More Teacher Strikes Ahead? Union Members Discuss Future Protests
There could be more teachers' strikes and protests this fall, as educators' frustration with low wages and cuts to school funding continues to boil over.
In the aftermath of statewide teacher strikes, walkouts, and large-scale demonstrations in about a half-dozen states this spring, delegates of the American Federation of Teachers introduced several resolutions that affirmed the union's support of striking teachers. And union leaders here at AFT's biennial convention spoke of potential labor unrest bubbling up in several other areas of the country.
A Supreme Court decision last month effectively turned the entire public sector into a right-to-work zone, meaning teachers don't have to pay any fee to be represented by the union in collective bargaining. That change will likely weaken unions in terms of revenue and membership numbers, and union leaders have predicted an increase in labor unrest. (Still, some experts have expressed skepticism about that claim.)
"One of the best ways to make sure our members are brought into the union in the era of Janus is to be a fighting union," said Alex Caputo-Pearl, the president of the United Teachers of Los Angeles, at a meeting of the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, a national coalition that counts AFT as a member.
The teachers' union has been in contract negotiations with the Los Angeles Unified school district for over a year. The last teacher strike in the city was in 1989. (This spring, the district narrowly avoided a one-day strike of nonteaching Los Angeles school employees.)
The union is still bargaining with the district, but Caputo-Pearl said he has seen "nothing over the last 14 months that indicate they're going to come" to the bargaining table with a proposal that's acceptable to union leaders. He said the union will probably hold a vote on whether members want to go on strike at the end of August.
Across the country in Louisville, Ky., there's another contract dispute happening with the teachers' union and the school board. At the AROS meeting, Tia Edison, a member of the Jefferson County Teachers Association board of directors, said there could be a strike when school starts if the two sides are unable to agree to a contract. The current contract agreement expired June 30, but the district and the teachers' union are continuing to negotiate. According to local news reports, the union is pushing for raises for teachers.
Jackson Potter, the staff coordinator of the Chicago Teachers Union who facilitated the AROS meeting, said he's heard of strike talks happening in Virginia, too.
The energy generated by the statewide protests was on display at the convention. On Saturday, thousands of educators marched through downtown Pittsburgh to call for more funding for public schools. In speeches to delegates, Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren all praised the political activism shown by teachers this spring. And several resolutions that were introduced at the convention included language to support future strikes, although those resolutions didn't make it to the floor in time for a vote before the conclusion of the meeting.
For example, one resolution called for the AFT and the National Education Association to "collaborate where possible to build on the great victories" that took place in the states with large-scale walkouts and protests this spring and "to launch a national campaign of labor action and education." The resolution stated that the courage of the striking teachers "inspires and challenges teachers and school employees to match their militancy on a national scale."
The AFT's organizing and collective-bargaining committee recommended the passage of this resolution. But since it didn't make it to the floor for a vote, the AFT executive council will take action on it this fall. (The executive council is composed of the union's leadership and its 40-plus vice presidents.)
Another resolution called to support striking teachers. The resolution asked for AFT affiliates "to declare a day of solidarity for our striking comrades." The committee recommended that resolution be referred to the executive council, which will take it up this fall.
Meanwhile, at the NEA convention earlier this month, delegates voted to establish a fund to support future teacher strikes through a voluntary membership donation of at least $3.
See also: Teacher Strikes: 4 Common Questions
For the most part, educators avoided calling the statewide teacher protests strikes this spring, preferring the term walkouts. The unions have said that is because the teachers were engaged in political speech and action directed at lawmakers, not the teachers' direct employers. (Also, strikes are illegal in many places.) But during a debate on the AFT convention floor, Caputo-Pearl said educators must "demystify strikes."
"For the most part, those were not walkouts," Caputo-Pearl said to applause. "We should call them what they were—strikes."
Image of the downtown Pittsburgh march on July 14 by Elliott Cramer/AFT. Courtesy of the American Federation of Teachers, all rights reserved.