Hearing the voices of the teachers’ rebellion

June 20, 2018

The countdown to Socialism 2018 — the four-day conference that SW co-sponsors in Chicago each year — is on. Here’s a preview of the main plenary on Friday night.

THE REVOLT of educators against low pay, disrespect and intolerable conditions in our public schools swept from West Virginia all the way across the country to Arizona — and found active solidarity far beyond, including in the bluest of blue states.

Now, representatives of each of those far-flung struggles are coming together under one (very large) roof at the Socialism 2018 conference in Chicago on July 5-8.

The Friday night plenary session, which will bring as many as 2,000 attendees together, is titled “Striking Back: Voices of the Teachers’ Rebellion.” The featured speakers include educators from West Virginia, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, Kentucky, Arizona, North Carolina and California.

This meeting will be a chance to understand how these electrifying struggles were organized, what the next steps are in the different states, and how to translate their lessons for the whole labor movement.

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“This spring, public school workers became a voice for all of us who want to see change,” says Dana Blanchard, a former Berkeley, California, teacher and Socialism 2018 organizer, who will introduce the plenary session on Friday night.

“This panel will be a place for us to take inspiration and learn from these strike leaders for the many other struggles now and ahead of us in the Trump era. These teachers have shown us not only how to fight for better wages and fully funded public education, but how to fight for a better world — a world where we no longer have accept the austerity agenda of the ruling class.”

There will be plenty more discussion of teachers’ struggles and public education at workshop sessions held throughout the four-day conference, which is co-sponsored by SocialistWorker.org and its publisher, the International Socialist Organization.

Jesse Sharkey, the vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), who will welcome his fellow educators at the plenary session, will also chair a discussion of rank-and-file teachers the next day on how the rebellions were organized.

“The CTU thinks of ourselves as a place where we try to build a movement for education justice, and it’s inspiring to see that taken to a new level across the whole country,” Sharkey says. “We look forward to sharing lessons about the struggles and gaining inspiration for the work ahead.”

Eric Blanc, who reported from the protests and strikes for Jacobin all spring long, will join Blanchard in introducing Friday night’s speakers. “One important takeaway from these strikes,” he says, “is that they were most successful in those states where socialists played a key leadership role: in both West Virginia and Arizona, a core of radical teacher activists were crucial in driving the rank-and-file rebellions forward.

“Extending the strike wave beyond ‘red states’ will likely require similar efforts by socialists organizing at their workplaces and in their unions.”

For a taste of what’s to come at Socialism — and if you aren’t registered and planning to come, there’s still timeSW has collected comments and excerpts from the featured speakers.

West Virginia: Nicole McCormick
Interviewed for the Better Off Red podcast, “Episode 05: Teachers’ rebellion-strike wave edition”

I think that people finally realized that they had to pay attention — that they had to do something. That desperation is what sparked people to be active, to get angry, to freely say the word "strike" and to push their unions into doing something...

I think the first thing [for other teachers facing this struggle] is to recognize power in yourself. That’s hard. You almost feel like it’s a personal failing to struggle. You feel like you haven’t done something that you should have done.

But you have to recognize that you, as a person and as part of a group, have power and have leverage. We have 727 teaching vacancies in West Virginia. Obviously, people don’t want to teach. So we used that. We said: sorry, we’re going out and we’re not coming back until this gets fixed...

Something that my husband and I have talked about resonated so much with me. We were talking about labor in general, and he said: you know, it’s our labor first, Nicole. And I thought: That’s exactly right. It’s our labor to either give or withhold.

Recognizing that you’re not a pawn in somebody else’s game, that you’re important as an individual, is really, I feel, the first step. So for anyone going through this, no matter what their job is or how desperate they feel, it’s important to recognize that they’re worthy.

Read featured SW coverage on West Virginia:
Tyler Barton and Lori Boegershausen | “Inside the West Virginia teachers’ rebellion”
Dana Blanchard | “What I learned in West Virginia”
Khury Petersen-Smith | “West Virginia put class struggle back on the map”
Eric Kerl | “Recipe for a red-state revolt”

Oklahoma: Stephanie Price
Interviewed for this article

One thing we learned is we can make change happen with numbers. We had a lot of people who were at the Capitol, and a lot of people who were active and involved and engaged, more than maybe they ever had been.

