What’s Behind the Teacher Strikes?

A confluence of factors created kindling for a potential teacher rebellion. Then the fire erupted.

Arizona teachers march through downtown Phoenix on their way to the state capitol on April 26. Ralph Freso / Getty

As we watch — rapt — the unexpected teacher insurgencies in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, and Colorado, we’re also grasping for understanding: why is this stunning revolt occurring where unions are weak, where labor rights are thin, and where popular politics are considered to be on the Right? To understand the insurgency, we need to look at economics, and at political economy specifically. But we especially need a labor-movement analysis.

A labor-movement analysis starts by understanding the political and economic conditions that shape the objective conditions of a particular group of workers (or labor market) at a given moment — prevailing wages, benefits, work processes, structures of employment, stability of work, market forces in the sector, etc. Then we look at how workers respond to those material factors and conditions: how they understand their interests, how they see their own power (or lack of it), how they understand the interests of the employers and what influences them, and how they develop tactics, strategies, and institutions to bring their power to bear against the power of employers. Finally, the self-directed activity of workers (including their ideas, ideologies, methods of organization, decision-making, and what actions they take) can be embedded in the larger context of other sectors of workers, other social movements, and historical labor movements.

Such an analysis can help us interpret the teacher strike wave and, perhaps, gain insights that can help us rebuild capable, fighting unions.

Economics and Politics

The economic motivations of these insurgencies are clear: protracted and relentless constriction of wages and benefits have driven teachers to a condition of precarity normally reserved for workers who lack college degrees. Financial insecurity is matched by erosion of job security, as statutory probation periods are lengthened (three years of probation is now standard) and tenure is watered down. Facing severe job vacancies, many states lower — or eliminate — hiring standards and issue “emergency” waivers freely. In Arizona right now, there are more than five thousand classrooms without a certified teacher. No wonder, then, that teachers feel they are being undervalued — they are.

The political economics of these insurgencies are also becoming more obvious. As tens of thousands of teachers — many of them newly politicized — rush to understand their states’ tax structures, they discover a fiscal system engineered to starve public services and feed corporate portfolios. This transforms their sense of being undervalued into a comprehension that they have been betrayed by big business and the state itself.

Through years of frozen wages, cuts to student services, deteriorating buildings, and the hysterical drumbeat that public schools are failing and must be replaced with private charters, teachers have hunkered down and “made do.” That is, they have accommodated themselves to a widely promoted “common sense” that argued that tax cuts serve the general good by creating jobs, and increasing individual’s buying power. Starting with the infamous Prop 13 in California in 1978, which severely capped property taxes, and coincides with the rise of neoliberal ideology, the redistribution of wealth away from publicly held resources (notably, public schools) and into private hands has been relentless.

But modern US history reminds us that when inequalities become chronically damaging — as in the 1930s or the 1970s — the dominant narrative can crack and resistance can be kindled. This is when the paralysis of feeling disrespected and duped can transform into conviction and action.

A Labor Movement Analysis

Challenging economic and political circumstances have certainly begun to foster a growing sense of commonality among teachers. But awareness alone does not automatically translate into action, much less the collective action we can legitimately call a labor movement. It’s therefore helpful to build up a more nuanced analysis of teachers in their intertwined roles as workers, as unionists, and as members of civil society, to assess whether these insurgencies signal that teachers could emerge as leaders in a broader class movement.

As workers, teachers are in a unique structural position, for several reasons. Teaching is the only wholly “public profession” in the United States: a regulated category of work originally created to perform public service (this is still true, as teachers in private schools aren’t required to hold teaching licenses). Teachers are employed and paid by public bodies and are subject to public governance. Moreover, it’s a highly decentralized form of public employment, with both funding and governance historically centered in towns and cities. And it is a uniquely horizontal profession where, until fairly recently, schools were sites of little hierarchy and teachers were quite self-directing. These are all structural conditions reflecting, and reinforcing, radically democratic principles.

As unionists, teachers have a long history of organization. The National Education Association (NEA) was founded in 1857. Though it was not originally a labor union in function, it is now the largest union in the United States, with 3.2 million members. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT), founded in 1916, now has 1.7 million members. Teaching has the highest union density of any job category in the United States; union representation is essentially universal.

Before collective bargaining was legally sanctioned at the state level for teachers, which happened first in 1959 in Wisconsin, there were traditions of consultation between teachers and their school boards. Even in states where collective bargaining is affirmatively banned, there are well-established standards — a unified salary schedule based on years of experience and education level, a comprehensive benefit package, pensions, specified length of workday and year, prep time, professional development subsidies, some kind of grievance procedure, and so on. More than any other sector of workers, teachers experience a union environment — or at least an associational and consultative environment — as the norm.

Teachers can be considered, in many ways, central to the project of US civil society. Public education has been the main channel for incorporating “future citizens” into economic, social, and political engagement; exclusion from adequate public education has been a device for exclusion from civil society more generally. And as tectonic upheavals occur — Reconstruction, the Jim Crow era, the build-up of industrial mass production, post–World War II consumer society, the expansion of the liberal welfare state and its deconstruction — the shifts and conflicts all play out in schools. Teachers are on the frontline of interpreting every profound societal transformation, with all the tensions and challenges experienced personally in individual families.

