Lessons from the Teachers' Strikes

By Stephen Pimpare

Strike for the Common Good: Fighting for the Future of Public Education, ed. Rebecca Kolins Givan and Amy Schrager Lang. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2020.

In 2012, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) went on strike. That marked the beginning of a wave of job actions that would reach West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Los Angeles, and other cities and states before returning to Chicago in 2019. Strike for the Common Good offers twenty accounts of these mobilizations, most from participants themselves—union leaders, organizers, teachers, students, and a bus driver—but also from policy analysts and academics. It’s an exceptionally rich collection, filled with diverse voices and keen insights.

What distinguishes these fights from many others is that public school teachers—who accounted for almost 80 percent of all strikers in the United States in 2018—were demanding not merely better wages and benefits for themselves, although they typically did demand those, but also changes that would help their students, their schools and school staff members, their communities, and even the state more broadly. These have come to be known as strikes for the common good (or bargaining for the common good).

The teachers’ demands included smaller classes and better classroom conditions; replacement of outdated books; increased funding for school librarians, nurses, and social workers; review of student disciplinary practices, often in combination with other racial justice and equity demands; reduction in the use of standardized testing; the addition of air conditioning or green spaces for their schools; protections for undocumented students; and even changes in state housing policy (to help their homeless students and underpaid teachers find stable shelter), alterations to state tax policy (to shift money from wealthy individuals and corporations to working- and middle-class residents), and higher wages for all public employees (not just teachers or school staff).

There are lots of valuable lessons here, and throughout the volume patterns emerge in the conditions that made so many of these strikes possible. Facebook groups (sometimes “secret” ones) and other forms of online organizing are a frequent touchstone in the chapters written by organizers themselves, with many noting that they thought what they achieved would not have been possible without such tools. Many emphasize coalition building that took place over extended periods of time—sometimes years—with multiple “stress tests” leading up to particular actions. (Stress tests are the regular efforts to measure the engagement of your members or communities: How many will show up for a meeting? How many will wear red shirts on a given day to show solidarity? How many will attend a small march or protest?) Often, teachers and organizers built the collective power and communication and trust that enabled successful strikes by establishing contract action teams in every school in the district; some talk of these as member action teams, recognizing that settling a new contract, typically a moment in which the union membership is demobilized, can be just another stress test and a step in the ongoing struggle for better working and learning conditions.

Many contributors note the importance of using those same online tools for information sharing across districts and counties and even across other states; after the 2012 CTU strike victory, some CTU members traveled around the United States to share their experiences with other teachers. We also see many instances of deep and broad rank-and-file power, sometimes manifested in the rejection of guidance from union leadership in favor of more militant (and often successful) strategies; some of those more radical leaders cite an earlier awakening through the Democratic Socialists of America or the Bernie Sanders presidential campaigns. But even among the more “traditional” leaders and organizations, there is evidence of a growing realization of the limits unions have as lobbying (and even service) organizations and the attendant realization that, as with all other workers, teachers’ power lies in their ability and willingness to withdraw their labor. It’s not merely that radicals entered onto the playing field, but that the act of organizing often transformed people’s understanding of the value of their labor and their own political efficacy. Just as we can see how strikes are often contagious (think of the recent wave of organizing efforts at Amazon and Starbucks workplaces), so, too, is the transformation in consciousness that often comes with social movement engagement. As one of the contributors observes, “many of the walkouts were more akin to mass political protests, seeking broad changes in public policy, than to labor strikes against a single employer such as a school district.”

These were all actions rooted in K–12 public schools (and some public charter schools), but organizers in higher education will find lessons here as well. For example, what if the faculty from all the public colleges and universities in a state—from the community colleges to the flagships—met regularly to share information and ideas? What if they all worked together to help their communities better understand the work they do and why it matters, and then asked those communities what public higher education institutions could be doing for them and included community demands in their bargaining? This is also an argument for building closer ties between four-year colleges and universities and community colleges, since the latter often have deeper and closer ties to key stakeholders in legislatures, business communities, and the trades. More coalition-building work needs to be done within higher education too, of course, between tenure-line and contingent faculty of all kinds, but also with staff and, especially, with vulnerable contractors (including dining services and housekeeping staff, in many institutions).

Further, even in states where it is illegal—perhaps especially in states where it is illegal—striking needs to be on the table. It is the most powerful source of leverage all workers have (and don’t think that you are not a worker just because you are, say, a tenured professor), and it needs to be a credible threat if we are going to resist the ongoing attacks on all levels of education in the United States and reaffirm to the public that we will use our positions of relative power and influence to help them, too.

One risk to the strategy of bargaining for the common good, however, is that we will legitimize the notion that there is something wrong with a union bargaining “only” for higher wages, better benefits, and improved working conditions for its members. That is the function and the value of a union, and there is no shame in that fight; besides, even such narrower acts of self-interested bargaining further the common good if you believe that worker power and rising wages in one sector can help push up wages and increase worker power in others.

The work of building broad, stable communities of common interest—of forging genuine solidarity—is slow and difficult, but this excellent volume demands that we think of what it could mean for the power or leverage we could bring to the bargaining table and the good we could do even for people who are not members of our unions.

Stephen Pimpare is founding director of the public service and nonprofit leadership program and a faculty fellow at the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire, where he recently led the contract negotiating team for the UNH Lecturers United–AAUP. His email address is [email protected].