The US Teachers Strike in Historical Perspective

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By Steven Parfitt, a University and College Union member and Teaching Fellow at Loughborough University, and has written extensively on British and American social history, including a recent book, : The Knights of Labor in Britain and Ireland, published with Liverpool University Press. He has also written for Jacobin, Labor Notes, OpenDemocracy UK, TheConversation.com and In These Times. Originally published at

Teachers with the Chicago Teachers Union picket outside of the Walt Disney Magnet School in Chicago, Illinois, on Monday, September 10, 2012. Credit:. .

In the US, a teachers’ strike is spreading from one red state to another. It began in West Virginia when 34,000 teachers walked out on February 22 2018. They stayed out until March 7, against the advice of their own union leaders, until they received a deal that they could live with from the state government. They were soon joined by tens of thousands of teachers in Oklahoma, who struck from April 2 to April 12, and then their colleagues in Arizona followed them on .

Now there are rumbles of teachers’ strikes in the blue and purple states of Illinois and New Jersey, and in states elsewhere. NBC News reports a “.” There is no telling whether the rebellion will spread to more states and occupations.

The teachers’ strikes come at a difficult time for American unions. Their total membership has from 17.7 million people in 1983 to 14.8 million in 2017, and the proportion of union members in the workforce has fallen even more dramatically, from 20.1 percent in 1983 to 10.7 percent in 2017. Unions continue to fund the Democratic Party, but their investment has seen few legislative gains. This is a story of failure, softened only by the occasional victory.

Yet the teachers’ strikes may offer American unions a road back to health. Historians have long known that unions seldom grow at a slow, steady pace. They tend instead to push forward in a series of leaps, in a kind of chain reaction where a strike in one industry inspires strikes in others. The growth of unions in one part of the country leads to the growth of unions in other parts, and to use the British historian term, the labor movement recruits “in lumps” as striking workers join unions en masse. The American labor activist Kim Moody, in his recent book describes this process as a “labor upsurge.” Could the strike by teachers in West Virginia be the spark for just such an upsurge in 2018?

To answer this question it’s useful to look back to previous waves of strikes in the US like the , when striking workers laid the groundwork for the or the mass strikes in coal, steel, the railroads and other industries during or immediately after the First World War, or the militancy of auto and other workers in the 1970s.

We could also look to more recent by the Chicago Teachers’ Union, the near-ousting in 2016 of President James P. Hoffa of the powerful Teamsters Union by the (a rank-and-file movement), and the victories of in the last two years. But I would go to understand what an upsurge could mean for today’s American labor movement, to the ‘Great Upheaval’ of 1885/87. What happened then?

American workers in the 1880s lived, as we do today, in the aftermath of a global financial crisis: in their case, the ‘’ of 1873. The ensuing depression wiped out many American unions. As today, the survivors faced a highly unequal society and a political system beholden to big money. In this historical picture, the infamous financier substitutes for the and stands in for .

Wages stagnated in nominal terms, at least for the rest of the 1870s and into the 1880s. Immigrants faced widespread discrimination, and Chinese immigrants were even excluded from the United States altogether from 1882 onwards. Black Americans endured the end of Reconstruction and the imposition of Jim Crow. American women faced exclusion from much public space and, when they worked for a wage, they faced a gender pay gap larger than that of today. Grievance piled on grievance.

However, union organizing started to expand again at the start of the 1880s, when economic conditions improved. A working-class movement, the Knights of Labor, . Telegraph operators, glass workers and railroad workers waged bitter strikes, sometimes successfully, and the final spark was lit in 1885 by workers on the Wabash railroad and the Southwestern rail system. Both railroads were owned by Gould.

In strikes during March and August, railroad workers twice forced him to reinstate strikers, grant overtime pay, reverse wage reductions, and tolerate their representatives, the Knights of Labor. Few strikes had ever succeeded against such a powerful adversary, and their victory over Gould gave workers in other places and industries the confidence necessary to down tools themselves. The Great Upheaval had begun.

This is the stage that some commentators think we’ve also reached today: on the cusp of a strike wave, this time sparked by the teachers of West Virginia. In the 1880s version of a labor upsurge, the strikes on Gould’s railroads opened the floodgates to industrial action. In 1886, . This was more than double the number of strikers in 1885 and far higher than the

Membership in the Knights of Labor , including tens of thousands of black and women workers. In the same year, the movement for the eight-hour working day pushed forward the cycle of strikes, boycotts, and protests. It reached its height in May 1886, when tens of thousands of workers across the country struck simultaneously for eight hours.

