Lessons and Reflections on the Red States Teachers Revolt

This is an interview La Voz did of Joel Jordan, a retired LAUSD high school teacher and former Director of Special Projects for United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA). He currently lives in the Bay Area.
1) This amazing strike wave began unexpectedly to most Americans, in states with some of the most challenging political climates to labor, given their “right-to-work” laws and lack of collective bargaining rights. Also, it is remarkable that the path to increased funding for public education, which teachers are fighting for, would come through raising taxes, which tends to be anathema to republican voters. Should the fact that this rebellion is happening in red states come as a surprise to us? Is there something for us to reflect on in this regard?
Given the fact this this is closest we’ve seen to a mass strike since the 1930s, nobody would have predicted it anywhere in the U.S., much less in the red states. Of course, the various mass actions and protests we have seen in the past year – the student movement against gun violence, Black Lives Matter, immigration rights protests, the women’s marches – all have encouraged an atmosphere of resistance. In the involved red states, it seems like the Republican Party politicians overreached during the past several years by gutting public education and other public services, and slashing taxes on corporations and the rich. Now we’re seeing some of the blowback. When it got to the insulting point that West Virginia teachers were going to be monitored by wearing FitBits to avoid surcharges on their health insurance, the spark was lit. Taking advantage of the broad communications possibilities afforded by social media, a handful of West Virginia teachers were then able to organize the groundswell, serving as a model and inspiration for teachers from the other red states. The irony of it all is that teachers with the fewest rights – in right-to-work states with little to no collective bargaining rights – and therefore presumably the most vulnerable, were the ones that took these bold and unprecedented actions.
1) We were together at the most recent Labor Notes Conference in Chicago, and we attended different panels with WV, AZ and KY teachers. Can you talk about some key common features these strike/walkout processes share, and why we should pay close attention to them? What distinguishes them from other major labor actions in education and other sectors?
The strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona were unique in important ways. First, they were actual strikes, a union weapon that has fallen into disuse in the era of austerity over the last couple of decades. Second, they were initiated, driven and for the most part led by an aroused rank-and-file, knit together largely through social media and other digital networking tools. The role of the teachers’ unions – for better or worse – was decidedly secondary, though they often influenced the final results. This has not been the pattern for most teacher strikes in the U.S., which, in the few instances when they did occur, were initiated and led by the union leadership, not the rank-and-file.
Just as important, these strikes were directed at the Governor and state legislature, not the local school districts, which is the usual target in states with collective bargaining. In West Virginia and Oklahoma in particular, the state government, directly sets teacher salaries and health benefits, so the state was the obvious target for all educators no matter what school district they were in. Targeting the state then opened up the possibility of fighting for new sources of revenue through taxation to fund the strikers’ demands. Strikes against local districts that typically have no power to significantly raise taxes must necessarily have less ambitious goals and demands.
To their credit, the strikers in all these states generally advocated for progressive taxes, not regressive taxes that hurt the working class. In some cases, they tried to undo the generous tax breaks that the Republican dominated legislatures have given corporations over the years (with the support of many Democrats). Fighting to expand, not just re-prioritize, the pie at corporate expense, the strikers made demands on the state not just for salaries, but for significantly increased education funding, and, in the case of West Virginia, for improved health benefits for all public employees in the state.
These kinds of statewide fights laid the basis for educators to enlist other school workers as allies in the struggle, rather than as competitors for scarce resources as is often the case in local districts with limited budgets. For example, if a local teachers union is demanding a significant raise, it might look the other way, or even cheer, when the local district lays off other school workers to presumably help pay for that raise. This very thing recently happened during in San Francisco when the local union publicly supported the laying off of SEIU members working at the district’s central office on the grounds that the cuts were made “away from the classroom.”
To summarize, what we saw were actually mass political strikes, led by the teachers, with key allies, on behalf of the entire working class.
2) Do you think these strikes/walkouts can simply be repeated in states that have collective bargaining laws and stronger public sector unionism, like California, Illinois, or New York? Can we simply transplant the political experience?