This places teachers in central positions in their communities. Because of their intimate and vital connections to parents, taxpayers, voters, providers of social services, higher education, and the job market into which students emerge, teachers can speak to, and amplify, the critical, central needs of any community. The combination of these three intertwined roles has radical potential. The profession of teaching is shaped by public imperatives, grounded in democratic practices, present everywhere, and universally organized through job sites, and teachers hold the levers of social meaning and aspiration for our entire society. All the musculature of power is present — but, until now, largely unflexed.

Unflexed Power

Explanations in traditional “industrial labor relations” theory — and in the practice of most US unionists over the last half century — suggest that workers are strongest where there are comprehensive and enforceable labor laws that institutionalize freedom of association, protections against anti-union animus and retaliation, mechanisms to establish recognition of “exclusive bargaining representation” by a majority union, guarantees of collective bargaining, and the legally sanctioned right to strike. Our teacher unions have been considered strongest in those states where these rights existed, and where the most advanced forms of institutional practice could develop.

In many states where these conditions prevail, starting in the 1960s and continuing to the present day, the AFT and NEA affiliates often became known as the best damned service unions around. Teacher locals typically grew by training up rank-and-file members to bargain contracts, cost out proposals, and rep grievances — with all the rule-enforcing, technique-mastering power that these activities entail. Despite the very uneven quality of state teacher labor laws, the routine practice of formal labor relations — whether through “meet and confer,” legislative lobbying, or strict collective bargaining — became nearly universal in the teaching sector. Reflecting the radically decentralized, bottom-up character of US public education itself, every NEA or AFT local started at a school, or a school district, representing a discrete group of employees hired by a local school board. During the last half of the twentieth century, the two national federations evolved as umbrellas for thousands and thousands of essentially autonomous local unions — all figuring out how to bargain and service their own contracts — reflecting the fact that no union could possibly afford to hire enough professional staff to centrally service them.

Under these objective conditions, innumerable rank-and-file teachers were elected, or drafted, or volunteered to learn the craft labor relations, and became a dense army of capable technicians. By the 1980s, as the numbers of unionized teachers swelled and dues revenue soared, the unions began to staff up and professionalize, precipitating a culture of negotiating instead of fighting, servicing instead of organizing, and relegating members to client status. As long as the economic tides were rising — as they generally did in the 1980s, ’90s, and early 2000s — a complacent and increasingly bureaucratic system for maintaining the status quo seemed to make sense. This is consistent with the historically recognized tendency as the “iron law of oligarchy,” through which bureaucracy supplants democracy.

But bureaucracy itself isn’t the main problem. The arrival of neoliberalism — the driving political philosophy of the last forty years — has also reshaped our unions. While we typically associate neoliberalism with market fundamentalism — deregulation of financial structures, regressive tax reform, privatization, weakening of the state role in labor and environmental protection — it is the rise of neoliberal organizational principles that proved toxic to union democracy. By the mid 1990s, many unions, and non-profits of every stripe, took a turn toward corporate management methods. In AFT and NEA affiliates, leaders adopted key principles such as rule by experts, inflated executive salaries, limits on internal democracy, centralization of decision-making, and intolerance of dissent.

As the high-value operational aspects of the union — negotiating contracts and processing grievances — migrated upward into the hands of staff and top leaders, so too did power. Members were often treated paternalistically, with information and decision-making kept opaque, back-door deals struck between union leaders and politicians, and privileges accruing at the top. Salaries of top officers soared while average take-home pay of members stagnated, union halls were renovated into executive office suites while school buildings crumbled, and channels of union decision-making went from democratic to despotic, often reflecting the autocratic leadership of the employing school boards and administrators.

The demobilizing of millions of teachers within their own unions should not be understood as a problem of “apathetic members,” though union staff and elected officers often describe it just this way. Rather, it is the logical result of unions adopting a corporate culture over the last few decades that degrades and excludes rank-and-file members. They were often grateful that someone was doing the arcane business of the union, but this was an institutional invitation to dependence and acquiescence. Many a naive newcomer goes to a union meeting and dares ask a question that is taken by leadership as a challenge; the newcomer is often patronized, ignored, disparaged, or actively marginalized. Bargaining teams disappear for months behind closed doors and then present a fully bargained tentative agreement to be ratified — take it or leave it. Membership meetings in many unions are dominated by one-way leadership reports or gripe sessions, where leaders are expected to take member concerns up the ladder of administration for them. It doesn’t take too many of these cues before rank-and-file members stop coming around.

