The militant teachers’ strike in West Virginia has sparked a teacher-, not teacher’s union-, led movement across the country. The West Virginia teachers went on strike, although they are not legally allowed to do so, in defiance of their union leadership. And they showed courage by refusing the original offer by the state and striking for nine days. The West Virginia teachers have inspired teachers in many states including New Jersey, Florida, Arizona and Oklahoma to organize for their rights.
The teacher strike also brought to light whether unions are agents of change or instruments to calm worker disputes. They showed the connections between labor issues and other critical struggles such as health care. And the teacher’s strike highlighted the importance of broadening the base of support and deepening the analysis of the issues to look at root causes.
We are in an exciting take-off moment for education, worker rights and broader economic issues that has the potential to further augment the movement of movements for economic, racial and environmental justice.
The legacy of resistance in West Virginia
Conditions in West Virginia are ripe for resistance. According to McKinsey and Company, West Virginia ranks the worst or close to the worst in the US for health (44), education (45), employment (50), household income (50), energy (50) and the natural environment (47). In addition to high poverty rates – 53% of students are living in poverty – West Virginia has high rates of opioid abuse and overdose deaths that stem from the dumping of massive amounts of narcotics into small communities.
West Virginia also has a long history of strong resistance, particularly by miners taking on the coal industry. In “Recipe for a Red State Revolt,” Eric Kerl describes how that past history and current efforts to protest energy extraction in the state have contributed to the culture of resistance in West Virginia displayed by the teachers.
Reactions to the resolution of the strike are mixed. Some analysts say that the teachers were victorious by winning a 5% raise for all state employees and a commission tasked with solving their healthcare needs. Others say that the teachers and school employees were gaining momentum and should have continued to strike in order to win all of their demands, including more funding for health care and a mechanism to pay for it that does not reduce funding for other necessities.
No matter how you view the outcome, it is powerful that all 55 counties in the state went on strike, including both teachers and other school employees striking together, that they had the support of local community institutions such as churches to provide daycare and meals to students and that they have inspired teachers in other states to organize and rise up.
Teachers lead the way
Teachers in Arizona are now holding regular “Red for Ed” events. This started when one teacher, Rebecca Garelli, communicated with a teacher-organizer in West Virginia and was inspired to organize in a similar fashion. Like the West Virginia Teachers United, she started Arizona Teachers United. Now, teachers are setting up organizing groups in their schools and parents have started a Parents United group in solidarity. Garelli shares specifics of their organizing efforts in the article linked above. While the Arizona teacher’s union supports the organizing by the teachers, they are not leading it.
Teachers in Jersey City, NJ, went on strike on March 16. The Board of Education ordered students to go to school during the strike, but they refused to cross the picket line and joined the teachers instead. The strike lasted one day, as their union ordered them back to school on Monday after making a deal. The court had also issued an injunction against the strike, which meant the teachers could have faced penalties if they continued.
This month, teachers in Pennsylvania and Puerto Rico went on strike, teachers in Colorado held “walk-ins” and teachers in Tennessee packed a board meeting to demand more funds. In Kentucky, teachers are protesting cuts to their pensions and, in Florida, teachers are protesting a new law that restricts their right to collective bargaining. Teachers in Oklahoma are planning a walk out on April 2. And federal employees in the Department of Education (DoE) are also protesting over the failure of the DoE to negotiate with their union.
The commodification of education
At the roots of the teacher’s strikes and protests are neo-liberal policies. Education has become a profit center, which is driving more testing so that companies can sell testing software and other materials whether or not the tests actually have educational value. Many argue that the tests drive teachers to narrow their focus to the content of the tests and test-taking skills and that weeks of testing take significant amounts of time away from education.
Companies are also selling new metrics to analyze and document everything about students from their cognitive to their emotional abilities. Educators are concerned about how this data will be used in the future to possibly restrict access to higher education and/or employment for students who may not perform well.
Schools are also being privatized through charter schools, which can pick and choose their student population instead of providing education to all students. Charter schools in most states are used to destroy teacher’s unions. And charter schools drain money from the school system, because they are for-profit, without providing better outcomes than public schools. At the same time that charter schools are being opened, public schools, especially in low income communities, are being closed.
And the teaching profession is under attack. Programs such as Teach for America place inadequately-trained college graduates in teaching positions for short periods of time. These teachers earn less and have fewer benefits than career teachers because they do not accumulate seniority. Additionally, teachers must constantly defend their wages, health benefits and pensions from cuts and overall inadequate funding for their schools and programs.
The time for a strong education movement is here. And the momentum building across the nation brings optimism that the education movement is growing and becoming more militant. Hopefully, this will have ripple effects that inspire other employment sectors to fight for their rights. And hopefully, teachers will join other areas of struggle, such as the movement for National Improved Medicare for All.
National Improved Medicare for All (NIMA) would create a universal healthcare system that is paid for up front through taxes. Among its many benefits, NIMA would take healthcare off the bargaining table and allow teachers and other workers to focus on other needs in their negotiations.
As Ralph Nader points out, even though a majority of USians support NIMA, national campaigns “are receiving too little on-the-ground assistance.” Nader writes that we can win NIMA if more people advocate for it. Scott Tucker explains that the fight for NIMA is similar to past major struggles in that it will require a mobilized working class to succeed. He urges people to start organizing support for it in their communities.
Our campaign, Health Over Profit for Everyone, provides tools and education for you to advocate for NIMA. Join the national educational calls twice a month on Monday nights. And sign up for the first Single Payer Action Camp April 7 to 10 in Washington, DC. If you can’t attend the camp, your donation will make it possible for others to attend. All donations that we receive through April 10 will be used to provide travel, lodging, and food support for camp attendees who require it.