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May 28, 2019

Learning from the Red-State Teachers’ Revolt

Last year’s teachers’ strikes in West Virginia, Arizona, and Oklahoma rocked the country and heralded a revival of labor militancy in the US. Eric Blanc’s compelling account of the strikes contains essential political lessons for labor and the contemporary left.

By Nick French

At the beginning of 2018 — seemingly out of nowhere — massive teachers’ strikes began erupting across “Trump country.” The strike wave began with an illegal walkout in West Virginia, in which workers shut down schools across the state for two weeks, forcing the Republican governor and state legislature to make large concessions on pay, benefits, and school funding.

Soon after, teachers and other staff went on strike in Oklahoma and Arizona, again extracting important gains from Republican-dominated governments. The teachers’ strike wave spread to  Denver, Los Angeles, and Oakland, and labor militancy now seems to be on the rise across many sectors of the economy.

Eric Blanc’s new book, “Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics,” provides an in-depth look at the strikes in West Virginia, Arizona, and Oklahoma. Blanc, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and a writer for Jacobin magazine, won the trust of rank-and-file teacher militants in the course of his on-the-ground reporting, giving him an inside look at the organizing leading up to the strike.

Blanc’s observations and interviews with teachers and activists make for a detailed and exciting narrative. But what is most impressive about “Red State Revolt” is the way it combines moving personal stories of teachers’ political awakenings with powerful political analysis. While the strikes made headlines in the mainstream liberal media, liberal writers, lacking any class analysis and in thrall to their own cartoonish portrayals of the white working class in red states, were incapable of reporting accurately on the strikes or of understanding what actually led tens of thousands of workers to descend on state capitols across the country. Blanc’s analysis and reporting can strengthen the work that teachers, rank-and-file union leaders, socialists, and progressives are already doing to grow this moment of historic upheaval in the working class into a movement that can take on the billionaire class.

Here are a few of the most important takeaways.

Liberal pundits don’t get red state politics

Blanc’s analysis of the roots of the red state revolt reveals the shallowness of liberal journalists’ understanding of red state politics. Liberal pundits make two errors: thinking that the white working class in these states is especially reactionary and seeing the teachers’ revolts primarily as the product of frustration with decades of rule by Republicans hostile to public education.

According to the mainstream press, one of the most important political divides in the US is between Republican “red states” and Democratic “blue states.” Donald Trump’s presidential victory in 2016 only strengthened the media’s commitment to this reductive narrative. Liberal pundits gleefully attributed Trump’s victory to reactionary white working-class voters, who were supposedly blinded by resentment and bigotry into voting against their own economic interests — allegedly championed by Democrats.

The red state teachers’ strikes complicated this narrative. Here was a mass movement of (predominantly white) working people, in deeply Republican states, going on strike against Republican governments and demanding better funding for schools and higher taxes on corporations and the rich. The fight, in other words, was between working people and the political elites pushing a devastating agenda of total austerity, not between Republicans and Democrats.

Regardless, Blanc notes, liberal journalists responded by claiming that the strikes were “a spontaneous, collective response to particularly egregious conditions in a number of red states.” But this explanation does not square with the facts. As the recent strikes by LA and Oakland teachers have shown, inadequate funding for public education is a problem in both red and blue states. Blanc reports that, once adjusted for cost of living, 5 out of the 10 states with the lowest teacher pay are controlled by Democrats.

Nor is it true that white workers in red states vote Republican because they hold especially right-wing views. (In fact, in the 2016 election, it is likely that most white working-class voters across the country voted for Hillary Clinton or stayed home.) Instead, Republican dominance in states like West Virginia is due in large part to the failure of the Democratic Party to advance working-class interests and give working voters a reason to come to the polls for them. “[T]ime and time again,” Blanc writes, “Democratic Party politicians have broken their campaign promises and implemented regressive policies, thereby setting the stage for the return of (undoubtedly worse) Republicans to power.” Republicans are able to win some degree of working-class support by speaking to the short-term economic interests of working people, while also winning massive support among cultural and religious conservatives; meanwhile, many disaffected working-class people do not vote at all.

To understand the dynamics underlying the recent strike wave, Blanc claims, we have to move beyond simplistic understandings of red state voters pushed by liberal talking heads. The teachers’ strikes were an explosion of working-class resentment directed at decades of austerity imposed by Republican and Democratic politicians alike.

The presence of a militant minority can make a big difference

Another central theme of Red State Revolt is the importance of a militant minority to the planning, initiation, and execution of successful strikes. The phrase “militant minority” refers to a  small group of highly committed, class-conscious, rank-and-file workers within a union or workplace who agitate and unite co-workers to fight for bold demands (sometimes against the wishes of union leadership).

