Teacher strike spreads to more US states

The teacher rebellion that started in West Virginia has now swept across three more US states. After a decade of effective wage cuts and public school starvation, they are showing that even in the heart of Republican-controlled Trump country, resistance can win.

West Virginia teachers won a 5 per cent pay rise for all public employees after a nine day illegal strike that defied union officials’ attempts to compromise and end the strike early. Teachers in Arizona, Kentucky and Oklahoma are learning the lessons.

In April, rank-and-file teacher unionists in Arizona organised rallies, sit-ins and #RedForEd protests, where teachers wore red to school on Wednesdays to demand a 20 per cent pay rise and public school funding. To avoid planned walk-offs, Governor Doug Ducey gave in and promised a net 20 per cent pay rise by 2020 and $1 billion of extra school funding. Since 2008, Arizona has slashed state funding for schools by 37 per cent. But the rank-and-file are pushing to go ahead with the strike.

“It’s important to note that this is not legislation”, said Dylan Wegela, a seventh-grade teacher and an organiser of the Arizona Educators United grassroots coalition. West Virginia teachers did not back down until legislation was passed, having learned from previous experience that promises were worthless unless they became law.

In Kentucky, teachers have used co-ordinated “sick-outs” to close schools and stage mass rallies. On Friday, legislators overturned the Republican governor’s veto of a budget that increases public education spending, funded by a $480 million tax increase. This was a partial victory for the teachers who had shut down 30 school districts with strikes, sit-ins and rallies. But the new funding comes from regressive consumption tax increases.

Teachers in Oklahoma staged a nine day walkout, with up to 50,000 converging on the state’s capital. But on Thursday 12 April, Oklahoma’s education union ended the walkout, saying lawmakers “won’t budge an inch”, and encouraging supporters to “turn our attention to the election season”.

The $479 million in extra school funding won is a fraction of the $3.3 billion the union had demanded.

Many teachers are insisting they will not go back to work. Rank-and-file teacher organiser, Alberto Morejohn, who runs the influential Facebook page “Oklahoma Teacher Walkout—The Time Is Now!” is calling for the strikes to continue.

The “education spring” strike wave has broken open the possibilities of resistance across the US. Their defiance of anti-strike rules, and taking the struggle into their own hands are a lesson for Australian teachers and unionists too.

As John Waldron, a Social Studies teacher from Oklahoma, put it, “Right now, we’ve got a lot of momentum. We’re not just walking out for ourselves anymore—we’re walking for everybody.”

By Lucy Honan


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