Since February 2018, striking education workers have put class struggle back on the political agenda in the United States. It began in West Virginia when teachers and other public school workers from all 55 counties in the state refused to work, demanding an end to low pay and spiraling healthcare costs.
Puncturing decades of the decimation of the American labor movement, their 12-day strike set off a chain reaction across the country. Many years of fury over pitiful public education investment, unlivable wages, slashed pensions, soaring class sizes, expensive healthcare, monotonous standardized testing, cuts to support staff, runaway privatization, rampant racism, and low taxes on the wealthy boiled over into strikes and walkouts across the country.
Teachers in Oklahoma, Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina, South Carolina, Kentucky, Virginia, California, and Oregon followed West Virginia’s example. Bus drivers in Georgia joined them. Tennessee teachers are still holding “sickouts” in Nashville, and New Haven, California teachers are still fighting the school district over their demands. Ohio might be next, where teachers voted in late May to strike if negotiations fail.
Not every teachers’ strike so far has won their demands, but many did. Their fight is a lesson for everyone that wants free, accessible education for all. The teachers show us that if you fight, you can win.
Fighting the privatization agenda
Several of the teachers’ strikes have included demands about pay. In a country that spends billions of dollars on wars and private prisons while teachers buy their own classroom supplies, work two jobs, and even sell their blood to make ends meet — their fight for pay raises seems pretty reasonable.
But many striking teachers argue that their strikes aren’t really about pay. They are fighting the privatization agenda that has starved schools of funding for many years and diverted resources to privately run, publicly funded charter schools. Charters can be run by nonprofits, but their general trend is toward corporate control. In Michigan, for example, for-profit companies now operate 80 per cent of charter schools.
Charters have the ability to select which students they admit, which leaves the most vulnerable students in the under-resourced public school system. In North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Michigan, and Texas charter schools have also deepened racist segregation. In New Orleans the proportion of black teachers also fell from 70 to 50 per cent as privatization following Hurricane Katrina was rolled out across the city.
In some places the teachers put social justice as the front of their struggles, making demands that are not usually considered “bread and butter” issues for unions like wages and conditions. The Los Angeles teachers’ strike in early 2019 is a case in point.
The school district is almost 90 per cent students of color and the vast majority of the public education workforce are women of color. Thanks to the concerted effort of left wing activists in the teachers’ union, the strike was widely understood by both teachers and the community as a fight to defend the last public space that kids of color can access in the US. The union won a reduction to racist “random” searches in schools and a dedicated attorney for immigrant families. The random searches need to stop, not just decrease — but winning the reduction is a step towards ending racism in the schools. Winning the attorney is different than the teachers’ original demands for a $1 million immigrant defense fund, but it signals to immigrant families that their schools stand with them against deportation and vilification.
I helped organize a community solidarity campaign called Tacos for Teachers, along with activists in the International Socialist Organization, Democratic Socialists of America, and California Educators Rising. Not only did we raise almost $50,000 to deliver tacos to thousands of striking teachers across the district, we raised the profile of immigrant rights in the city and against Trump’s racist border wall.
Women on the frontline
Industries dominated by women are leading the current strike wave — over three quarters of teachers in the US are women. Service, hotel, and health workers (also woman-dominated workforces) have led this labor upsurge too. Women are often encouraged to work in these areas, where we face chronic low wages, degrading conditions, and sexual harassment. The ruling class expects us to raise the next generation of workers (at home and in the classroom), take care of the sick, and cook and clean. The capitalist system relies on the idea that women are naturally suited for this kind of care work, hoping that we will be compliant and passive in the face of our exploitation.
But women are leading the charge to win a better world free from this kind of oppression — making gains for every gender. Irish women fought their government’s abortion ban and won. Spanish women led a popular International Women’s Strike last year. Migrant women at the US-Mexico border recently went on hunger strike against slow asylum processes. Workers at Google fought workplace harassment last year and won many of their demands. These are organized expressions of resistance against a system designed to benefit a tiny elite who profit off the rest of us. We should take inspiration from the US teachers’ strike wave as we prepare to fight state abortion bans and anything else the sexist Trump administration throws at us.