Workers pressed their case at the ballot box as well as in the workplace. Local labor parties sprang up to contest elections at local, state and federal levels. The radical economist ran for the mayoralty of New York on the United Labor Party ticket in 1886. He came a respectable second to the Democrat, Abram Hewitt, and beat the Republican candidate into third place—one .

Across the United States, workers elected labor mayors, state legislators and even congressmen in Washington DC. The two-party system briefly faced challenges that have seldom been seen since. In this strange time, Eleanor Marx, the daughter of Karl Marx, and her husband Edward Aveling that “the example of the American working men will be followed before long on the European side of the Atlantic. An English or, if you will, a British Labour Party will be formed, foe alike to Liberal and Conservative.”

We are certainly not at that stage yet. The in 2016, which saw a self-proclaimed socialist come agonizingly close to the Democratic Party presidential nomination, may have given new strength to the American left. A widely-cited Harvard University poll in 2016 may have found that most younger Americans now —whatever they think it means—to capitalism. But an electorally successful labor party is not likely to emerge in the next few years. If it does, it will take more time and require enormous energy on the part of the left, forces within the unions, and a wide cross-section of American workers.

Yet we should not discount the possibility of a labor upsurge in the meantime. The grievances that are leading teachers to strike in state after state are shared by millions of public and private workers across the country. Like teachers, these workers have less and less to lose by industrial action, and falling unemployment means that finding replacements for them becomes more difficult. International events might further fan the flames that the teachers have set alight. Strikes by Amazon workers in , for example, could spread to the of the United States and set off a chain reaction across the American heartland—much as the railroad workers did in 1885.

There is, of course, a cautionary side to this tale. The Great Upheaval of 1885-87 ended in defeat for the unions and for the new labor parties. When railroad workers struck again in 1886, after Gould reneged on his promises, they lost. In May 1886, anarchists at Chicago’s Haymarket Square were accused of throwing a bomb at police. The events that followed set off America’s first ‘’ and the labor movement became one of its main victims. The Knights of Labor shed hundreds of thousands of members. The labor parties soon disappeared or were absorbed into the Democrats and Republicans. The labor upsurge of 1885/86 became the headlong retreat of 1886/87. Historians now see the Great Upheaval of 1885-7 as a great step forward, followed by an even greater step back.

There are things we can all do to ensure that the rebellion of 2018 does not end in the same way. You can join the strike wave. You can show your face and your solidarity at the nearest picket line, or the nearest pro-strike protest. You can donate to strike funds, tweet support, sign petitions, and get involved in any movement that supports the strikers and tries to unite the different strikes under the same banner of political change. Each time you do these things, it becomes more likely that future historians will refer to the Great Rebellion of 2018 as a landmark in the renewal of American unions, and not as another episode in their long-term decline. 

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20 comments

  1. Nell

    The last paragraph that lists the things that we can do to support our fellow workers is really important. While many of us may be ‘key board warriors’ practical support makes a huge difference. I say this as someone who was recently on strike and standing on a picket line. The show of public support (beeping the car horn) was hugely appreciated and annoyed our managers (their offices were directly across from the street). And donations to the strike fund keep people fed during the strike. The MSM picks up on trends, so engaging with this activity can mean that strikes get reported. Reputational damage carries quite a bit of weight.

  2. The Rev Kev

    I think that the greatest danger facing the present teacher’s strike is actually the US Democrat party. Where we see a union movement, they see potential voters waiting to be corralled and I do mean corralled. Remember the Occupy Wall Street movement and how the democrats tried to wedge themselves into that little movement before it was brutally put down? Saw the same happening with the Women’s marches too.

    And the same here. They will say that they are sympathetic and will try to recruit their leader’s into the party. Maybe offer financing. Then when they are in they will neuter the whole thing and betray them. If you do not believe me ask someone who was in Obama’s army in the lead-up to his election and what happened to them afterwards. As the British police use to say, they have ‘form’ for this behaviour.

    1. Arizona Slim

      Ah, yes. Obama’s 2008 army. I knew people who marched in that one.

      After the election, they were Fired Up! And Twiddling Their Thumbs!

  3. Arizona Slim

    Alas, we’ve suffered a setback here in Arizona. Link:

    However, I view the current state of affairs as the prelude to better things for Arizona. Like a new governor and state legislature. Those teachers — and many other Arizonans — will remember in November.

      1. Ping

        Amidst the draconian austerity budget cuts including education (already at the lowest per student in US) and KidsCare-health care for children at poverty level, AZ Governor Ducey allocated over 1 million for Safari Club International which is globally headquartered in Arizona.

        SCI’s in house lawyers eliminate species protections at all levels of government and globally. Ducey allocated 320K to litigate feds against species protection and increased hunting access on state land. What SCI does and Ducey’s outrageous gift to them while further devastating education is an untold story.

