U.S. and World Politics

What Striking Teachers Have in Common

By Casey Quinlan

April 6, 2018—Teachers are going on strike all over the country and as each statewide strike happens, there’s news of teachers in another state organizing their own.

Whether teachers prefer to call them walkouts, work stoppages, or strikes, all of these states have a number of things in common. Yes, these states all went to Donald Trump in the presidential election—something many journalists and pundits have focused on.

But more importantly, they are also all states with right-to-work laws that have cut public services.

All of these teachers are organizing in similar ways. The strikes’ message goes beyond the teaching profession and extends to better salaries for other state employees and funding for public education as a whole. Teachers also aren’t being entirely led by their unions in the strikes, and they’re working with their school districts, nonprofits, and other state employees to ensure that they have as much public support as possible.

The chronic underfunding of education, sustained tax cuts, and right-to-work laws have created this environment, bringing the fight for education and labor rights to a boiling point in all of these states.

Starving state education budgets

In many of the states where teachers are striking or considering taking action, school funding is still far below what it was before the Great Recession.

This chronic underfunding hit the majority of states. A 2017 Center on Budget and Policy Priorities report shows that in 2015, 29 states provided less education funding per pupil than in 2008. In 19 states, local funding also decreased from 2008 to 2015. In states where local funding increased during that period, it still didn’t make up for state cuts.

Most of the states now protesting are the ones that experienced the worst cuts. That includes Oklahoma and Kentucky, where teachers are currently striking. New Jersey, where there was a one-day strike in Jersey City last month, also had their education funding per pupil drop during that time period.

It also includes Arizona—where we could see teachers take action next. Teachers in Arizona are discussing the possibility of a strike. Although Texas teachers may not strike, they have been unhappy with education funding in the state for a long time and anger is “bubbling beneath the surface,” Louis Malfaro, the head of Texas American Federation of Teachers, told Austin American-Statesman. In Florida, the teachers union has discouraged striking, but some teachers are still interested in a strike.

The cuts to education spending are hurting students’ quality of education and teachers’ quality of life. Oklahoma teachers have posted photos of old books that are falling apart and have panhandled for school supplies. Teachers in Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Kentucky say they are taking on second jobs and that they have considered leaving their states.

All these strikes are public backlash to years of Republican-led efforts to push for more tax cuts, which has squeezed funding for education.

West Virginia’s tax cuts began more than a decade ago. The state reduced its corporate net income tax and got rid of a corporate charter tax and alternative minimum tax—to name just a few of the cuts—and ultimately lost $425 million in state revenue each year since 2007.

Oklahoma has offered tax breaks to oil companies that diminished revenue from 2008 to 2014, according to WTOP (Washington, DC’s Top News, Traffic and Weather,) and led to a 24 percent reduction in per-pupil funding over that time period. Twenty percent of Oklahoma school districts are open for only four days a week to cut down on costs. As Kentucky teachers demanded more education funding, state lawmakers considered a proposal that would cut income taxes and result in $114 million less revenue for the state. That legislation—which will result in higher taxes for most residents while corporations and the wealthy pay less—passed the legislature and is heading to the governor’s desk. It’s unclear if Governor Matt Bevin (R) will sign it.

Oklahoma and West Virginia teachers are some of the lowest paid teachers in the country.

“A lot of our students don’t come to school ready to learn math and to read. They come to school and they’re hungry,” Laura Hartke, a teacher at Fayette County Public Schools in Lexington, told ThinkProgress when Kentucky teachers went to the state capital on Monday. “They may have been abused. The programs and things that they want to cut for these children are detrimental to their education. They need more than just a teacher. They need support systems and those are the things that they’re cutting.”

How right-to-work laws can actually foment more strikes

Labor experts say it is not a coincidence that teachers are striking or threatening to strike in states with “right-to-work” laws.

Right-to-work laws mean that workers in unionized workplaces don’t have to join their union or pay for the cost of union representation, but reap the same benefits as those who do. As a result, states with right-to-work laws tend to have lower union representation. Kentucky and Arizona don’t have statutes that allow teachers to collectively bargain, and collective bargaining is banned in West Virginia.

