Which States Will Teachers Strike in Next?
Last spring, a wave of teachers strikes across the United States helped spur mass support for educators – and wage raises – after decades of cuts and demonization by both Republicans and Democrats alike. As schools start again, teachers are determined to keep fighting.
One major union is asking its member to strike this fall: the 34,000 members of the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA). On 30 August, 98% of teachers voted to authorize a strike at the nation’s second largest school district.
While the strike in the spring focused on Republican states, a strike in Los Angeles would be the first to target Democrats, who have also promoted schemes to bust teachers’ unions and open non-union charter schools that divert funding away from unionized public schools.
“California is a Democratic state, yet we have the highest number of unregulated charter schools in the nation. And we are 43rd in the nation in terms of per pupil spending when we are the fifth largest economy in the world,” said UTLA bargaining chair Arlene Inouye.
Teachers in Washington state’s Vancouver and Ridgefield have already taken votes to authorize a strike if they can not agree a pay rise. At the end of August, teachers in Longview, Washington, walked out after decisively rejecting a 6.9% average pay raise. More strikes are being considered in Colorado and Winnebago, Illinois.
The teacher action looks sure to spread as the school year marches on.
Public support for teachers appears to be high as strike fever spreads to some of the most unlikely places.
Even in Texas, where the law allows the state to strip teachers of their pension and certification if they strike, appetite for striking appears strong.
“When I am out in the schools, people wanna know: what’s going happen? When are we gonna go out on strike too?” says Louis Malfaro, president of the Texas American Federation of Teachers.
Malfaro says it’s unlikely that the union will strike in the fall as they would prefer to strike when the state legislature reconvenes in the spring. Malfaro sees the fall election as a test of how much his union can mobilize public support for teachers. Support at the ballot box could equate to support on the picket line if teachers went out in the spring.
Already, the Republican party is going increasingly wary of what being seen as anti-teacher could mean on election day. On 15 August, Texas lieutenantgovernor Dan Patrick even urged the Republican-controlled state legislaturenot to raise healthcare premiums on retired teachers.
While the strike may be illegal under Texas law, Malfaro says that his members seem undeterred as public support appears to be on their side.
“In West Virginia, in Arizona, in all these other states, it was illegal too, and it didn’t matter” says Malfaro. “What matters is how much public support you can get on your side.”
For teachers in Los Angeles, the writing is on the wall.
“We understand that if we don’t do something about the charter schools drain of resources, about how low we are in per pupil spending, we will not exist in five years,” said Inouye.
The union has been preparing and building for the possibility of a strike for the last several years. Three years ago, the union even voted by an 82% margin to increase their dues by 30% so that they can do more to push back.
Despite the Janus supreme court decision in June, which ruled that public sector unions could not force non-members to pay for their bargaining services, the union has been successful in re-signing 34,000 of its 35,000 members. Indeed, union leaders say that the process of having to re-sign all of their members has helped mobilize teachers, who haven’t been as active in years past.
To build support for the strike, UTLA members have been touring the country and building support networks for teachers in other states. They have also been learning lessons from teachers in other states about how to go on strike.
“I think the big lesson we have learned is that we really have to let the young teachers lead,” says Inouye. “Sometimes in the labor movement, we haven’t been the best at this, but we really have to follow their lead.”
The mass public support for the strikes has given the teachers a level of confidence that they haven’t felt in years.
“The strikes were revolutionary, everything turned around,” said Inouye. “Our teachers have been saying for so long, ‘Why does everybody hate us?’The messaging around selfish teachers and so forth has been strong, but now I think everybody really feels that things have turned on, and there is a real change in the way the public sees [us].”
AFT president Randi Weingarten is confident that this wave of support will help teachers’ unions at the ballot box this November as they hope to vote out of office those who have voted to cut public education and attack teachers’ unions.
“Teachers are turning this moment into a movement,” said Weingarten. “The walkouts not only secured immediate gains for kids’ learning and teacher pay, they were a catalyst for educators to run for office to fix the state and local governments that failed them.”