“Their Fight is Our Fight”

Part of the large crowd rallying in support of gun control legislation in Washington, DC, on March 24, 2018.

There is a spirit of revolt in the land — from teacher strikes and protests in red states to Parkland students organizing mass demonstrations against the National Rifle Association and traditional thinking on guns and gun control. Add in women’s marches against the Trump presidency, the Black Lives Matter movement, and organizing by Dreamers and the nation may be on the verge of a genuine political pivot.

So far, none of these movements have achieved their goals (or anything close), but they are indications of a new political and social energy. “These strikes of the teachers, combined with the Parkland students uniting on the issue of gun violence with inner-city communities of color and kids that have been facing it every day of their lives, to the women’s march, to the immigrants and Dreamers that kept pressing Congress to do the right thing, the key lesson here that is being learned is that when we organize together — and when teachers organize together in unions — we have the power to make incredible changes,” Mary Kay Henry, international president of the Service Employees International Union, told CNN.

Teacher activism is the latest result of widening discontent, and it has arisen in conservative and politically inert states. That is no accident, for the teacher strikes and protests are a direct reaction to the rightwing policies adopted in red states. The teachers’ demands may not be partisan, but they are linked to the draconian tax cuts and austerity of Republican-controlled legislatures. Beginning in West Virginia, and now spreading to Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona, the teacher rebellion is, like so many labor actions, a demand for higher wages and better benefits, but it is also a product of decades of budgetary cutbacks that frequently targeted public schools.

A crumbling classroom in Guthrie, Oklahoma. Republicans in the Sooner State have slashed school budgets.

Budgetary slashing became particularly acute following the 2008 recession. While the economy has recovered, many red states have not allocated more money for education.  Often, they have imposed even more drastic cuts. A report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that in 29 states, “Total spending per student was lower in the 2015 school year than in the 2008 school year” in real dollars. In 17 states, the cut in spending was 10 percent or more. Budgetary shortfalls meant that almost 18 percent of underpaid teachers were forced to work a second job during the 2015-2016 school year. 

Arizona provided 36.6 percent less funding per student in 2015 than in 2008, adjusted for inflation, and in Oklahoma the drop was 15.6 percent. Not all the states that spent less in 2015 were red states, and blue states have pockets of underperforming schools in inner cities. Just this week, teachers in the Anacostia region of the nation’s capital walked out of class to protest unsafe building conditions. 

West Virginia teachers demonstrating inside the state capitol in Charleston.

In February, frustrated teachers in West Virginia walked off the job, forcing 277,000 public school students to miss class. Thousands of teachers marched on the state capitol in Charleston to protest. While West Virginia actually spent more on education in 2015 than in 2008, the state still ranked 48th in average teacher salaries in the nation (including the District of Columbia). The strike ended when the state’s Republican Governor James Justice signed a bill giving the teachers a five percent raise.  

This week, Oklahoma teachers went on strike, demanding the state restore education funding. “I’m fed up,” said Rusty Bradley, a high school technology teacher in Muskogee, Oklahoma. Bradley’s classroom computers are more than a decade old, which, in the world of modern technology, is several generations out of date. Oklahoma teachers rank 49th in pay, and the state spends only $8,000 per student, far below the national average of $11,400. Many Oklahoma school districts have been forced to hold classes only four days a week to save money on heating and electricity.

Kentucky teachers protesting proposed cuts to their pensions.

In Kentucky, teachers rallied at the state capital in Frankfort against proposed cuts in their pensions. In Arizona, teachers threaten to strike if they do not receive a 20 percent pay raise and a promise of more spending on schools. Governor Doug Ducey, a Republican, said he would not agree to the teachers’ demands, guaranteeing a continuing standoff and, perhaps, more drastic labor action. 

The protests and strikes by teachers have just begun. It is still too early to know how extensive the activism will be, but if it merges with opposition to President Donald Trump and the traditional fiscal austerity practiced by Republican-controlled state legislatures, the labor actions could be the beginning of a broader movement for change in American politics. The teachers in many states show an understanding of the importance of appealing to larger constituencies — parents of school children, for example — by refusing to confine their protests only to pay. Many of the rallies and demonstrations stress deteriorating conditions — aging and outdated textbooks, rickety buildings, reduction in class time, and cutbacks in extracurricular activities — as well as low pay. 

Oklahoma Republican Governor Mary Fallin

While it is unlikely that a deep-red state like Oklahoma will go blue soon (Arizona is another matter), the protests may aid Democratic prospects in this year’s midterm elections. Recently, progressive as well as moderate Democrats won elections in unlikely places. Democrat Conor Lamb triumphed last month in a deeply red Pennsylvania congressional district. In eight special elections in Oklahoma since Trump’s inauguration the swing to Democrats was an astonishing 32.1 percentage points. The electoral shift is no surprise considering that the state’s governor, Republican Mary Fallin, has a 61 percent disapproval rating.

The teacher protests may undermine the Republican political strategy of running on last year’s tax cuts. At the same time, Democratic candidates who can tap into the current discontent — underpaid teachers, parents disgusted with underperforming schools, women rebelling against persistent sexual harassment, minorities throwing off the shackles of oppression — could help the party regain control of Congress in 2018. As for 2020, one potential Democratic presidential candidate, Elizabeth Warren, already has voiced a possible winning strategy, tweeting a few days ago, “Teachers in OK, KY, WV, & all across the country change the lives of little girls and boys every day. They deserve our respect & support. I stand in solidarity with those teachers who are fighting to support their families & invest in their students. Their fight is our fight.”

Posted April 6, 2018


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