        Currently SCI in partnership with NRA funnels $ from gas and oil industry to privatize (steal) public land. Species and habitat protections must be removed to accomplish that…..an SCI specialty.

        1. Ping

          Correction: 320K against species litigation AND 700K budget allocation for increased hunting access……

  4. Potato guy

    I don’t get it.

    Are the teachers striking for more pay?

    Is the taxpayer the one footing the bill?

    Or the oligarchs?

    Perhaps we can get the kids to take out loans.

    Better for some, worse for others.

    1. L

      If you are curious a quick google search brings up this:

      As to your comment about “the taxpayer” yes but the question as always is not about “the taxpayer” but “which taxpayer.” Arizona like many states has instituted deep upper income tax cuts coupled with deep cuts to public education all of which created a funding crisis that has been used to sell privatization. At present “the taxpayer” is already paying with bad schools and shipping dollars to private schools even as lower income taxpayers pay more. The teachers are demanding a reversal to that.

    2. allan

      [AZ Central]

      … Consider the following: Arizona and Oklahoma both cut taxes sharply in the years before the Great Recession of 2007 to 2009, and then continued to cut taxes after that.

      • Arizona cut personal income tax rates by 10 percent in 2006, cut corporate tax rates by 30 percent in 2011, reduced taxes on capital gains, and reduced taxes in other ways over the last couple of decades.
      • Oklahoma cut personal income tax rates starting in 2004. The top income tax rate fell from 6.65 percent to 5 percent, with the latest drop taking effect in 2016 even as the state faced a $1 billion shortfall. Oklahoma also substantially reduced its severance tax on oil and gas, increased tax exemptions for retirement and military income, exempted capital gains income from taxation, and abolished the estate tax.

      This tax cutting squeezed state general fund dollars — the amount available to lawmakers to fund schools and other state priorities.

      General fund dollars as a share of personal income are down 30 percent in Arizona, and 35 percent in Oklahoma, since 2006. The declines in these two states are among the five deepest in the country. …

      Hard to believe, I know.

  5. rd

    American unions were partially undermined by their own obliviousness to their role in society in increasing costs, reducing efficiency, and therefore becoming a major economic drag, such as the UAW in Detroit. Examples of gross mismanagement are the impending failure of multi-employer pension funds, such as some of the Teamster funds:

    The construction unions in NYC still have power, but they are getting in the way of infrastructure redevelopment there and I expect political pressure over the next few years to “reform” them once the city functioning becomes seriously impacted:

    I think the teacher strikes in non-union states are the re-awakening of the US worker movement similar to the 1930s when fundamental working conditions and pay become unacceptable. If they re-organize into unions, they will probably have a couple of decades of being effective before they get hijacked again by people who are not playing the long game for how they fit into society.

    1. Huey Long

      American unions were partially undermined by their own obliviousness to their role in society in increasing costs, reducing efficiency, and therefore becoming a major economic drag, such as the UAW in Detroit. Examples of gross mismanagement are the impending failure of multi-employer pension funds, such as some of the Teamster funds:

      If Carter never deregulated the trucking industry, would we even be having this conversation about the Teamster pension? If Obama passed card check, or pushed for FedEx to be placed under the Wagner Act for organizing purposes, would that multi-employer plan not have more employers paying into it?

      Likewise, is the UAW at fault for management’s failure to bring cars to market that were better engineered and of high enough quality to keep the imports at bay? Is it the UAW’s fault that NAFTA was passed, allowing management to ship UAW jobs down to Mexico? Is it the UAW’s fault that high CEO pay and the “shareholder value” mantra allowed management to become a “major economic drag” as you put it?

      The construction unions in NYC still have power, but they are getting in the way of infrastructure redevelopment there and I expect political pressure over the next few years to “reform” them once the city functioning becomes seriously impacted:

      Is it really all labor’s fault that the MTA can’t run a project nor negotiate appropriate labor agreements with the sand hogs union? How is it the union’s fault that MTA management hired 200 more workers than needed on the East Side Access project? How is it labor’s fault that the MTA contracting process is a mess, with the same delay-prone contractors being hired over and over again?

      Was it labor’s decision to blast out a whole new station cavern under Grand Central instead of simply boring a line into the existing underused lower level of Grand Central? Does the constant stream of change orders on these projects stem from labor or from management?

      Just some food for thought.

