Today, tens of thousands of teachers and school staff, joined by supporting community members, parents, and students, walked off their jobs across Oklahoma and Kentucky, inspired by the historic West Virginia teacher’s strike, which saw masses of teachers across the state defy union bosses and government officials. This report first appeared on It's Going Down.
The strikes represent the growing working-class anger brewing in the United States, aimed not only at neoliberalism and Trump, but also against the “official opposition” of the trade union bureaucracy which for decades has done nothing but hold back mass action in the face of declining wages and attacks on benefits.
The strikes in Oklahoma and Kentucky also mark a turning point, as they represent teachers across two entire states taking action on the same time, pointing towards the possibility of even higher levels of coordinated action, such as a general strike. Members of the Iron Workers union in Oklahoma also announced that they would not work on Monday in solidarity with the strikes, signalling that the strike wave was also starting to catch on in other sectors.
As the New York Times wrote:
Thousands of teachers in Oklahoma and Kentucky walked off the job Monday morning, shutting down school districts as they protested cuts in pay, benefits and school funding in a movement that has spread rapidly since igniting in West Virginia earlier this year.
In Oklahoma City, protesting teachers ringed the Capitol, chanting, “No funding, no future!” Katrina Ruff, a local teacher, carried a sign that read, “Thanks to West Virginia.”
“They gave us the guts to stand up for ourselves,” she said.
The growing fervor suggests that labor activism has taken on a new, grass-roots form.
“Our unions have been weakened so much that a lot of teachers don’t have faith” in them, said Noah Karvelis, an elementary school music teacher in Tolleson, Ariz., outside Phoenix, and leader of the movement calling itself #RedforEd, after the red T-shirts protesting teachers are wearing across the country.
In Oklahoma, politicians have offered to give teachers a $6K raise, depending on experience, but teachers have roundly rejected this – instead demanding a $10K raise, more funding for schools, and raises for school staff like bus drivers and custodians. Meanwhile in Kentucky, where wages are slightly higher, educators are on strike over attacks on pensions. Soon joining the strike wave could be teachers in Arizona, who receive some of the lowest pay in the US, and who have already launched a series of sick-out strikes and demonstrations.
The growing teacher’s strikes are important for several reasons. The first is that they represent workers who often have nothing left to lose: many teachers are working extra jobs just to make ends meet, struggling to pay back student loans. This struggle resonates with the lived realities of millions of Americans. Second, the growing revolt is not just against the Republican establishment (which has worked hand in hand with the Democrats to attack public education), but also against the union bureaucracy which has become simply a pipeline of workers’ dues into the Democratic Party. Third, these strikes show the power of self-organization, both in terms of workers organizing demonstrations and walk-outs, largely through online mediums, but also in their ability to gather food and supplies to hand out in the surrounding communities, where many school children rely on. Lastly, teachers are striking not just over their own interests, but also standing in solidarity with their students by asking for more funding for schools, and demanding that other school employees like bus drivers receive higher wages.
As it looks like the strikes will continue tomorrow and into the foreseeable future, we must ask ourselves how these event may draw in more sectors, break with bureaucrats and politicians in waiting, and also expand the networks of mutual aid that are fulfilling the role of the State in feeding thousands of school children.