Oklahoma teachers picket in April at the state capital
The victorious 9-day strike by teachers and other public school workers in West Virginia this past February has inspired similar walkouts in several states across the country. Multi-day state-wide strikes in Oklahoma and Arizona have followed, as well as shorter and local actions in Kentucky, Colorado and North Carolina. Mass protest marches and rallies by strikers and their supporters have been a feature of the struggles in each state and displayed a great creativity, solidarity, and a powerful determination to win their well-justified demands. Such a strike wave has not been seen in this country for decades.
The underlying cause of the strike wave is the long war on public services and public-sector workers that escalated after the financial meltdown of 2008. In the past decade the economy has picked up for the capitalists and their stock market, but most workers know that decent-paying jobs have been lost and many face precarious conditions even if they are working. Teachers especially have been singled out for attacks on their wages and working conditions and scapegoated for the failings of the education system; their real wages are now almost 5 percent lower than in 2008, pension contributions and health insurance costs have gone up, often dramatically; meanwhile public school funding has been slashed. The teachers’ strike wave is the first concerted opposition to the austerity attacks, and there are many significant lessons to be learned from them.
The school strikes have raised demands benefitting the entire working class. That is a huge break from the typical approach of union leaders who raise only the narrowest immediate concerns of their own members. And it was central to the fact that the strikes enjoyed the public support that they needed to win.
The West Virginia strikers were first. They insisted that the wage raise that they won, as well as the health-care preservation that they fought for, would apply to all state workers and this guaranteed them wider support. They also took action to undercut right-wing campaigns that demonized them for hurting kids and their parents: they provided free lunches to students as well as day-care to relieve working parents. Similar practices were undertaken in the other striking states.
Further, all the strikes demanded not just wage hikes but also increased school budgets to reverse the damage of past cuts and opposed “solutions” that would have slashed other public services or raised taxes on poor and working-class people. Instead, they have demanded tax hikes on the rich and corporations. Thus they have encouraged working-class people to become more conscious of their common interests against the profiteers who rule and exploit us.
The strikes have taken place both through and around the teachers’ and other school workers’ unions. They show that unions even in their weakened condition still have the potential to lead struggles, but also that militant strikers are up against complacent union officials accustomed only to lobbying politicians and not leading mass actions.
The strikes overcame anti-union laws in “right-to-work” states by demonstrating that the most effective form of “lobbying” is mass action: massive marches and occupations of state capitols in preparation for the decisive strikes to force the politicians to concede their demands. In West Virginia and Arizona they stayed out until the politicians passed and signed legislation. In Oklahoma, however, union officials called the strike off without a democratic decision by even the union members, much less the entire staff. (See “Oklahoma Strike Ends Short of Victory” below.)
The West Virginia teachers were able to win their inspiring victory because they had the power to vote on continuing their strike despite their union leaders’ deal to end it prematurely. This underscores the importance of fighting for democratic reforms in unions and for strike committees and other assemblies of strikers to organize every strike and have the power to determine whether they end or continue.
Two factors affecting the strikes’ outcomes that have been less commented on are also important. One is that the teachers, while they certainly took risks, were able to press their demands without the immediate fear of losing their jobs that many, even most, workers face. The state governments were unprepared and could not raise scab forces capable of making a serious attempt to replace the strikers. There are also legal reasons like licensing requirements that restrict who can serve as a scab teacher, although there have already been some evasions of these legalities by management and politicians.
A second factor was that the state-wide strikes have taken place where school funding is substantially determined on a state rather than local level. Often that means state-mandated salary schedules, which tend to equalize pay between rich and poor districts. So school workers are aware that they have to address the seat of power in the state capitols, and they are more united because they are all more or less in the same situation, rural and urban districts in particular. Paradoxically, even with relatively weak unions, this meant that these states were ripe for united mass labor actions.
