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Teacher strikes made 2018 the biggest year for worker protest in a generation

Thousands of teachers from the Los Angeles Unified School District and their supporters rally outside City Hall in Los Angeles on Jan. 18. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)

About 485,200 workers were involved in major work stoppages in 2018, new Labor Department data shows. It’s the highest figure since 1986.

The trend is striking.

The labor unrest wasn’t a result of prominent unions in manufacturing, such as United Automobile Workers, or transportation, such as Teamsters. It was driven by a wave of teacher strikes that spread from West Virginia (35,000 workers) to Oklahoma (45,000) and Kentucky (26,000). Within months, 267,000 more teachers in Arizona, Colorado and North Carolina staged walkouts.

(The milestone was previously reported by the Wall Street Journal’s Michelle Hackman and Sharon Nunn.)

A long time coming

The 2018 teacher-strike tsunami was decades in the making. State budget cuts, especially after the Great Recession, squeezed school spending and teacher salaries.

January 29: Public-school salaries fall short of average in nearly every state

Until the mid-1990s, teachers were paid almost as much as other educated workers, according to the Economic Policy Institute’s analysis of Labor Department data. As of 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, they were paid an average of 18.7 percent less. Their 7.6 percent advantage in benefits does not close the gap.

“Not only had teacher pay declined since the late 1990s, class sizes had grown larger. The working conditions for teachers and the learning conditions for students had declined really radically,” said Julie Greene, a historian at the University of Maryland.

State budget cuts have been particularly harsh in Oklahoma, where the general-fund allocation for schools decreased by 28.2 percent in the decade ending in the 2018 fiscal year, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

The damage caused by funding shortfalls extends beyond teacher pay. The state has 54,000 more students than it did in 2008-09, said Rebecca Fine, an education specialist at the Oklahoma Policy Institute, yet the number of aides, secretaries, plumbers and other support staff has fallen by 391. The state also offers fewer fine arts and music classes than it did four years ago, Fine writes.

Grass-roots teacher organizations

Organizers and advocates began campaigning years before strikes brought their struggles into the headlines. They were inspired by events like the Chicago teachers’ strike of 2012, where demonstrators won major concessions by framing their demands as part of a social and community movement aimed at improving the lives of students, Greene said.

“They were arguing that it wasn’t just about their own pay,” she said. “They were arguing about the need to confront the austerity measures pushed by mayors Richard Daley and Rahm Emanuel.”

Parents and teachers created legislative action committees and social-media groups. In 2014, a reported 25,000 people rallied in Oklahoma City in support of increased school funding. Such rallies soon became common.

About a third of Oklahoma teachers are union members, Labor Department data shows. The unions formed the bedrock of the walkout effort, Fine said, but organizers drew in additional support through community associations and Facebook groups.

“They’re finding creative ways to fight for workers rights in a moment when labor laws don’t sufficiently protect workers,” Greene said.

The teachers’ movement grew along with the idea that politicians could be swayed by mass actions such as those staged by the tea party and Occupy groups, said Deana Rohlinger, a sociologist at Florida State University. “Social movements realized that they can leverage new technology and get people out into the streets in their own communities,” she said.

Organized teachers meet organized labor

When West Virginia teachers walked out in February 2018, they “helped tip the scales and reminded Oklahoma teachers that collective action was possible,” Fine said.

Within months, teachers in at least five states, including the four where teachers’ pay lagged furthest behind that of other educated workers — had followed suit.

Greene said the West Virginia teachers’ creative tactics and early success were contagious.

“One struggle builds on another one and you’ve got a labor movement flowering,” she said.

“Teachers do not need to develop new strategies whole cloth,” Rohlinger said. “They can connect with teachers who’ve been successful in other states and adapt tactics to their communities.”

Opinion: Teacher strikes may be more powerful now than ever before

It’s a return to prominence for a profession that took the lead in the late 1960s and ‘70s, when educators fought for basic bargaining rights and, later, against budget cuts stemming from an economic downturn, said Jon Shelton a historian at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay and author of “Teacher Strike! Public Education and the Making of a New American Political Order.”

He ranked the 2018 strikes among the most important labor victories in more than a century.

“Perhaps the only time in history we’ve seen things of quite that magnitude was in the late nineteenth century when you had spontaneous revolts of working-class people,” Shelton said.