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What’s different about this wave of teacher strikes

Teacher strikes and walkouts have been spreading from West Virginia to Arizona. Thousands of Kentucky educators rallied on Friday at their state Capitol, as Oklahoma's largest teachers' union called for an end to their nine-day walkout. William Brangham talks with Sarah Jaffe, author of “Necessary Trouble,” about what these states have in common and why it’s happening.

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  • John Yang:

    For the better part of two months now, teachers strikes and walkouts have been spreading from West Virginia to Arizona.

    Today, in Kentucky, thousands of teachers rallied at the state capitol in Frankfort over school spending and to protest a new pension law. It comes just as another walkout is ending in Oklahoma.

    William Brangham takes a deeper look at what's behind these strikes.

  • William Brangham:

    Oklahoma's educators and staff will return to school, after the state's largest teachers union called for an end to their nine-day walkout.

    Teachers and support staff will get raises, but that legislation was already signed before the walkouts began. And there will not be any additional school funding. Instead, the union urged members to support pro-school-spending candidates in the fall elections.

    A wave of teacher demonstrations there, as well as in Kentucky and in Arizona, came after West Virginia teachers won raises following a nine-day walkout there.

    To help us understand all of this is Sarah Jaffe. She is an author and labor journalist, and she joins me now.

    Let's talk a little bit about Oklahoma first.

    What is it that the teachers and staff have now agreed to?

  • Sarah Jaffe:

    So, the teachers — most of the teachers — I should say that there were still some teachers at the capitol today who did not agree that they should go back to work.

    Most of the teachers have agreed to a bill that, as you said, was already signed before this strike began that will give them about a $6,000 raise that will come up with some 400-and-something-million dollars in extra school funding, which is a lot, but it's also still a shortfall.

    So, schools are still underfunded. This has still been and will still be an ongoing struggle in the state of Oklahoma. But it's important to note that we're seeing this kind of renewed militancy in a time when labor unions are under attack, when labor unions are struggling, when austerity has been sort of the rule of the game in red as well as blue states across the country.

  • William Brangham:

    So, we have seen this in Oklahoma. We have seen this in Kentucky, and West Virginia, and Arizona.

  • Sarah Jaffe:

    Yes.

  • William Brangham:

    What do you credit this burgeoning movement? What's driving this?

  • Sarah Jaffe:

    So, I — when we talk about this stuff, I have to go back to Wisconsin in 2011, when you look at the pictures of the state capitol flooded with teachers wearing red T-shirts.

    You have to remember the protests against Scott Walker's Act 10 in 2011, which was an attempt to — a successful attempt, ultimately, to take away collective bargaining rights from public employees, many of whom of course are teachers.

    And when we see these fights, for instance, West Virginia, they won raises, not just for teachers, but for all the public employees of the state of West Virginia. There is very strong echoes to what happened in Wisconsin in 2011.

    And then the other thing, the other big strike that we should talk about is Chicago in 2012. And that one has really, really changed teachers unions in particular since then. The Chicago teachers went on strike.

    And in that state, right, they were going up against a Democratic mayor, Rahm Emanuel, who had worked in the Obama White House. And, once again, they won significant changes. They had a massive amount of public support from the families, from the students in the area.

    And that really has spurred militancy across the teachers union movement in particular. And we have seen a lot of victories, a lot of potential strikes that didn't get to a strike because people have realized, state and local governments have realized that they don't actually want a big teachers strike.

    So, like, the week before West Virginia went out, there was a strike deadline, and they went right up to the deadline and then called off the strike when they got an agreement in St. Paul, Minnesota.

    And so things like that have been happening between now and in Chicago in particular. But what's new now is these are places where there are not strong unions at all. We're seeing something new in West Virginia and in Oklahoma and Arizona in particular, where there's not been a lot of strong union activity in many years.

  • William Brangham:

    We were saying before that some of these largely have been happening in red states, but also blue states as well.

    Do you think there is any significance that way, what the political sort of leadership of the state is? Is there any overlap there?

  • Sarah Jaffe:

    So, what's happened in West Virginia and Oklahoma, in particular, I would say, is that these are teachers who, A) they're winning significant concessions from what my friend Jane McAlevey called a trifecta red government, right? This is all-Republican dominance in every part of the governance in these states.

    And they're still managing to get significant funding commitments out of these people. They got in Oklahoma an oil and gas tax that is going to pay for some of this. Oklahoma is a big, big oil extraction state. It's significant that these are teachers who are challenging those industries at the same time that they're challenging a Republican dominance.

    The other thing that's significant is, like I said, these are not places where the teachers unions are particularly strong. These are places where teachers unions don't have bargaining rights written into the law, when they are mostly lobbying associations.

    And so when you hear the teachers union leadership in Oklahoma say they're going to call off the work stoppage and go back to lobbying, that's basically what they do all of the time. That's how they mostly exert their power in the state. They don't exert it at a bargaining table because they don't really have the right to do that at all.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, journalist Sarah Jaffe, thank you very much.

  • Sarah Jaffe:

    Thank you.

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