Public employees, even more than most workers, often look to elections to help improve their lives. The teachers’ strikes have succeeded in challenging the Trump Republicans who control the government in Washington and many “red states,” where many teachers undoubtedly voted for them and now regret it. So it is not surprising that Republican politicians have offered wage concessions: they fear that otherwise teachers and other workers would be more motivated to vote, and vote against them, in a year when the popularity of Trump and the Republicans is already low. The Republicans’ recent responsibility for slashing education budgets, however, should not be allowed to absolve Democratic Party politicians. They too have played a treacherous role they by imposing austerity on workers and the poor, even though they often present themselves as “friends of labor.”
The prospect of voting in November helped union leaders bring the Oklahoma strike to a premature end. Still, it is positive that many teachers have been inspired to declare themselves candidates for office in November, running in effect as representatives of working-class struggle. Most of them will run as Democrats since Republicans have been their main opponents. The problem is that the Democratic Party functions as the graveyard of mass struggles, and leading Democrats like Barack Obama and his administration have joined in privatizing schools and squeezing public education budgets to feed the profiteers.
We hope that the combined lessons of mass struggle and Democratic Party treachery will demonstrate that the working class needs its own political representatives and its own party, fighting for its own class interests against the demands for austerity driven by capitalism. It is high time that workers no longer must choose between the openly racist and anti-union Republicans and the “kinder and gentler” but nonetheless pro-capitalist Democrats.
The school strikes reawaken hopes for a turnaround in the class struggles after decades of defeats and retreats. They are part of a growing resistance against the intensified attacks under Trump and the Republicans, inspired at least in part by previous mass actions – from uprisings against racist police killings to protests against Trump and the forces of the far-right that he has inspired and the recent anti-NRA student marches. But unlike these movements, the strikes wield organized working-class power: they were able to shut down operations while enlisting widespread public support; they thereby gained real if partial victories. They point a way forward which will be all the more powerful when the more exploited and oppressed sections of the working class exercise their power to strike.
In Oklahoma, where funding for public education has been slashed by over 25 percent in the past decade, the threat of a strike in the wake of West Virginia forced politicians to offer concessions. The legislature and governor agreed on a package that raised teachers’ wages by an average $6000 per year, with smaller increases for other school workers. The cost was estimated at over $500 million, to be financed by raising taxes on cigarettes, gasoline and oil and gas production. Taxing the energy companies was a breakthrough in a state whose politics they have long dominated and where there have been no tax increases in a quarter-century – though its impact was compromised by the regressive taxes on working people.
Teachers called the raise “a down payment” on what is needed, so their strike began as planned on April 2 and shut down about 70 percent of the state’s public school system. It was led by the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA), which organizes only a minority of teachers but was still able to play a leading role in formulating demands and calling for the walkout. The strikers specifically called for revoking the capital gains income tax deduction, a step that could raise up to $150 million a year for public schools or other state services.
By April 11 the state officials had refused to yield and the OEA retreated. Even though polls showed that 72 percent of Oklahomans supported continuing the walkout until all of its demands were met, the union leadership called the strike off on the grounds that most of its demands had already been won – a claim belied by the facts and which the union had rejected two weeks earlier. Most strikers then returned to work, although there was significant opposition to going back and some continued to protest in the state capitol. Thus the strike ended without winning anything beyond what had been won before the strike.
According to union president Alicia Priest, “The governor and lawmakers keep closing the door on revenue options when Oklahomans are asking for a better path forward. Public education should be the issue this November. We need candidates who are worthy of our children.”
Without being in Oklahoma we cannot judge whether the OEA leadership was justified in saying no more could have been won, but there was little evidence that the strike was weakening. In any case, the decision should have been the right of the strikers to make in meetings where they could debate the issues and vote, as West Virginia’s teachers had done. The union heads claimed that they had conducted a poll of OEA members but then admitted that many members had not been reached; and in any case, the majority of the strikers were not union members.
1. West Virginia Teachers Defy Austerity, Government and Union Leaders – and Win!
2. Much of the factual data in this box comes from oklahomawatch.org/2018/04/12/teacher-state-worker-strikes/