How Teacher Strikes Are Changing


When West Virginia teachers walked out of their classrooms last month and swarmed the state Capitol in protest, it almost felt like déjà vu.

The two-day statewide strike was nearly a year to the day after teachers from the Mountain State staged their initial walkout over low pay—and lit the match for what became a wildfire of teacher activism.

But this time, teachers’ demands were different, a reflection of the changing flavor of strikes nationwide. While last year’s teacher walkouts were focused primarily on stagnant wages and crumbling classrooms, the strike demands now are more far-reaching. Teachers are pushing back against education reform policies such as charter schools and performance-based pay. They’re also fighting for social-justice initiatives like sanctuary protections for undocumented students.

Although some experts say there’s a risk of losing public support as teachers become more political in their demands, the strikes so far have retained community involvement and have all been relatively successful. Even as the protests move from red states to blue cities, there is still a coherent narrative in place: Teachers are underpaid, asked to do more with less, and fed up.

These strikes are not independent and isolated efforts, said Rebecca Tarlau, an assistant professor of education and labor and employment relations at Pennsylvania State University’s College of Education.

“It’s a wave of different activists who are in conversation and connection and trying to transform their unions in really interesting and important ways,” she said.

So far this year, teachers in Los Angeles went on a six-day strike that ended with a host of union victories, including smaller class sizes, more support staff, and other socially minded initiatives, like legal support for immigrant students.

Teachers in Denver went on a three-day strike last month over the district’s performance-based compensation model. Then, West Virginia teachers walked out in protest of a bill that would have established charter schools in the state, along with up to 1,000 education savings accounts that allow certain parents to use public money to pay for private school. Teachers in Oakland, Calif., went on strike for two weeks in February over pay, class sizes, and the cash-strapped district’s proposal to close schools.

As the teacher-activism movement spreads, it emphasizes the “point that teachers’ concerns are national and not simply a product of big-city unions,” said Jeffrey Henig, the director of the politics and education program at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Now, he said, “we’re seeing that played back in places like West Virginia, where the local actors without the strong historical unions … are now breathing the fumes of national issues like privatization and school choice and are broadening their scope as a result.”

A Fight for Public Education

In some ways, the strike in Oakland embodied what the movement has become, experts say.

At the center of the contract dispute was the union’s demand for a 12 percent pay raise. But Oakland Education Association President Keith Brown framed the strike as a “fight for the soul of public education” in the city. In addition to pushing for student supports, teachers are fighting against the proposed closures of up to 24 regular public schools and the growth of charter schools.

“No one thinks of the Oakland strike as a strike that’s about salary,” Tarlau said. “It is part of the big picture: What is the future of our schools? What is the future of public education?”

Oakland teachers ultimately won an 11 percent pay raise, along with commitments from the district to hire more support staff and reduce class sizes. The president of the district’s board of education also pledged to introduce resolutions calling for a pause on both school closures and charter school growth.

Seeing teachers in California protest the growth of charter schools encouraged teachers in West Virginia to walk out again last month, said Jay O’Neal, a teacher in Charleston who has been involved in organizing.

And just as West Virginia activists shared strategies with others last year, they were learning from activists elsewhere this year.

“The national narrative has come full circle here now,” O’Neal said.

Through it all, public support remained widespread in both of the state’s strikes, said Erin McHenry-Sorber, an assistant professor of higher education at West Virginia University. This time, teachers were protesting a bill that included a 5 percent pay raise—a powerful narrative about teachers’ priorities.

“While they would like a pay raise and they need a pay raise, they were working to protect community schools,” McHenry-Sorber said.

In fact, the Denver strike was an outlier this year, in that it was mainly focused on teacher pay. Lois Weiner, a New York-based researcher and consultant on teachers’ union transformation, pointed out that according to district tallies, just over half the city’s 5,000 teachers went on strike.

“When strikes are only about economic issues, they undercut the building of social support,” she said.

Meanwhile, West Virginia teachers have given their union leaders the power to call for another statewide labor action if legislators continue to pursue school choice measures.

There might be a round two in other places, as well, that had a statewide protest last year. In Kentucky, several districts were forced to close one day last week as thousands of teachers participated in a “sickout” to protest a bill that would restructure the board that oversees the state’s teacher-pension system. And in Oklahoma, a grassroots Facebook group recently conducted a survey of its members to gauge their interest in continued activism after last year’s nine-day walkout for a pay raise and more school funding.

Out of the nearly 2,200 educators who responded to the survey, about 55 percent said they would support another teacher walkout this year if there isn’t an investment made to school funding. If the public was on board, 73 percent of educators would support a walkout.

“I think there’s a chance there might be more mobilization and walkouts in places like Oklahoma where people felt for a moment what it was like to have power with their colleagues,” said Penn State’s Tarlau. “From what I can tell, they want to keep feeling that way.”

She has also heard conversations among activists about organizing a national teacher strike, or day of action—but such a massive effort would take a lot of coordination and force, Tarlau said.

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