A review of Strike for the Common Good: Fighting for the Future of Public Education, edited by Amy Schrager Lang and Rebecca Kolins Givan

 

On Election Day 2020, most national attention directed to Arizona centered on the presidential contest as well as a special Senate race between Martha McSally and Mark Kelly. Yet Arizona voters were also deciding the fate of Proposition 208 — a significant ballot measure that would impose a new surtax on high incomes to bolster funding for public schools. The measure passed with 52 percent of the vote, producing a potential billion-dollar revenue boost earmarked for teacher and school staff pay and training opportunities.

Beyond its potential financial impact, Proposition 208 represents an important victory for the wave of teacher protests and strikes that swept across Arizona — among more than half a dozen U.S. states — throughout 2018 and 2019. In Arizona, the Red4Ed movement, as the teacher mobilizations came to be known, made low school staff and teacher pay one of its central demands. Red4Ed leaders saw the ballot measure as a way to capitalize on the mass support teachers had fostered and make an end-run around a Republican-controlled state government.

But even as Arizona educators celebrated their win with Proposition 208, they braced for further battle. On November 30, the Goldwater Institute, a powerhouse conservative think tank and advocacy group, announced that it was challenging the constitutionality of the initiative. That case may well be decided by the conservative-controlled state supreme court, which already struck down an earlier teacher-led tax initiative in 2018. On top of the litigation threat is the broader challenge that Arizona teacher-activists — like those all across the country — face as they clash with parents, school administrators, and elected officials over the safety of school reopenings and as they deal with massive cuts to state spending driven by the worsening economic downturn. 

Arizona teachers’ victories and setbacks raise broader questions about the causes and long-term consequences of the upsurge in teacher labor activism over the past two years. Where did these protests come from — and what role did individual teachers, activists, and formal union organizations play in them? Why did the wave of activism appear in some states and not others? Why did it take varying forms, and which of these forms was most effective? How should we think about the current wave against the longer historical arc of mass public sector strikes? And what is likely to be the effect of the strikes on education politics as well as the labor movement?

These are some of the timely questions tackled by Strike for the Common Good: Fighting for the Future of Public Education, an important new volume of essays authored by teachers, students, parents, and labor organizers involved in the recent strikes as well as labor-focused journalists, analysts, and academics. Edited by Rebecca Kolins Givan and Amy Schrager Lang, the book offers readers a diversity of voices. We hear, for instance, from the lead organizers of teacher mobilizations in West Virginia, Arizona, and Los Angeles, as well as from a student leader from Denver. Complementing these diverse perspectives is the remarkable breadth of issues explored by the volume’s contributors, including the 2012 Chicago teacher strike and its legacy for the 2018-19 mobilizations, the gendered dynamics of the teaching profession and their effects on teacher activism, historical trends in teacher compensation, and the context of new corporate strategies around education technology and privatization.

Although they touch on very different topics, the chapters in the volume underscore several common themes. First, these contributors convey just how much work in and out of unions was required to organize the strikes. Despite media coverage of the strikes that focused on the energy and emotion from the striking educators, these were not spontaneous actions. The spadework necessary to reach strike capacity comes across most powerfully in the clear-eyed assessment of the Los Angeles strike penned by two of its leaders: Cecily Myart-Cruz and Alex Caputo-Pearl. The authors explain how the 2019 Los Angeles strike’s roots reached back to 2014, with the election of a Union Power caucus focused on community outreach and organizing, racial justice, and deep engagement with the union’s rank-and-file membership. The required preparation for a successful strike is also apparent in West Virginia — the first in the Red4Ed wave in 2018. Even there, the strike came out of relationships, planning, and organizing that was redeployed when conditions reached a breaking point for educators.

A second theme running through the volume is just how much the strikes were a product of Great Recession-induced austerity. In particular, a chapter authored by economist Sylvia Allegretto documents how the Great Recession spurred an extraordinary erosion in teacher earnings. In turn, most of the states that saw the deepest cuts in pay between the pre- and post-Great Recession period — Arizona, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Colorado — were also those that subsequently experienced mass teacher strikes in 2018 and 2019. These results have significant implications for today, as state legislators again face an enormous fiscal crisis and pressure to balance their budgets through cuts to public spending.

Last, the volume’s contributors do an excellent job situating the current strike wave in the history of government sector labor activism. When West Virginia teachers walked off the job illegally in early 2018, they were following a tradition dating back a century. Then, as now, teachers protested poor working conditions and pay by withholding their labor and disrupting public services. But what made the Red4Ed movement different was how teachers, building on the model of the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike, often went beyond immediate workplace concerns to engage with social and racial equity issues in their communities. In turn, the authors in the volume argue that the breadth of educators’ demands deepened support for their campaigns among fellow school staff as well as the public. 

As these lessons make clear, the volume is especially effective at providing background for the strikes and how they unfolded. There is less room for examining questions about what made the strikes successful (or not) and what strategies might be replicated in labor actions in other sectors. Those kinds of questions will require additional interrogation, comparing tactics within as well as across campaigns and looking at cases where teacher mobilizations might have happened but did not.