We got a lot accomplished because of that. There’s a lot to be said for the amount of change that can come quickly when a large group of people organizes.

As opposed to other states, we didn’t seem to be as well-organized. The level of organization that Arizona had, for example — the different groups of teachers that formed, teachers who were the captains of their schools, all of the communication and planning happening months in advance — didn’t happen in Oklahoma, so it seemed a little bit more chaotic.

Maybe next time, we can take some of the lessons that Arizona has to teach us about better organizing and planning up front.

My guess is in Oklahoma, there’s going to be a next time. We’re planning on having this big blue wave eruption, and it’s going to be elected officials who make this change — well, I’m guessing that we might be in a position where we have to talk about a strike again, because we have to get the needs of our students met. Moving forward, that’s going to be really important.

Read featured SW coverage on Oklahoma:
Sean Larson, Hannah Utain-Evans, Mike Ehrenreich and Alan Maass | “The teachers’ revolt is spreading. Here’s why.”
Hannah Utain-Evans, Elizabeth Lalasz and Sean Larson | “Meet the Oklahoma teachers who said enough”
Elizabeth Lalasz and Sean Larson | “Learning lessons from the Oklahoma walkouts”

Kentucky: Michelle Randolph
Interviewed for this article

My biggest takeaway is that the power is with the majority. So often, we chant “Power to the people” or “All power to all people,” but we underestimate our power. In every state that had a strike, walkout, walk-in or demonstration of some sort, the “powers” had to eventually listen.

Now, some states have made more progress than others, but the fact is the “powers” (government) know that the people have strength. I learned that in order to truly make change, we must use our strength and power through the following: 1) clear communication and directives; 2) consistent and collaborative calls to action; and 3) community support.

Clear communication and directives let all involved in the movement know what we are doing and how we are doing it. They also let people know who to contact for questions or concerns.

The consistent and collaborative calls to action let everyone know why we are taking action, why it’s important and what needs to be done to meet the expectations of the group. Everyone in the group must be committed to work together and for potentially the long haul. Without that, people begin to lose hope in the situation and the fire to fight.

Community support is vital because in our situation, students would still need to be supported even if teachers aren’t working. Nonprofits, businesses and churches are all great resources that could and should aid in the support of educators, students and support staff. This fight is long battle, but one that will return great benefits.

Read featured SW coverage on Kentucky:
Pranav Jani, Destiny Gowdy, Will Myers and Emily Shaw | “Why bluegrass teachers are seeing red”
Pranav Jani | “Where will the struggle lead Kentucky teachers?”

Puerto Rico: Mercedes Martínez
Interviewed for “Puerto Rico teachers fight to reopen schools” at Socialist Worker

The pressure has mounted against the government, not just because of the civil disobedience. We are organizing the community on a daily basis. We had five basic schools protesting, so they sped up the process of reopening [schools after the Hurricane María disaster].

Now, we have about 1,000 schools open out of 1,100, so almost every school is open now...They tried to close about 30 schools after the hurricane. They revoked the closures on 20 of them, so we have had to fight for 10 schools that have been ordered shut down...

We have been going to schools that were covered in mud from rivers that had flooded. We have been going to the schools, removing the debris, cleaning them up with hoses and preparing the school in order to avoid the government closing them.

We have been doing a lot of work with teachers — not only in the brigades, but with our members in school communities doing the same.

The schools that are going to reopen and those that have already reopened are open because of the community’s work — because of the teachers, parents, students and every member of the community, who have done what the government is supposed to do and repaired the schools themselves.