Concurrent with these trends has been the biggest failed strategy of all: substituting the power of rank-and-file members with dependence on the Democratic Party. Union members are not taught to analyze and fight collectively on issues that matter to them, but instead to docilely make PAC contributions, join campaign phone banks, and support whichever candidate the union leaders endorsed. The results are pretty clear: Democrats have helped restructure the economy — in the interest of private wealth, at the expense of public good — as enthusiastically as Republicans. This has produced not only the well-documented upward redistribution of wealth, resulting in teacher poverty and starvation of school budgets, but also the travesty of “education reform” — where standardized curricula are tied to high-stakes testing, which produces failed schools, especially in communities of color, and allows for the entry of private charters, where the culture of teacher micro-management flourishes and bullying principals thrive. This set of policy imperatives has been brought to us by governors and legislatures of every party composition.

Between the financial hardship and professional affronts, the loss of voice and fear of retaliation by administrators, the degraded conditions and program losses for students, and the sense of being abandoned by the Democrats, many teachers have been teetering between shock, anxiety, and despair for years.

By the time the serious fiscal, political, and social crises really began bubbling in US public education around the time of the 2008 financial crisis, the vast majority of teacher union members felt powerless. They were at best distant from, and at worst angrily resentful of, their unions. Most damningly, they saw the union as being the top officers and staff, not themselves. Even in states with relatively strong labor laws and well-resourced union structures, the norm was a hollowed-out organization, with low levels of knowledge and participation at the base, and little autonomous power. Rank-and-file members who did try to turn to their leaders for inspiration or guidance frequently found neither.

The Rank-and-File Response

But out of this paralysis and isolation, a powerful counter-trend is emerging (not unknown in the history of our labor movement): progressive rank-and-file teacher union caucuses — groups of union members formed to push their unions into action — are coalescing in cities and states, inspired by the stunning takeover of the Chicago Teachers Union by the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE) in 2010, and their riveting, successful 2012 strike. This movement, an internal insurgency inside our biggest unions, possesses the authentic features of a social movement: it is bottom-up, scrappy, unfunded, rooted in a critical social analysis, and committed to radically democratic values. Their common program elements show up as union democracy, dignity of educators and students, and defense of public education, and often rally under the edict that “we should be the union we want our union to be.”

These caucuses are now in elected leadership in Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, and statewide in Hawaii and Massachusetts. They are contending for — or sharing — leadership in Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York City, Minneapolis, Madison, Albuquerque, Seattle, and Oakland, and organizing at the state level in North Carolina, New Jersey, and elsewhere. Through round upon round of trial and error, the caucuses are building a durable analytic framework and plan of action to guide them:

  • Simply running to replace “bad union leaders” is rarely a solution to anything if you haven’t built a base among members who are joined by common values, deeply committed to making the union better, and willing to work tirelessly.
  • Learn how to survive the harsh charges from old guard leaders that they are divisive and even “anti-union” for daring to provoke debate.
  • Fight to open up bargaining, to insist on transparency and accountability inside the union, to risk raising critical social issues — around racism, immigration, bullying, gentrification — and work through the resistance of fellow unionists.
  • Reach out humbly and helpfully to parents, community groups, other unions, faith communities, and social issue organizations as a partner in the fight to rebalance power away from elites and toward the majority.
  • Become confident in practices of inclusivity, debate, collaboration, and horizontal leadership.
  • Learn how to fight the boss, the financial interests behind “education reform,” and the state, directly and fearlessly.

Along the way these caucuses convened a national network — United Caucuses of Rank-and-File Educators (UCORE) — almost organically through Labor Notes, the project that has held down the “rank-and-file pole” of US unionism through publications and conferences for forty years.

Teacher Convergence

Insurgents in West Virginia, Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Colorado thinking about how to consolidate rank-and-file power inside their unions have found their way onto the UCORE and Labor Notes platform, too, bringing together teacher activists from the red states and blue cities, union-weak and union-strong environments, to discover that they are all after the same thing: using collective power from the bottom-up to win social progress for the majority.

It is through this prism of labor-movement analysis that we can now start to understand the apparently paradoxical eruptions of teachers in states with the weakest institutional environment — regions with low union membership, weak infrastructure, no bargaining rights, and fiercely anti-union legislatures. When there is no effective access to meaningful channels for change, workers resort naturally to the only power no one can steal from them — the power to withhold their labor. This spontaneous chain of wildcat strikes may be the only recourse left for teachers when the unions and the politicians fail them, but they are also facilitated by the very weakness of the union bureaucratic environment around them. By sharp contrast, the progressive teacher union caucuses have emerged in generally “strong” union environments in more progressive cities or regions, where they have had to spend more time fighting their own union bureaucracy and much less sparking the spontaneous and unified action showing up in the “weak” union environments.

But teacher unionists in both environments are moving. They are in a movement moment. If we keep in mind the immediate affinity felt by the insurgent teachers and the caucus teachers, their sense of shared purpose, their common hope for a democratic, activist, bottom-up union culture, their willingness to risk, and their refusal to be complacent, we can start to see the potential for teacher convergence. Coming from very disparate starting points, present in every corner of the country, connected by their fierce will to protect kids and public schools, increasingly cornered by the system of manufactured austerity and therefore ever more identified with the majority of workers, teachers could give us a generative moment, a moment to be amplified.