- Interview by
- Micah Uetricht
Eric Blanc has covered the teachers strike wave closer than any other writer in America. He has been on the ground for most of those strikes, from West Virginia and Arizona to Oakland and Denver, interviewing teachers and reporting on what he’s seen. And he’s turned that reporting into a new book, Red State Revolt: The Teachers Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics, part of the Jacobin Series published by Verso.
Blanc’s book is critical reading for anyone who wants to understand why teachers have been willing to take such drastic action throughout the country — and any socialist, working-class activist who wants to support and expand such actions in their own workplace.
He spoke with Jacobin managing editor Micah Uetricht about Red State Revolt for our podcast The Vast Majority. You can subscribe to The Vast Majority and all the Jacobin podcasts at Jacobin Radio. This is a transcript of part one of that conversation; you can listen to the first part here, and the second part here. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Your book covers the “red state” teachers strike wave. You were on the ground in West Virginia, Arizona, and Oklahoma, and you’ve been on the ground in other teacher strikes since then. Why do these strikes matter?
The big story is that our side, the working class, has been getting decimated in a one-sided class war for half a century, and one of the causes of that weakness is our labor movement orienting itself toward simply lobbying the Democrats instead of building power by striking.
The uptick in education strikes is so important because it poses an alternative to the status quo in labor as well as the reigning neoliberal regime imposed by both the Democrats and Republicans. It’s the highest number of strikes seen since 1986 — almost half a million workers on strike, overwhelming educators. So this is a really big deal.
This understanding used to be commonplace on the Left, but since the 1960s or 1970s, because of the decline of labor, people started looking towards alternative sources of social power than the organized working class. That’s unfortunate, but understandable given what was happening to labor.
However, both history and recent events have shown working people’s ability to change the world is higher than any other segment of the population, because we can leverage our ability to stop production, whether in the public sector or private sector. Strikes have the power to force either employers and the state to listen, and that gives us power that no other group has.
Without a fighting labor movement we can’t win a Green New Deal, Medicare for All, or sustain a mass socialist movement.
Many people understand strikes are an extremely powerful weapon for workers because society runs on the labor of working people. But teachers strikes and other strikes in the public sector are a bit more complicated, right?
First off, thinking about these as purely teacher strikes is a misnomer, because there is no way they would have succeeded without the active participation of support staff, students, and especially parents. Because the nature of shutting down schools is the creation of a real crisis for both students and their parents.
What do you do with your kids? Do you go to work and figure out something to do with your kids or stay at home with them? A chain reaction of shutting down schools ripples across society, affecting all working-class families that don’t have the money to just pay for childcare or not go to work that day. You have in aggregate hundreds of thousands of students who are creating a social crisis because someone needs to care for them.
That crisis can be leveraged either against teachers by the right wing or it can be leveraged against the state by us. That’s the drama of a public-sector strike — who is going to cave first and who is the public going to turn their anger toward: the strikers or the state?
So when strikes create a crisis for students and their families, that action can either draw anger towards the strikers for disrupting their lives, or they can see this central institution of their lives and the people who make it run everyday are fighting, not only for themselves, but for everybody else in their community. Either the entire working class rallies behind you or it turns the entire working class against you. It all depends on the political content of the strike.
Exactly. It’s a double-edged sword, and that’s why a lot of workers were hesitant to strike at first, because they were worried about the potential backlash. It turned out the strikes were overwhelmingly popular — you’re talking about 72 percent of the public in Oklahoma, hardly a labor bastion, supported the strike, higher in West Virginia.
They got the public on their side, but it took a lot of concerted effort by organizers to reach out to parents and students — doing things like feeding working-class students ahead of time, hand-delivering meals so students who depended on the free breakfast and lunch could be fed. These small actions made a big difference. It showed who was actually harming students. And then they raised demands on behalf of the students undercutting this false narrative that teachers were walking out on their students.
This is a very basic point, but it can’t be emphasized enough, particularly in the context of these “red states.” Many people have this idea that these are fundamentally conservative states. Many people there voted for Trump, and it’s easy to find people with reactionary social attitudes. But in the anecdote you just mentioned and throughout the book, over and over, you see that through the act of striking, through working people taking political action, they transform what is politically possible around them.
People’s consciousness turns out to not be static. On paper, they might hold reactionary views, but in practice they are coming out and supporting teachers or teachers who hold these views themselves are willing to go on strike. You detail in the book this incredible sea change in political consciousness because workers were willing to strike.
That’s true, but taking a step back, the strike also showed there was already a preexisting majoritarian sentiment in favor of many progressive values and policies that just hadn’t had an outlet. In all these states, polls before the strike (that were ignored) showed most people want higher taxes on the rich to pay for public services, that they support investment in public education, and that a lot of them would join a union if they could.