  6. Kim Kaufman

    L.A. took a big step backwards yesterday. The Board of Ed announced new school supervisor – 1%er Austin Beutner, formerly of Blackstone, then his own investment banking group, Evercore, and under Yeltsin, with blessings from Clinton, exploited the looting of public enterprises by oligarchs of the future. His father spent 25 years as Amway executive, the DeVos family business. The 4-3 vote was kept from the public for 20 days. The swing vote was bd member facing multiple felony charges for campaign finance issues, public drunkeness. Beutner has zero education experience. But the power brokers of LA – the school privatizers – are very happy. The bought-and-paid-for school board members earned their keep. Where was the teacher’s union? Whatever their plans, this is going to be bad and it’s going to go fast.

    1. Huey Long

      This could be the kick in the familyblog the LA teachers’ union rank and file needs to start a CTU style takeover and fight back.

    2. allan

      But there is also this sliver of good news:

      [Intercept]

      … Yet in Los Angeles, teachers just took a big step toward reversing that trend.

      For more than three years, teachers at Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, Los Angeles’s largest network of charter schools, have been fighting a contentious and high-profile battle to unionize with the Los Angeles teachers union, UTLA.

      On Wednesday morning, a legal representative for a majority of teachers at three of the network’s 25 campuses filed union authorization cards at the state’s Public Employment Relations Board. Once the signatures are verified, the new Alliance Educators United union will be official. …

      1. Arizona Slim

        Same sort of thing happened in PA. Link:

        In the interest of full disclosure, my mother is a retired PA public school teacher and is still a member of this union.

    3. Altandmain

      Bottom line is that this is not just a “Red State” phenomenon. It is happening throughout the US. Both parties are for neoliberalism and against the teachers unions and teachers altogether.

  7. Altandmain

    I think that this is going to be a long and tough fight.

    The brutal reality is that US society does not place a very high value on teaching and education in general. This is reflected in the low compensation and poor treatment that teachers get. That’s why this whole issue is happening.

    Things are different abroad. I don’t like Barrack Obama, but he once noted that, “In South Korea, teachers are known as nation builders. I think it’s time we treated our teachers with the same level of respect right here in the United States of America.”

    Yet under his (mis)leadership, the US has fallen further behind and he did very little to advance their cause. His Education Secretary appointee, Arne Duncan, and his former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, now mayor of Chicago, were both very much for privatization and Charter Schools. Emanuel is still waging a war there and I would not be surprised to see another teacher dispute in Chicago.

    There is some correlation between teacher salaries and PISA test scores:
    https:/s.semanticscholar.org/df12/e7e1003f8287beb00460e70891ba72427c42

    It’s been argued that making teachers a high status profession and treating them well can make education do better as well.

    PISA is a far from perfect way to test though, so there is that flaw in this. However, there is no denying that the US is doing worse these days by any measure. The sad thing is that underinvestment in education will likely accelerate America’s decline. I am not saying that graduates in deep debt working in crapified jobs is good (hint: it’s not), but this has got to be reversed.

    Plus if the teachers win here, it may set the precedent for other wins elsewhere in other states and professions.

  8. Luke

    There are multiple forces currently working against job security and (in constant dollars) even maintaining constant pay for public schoolteachers (the private ones aren’t protesting and striking AFAIK).

    1) Computerization (meant as automation) of teaching means that far fewer teachers are going to be needed. A hotshot teacher might make 250K/year with his lectures being seen by thousands of students — and hundreds of mediocre teachers just got made superfluous.

    2) The majority of K-12 students in traditional public schools are now diversities. Homeschooling (above all), but also a resurgence in private schools, charter schools, etc. have been how millions of whites have been enabled to get their kids away from Common Core (also called “lose 3 grades of math skills – guaranteed), Heather and Graham getting pawed or beaten up by Hernando, Tyrone, and Mohammed, mandatory “here’s how to become a homo” lectures in elementary grades, “why white Americans totally s*ck”, made-up “humans are causing the Earth to go molten on the surface” pseudoscience, etc. classes. This is forecast to increase, and is killing support for public school funding.

    3) Word is getting out about how easy schoolteachers have it relative to qualifications. First, who gets job tenure and guaranteed pensions any more? Second, going by SAT scores, Education majors are just about the stupidest college graduates there are, even behind the PE majors for God’s sake. How about we pay & employ the K-12 teachers the way adjunct professors in universities are? That would be easy to convince lots of insecure-job working stiffs.

    4) #3 also politically leads to greasing the skids for alternative certification programs, where holders of non-Education degrees get fast-tracked into teaching jobs. Try and sell to parents that someone with one or more degrees actually in History, Chemistry, Microbiology, Mathematics, Physics, Engineering, or Computer Science is utterly unqualified to teach a class in their professional field, but an Education degree holder (with an IQ that’s 20-50 points lower) is preferable? Good luck with that one.

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