FOR THE FIRST time in four decades a strike wave has spread across the United States. Beginning in West Virginia, striking educators have since paralysed school systems in Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Colorado and, most recently, North Carolina.
And there is no sign that this historic wave of labour militancy is letting up anytime soon.
The roots of these strikes are not hard to find. Year after year of austerity policies imposed by the Republicans - often with Democratic Party support - have frozen salaries, raised health care costs, and/or decimated the public (state) school systems across much of the country. At the same time as school funding has been cut, politicians have doled out massive tax cuts to the wealthy and corporations.
“Is the government purposely neglecting our public schools to give an edge to private and charter schools?” asked Mickey Miller, a Tulsa teacher and rankand- file leader. For Christy Cox - a middleschool teacher in Norman, Oklahoma - reversing the cuts to school funding was her main motivation to strike: “The kids aren’t getting what they need. It’s really crazy. Though the media doesn’t talk about this as much as salaries, I feel that funding our schools is the primary issue.” In such conditions, it just took the example of West Virginia’s victorious strike to spark a political wildfire.
These movements have taken a particularly explosive form because public sector strikes are illegal in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona and North Carolina. Given the relative weakness of the trade unions and the absence of legally recognised bargaining channels, workers were obliged to turn to militant tactics and novel forms of self-organisation. In each of these states the push for the strikes came from networks of rank-and-filers organised initially through Facebook.
Despite these broad similarities, the relationship of the ranks to the unions - and the victories that they have been able to collectively achieve - has varied across the different states. Given that West Virginia had the strongest trade unions and traditions, its rank-and-file militants largely oriented to pushing the unions into strike action. In the course of their nine day strike, West Virginia’s educators forced the Republican state government to grant a number of important concessions, including a 5% pay increase to all public employees.
Oklahoma had a similar level of mass mobilisation, yet its strike was plagued by the organisational weaknesses of both the trade unions and the rank-and-file networks, which had vastly over-relied on Facebook to build for the strike. Though the state government conceded an important pay increase to teachers on the eve of the walkout, the nine day strike itself was unable to wrest concessions on funding for schools.
In many ways the Arizona strike has been the most remarkable action so far. Despite the deep weaknesses of the state’s trade unions, and the longstanding strength of Arizona’s right wing establishment, a dynamic young cohort of rank-and-file teachers managed to coalesce a well-organised ‘Red for Ed’ mass movement in less than two months. Their six day strike wrested a promised 20% raise for teachers and, no less significantly, it prevented further tax cuts and privatisation efforts. Building on their considerable momentum, strike leaders are now working towards a November 2018 ballot initiative to tax the rich to fund the school system.
Noah Karvelis, an Arizona music teacher and ‘Red for Ed’ organiser, summed up the lessons of their strike as follows: “The types of attacks we’ve seen in Arizona are common to the working class across the whole country. We’re being exploited; we’re being taken advantage of. We’re overworked, we’re underpaid, we’ve been surviving on too little for too long. But what we’ve done in Arizona is stand up and say enough is enough. There always comes a breaking point for the working class. If educators in Arizona could stand up and fight back, anybody can stand up and do the same.”
In contrast, Colorado, North Carolina, and Kentucky witnessed only one-day walkouts, which moderate union leaderships used to put pressure on the legislatures while building towards electing Democrats in the November 2018 elections. In each of these states, education cuts are only one dimension of a more generalised offensive against the public sector. As such, there is an urgent need to deepen the unity between teachers and other state employees. Such an alliance is critical not only for winning broader and deeper concessions, but also in combating the attempts of corporate politicians to pit teachers against other state workers by cutting public services to pay for teacher pay increases.
Though it remains to be seen whether the strike wave will expand beyond public education, it’s clear that these striking educators have already changed the course of US history.
is a regular contributor to the Jacobin website