Sparks of a teacher rebellion in North Carolina

May 23, 2018

Inspired by the teacher strikes and protests in West Virginia, Arizona, Oklahoma and Kentucky, North Carolina teachers from around the state decided to stage a walkout on May 16 to fight for public education. What was originally called by the North Carolina Association of Educators (NCAE) as the union’s yearly day of advocacy on the opening day of the state legislature turned into the largest teachers’ mobilization in the state’s history.

For weeks leading up to the walkout, teachers across the state put in personal days for the day of advocacy, in the process shutting down 32 school districts and closing school for over 1 million students. On the morning of May 15, 30,000 educators, public school workers and supporters poured into downtown Raleigh and marched to the General Assembly, calling for the resources that they need to do their jobs, funding for public schools and dignity at work.

Lindsay Caesar, Jacob Cook and Joel Sronce talked about their impressions of this historic day, the limitations of some of the strategies put forward at the rally, and the opportunities to build a stronger fight in the future.

Lindsay Caesar

As a socialist, it was easy to feel frustrated during the Day of Advocacy. Although over 30,000 teachers, students, parents, support staff and community supporters took to the streets, the dialogue focused on electoralism, and this was seen by many to be a single day of action, after which work would resume as usual on May 17.

It was easy to feel frustrated when legislators talked to concerned teachers for no more than 15 minutes, and signed a pledge card — easily broken — about meeting their demands. Many legislators didn’t even appear, and instead left lists of “facts” about North Carolina education — produced with skewed data — to appease their constituents.

It was easy to be infuriated when the police shoved people out of the way so that the governor could come through — shaking hands, taking selfies and telling people he appreciates their votes.

But it was also easy to feel inspired looking at the aerial photos of a sea of red taking the streets. My co-workers were there, my neighbors were there, my friends and my friends’ children were there. Many of these people have never taken to the streets before, never questioned the conditions of their experience. To them, this was an inspiring day, a radicalizing experience.

North Carolina teachers descend on the state Capitol to demand funding for public education
North Carolina teachers descend on the state Capitol to demand funding for public education

On May 17, I spoke to several people who attended the rally who felt absolutely empowered and inspired from the actions and solidarity witnessed on the previous day.

Although we haven’t yet succeeded in moving into a full-on strike in North Carolina, the seeds have been planted. There are thousands of people across the state now questioning everything and wanting to be engaged with a solution.

Jacob Cook

One teacher I spoke with from Asheville said that whatever teachers make on paper you could cut in half because they have to buy their own supplies — even their own printer paper for handouts.

In several conversations, teachers thanked me for marching in solidarity with them. In fact, again and again throughout the day, I heard teachers thank each other for being teachers and for marching.

I left with a sense that whatever comes next for North Carolina teachers, everyone who attended the march will return to class inspired by the camaraderie that was shared by all and with a greater confidence in themselves and one another.

For one day, the North Carolina teachers turned the streets of Raleigh into a classroom to teach themselves, and every working person, that a better world is possible, and when we all get together we have the power to fight for it and win.

Joel Sronce

Strategies of electoralism and dependence on future action from the Democratic Party were abundant in Raleigh on May 16.

While it could be easy to feel pessimistic about the potential of an enduring and radical teacher rebellion, it’s also easy to understand that the majority of those who made up our sea of red were not yet fully conscious of, or not yet comfortable with, their own rank and file agency.

At many points in the march, however, thanks largely to unrelenting radical energy from a number of more radical contingents and other progressive supporters, heads turned, strategies were questioned, and solidarity bloomed.

A variety of different chants and songs were heard during the march to the state legislative building, including some that borrowed from popular Rihanna, Chance the Rapper and Childish Gambino songs.

More radical chants like “Voting is a human right, but there is more power in a strike” were able to push back against some of the NCAE leadership’s more electoral slogans and provide a space for a radical outlet for those who felt the need to push back against the change-from-above message.

These more radical contingents proved to be a force of support for those making conclusions that real change comes when rank-and-file educators take matters into their own hands and withhold their labor until their demands are met.

In a video posted by People for Bernie Sanders, one chant echoes through the downtown city canyon. “We are unstoppable! Another world is possible!”

After the march ended and hundreds gathered by county in order to confront their legislators collectively, several people stopped by some of the more radical contingents to say they appreciated the chants and energy.

Later in the afternoon, as leaders of the NCAE and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper offered a crowd of thousands flimsy messages composed largely of “Wait until November” or “Talk to your legislators,” a group of teachers from Durham took up the chant, “That’s not enough!”

It’s important to accurately measure the radical potential of a movement as a whole and to recognize when certain sparks have been extinguished by liberal hesitancy or state-sanctioned feebleness. But it’s also of important to identify where and how our energy and support were successful, and where we must continue our efforts to turn those sparks into a fiery rebellion.

Anderson Bean contributed to this article.

Further Reading

From the archives