Much has been written about how different these red states are in comparison to the blue-state strongholds of teacher unionism and collective bargaining. Teachers and other school workers are overworked and exploited everywhere though. Looking at the data in fact, we can see that salary differentials begin to converge when cost of living is taken into account. And, at least in the case of California, per pupil funding is significantly lower than even in West Virginia. Class size in California, a state with collective bargaining in every school district, is among the highest in the nation. Teachers working in high cost urban areas such as San Francisco and Oakland are increasingly unable to afford living in the cities where they teach. So no – I don’t think it’s accurate to say that conditions are so much better in collective bargaining states that such walkouts are not likely to occur. In some cases, they’re much worse.
Two other factors, though, are key in affecting how teachers respond to their conditions of work in collective bargaining states as opposed to those that are not: the local structure of collective bargaining and the role of the state unions. In mostly all collective bargaining states, local school districts receive the preponderance of their money from the state and then bargain with local unions over how to spend it on bargainable issues, such as salary, health benefits, class size (sometimes), and other programs. In this arrangement, the boss is not the state, at least not directly. The local district is the immediate boss. And the task of the local union is to get as much out of the district as possible, occasionally even striking to get it. This dynamic makes unionized teachers focus on the local district, not the state, as the main target, even though the state is the principal source of funding for local districts as well as the key decision-maker on teacher due process otherwise known as tenure, pensions, charter schools, curriculum, graduation requirements, and other important issues. This parochial consciousness among the rank and file, which is rooted in the culture of local collective bargaining, is therefore one of the chief obstacles to overcome for educators and other similarly placed public employees in banding together statewide as was done in the striking red states.
This parochial consciousness is reinforced by a second factor: the rise of a permanent state union bureaucracy of full-time staff with two related purposes: to service local union collective bargaining-related efforts including negotiating local union contracts, filing grievances, and representing members in grievance hearings, and on the state level, to lobby politicians to influence legislation and promote candidates for state elected office who are usually Democrats.
What all these tasks have in common is that they are generally performed without the active participation and control of the union membership. Instead, the bureaucracy views them as a substitute for member activity, which they routinely discourage in their effort to find peaceful, non-confrontational compromises with the school district. Such is the material foundation for the phenomenon of service unionism whereby the union leadership and staff do things for the members, rather than supporting and encouraging union members to actually drive the union’s agenda themselves. In a recent interview during the West Virginia strike about the upcoming Janus decision regarding agency fees, AFT President Randi Weingarten argued that collective bargaining should be seen as an alternative to strikes and other forms of confrontation with the employer.
We could see this type of service unionism at play in the red states, but with an important difference. The state teacher unions in West Virginia and Arizona, lacked local collective bargaining rights and a union shop with agency fee in school districts. They were therefore not as entrenched or as influential in the school districts as unions are in the states with extensive collective bargaining such as California, where all school districts are required by law to negotiate with employee unions representing the majority of workers.
Nor could these state unions, without even the limited institutional power afforded by collective bargaining, accomplish much of anything on the state level without the power of mass action, especially in virulently anti-labor Republican-dominated statehouses. This meant that once the ranks were able to organize themselves independently of the unions, there was very little the state unions could do to thwart them. In West Virginia, both the NEA and AFT state organizations tried to limit and even stop their strike, but the rank and file just said no and continued on. In Arizona, the state NEA affiliate probably learned from West Virginia that the same fate would await them, so they wisely played a supportive role to the rank and file. Only in Oklahoma, where collective bargaining is legal, several of the largest local unions have contracts with their districts, and where the rank and file was less organized than in West Virginia or Arizona, was the state NEA affiliate able to decisively intervene to end the strike in an undemocratic fashion – without anything further being won.
So, given the local parochialism of the union rank and file and leaderships in California and other states rooted in local collective bargaining, and the significantly greater weight and influence of the union apparatus, we are not likely to see a red-state type upsurge. Both of those obstacles need to be overcome to move forward.
3) Can you elaborate more on this paradox around the labor rights we have won and then lost, in particular collective bargaining laws, when it comes to organizing mass actions, including strikes/walkouts, in the labor movement?
Just about any reform we can win, such as collective bargaining rights, is always subject to severe limitations and obstacles in a capitalist system based on class exploitation and oppression. This fact has led to two responses in the labor movement. One is about accommodation, the other about combativeness. During periods of relatively low rank and file activity, such as in the last few decades, accommodation takes center stage. Basically, it’s a “if you can’t beat’em, join’em” mentality. It’s based on the idea that since capitalism, along with the capitalist-controlled state, is here to stay, the job of the unions is to get the best deal they can without rocking the boat too much, because rocking the boat is risky and could lead to bankrupting the union treasury and all the jobs that go with it. So when West Virginia rank and filers were told by state union leaders that, “You’ll destroy the union!,” what they really meant was the union apparatus, such as it is in West Virginia.