In particular, using the rich material in Strike for the Common Good as a starting point, movement scholars should focus their energy on two related lines of inquiry. First, how did the strikes build and mobilize supportive public opinion among parents and members of the broader community? And second, how can activism from the strikes be channeled into electoral politics that can, in turn, yield shifts in public policy to reinforce further labor organizing and mobilization? Answering these questions is essential if worker activists want to harness the energy that emerged from the teacher strikes to continue pushing for stronger public sector services and labor standards within the education sector and beyond. 

How to mobilize public support for teacher action and stronger public sector services? The authors in Strike for the Common Good agree on the importance of mass community support for the 2018-19 teacher protests. Research I have conducted together with collaborators at Columbia University suggests that teacher efforts in six of the original “Red4Ed” states — Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and West Virginia — were indeed successful at changing how community members, and especially parents, thought about the strikes and education politics. We found that parents who were exposed to the strikes through their children were more likely to be supportive of the teachers and of the labor movement generally. The strike effects were especially pronounced for parents who were least receptive to the labor movement before the strikes: Republicans and those parents who did not have a personal connection to union members. This is no small feat, particularly given efforts by Republican politicians and conservative advocacy groups to cast the protests as hurting children and the fact that labor unions in many of the Red4Ed states were so weak going into the protests. 

But for this strategy to inform future efforts, we need to know why the protests were so persuasive for parents. How effective were the networks of community liaisons that organizers built to mobilize parental support at each school? To what extent was favorable media attention important? And how much did superintendent and school administration support help legitimize the protests and strikes in the eyes of parents? These are all open questions in need of further research if the Red4Ed movement wants to retain and expand parental and community support — especially in light of the contentious debates over COVID-related school reopenings. 

What role for electoral politics and policy shifts? A second area where we need more research relates to the appropriate role for electoral and legislative politics. Several of the volume’s contributors express skepticism about labor’s investments in electoral politics, especially in recent years. But, as the example of Arizona’s Proposition 208 makes clear, without durable shifts in control of state government, educators are at risk of losing their hard-won gains.

Here, it would be helpful to understand the successes and failures of the Red4Ed movement in the 2018, 2019, and 2020 elections. In some states, teacher-activists were able to channel movement energy into electing pro-education candidates in state legislative races. And in the highest-profile example, Republican Governor Matt Bevin lost to a Democratic challenger after Bevin took an unpopular hardline stand against the striking teachers in his state. Research I conducted together with Data for Progress in Kentucky suggests teachers were heavily involved in the race: over four in ten respondents said that they talked with, or heard from, a teacher about the contest in the run-up to the election. Yet not all Red4Ed efforts were able to make this transition into politics. Interviews and surveys I conducted with Red4Ed members in North Carolina, for instance, pointed to an ambivalence among activists about engaging in electoral politics. In particular, a number of Red4Ed participants worried that a shift into elections would alienate the Republican or moderate teachers and community members who had supported their work to date. We need better lessons about how Red4Ed organizations can (and when they should) make the move into elections across different levels of government.

Of course, electoral politics are a means, not at end in themselves, and a final question involves the administrative and legislative proposals that Red4Ed leaders ought to be pushing to lock in their existing gains, bolster public services, and open up new opportunities for further organizing and power-building. The conservative opponents of a stronger public sector labor movement possess a clear — and brutally effective — playbook: right-to-work laws, cutbacks to collective bargaining rights, recertification requirements for unions, privatization of public services, cuts to social spending, and regressive tax cuts (just to name a few). But it is less clear what the pro-public sector version of these changes should look like — and which efforts should receive the most attention from teacher-activists, especially as educators face down enormous fiscal pressures from the pandemic-induced recession. Should the movement prioritize new progressive revenue sources (as in Arizona’s Proposition 208), measures making it easier for public sector workers to meet with and recruit new hires, or reforms to enshrine the principles of Bargaining for the Common Good into law? In the 1960s and 1970s, mass public sector strikes, especially among teachers, led to changes in local and state legislation that created future opportunities for organizing workers, building strong labor organizations, and raising public sector standards. If the history of those strikes is any guide, the Red4Ed movement needs a similar policy agenda to entrench and expand its gains today. 

Strike for the Common Good ends on a hopeful note, with the editors pointing out how the context of the teacher strikes helped to shift the national conversation around schools, educational policy, and labor politics. Teacher activism and mass protests and strikes are “truly back,” Rebecca Givan writes, “and educators show every intention of continuing to wield [those tactics] on behalf of their students and the schools they deserve.” If the Red4Ed movement is to successfully realize this promise, we need to both celebrate the stories of the teacher strikes and also engage in a hard-nosed assessment of “what actually works, what doesn’t work, and how to tell the difference,” as Dave Kamper has argued in this journal. Strike for the Common Good provides an excellent roadmap for beginning that important work and is therefore essential reading for anyone interested in the future of worker collective action and the labor movement.   

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