A case currently being considered by the U.S. Supreme Court, Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), would affect the 22 states that don’t have right-to-work laws. The case involves a public sector employee, Mark Janus, who says his first amendment rights were violated because he had to pay fair share fees despite not being a union member.

The U.S. Supreme Court will likely rule in favor of Janus—which will affect unions across the public sector, including teachers unions.

If unions will be forced to compete for dues-paying members, experts say unions could become more confrontational. The Illinois Solicitor General also warned the court “when unions are deprived of agency fees, they tend to become more militant, more confrontational.”

And since many collective bargaining agreements make union security a “tradeoff for no strikes,” as AFSCME attorney David C. Frederick argued, there may be more public employee strikes without mandatory union fees.

“…You can raise an untold specter of labor unrest throughout the country,” Frederick said.

The current teacher strikes could be a preview of what to expect in a post-Janus landscape. Many of these strikes are being led by rank-and-file teachers, even though they do have support and assistance from their unions.

The Oklahoma Education Association told ThinkProgress that teachers have been considering these walkouts for a long time, but Facebook groups have played a major role in mobilizing teachers. Alberto Morejon, who teaches eighth grade social studies at Stillwater Junior High School, said that within a few hours, his Facebook page, Oklahoma Teacher Walkout—The Time Is Now!, had 1,000 people and the next morning, it had 21,000. Now it has nearly 77,000 members. In West Virginia, teachers also pushed back when union leaders agreed to a deal with the governor.

“Unions have tended throughout most of their histories to be forces that seek stability, not unrest,” Joseph A. McCartin, a labor historian at Georgetown University told the New York Times. “When they are weakened, we’re more likely to see the re-emergence of instability and militancy, and the kind of model that we’re seeing happen in West Virginia.”

When the media focuses on which states went to Donald Trump in the presidential election, it ignores these states’ rich labor histories. Before World War I, labor unions and local farmer cooperatives contributed to the Oklahoma’s Constitutional Convention and “founded one of the most progressive and labor-friendly state governments in the nation’s history,” according to KVOY Community Radio in Oklahoma.

“Oklahoma was one of the strongest states 100 years ago for a uniquely American prairie-style socialism. It’s a little known history,” said Scott Carter, associate professor of economics at the University of Tulsa.

The Battle of Blair Mountain, where West Virginia coalminers clashed with strikebreakers and law enforcement, has been called the largest labor uprising in history and perhaps the largest armed insurrection since the Civil War. In Kentucky, there were fights between miners and coal firms, who had law enforcement on their side, in what is known as the Harlan County War.

Fighting for more than higher salaries

Teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky want improvements such as higher salaries and better health insurance, but their work stoppages have been about so much more than that.

Teachers in Oklahoma have championed an agenda that pushes for a $10,000 raise for teachers and a $5,000 raise for education support professionals over three years. They also want $200 million over three years to restore public education funding, a five percent cost-of-living increase for retirees, new revenue for healthcare, mental health, and public safety, and a $7,500 pay raise for state employees.

After the teachers strike, West Virginia state workers secured a pay bump that is five percent of the average salary for all state workers, according to WVMetroNews. Kentucky teachers told the media that they came to the capitol to fight for more education funding, not just protest a controversial pension reform bill, although Kentucky’s pension system is one of the worst-funded in the country. After the teachers went to the capitol on Monday, the legislature passed a bill with fewer cuts to education than teachers originally expected.

This broader message is also why teachers have the support of other public sector workers, students, and local parents.

Oklahoma teachers appear to have parents’ support. Nearly 80 percent of respondents for an Oklahoma Education Association survey, which included community members, educators, parents, and students, said they supported the strike.

“What’s very interesting to me is that this is probably the biggest bipartisan support I have seen for almost 13 years of living in Oklahoma,” Tobra Avery, a local parent, told ThinkProgress. “I’ve never seen anything that’s brought Republicans and Democrats together.”

ThinkProgress, April 6, 2018