Striking Teachers in “Red” States Point the Way Forward

After the huge victory of the teachers in West Virginia, teachers in other “right-to-work” (for less) states — Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona — walked off the job to demand not only higher wages and improved conditions for teachers, but more funding for public education and an end to the privatization/charter school dismantling of public schools implemented by both Democrats and Republicans. In many states, they also raised demands to improve wages and working conditions for all public employees.

The fighting teachers’ movement emerged from the ranks, from below — but it has sought to reclaim the existing union structures and unions to advance its struggle. In West Virginia, the main organizers of the initial February 2 walkout and of the end-of-February unlimited strike (which rejected the union leadership’s sellout deal) were the elected local union officers in the state’s 55 school districts. Not only were they the catalysts of the struggle, they — and the thousands of teachers who were summoned to take action — pushed their three teacher unions to support the movement from below, which was key to securing their victory.

In Oklahoma, the teachers’ struggle galvanized parents and entire communities. During their 110-mile trek from Tulsa to Oklahoma City, the teachers were housed and fed all along their march; their demand for $200 million in education funding was embraced with enthusiasm by the working class majority. The same outpouring of community support was evident in every state where workers took strike action.

Though the Oklahoma teachers didn’t prevail in obtaining the extra school funding they were demanding, their determination to strike won them a $6,000 per-teacher wage increase. It was a partial victory, but it gave the educators greater confidence in their own strength and raised their spirits to continue their fight for full funding for public education.

In Arizona, the strike movement wrested a 10% wage increase for the first year of the new contract, with up to 9% more for the following two years. The strikers also won $400 million in funding for public education. The educators are now mobilizing to pass a Millionaires Tax in November to raise an additional $700 million for public schools.

Inspiring Similar Fightbacks

This is a new and major development in the teachers’ unions … and in the labor movement as a whole. The teachers’ strike wave is inspiring similar fightbacks in other teachers’ unions — from Pueblo, Colorado, to North Carolina — and among unions nationwide.

The strike wave has buoyed the workers in struggle in California, for example. For three days — May 7 through 9 — more than 50,000 workers on 10 University of California campuses went out on strike, shutting down food preparation, clerical work, campus maintenance, and non-emergency surgery schedules in the five campus hospitals.

The nurses organized by the California Nurses Association walked off the job in a sympathy strike, in defiance of the NLRB’s ban on sympathy strikes. “We’ve been working without a contract at the UCs for more than six months, so the NLRB rules don’t apply to us,” a striking nurse told a solidarity rally in San Francisco.

“We’re striking for a fair contract, equality — hell, respect,” said Rodney Enis, who has worked delivering and processing mail at UC Berkeley for seven years. Enis has a second job — like many of his colleagues, he said — selling car parts at AutoZone in Oakland.

“A lot of us have kids” and struggle to support them, said Cesar Pizano, who has worked in Cal dining services for 13 years. With extreme rent and house prices, it’s “impossible” to live in the Bay Area, let alone raise a family here, on service-worker wages, he said. Pizano works two other jobs as well.

Members of UAW Local 2865, which represents graduate student workers, also honored the picketlines on most campuses, leading to the cancellation of many classes. And while the faculty unions didn’t vote to strike, many faculty members cancelled their classes or held them off campus.

Pointing the Way to Beat Back Janus

United Educators of San Francisco President Lita Blanc [shown in photograph addressing the UC strike rally at UCSF on May 7] summarized the new mood within the labor movement in her editorial in the Spring 2018 issue of The Educator. UESF represents 6,200 educators in San Francisco.

Blanc wrote, in part:

We are living in remarkable times. Since March, this country has witnessed a series of militant strikes by educators that have resulted in significant raises and increases to funding for public education. The inspirational example set by West Virginia teachers, other school employees, and their unions sparked a movement that spread to Oklahoma and Arizona — and that continues to grow.

“The best traditions of the labor movement are being reclaimed by a new generation of educators. These recent strikes enjoyed widespread support because a majority of Americans believe that quality education is a fundamental right, that it should be fully funded, and that educators deserve a living wage. UESF has been active in building support for these strikes and will continue to do so in the future.

“During the same time that the labor movement was being invigorated by these recent victories, the Supreme Court was deliberating in the Janus v. AFSCME case. It is almost certain that the conservative majority on the Supreme Court will reach an adverse decision and render fair-share fees illegal. However, as the striking educators in the ‘red’ states have demonstrated, even without the legal framework of collective bargaining, when workers and their unions exert their collective power, they can prevail.

Blanc is absolutely right, and the leadership of the public-sector unions across the country would do well to heed this message — rather than prepare the retreat, as they have been doing. Yes, when workers and their unions exert their collective power, they can prevail. This is how we can beat back Janus and rebuild the trade union movement into a fighting force that is powerful numerically and that can turn back the tide of privatizations and union-busting.

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