Labor

West Virginia Teachers Strike Awakened 'Sleeping Giant' of Labor Activism for Teachers Across the U.S.

Oklahoma has already set a strike deadline, and teachers in Arizona and Kentucky have been protesting for weeks.

WV School Worker Action Rally, February 2018
Photo Credit: Rich McGervey / Flickr

West Virginia teachers may have headed back to school after a deal for a 5 percent pay raise, but their recent strike has inspired teachers from other states to fight for better pay, health and retirement benefits and improved working conditions. Noah Karvelis, an Arizona music teacher and organizer for the Facebook group Arizona Educators United, told the website Shadowproof that the West Virginia strike “woke up a sleeping giant” among teachers all over the United States.

Arizona teachers started #RedForEd, a campaign in which teachers, lobbying for a pay raise, wear red to protest outside the state capital in Phoenix. In just two weeks, AZ Central reports, Arizona Educators United has attracted more than 34,000 members. Teachers have not yet set a date for a strike, but they're planning a statewide day of action protest on March 28. 

In Kentucky, five districts are closing Wednesday to attend a rally in Frankfort to protest Senate Bill 1, which would hurt teachers' retirement benefits, ending traditional pensions for future teachers and cutting the cost of living benefits for those currently retired. Governor Matt Bevin is already under fire for calling teachers who oppose the bill "ignorant" and "selfish."

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Oklahoma teachers, however, may be closest to following West Virginia's footsteps; teachers in the state have told the state legislature that they have until April 1 to give teachers their first raise in 10 years, or they will strike.

Their livelihoods depend on it. As Mary Best, a classroom teacher for 33 years and now president of the Oklahoma chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, told AlterNet, "Since 2008, Oklahoma has led the nation in cuts to education (23.6 percent). Student enrollment has steadily increased, but funding has decreased."

"Momentum for a teacher walkout has been growing since the failure of the Oklahoma legislature to pass a pay raise," Best continued. Like in West Virginia and Arizona, she believes "the social media moved the action. A Facebook group 'Oklahoma Teacher Walkout - The Time Is Now!' emerged and fueled the movement. The group grew to over 40,000 in the first weekend, and the group currently has over 69,000 members."

Alicia Priest, the president of the Oklahoma Education Association, said that before setting a strike deadline, teachers have tried multiple other tactics in the decade since their last raise (proposing bills through the state legislature as well as ballot initiatives), but none of them worked.

She emphasized that a strike for better teacher pay is as much about advocating for students, noting that if teachers are not fairly compensated, they often end up paying for supplies out of their salaries, taking on second jobs and sometimes leaving the profession altogether. Oklahoma, which ranks 49 out of 50 in teacher pay, is already losing qualified teachers to other, better-paying states. Priest noted, "We have 300 graduates from colleges of education ready to be teachers, and one district alone has 330 openings."

She continued, "We're already at a deficit because students aren't choosing teaching as a career because of working conditions. That makes me incredibly sad because I love teaching. It's an amazing profession." 

A strike, Priest said, "emboldens our teachers and gives them hope, that when they step out of their classrooms, they do it to advocate for their students." She called the strike a "last-ditch effort to make a difference in funding for Oklahoma students." 

As in West Virginia, public support for the teachers' strike has been high. "Parents and students have been supportive and view it as a lesson in organizing," said Best. "In Oklahoma City, many of the parents will be present at the capitol." Priest agrees, noting that "our communities know that underfunded schools are hurting them, and makes it so higher-paying jobs aren't coming into our state."

She's been heartened at the outpouring of support, recalling how, "in Tulsa, a group of parents organized parents and kids [are organizing] at every school in Tulsa, cheering teachers on as they walked out of the school building at the end of the contract day."

In return, and in response to concerns over childcare and lost school lunches, Priest says teachers—in addition to organizing their own protests—have been "organizing all over the state to have childcare services and making sure students aren't food insecure. It's all pretty exciting."

Best agrees that public support is critical, advising that other teachers considering a strike should, "Make sure you have statewide support from the community. Also, it is important to make sure that the majority of districts will participate. In Oklahoma, with 515 districts, this has been difficult. Fortunately, our largest districts are participating."

Both union leaders agree that West Virginia's strike, and the protests in Oklahoma, Arizona and Kentucky, is a good sign for labor unions, and teachers' unions especially, going forward. "I do think the tide is turning," Best said. "Teachers are tired of salaries that have not have kept pace with other professions."

Priest even thinks public support for teachers could impact the upcoming midterm elections: "We are going to be pushing from this time forward [that] there is a direct correlation between who is in office and what's going on in funding for public schools. If [a candidate] says they support public schools and then votes a different way, then we need to make a change at the ballot box." 

 

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Ilana Novick is an AlterNet contributing writer and production editor.