Blanc demonstrates that the red-state teachers’ strikes were not spontaneous uprisings that cropped up overnight. In Arizona and West Virginia, the strikes were made possible by the efforts of dedicated rank-and-file organizers who spent months planning and building momentum for the eventual walkouts. It was these organizers who created and moderated the Facebook groups that built statewide enthusiasm for potential strikes.

These teacher militants also played an important role throughout the strike, offering strategic interventions at critical moments. When the teachers’ union leadership tried to call a premature end to the West Virginia strike, militants agitated for a wildcat strike (a strike undertaken without union support or leadership). Teachers voted overwhelmingly to stay out of school, eventually winning a five percent pay raise for all public employees in West Virginia. Militant leaders were also responsible for a proposal to fund public education by raising the state’s severance tax on natural gas companies. While a “severance tax” may sound like a policy-wonk solution, this was actually a radical proposal in several ways: it linked the fight for public education to public health and environmental justice, it named an enemy in the fight (the wealthy energy companies already loathed by West Virginians) and demanded real concessions from this enemy.

After decades of budget cuts, education strikes can easily feel like squabbling over crumbs; proposals like the gas company tax show how union militants can reshape their fights to call for taxing the rich and their corporations — the only way to save education from austerity.  

Blanc argues that the limitations of Oklahoma’s strike resulted, in large part, from the absence of a militant minority like those involved in the Arizona and West Virginia strike. Although the Oklahoma strikes were sparked by rank-and-file teachers creating Facebook groups to build momentum for a strike, these groups were run by teachers outside of unions with no prior organizing experience. And unlike in the other states, there was little on-the-ground organizing to direct the energy on Facebook and less of a militant minority to push the teachers’ union in a more radical direction.

Socialists are vital to renewed labor militancy

It is no exaggeration to say that the teachers’ strikes may not have happened, or been as successful as they were, if not for socialists. “Though few in number,” Blanc writes, “young socialists inspired by the Bernie Sanders campaign played an outsized role” in the Arizona and West Virginia strikes.

Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, which brought the theme of class struggle back to the national political stage and popularized democratic socialism, inspired several of the leading West Virginia teacher militants, including Nicole and Matt McCormick, Jay O’Neal, and Emily Comer. O’Neal and Comer are members of and met through DSA, which was given new life in West Virginia and across the country by Sanders’ run. (Sanders’ message had resonated deeply with West Virginia voters: in the 2016 Democratic primary, he swept every county in the state).

Two of Arizona’s rank-and-file strike leaders, Noah Karvelis and Dylan Wegela, are also self-identified democratic socialists who credit the Sanders campaign with inspiring their activism. The presence of left-wing organizers like Karvelis at the forefront of the teachers’ movement presented an opportunity for right-wing lawmakers and commentators to smear the teachers’ strikes as a socialist plot. But Blanc claims that the red-baiting was largely unsuccessful at swaying popular opinion. If anything, he argues, it may have made Arizonans more receptive to socialist ideas.

A big lesson, for both socialists and labor activists, is that struggles in the workplace cannot be divorced from struggles in the electoral sphere. Sanders’ class struggle electoral campaign inspired the militants who were critical to sparking a strike wave unlike any seen in decades. And it is likely that many educators, students, and parents radicalized by the teachers’ strikes will serve as a new constituency for democratic socialist politics.

They weren’t just teachers’ strikes, and they weren’t just about teachers

Another crucial point made by Blanc is that the strikes were not solely strikes by teachers, nor were the teachers striking only or even primarily for better pay or benefits for themselves.

It is true that teachers led the strikes. However, teachers were joined on the picket lines by school support staff, and the solidarity of these other workers was crucial to the strikes’ success. To drive this point home, Blanc contrasts the experiences of striking teachers in West Virginia and Arizona, on the one hand, and Oklahoma on the other. In West Virginia and Arizona, the rate of support staff participation in the strikes was extremely high; in Oklahoma, the rate was much lower, allowing many schools to stay open during the strikes. This difference likely contributed to the relative success of the strikes in West Virginia and Arizona compared to the one in Oklahoma. Meanwhile, teachers in the former two states were able to gain additional concessions from state legislatures by walking out, but teachers in Oklahoma were not able to improve upon the legislature’s pre-strike offer.

Moreover, teachers and other staff were not striking just for themselves. Although the strikes were certainly driven in large part by demands for pay raises and opposition to benefit cuts, they were primarily revolts against a decades-long assault on public education in the US. Teachers demanded better funding for schools to address a host of problems: ballooning class sizes, derelict classroom facilities, shortages of school supplies, and cuts to arts, language, and sports programs. The fact that teachers made demands on behalf of all working people no doubt contributed to the extremely high level of popular support for the walkouts. Parents and students largely stood behind teachers, realizing that teachers were striking on their behalf too.

The surge of labor militancy that began in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona shows no signs of letting up. This accessible account of the strike wave’s beginnings is essential reading for anyone inspired by the recent teachers’ strikes or anyone interested in the future of labor and the left.