So, here’s the real paradox. It took mass struggle to win labor reforms such as collective bargaining rights, as was the case in the 1930s, but then invariably as mass participation recedes, the reforms are institutionalized by a union bureaucracy which then, when the unions are under attack, cannot be depended on to organize further struggle. Why? Because the bureaucracy has become more interested in avoiding risky actions, such as strikes, which could threaten it, rather than fighting with, and for, the rank and file.
4) What strategies can we use to unify local unions to take action against the state of California legislature to demand allocation of more funds to public education?
To say that we are not likely to see a red state type upsurge in the state of California around school funding and other issues, such as privatization, is not to say that an upsurge is impossible. It’s just that I think it needs to happen somewhat differently, though with some similar features.
First, parochialism cannot be addressed just through political education, as necessary as that is. It has to be addressed in the way that local unions conduct their contract campaigns, by linking, wherever possible, aggressive contract demands not just to a reordering of district funding, but to the potential for state funding as well. For example, if a local union raises a demand for significant class size reduction – a very costly item that requires hiring more teachers, finding more classroom space, etc. – it needs to make that fight by making clear the extent to which that can be funded by the district and how much must come from state sources, which must also be fought for. In this way, the rank and file, while they are engaged in a local fight, can begin to see the need for a state level fight. To the extent such local contract fights throughout California can be coordinated, with similar demands, the demand for state funding is further amplified.
Of course, this strategy can only happen if the locals are prepared to organize any kind of real fight, which is where rank and file self-organizing becomes essential. Most local teacher union leaders are not organizers. Nor are they experienced contract negotiators or contract enforcers. As such, they usually come to rely on the staff supplied to them by the state affiliates, and generally accede to the opinion of the staff on these matters, which usually means settling contracts relatively amicably with the district and avoiding strikes and the organizing and mobilizing that must accompany them to be successful. So, in the usual course of things, these leaders, especially those that are full-time released and not in the classroom, become “service” unionists even if they might not have started that way.
Such leaders need to be replaced by visionary leaders committed to a militant social-movement oriented organizing strategy. This usually doesn’t happen, especially in larger locals, unless rank and file members who want to see such changes organize themselves into caucuses that build a base for their vision in the union and eventually contend for local union office. Around the country, such leaderships have been elected in Chicago, Los Angeles, and Boston, most with the assistance of the national network of teacher union caucuses – United Caucuses of Rank and File Educators (UCORE). In California, to support such developments, a statewide UCORE network was recently formed.
The fight for education funding cannot rest exclusively on local contract organizing, or even coordinating contract organizing statewide, as long as the leadership and staff of the California Teachers Association (CTA), the nation’s largest state teacher union affiliate, remains committed to its version of service unionism. The most recent illustration of this roadblock is the bureaucratic resistance of CTA to get behind the petition campaign, driven by hundreds of community-based organizations throughout California, to put the Schools and Communities First (SCF) Act on the 2020 ballot that would raise $10-11 billion for public education and other social services, by closing the Proposition 13 corporate loophole. The much smaller and more progressive statewide union, California Federation of Teachers (CFT), supports the CSF initiative financially, but has not made it an organizing priority.
A strategy for moving CTA in a better direction is therefore imperative. Some of the more progressive urban locals – allied together in the California Alliance for Community Schools – are pushing CTA to change its stance on SCF. Much more is needed. Progressive and left activist leaders from the locals need to put more capacity into organizing to move the CTA State Council and Board of Directors in a left direction and ultimately toward a new leadership committed to transforming it into a fighting state union.
One means of doing that would be to advocate within the locals and the state affiliates, not only for financial support of progressive tax initiatives such as the SCF, but for direct actions, such as, say, 2-3 day statewide work stoppages, to support such initiatives and/or other significant legislation like reducing the very high class sizes. The inspiring red state walkouts moved us just a little bit closer in that direction.
5) Now a hard question: teachers in our local unions are often not as engaged as those “heroic” teachers we have been cheering for in West Virginia and Arizona. How do we build socialist or militant labor consciousness with members when they appear to be passive, apathetic, and hopeless?
