As a teacher and education advocate here in the United States, I am in a position to see the inter-connections of all that is good and all that is troubling about our country. I see the hope, happiness, and diversity our children have. I also see the chaos and hate that can be animated by a single leader.
Over the past two years, I have seen more strikes, walkouts, sit-ins and protest marches than I’ve ever witnessed in my lifetime. None of these tactics are new. Unions have historically engaged in industrial actions and have perfected and popularized acts of civil disobedience. Not only are these tactics old; many of the issues haven’t changed either. Perhaps the issues have changed in other countries, but not in the United States. We still march in protest against racism, sexism, and we still fight for quality public education, fair courts, fair housing, a fair economy, democracy, and free press. So, if the tactics aren’t new and the issues aren’t new, what is? What is different now?
For U.S. educators, there are three important differences in our recent wave of action: 1) we don’t go it alone. We march with partners and families and students; and 2) we fight as much for our student’s dignity as we do for our own; and 3) we seek long-term changes in how our states and schools are governed.
We care fiercely about our students. Those surprising, inspiring, and, yes, sometimes exasperating students of ours. We think each and every one of them can learn, and when one of them doesn’t, it haunts us. In the United States today, many things haunt our educators including increases in school shootings and racially motivated hate crimes, deportations of our immigrant students, and the pay inequity and sexism that persists in every sector of our society.
Education in the United States is a profession dominated by women, so it should come as no surprise, given our country’s history, that educators remain woefully underpaid. What is surprising is the lack of investment in our students and our education system. The late Nelson Mandela said, “there can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
It was our deep love for our students that led to the #RedforEd movement here in the U.S. We have a saying here in my union, teacher working conditions are student learning conditions. Yet, for those politicians that want to starve and privatize our public schools, it is a common strategy to try to separate educators and student needs. In a year when our highest court took aim at our unions (see Janus vs AFSCME ), educators rose up to show that collective labor action is a force to be reckoned with.
RedforEd all began in West Virginia, one of the smallest and poorest states in the U.S., a state that is neighbor to my home state of Virginia. Educators in West Virginia rallied at the state capitol for nine days. They not only achieved a significant raise for educators, they secured a raise for other state employees as well; building good will and a powerful coalition. Following these walk-outs, 90% of political candidates endorsed by our West Virginia educators won their primary election to solidify their placement on the final ballot.
When educators across our country saw the bold steps that educators in the little state of West Virginia took, the West Virginia wave became a tsunami. Tens of thousands of educators in six different states also decided to walk out. Enough was enough. Cuts to teacher pay; slashes to teacher pensions, health benefits and school funding; educators working two or three jobs just to make ends meet- They were equally fed up with broken chairs and outdated textbooks, spending their own money to make sure classrooms have basic supplies, having no reliable way to heat or cool their classrooms. This list goes on.
We did not achieve every goal we set out to achieve but educators sent a message of strength, courage, of solidarity. In every one of these walkouts, educators walked with the support of school administrators, parents, and students. We did not walk alone.
One other critical difference about these strikes and walkouts is that educators followed up their job actions with political action. A historic number of educators were inspired by the RedForEd movement and ran for political office. The best way to ensure government accountability is to run for office yourself.
Our higher education affiliates not only provided support to primary and secondary school educators in states as they engaged in RedforEd Campaigns, they were also inspired and some took action themselves. For example in Big Rapids, Michigan our members at Ferris State have been on strike since the start of the school year. They successfully reached a recent tentative agreement this week with the help of students who joined in picketing activities and held rallies and events to show their support for their professors.
Strike actions can still be relevant, but we must couple these kinds of immediate job actions and our protests with strategy and a vision for long-term goals. In our case, we marched with administrators, parents, and students and we had record numbers of educators running for public office in order to effect long-term change and to shift the balance of power. At all levels of our education system, our goal must be to ensure that our partnerships become lasting coalitions across communities and organizations. We want to ensure that educators have sustainable influence and the necessary structures in place to guarantee that every student has access to an excellent public education.