The problem is, at most times, you have no outlet to bring those latent tendencies to the fore through collective action. But when you do take collective action, people’s contradictory consciousness can come to a head. For instance, Trump voters in Arizona with very uneven consciousness, at best, around immigration were going on strike together with Latino teachers, hearing Spanish speakers, and fighting for mostly Latino students. I think a lot of the latent racism was overcome, at least in part, because the experience of collective struggle broke down a lot of barriers.
Two interesting points here: first, the extent to which citizens of these states are reactionaries is overblown; there’s already a lot of progressive sentiment no one was trying to mobilize. Second, reactionary views that did exist were overcome through shared struggle.
Yes, but we shouldn’t exaggerate the extent to which all reactionary views were overcome, either. Not just racism, but also less obvious ideas like the feeling the Democrats are going to save us. They overcame that in more blue cities like Los Angeles, where the strike had to directly confront the Democrats. In the red states, where the main enemy was the Republicans, the Democrats could gesture like they were with the strikers. (To their credit, many came out as a minority in the legislature to pay lip service and lend legitimacy to the strikes, partly just because they wanted to win in the upcoming elections.)
So we shouldn’t pretend the teachers are now fully class-conscious. But there is potential for changes to happen very quickly. It’s hard to imagine people getting such a sense of their collective power in just the span of a few days without strike action.
You interviewed over 100 teachers for the book. You hear them in their own voices in reading your book, talking again and again about how their lives were totally reshaped by their participation in the strike wave. It’s incredible reading.
I liked hearing from teachers who had never been to a union meeting before, who were totally checked out from organized politics because they felt like it was pointless. The experience of being on strike, of taking that risk, of being surrounded by tens of thousands of your coworkers who all of a sudden became your best friends — there is almost a religious effervescence to feeling that you weren’t alone anymore. You feel alone trying to get by individually and then, almost overnight, you get a sense of your power. Because they were surrounded by other people taking action the possibilities became extremely wide-ranging because they saw they had shut down the state.
The understanding that the whole state, sometimes the whole country, was watching them gave that sense of power that is so rare. When you feel it, it just changes you, and you don’t want to go back to the way you felt before. You don’t want to go back to feeling alone ever again. You want to continue that struggle. Some people describe it like the first time they had true purpose, true meaning, where they felt they knew what they were doing. I found that genuinely moving.
Let’s talk about what led to these strikes. You have a whole chapter in the book on this. The way it was described in the mainstream media was like, “Can you believe how poorly paid these teachers are? Some of them are working multiple jobs, they’ve got student debt, it’s so horrible that we’re paying teachers so little.” Of course that’s an important aspect of the story, but you point out it’s not just low wages that lead workers to strike.
You can’t really explain the strikes just with low wages, because in these states, teachers are actually among the best-paid workers. So if it were just the case that more poverty leads to more strikes, then you’d be seeing tons of strikes everywhere, all the time.
Teachers have a sense of potential power that other workers don’t always feel. Part of that is the leverage you get from having connections with students and their parents, so there was a sense that if they took action, they would get support. But another part is the gap between their working conditions and their desire to be good teachers.
A lot of people become teachers because they want to provide a meaningful service. They want to do a good job and be treated themselves like human beings, not as robots feeding students into standardized tests. Creative autonomy of teachers has been eroded so much over the years because of underfunding. Corporate education “reform” has taken away the ability of teachers to even do their job without just teaching to the test.
This challenges the basic ability of teachers to feel like their job is being effective so much that people were up in arms. There is a level of anger particular to teachers about the gap between their expectations and the reality of their job, and I think it’s that gap, between expectation and reality, that pushes them, perhaps more than other workers.
So for teachers there was the issue of deprivation and the issue of not being able to fulfill what they had set out to do as educators, which is make a difference in their students’ lives. But there’s also a challenge for any group of workers to raise their expectations that they could do something about their predicament. It’s not enough to just be pissed off what’s happening at work — you have to believe taking action could actually change that situation.
That sense of lack of power and lack of possibility for change is generally the biggest block for collective action. When West Virginia popped off and captured the imagination of teachers everywhere, that strike broke that feeling nothing could be done to fight back.
When I asked the organizers and rank-and-file teachers in Arizona and Oklahoma about why they started organizing or why they went on strike, they said, “Look, they did it in West Virginia. We can do it here, too.” A positive example broke the spell of powerlessness.
In West Virginia it took longer to do that because there wasn’t a recent example that people could just point to. It took months of organizing on the ground through build-up actions to erode that sense of powerlessness and give people a glimpse that they could buck the law if they all walked out together.