I think the emphasis in your question should be on the word “appear.” Throughout history, people who appear to be down and out – demoralized and beaten – eventually rise up to claim their humanity. This was certainly the case in the current teacher upsurge, and I am sure will be the case in California as well. As large numbers of people are drawn into action by fighting for their immediate demands and needs, at least a portion of those will begin to draw conclusions about the need for a deeper and wider kind of workers’ movement to achieve even their relatively modest initial goals.
But what kind of movement? And for what broader goals? And with what strategies? The movement by itself will likely not be able to answer those questions at first. It will necessarily subside for a time, as all mass movements do, leaving a residue of activists who will be asking those questions and discussing them. If there are organized socialists within those movements who are drawing upon the historical experiences of the workers’ movement while grappling with those questions, then it is far more likely that forms of organizing will emerge that will carry the struggle forward rather it being absorbed into some kind of dead end, like attempting to run for office as either Democrats or Republicans to influence legislation.
6) Many socialists like us, who are actively involved in the labor movement, see this strike wave as a hint, a pre-configuration of what a reinvigorated labor movement could be. Some even talk about the need to bring back a new version of the 1930’s CIO. Which elements of this strike wave should give us hope to radically transform the labor movement? What are the differences today in comparison to the 1930’s in regards to our potential for a resurgence of a militant, socialist-led labor movement?
The strike wave of the 1930s was primarily a struggle for union recognition in the mass production industries – auto, steel, rubber – as well as in transport and logistics. These struggles – which utilized extremely radical tactics such as sit-down strikes and flying pickets — were, for the most part, initiated by the rank and file with communists, socialists, and anarchists providing significant leadership. Their immediate goals, however, were fairly modest, not even social democratic, while the unions created out of those struggles, for various reasons, quickly became bureaucratized. Practically from its beginning, the CIO under John L. Lewis moved to quash the very tactics that had made the CIO possible, leading to the surrender of the labor movement to the Democratic Party by 1936, despite the passing of labor party motions in many unions. This then led to the co-opting of the union bureaucracy into the WWII effort at the expense of the rank and file, through its acceptance of the war-time no strike pledge. So no, I don’t think we need another version of the CIO.
The labor movement today has been vastly transformed since then. Public sector unionism, which hardly existed in the 1930s, is now the most highly unionized sector in the U.S., both numerically and percentagewise. The two national teacher unions combined membership far exceeds the next largest union. Unlike the manufacturing sector, the health sector is one of the fast growing and largest industries in the U.S. These facts alone should greatly influence how we think about the future of labor movement.
If public sector unions in the US are now the “big battalions of labor”, not private sector industrial unions we are now seeing groups of workers possibly with greater potential to become “politicized” than private sector workers in two senses of the term. First, being public sector workers seeking to exert greater power within one of the last remaining public (i.e. nationalized) institutions in the U.S., there may be greater potential for teachers and other education workers to be more open to socialism imagined as the democratic control and expansion of public institutions to other areas of the economy.
In another sense, maybe even more important, teachers and other public sector workers, as well as health workers, public and private, provide direct services to and for the entire working class, putting them in direct contact with working class families in every community in every city and state. This puts them in the unique position of having collective potential power in the workplace and the community. If our vision of socialism centers on building a society that meets human needs – physical, mental, and social – what better leaders for such a transformation than health care workers and educators?
In any case, let’s look at the direction of the red state upsurge for clues that might shed light on this. In West Virginia, the teacher-led movement demanded improved health benefits and salary increases for all state public employees. In all the states, the movement demanded increased education funding, not just salary increases, as well as rolling back corporate tax breaks to pay for it. Such a movement would seem to have the potential to take the lead in creating sustainable statewide political organizations committed, for starters, to fighting – through mass actions as well as electoral activity – to fund needed services through corporate taxation. In this manner, the power of the movement could be expanded as opposed to eclipsed through a purely electoral orientation within either major party.
At the same time, to be successful, such a political movement would have to forthrightly address the key issues that divide and weaken the working class – racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, and others. The struggles in the red states did not take up these issues, as for the most part the struggles were focused on economic demands with universal application. A first step in this process would then be for movement leaders, socialists among them, to take the initiative to meet with social movement activists in other sectors to work toward building such a broad mass political instrument within the state. In any case, the idea that these red state struggles could lay the foundation for this kind of organizing should be discussed and explored within the labor and other movements for social justice.

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