involved, organized, and informed,” said one Kanawha County teacher who asked to remain anonymous.
“If they come to our school, it has not been to organize meetings to discuss the issues in our schools and to push a vision of us as an organizing, fighting union. Instead they come to discuss switching membership from the West Virginia Education Association to the American Federation of Teachers. Or to push their call center. It’s so out of touch from what teachers want.”
If state and local unions hope to remain relevant and to build more power than they have now, then they will need to break from the incessant focus on services, elections, and lobbying. One path not taken is at the core of what many unions have done for decades: collective bargaining.
According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, collective bargaining is permissible for teachers in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Oklahoma. This means that school districts can voluntarily choose to bargain legally binding contracts with teachers in those school districts. Depending on particular laws in each state, such contracts could potentially establish class size limits, lock in wage scales and health benefits, limit the use of toxic standardized tests, define the teacher evaluation and tenure process, and establish protections against arbitrary and unfair discipline.
Yet, according to multiple West Virginia union sources, not one school district in the state has a collective-bargaining agreement. Only a handful do in Kentucky and Oklahoma.
According to Tammy Berlin, vice-president of the Jefferson County Education Association in Kentucky, the local won its first bargaining agreement with the school district after organizing an illegal strike in the 1970s. To this day, the union isn’t afraid to use collective action to win a strong contract.
“We bargain planning time, prep, and all kinds of conditions that make teaching in the classroom manageable,” says Berlin. The focus on fighting on issues that teachers care about has helped the local maintain an impressive 93 percent membership in a right-to-work state.
Berlin argues that union activists in states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky need to capitalize on the momentum coming out of the strike wave to push for collective agreements with their own local school boards.
“They have demonstrated they know how to engage the public for the good of public schools and children,” she said. “The structure activists developed during the strike could be used to launch a contract campaign. If they get public support for the demands you make in bargaining, then there is no way you can’t win.”