Teachers Give Lessons on How to Strike and Win

Teachers across the country have launched a wave of strikes, walkouts, sickouts, and rallies that are winning gains, galvanizing members, and breathing new life into the strike.

Photo: American Federation of Teachers

The strikes are fueled by rank-and-file anger, and many were coordinated not from above by the official union leadership, but by networks of activists or TDU-like movements.

The energy unleashed by the strikes, the size of the mobilizations, and the level of organization shown has caught many by surprise. The teachers have put the strike—labor's most powerful weapon—back in our playbook, and shown what can be done when workers unite, organize creatively, and take to the streets.

The Teachers Strike Back

West Virginia: In February, teachers in three West Virginia counties coordinated a walkout to protest proposed hikes in insurance premiums and to demand higher pay. Walkouts and rallies spread throughout the state, leading to a 14-day strike of 20,000 teachers on February 22. The unions' leaderships called off the strike after the Governor proposed a 2% pay increase for teachers. But the teachers decided to stay out for another week, and won a 5% pay increase for all West Virginia public workers.

Kentucky: On March 30, thousands of Kentucky teachers coordinated a sick-out in protest of a proposed overhaul to the state's pension system.

Oklahoma: On April 2nd, Oklahoma teachers launched a 9-day walkout. The teachers, who had not seen a raise in a decade, demanded $10,000 for teachers, $5,000 for support staff and $200 million in restored and added school funding.

Arizona: 20,000 Arizona teachers won a 20% pay raise after a six-day strike that culminated with a massive rally in Phoenix. The strike was organized by the rank-and-file-led #RedForEd movement and the Arizona Educators United, a group that was built to unite Arizona teachers across different unions.

Colorado: Teachers in Pueblo, Colorado concluded a 5-day strike on May 11. The teachers began their strike after the school board rejected a 2 percent cost of living increase. After the strike, the school board approved the increase.

North Carolina: Teachers across the state walked out on May 16, shutting down schools to demand higher pay, more funding per-student and more resources to improve schools. 15,000 marched on the state Capitol in Raleigh.

Lessons from the Teachers

The wave of teachers strikes stem from particular conditions facing public school teachers. But they have wiped away some of the stigma attached to strikes, shown they can be done, and demonstrated some valuable lessons on how they can be built by rank-and-file members.

  • Strikes are built at the grassroots. The West Virginia teachers strike had its roots in a secret rank-and-file Facebook group started a year ago to coordinate lobbying and build unity across the many teacher and school worker unions. Strikes might be called by union leadership, but their effectiveness is based on how they're prepared, in advance, by the ranks at the shop-floor, with members coordinating and working together.
  • Start small, involve everyone. The massive rallies at state Capitols in Arizona and North Carolina were the results of a series of escalating actions, beginning with baby-steps that identify issues, build support for key demands, and get members working together. An initial step might be asking a member to sign a petition or take a survey.
  • Creative actions to build unity and support. The national #RedforEd movement started in Arizona, where members of Arizona Educators United donned red shirts on Wednesdays to show unity. Public supporters soon joined in. T-shirts, sticker days, and collective 'walk-ins' are creative ways to build unity, and offer members an easy gateway into taking action.
  • Rank-and-file networking. Arizona Educators United—a rank-and-file network within the Arizona Education Association—organized a network of 1,000 school 'liaisons' or captains. Some of these liaisons are AEA stewards, some are teacher activists who support the AEU's demands.
  • “There is no illegal strike, just an unsuccessful one.” The West Virginia teachers strike was "unlawful" and, legally, teachers could have been fined or outright replaced for walking out. That didn't happen—but it could've if they hadn't built broad public support, and the organization needed to shut down not just a few schools or districts, but all schools across the state. All the states where teachers have struck or walked-out are 'Right-to-Work' states.
  • Keep the momentum moving. Arizona teachers networked online, started RedforEd Wednesdays with small and large groups sending in photos, and bird-dogged the Governor at public appearances with roaming pickets. Successful strikes involve a steady stream of actions, large and small, that keep the union and its demands front and center and counter the ongoing propaganda from management.
  • 'Grassroots means Go!' Strikes can build union strength that will change the power and culture well into the future, if they encourage members' energy and initiative instead of clamping down on it. Labor Notes reported an Arizona teacher and strike leader being asked by fellow members if it is OK whether they do such and such—“I’m like, ‘What do you mean? Don’t ask me! Go!’ Grassroots means go!”


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