Over thirty thousand Chicago teachers and school workers walked off the job Thursday, in their second open-ended strike in seven years. In 2012, their defiant strike against Rahm Emanuel’s cuts and closures lit the fuse of the national teachers’ revolt which exploded last spring.
Teachers make some of the best strikers: most are good public speakers and team players, care deeply about their jobs and their communities, have unrivaled time-management skills, and can deal with chaos and crowds. Plus, they’re creative — especially with fun group activities. This was reflected in 2012 when Chicago teachers produced some great strike-themed cover songs like this Carly Rae Jepsen spin-off, “When There’s a Contract, Then Call Us Maybe.”
Since 2018, teachers on strike across the country have also taken up the noble tradition of the strike song. When you’re fighting powerful billionaires, racist Republicans, and neoliberal Democrats, these kinds of class-war-themed sing-alongs and dance contests keep spirits up at the picket line.
In these videos, we see the power, pride, joy, diversity, and creative genius of an organized working class. Most of our lives, this power has only been latent. But with the teachers’ strike wave and Bernie Sanders’s historic movement campaign for president, workers are once more on the move, and they’re making their own soundtrack as they go.
To celebrate the Chicago educators’ strike, we’ve collected some of the best music from the ongoing teachers’ strike wave.
West Virginia, home of the Blue Ridge Mountains and a long, heroic tradition of working-class militancy among coal miners and their families, was the first of the red states to erupt in early 2018. Teachers and school workers from all fifty-five counties beat the Republican legislature after walking out in an illegal strike that went wildcat in its second week.
The strikers’ anthem was John Denver’s “Country Roads.” Here are some of the tens of thousands of teachers rallying at the state capitol and singing the song in celebration of a tentative deal with the government on March 6.
Inspired by West Virginia, Oklahoma teachers struck a month later. By April 9, fifty thousand people were rallying in the capital, and over five hundred thousand students were out of school.
Music teachers started showing up to these mass rallies with their instruments, forming impromptu bands and giving a soundtrack to the strike (which ended up winning a $6,000 raise for teachers). A favorite of Oklahoma music teachers was Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.”
Oklahoma teachers also line danced in the cold a lot. Here they are warming up with the “Cupid Shuffle ” (Credit; Yael Bridge).
Next came Arizona. After months of buildup, teachers and support staff walked out across the state on April 26. They were up against one of the most advanced and well-funded school privatization machines in the country. A red sea of tens of thousands of educators and supporters rallied for days in Phoenix with bilingual signs and #RedforEd banners. After one week, they won a 20 percent salary raise and more.
Arizona’s music teachers came together to form a single, massive, well-organized marching band. The #RedforEd band led all sorts of songs, including an original #RedforEd cover of “When The Saints Go Marching In.”
A favorite in Phoenix was the White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.” The song, an adapted version of which has also become an unofficial anthem for the UK Labour Party’s socialist leader, Jeremy Corbyn, starts with the lyrics: “I’m gonna fight ’em all / A seven nation army couldn’t hold me back.”
Teachers in Virginia, led by a rank-and-file network called Virginia Educators United, carried out a one-day rally and walkout in January. Under pressure, the legislature granted them a 5 percent pay raise. In the lead-up to the action, some Virginia teachers put out what is no doubt the highest production value teacher strike music video to date.
With new lyrics to CeeLo Green’s “Fuck You,” Richmond science teacher Juliane Toce performs “Won’t Fund You!”, the chorus of which goes: “I know this change in my pocket just ain’t enough / You’re still like, ‘Won’t fund you’ / Time for job number two!”
Toce’s first school funding music video also gets an honorable mention, even though it came out just before the teachers’ strike wave started. In December 2017, Toce and her students made “All I Want For Christmas Is Glue” to promote a GoFundMe for supplies for her sixth grade science class.
This January, thirty-five thousand members of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) shut down the country’s second-largest school district for six days, fighting against the privatizers’ push to downsize the district. In addition to a 6 percent salary raise for themselves, teachers won big for their students, including smaller class sizes and an end to racist “random” searches.
LA teachers and students also raised the stakes of the unspoken national strike music competition. On the picket lines, Los Angeles teachers carried on a friendly site-against-site competition featuring a choreographed dance to Aretha Franklin’s “Think.” You can see some entries here and here. And check out this video explaining the dance to would-be contestants:
Two LA teachers in lucha libre masks produced an original rap song, “Shuttin’ It Down.” In the song, they complain about “two-faced liars” and “billionaire privatizers,” demand charter regulation, additional public school funding, and threaten to shut down the schools “from the Bay to LA”: “1.7 billion in reserve / And yet you kick our demands to curb / My thirty-five thousand friends agree / We gotta strike to save LAUSD.”
Accompanied by a teachers’ band, Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello performed “Killing in the Name” at a massive rally in downtown LA.
The most moving videos from the strike are from the kids that LA teachers were striking for. A teacher captured a performance of Bruno Mars’s “Count On Me” by dozens of elementary students. Students, spending the day in a teacherless school, organized a balcony performance for their teachers who were walking the picket line outside in the rain. Teachers hummed along and shouted back, “We’re here for you!”
A Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) fifth-grader wrote her own lyrics to Rachel Platten’s “Fight Song.” In “A Strike Song,” Aryana Fields thanks her teachers: “Everything that’s done for me / By my teachers daily / I will scream them loud today / Will you listen to what I say?”
One of the most remarkable themes of the strikes from West Virginia to LA has been the support from parents and students for their educators — teachers say it’s critical to the success of these strikes. Here’s the chorus to Fields’s song:
This is a strike song
Our power’s turned on
Starting right now we’ll be strong
We’ll sing this strike song
And it’s so critical that everybody else believes
Cause I know this is exactly what I need
I was never a huge fan of the original song, but Fields’s version got me misty.
Oakland teachers also fought a billionaire-funded, pro-charter school board this spring. After a grueling seven-day strike, teachers won an 11 percent salary increase, smaller class sizes, and a temporary halt to school closures. Now they’re threatening to run a slate in 2020 to take over the school board and end cuts and privatization.
In the Bay Area, workers do strike music a little different. Mass rallies featured locally famous hip-hop artists like Zion I, hyphy music legend Mistah F.A.B., and Boots Riley. To keep spirits high in Oakland fashion, one family drove around in a lowrider wearing lucha libre masks and blasting E-40, a mariachi band serenaded picketers, and one site learned the dance for “Thriller.” The kids danced, too.
In a 1993 episode of The Simpsons, Homer Simpson and his coworkers at the nuclear plant go on strike to get dental coverage for his daughter, Lisa. In 2019, an Oakland teacher made an Oakland teacher-themed cover of Lisa’s strike song from the show:
Finally, instead of “Think,” Oakland teachers’ dance challenge was accompanied by V.I.C’s “Wobble Baby.”
In 2012, Chicago taught educators everywhere how to strike. At the time, CTU members were innovators in using social media to build support for the strike — and to share their great picket line tunes.
Since February 2018, over half a million teachers from across the country have gone on strike and raised the bar. As Chicago teachers kick off a nasty fight with the privatizer-funded Democratic Party establishment, they’ll hopefully also have time to top other striking teachers’ performances.
They’re off to a decent start. Here are a few videos from their first two days on strike (Credit: @ladyshosha on Instagram, chicago.teacher.memes, chicago.teacher.memes, and @kimthewaitress on Instagram, respectively).