You write about the impact of the Bernie Sanders campaign on multiple levels, in raising expectations around and what kind of goods and services can be fought for in American politics, like public healthcare, and then it also cohered people around a credible left-wing critique that they thought could actually win. Can you talk about the Bernie Sanders campaign’s effect in West Virginia?
In the Democratic primary, Bernie won every single county in West Virginia. That matters. When the media talked about West Virginia, they mention Trump won every county in the general, but Bernie also won every county in the primary. So that basic critique of the status quo and the billionaires at the root of our problems resonated in West Virginia. Bernie legitimized the politics that were at the center of the strike.
For a few really energized teachers, it was through the Bernie campaign itself that they organized a new DSA chapter in Charleston and met other teachers with a similar democratic-socialist vision for how things could be better. So the Bernie campaign was instrumental in the whole state, but also it brought together the core organizers that ended up leading the strike.
So they came together around the Bernie campaign and then what happened?
Many people don’t know this, but the West Virginia strike really begins with a study group in summer 2017 of a couple DSA members and socialist teachers led by Emily Comer and Jay O’Neal. They read a great book: Jane McAlevey’s No Shortcuts, which is a strategic manifesto for working people about how you build power. And they tried to study past successful strikes . . . They looked at the 2012 Chicago teachers strike. Jay O’Neal, in particular, read your book, Micah.
For the record, I was not trying to set up a plug.
It’s fine — it’s actually accurate. They read Labor Notes’ book How To Jump Start Your Union: Lessons From The Chicago Teachers, too.
You write at length in the book about the importance of social media in West Virginia and elsewhere. This is an important discussion. A few years ago, around the time of Occupy Wall Street and the Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt, this Twitter and other social media platforms were being discussed incessantly for their role in organizing these uprisings. And then there was a pushback, with some commentators arguing that you can’t create the kinds of deep social ties that you need in order to have a real grassroots movement.
Your discussion of the role of social media in these teacher strikes is probably the most nuanced one I’ve read. You write about the centrality of Facebook groups in cohering people statewide for the strike. You also compare how these Facebook groups were run in different states and the impact that they had on the strikes.
I was skeptical of social media’s potential before these strikes. I would have probably dismissed the utility of them offhand, but these statewide strikes were initiated and coordinated to a significant extent over these Facebook groups that went viral — that’s new and it’s a big deal. Facebook groups changed the relationship of forces between the rank-and-file teachers and the union leadership, because it created a platform through which rank-and-file activists, even if they didn’t have large numbers at first, could get the word out and not have to rely as much on the official union leadership controlled channels. It sped up a process that might have otherwise taken years.
That said, the limitations of simply relying on social media became evident, particularly in the Oklahoma strike where the organizers over-relied on Facebook and just kept making that the main sphere for mobilizing and communication. They didn’t use social media to start the one-on-one workplace organizing that ended up being so crucial for the West Virginia and Arizona strikes. Social media changes things. Organizers need to be aware of both the power and limitations of it for building strikes. The limitations of social media don’t force you to build the kind of organization that can make a lasting movement.
Where does the strike wave go from here?
Since the 2018 red-state strikes, the movement has continued to spread across the country to LA, Oakland, Denver, Washington, North Carolina, South Carolina. I was just in Portland where you had twenty-five thousand educators mobilized. Las Vegas just authorized a strike. So there’s no indication the teacher strike wave is dampening down. There’s every indication that its continuing and deepening.
That’s really exciting, but it also poses all sorts of challenges, because in a context like a blue state, the legal parameters look so different. You don’t have the same political vacuum like you had in West Virginia or Arizona that led a small group of radicals to have this totally disproportionate impact. The weight of the Democratic Party and the old union leaders is actually heavier in blue states.
So a big challenge is not just continuing the strikes and trying to support, them which is crucial, but also trying to think through the political expression that these strikes need. Because as important as strikes are, there’s only so much you can do with them in the absence of political power. Ultimately, the solutions to the crisis of public education are going to require a pretty dramatic shift in the priorities of state policy.
UTLA, the teachers union in LA, is spearheading a statewide campaign to refund public education by going after the billionaires through reforming the tax structure. Imagine initiatives like that catching elsewhere posing a real political-economic alternative to the status quo. But as long as corporate politics dominated on a national level, whether it’s Republicans or Democrats in charge of things, you’re not going to fix public education.
This is the urgency of having a mass campaign of educators and unionists for Bernie Sanders, because it’s this really amazing moment we’re in where for the first time we have the convergence of a strike wave, the growth of mass socialist organization in DSA, and possibility of electing a democratic socialist to presidency. You don’t get this perfect storm of class struggle very often.