Read featured SW coverage on Puerto Rico:
Monique Dols | “Puerto Rico teachers will strike for their schools”
Interview: Mercedes Martinez | Puerto Rico teachers fight to reopen schools
Monique Dols and Lance Selfa | “We saw Puerto Rico’s struggle to survive”

Arizona: Noah Karvelis
Interviewed for “We see what’s possible when teachers unite” at Socialist Worker

It’s definitely more difficult in a “right-to-work” state, there’s no doubt about it. There are certain legal barriers that we have to work through or around.

But look at the power we have right now — just like in West Virginia, where they shut down all the schools in all 55 counties. No matter what the laws are and no matter what right-to-work says, they have to answer those teachers...

It’s been challenging. There was, especially in the early days, a lot of talk about how we couldn’t strike, it’s not legal. People were intimidated even by the prospect of talking about a strike on the Facebook group page. That’s been an attitude we’ve had to deal with.

But one of the beautiful things about this is how people have come together, and that attitude of intimidation is slowly disappearing. More and more people are feeling empowered by the solidarity, both across the state and nationwide.

We still have to take our time and make sure everything’s done very strategically, and we’re careful about everything we do, but at the same time, we have a lot of power. So hopefully, we can start to kind of chip away at right to work and get some union power back in states like this and across the nation.

Read featured SW coverage on Arizona:
Darrin Hoop, Diana Macasa, Casie Stone and Nathan Rosquist | “Inside Arizona’s #RedForEd uprising”
Interview: Noah Karvelis | “We see what’s possible when teachers unite”
Roundtable: Vanessa Arredondo-Aguierre, Rebecca Garelli and Dylan Wegela | “How the Arizona teachers got organized”
Darrin Hoop | “How Arizona teachers got from A to Z”

North Carolina: Matt Casella
Written for “How will we build Tar Heel teacher power?” at Socialist Worker

We need to be strong enough to have a strike that is statewide, in every building and in every county, for as long as it takes to force the General Assembly to meet our just demands.

Our legislators want us to think that they have all the power. They want us to call them, beg them, endorse them and vote for them.

But they aren’t beholden to our voting campaigns. Legislators don’t worry about losing teacher votes, because most of their campaign contributions come from private-sector interests. Our union’s donations are a drop in their bucket. Our votes don’t determine whether they keep their jobs. It makes them think they have power to pass whatever laws they want.

But our legislators are wrong. They don’t have the power. We do. A strike can bring much of the state to a stop. This is where real power lies...

Legislatures in West Virginia, Arizona and Oklahoma are also dominated by Republicans. Teachers in those states didn’t win by waiting years to replace those Republicans in office with Democrats. It was statewide strikes that forced Republicans to cave in to demands that would have been dismissed as unrealistic without educators showing their power.

Read featured SW coverage on North Carolina:
Roundtable: Lindsay Caesar, Jacob Cook and Joel Sronce | “Sparks of a teacher rebellion in North Carolina”
Matt Casella | “How will we build Tar Heel teacher power?”

California: Gillian Russom
Written for “Why ‘blue state’ teachers need their own revolt” at Socialist Worker

Even though the state provides the lion’s share of funding to education, just like it does in West Virginia or Oklahoma, the difference in California is that money is distributed through the separate school districts.

And because, unlike in many red states, collective bargaining at the district level is legal, this means that teachers’ unions have tended to lower their horizons for what can be won because of limited district budgets — rather than taking on the state and demanding revenue increases to create a bigger pie, as all the recent statewide teacher rebellions have done.

This can also lead to divisions among different school unions, which can see themselves in competition for district resources.

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What about the statewide unions? In states with collective bargaining, these unions serve as “advisors” to local unions, but focus most of their attention on lobbying and elections.

Yet they tend to have big, bureaucratic apparatuses that get in the way of militant statewide action — unlike the statewide union in West Virginia, which was relatively weak and more willing to take the lead from the rank and file...

Time will tell if the struggle builds toward a walkout and other militant actions in LA later this year, but we know this much already: Blue-state teachers need their own rebellion.

Read featured SW coverage on the teachers’ rebellions:
Gillian Russom | “Why ‘blue state’ teachers need their own revolt”
Editorial | “Schools for struggle”

Further Reading

From the archives