Unite Educator Strikes To Win Better Contracts

by Miranda Alpert & Peggy Wang
ISG members in the
Massachusetts Teachers Association / National Education Association

Educators are at a breaking point. Stagnant pay, increased workloads, and decreased teacher autonomy are forcing many education workers – both new and veteran – out of the field. A 2022 National Education Association survey reported 55% of educators want to leave the profession earlier than planned and 90% feel severely burnt out. Nationwide 567,000 out of a total 3.2 million educators left the field between the start of the pandemic and 2022.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the existing crisis in public education. A lack of PPE, air ventilation systems, testing kits, access to remote learning technology, and proper allocation of CARES Act and ARPA funds toward schools exposed the capitalist class’ contempt for students and staff. It proved more than willing to sacrifice the health, safety, and lives of working people for the sake of profit.

This is only the most recent development in the decades-long attacks on public education and increased charter-ization that have resulted in low pay, decaying buildings, staff shortages, reduced programs and resources, and elevated levels of social and emotional stress. Teachers’ real salaries dropped 4% over the past 10 years. Educators on average make 20% less than other college graduates, and inflation has only compounded the real wage decreases. Students suffer from increased class sizes, fewer support staff, lack of transportation due to bus driver shortages, loss of access to mental health support, and more.

Five Years On: Red for Ed Strike Wave

Educators are taking action to turn this trend around. In Massachusetts in the past year, affiliated unions (locals) of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA) organized four strikes. Significantly, they challenged a statewide public-sector strike ban that has been in place since 1919, on top of having no federally protected right to strike as public sector workers. These actions have won yearly pay increases of 2-4%, and paraprofessionals in some districts have seen base salaries rise from $20-$23k to around $30-31k.

These strikes follow in the footsteps of the 2018-2019 Red for Ed movement, where educators in traditionally “red” states struck in the hundreds of thousands. It began with the 2018 West Virginia Teachers Strike, where 20,000 rank-and-file members organized a two week illegal wildcat strike and won 5% pay increases for all WV state employees. Educators in states like Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Arkansas followed suit and walked out of schools to protest low pay, cuts to pension plans, understaffing, health and safety concerns— among other long standing issues. They rallied in the thousands outside state houses, joined by students, families, and supporters. 

The biggest victories include Denver educators’ 16% average pay increase over a single year and Arizona’s nearly 20% pay raise over 3 years. Some won greater funding for public schools, including public higher education. Others lowered caseloads for support staff and reduced classroom sizes. But in some states, contract terms post-strike were similar to what had been offered pre-strike, with yearly pay increases of only 2-5%.

Right to Strike Essential 

While many of the educator fights in the last several years have been in traditionally Republican states, the same attacks against public education plague Democrat-dominated states. Democrats pretend to be pro-labor while implementing anti-worker attacks. 

MTA leaders and many other unions mistakenly put their hope in the Democratic Party to find legislative or electoral solutions. In June 2022, the MTA endorsed Democrat Maura Healey for Governor of Massachusetts and called on members to vote for her. Healey, former MA State Attorney General, ran on a platform of gender, social, and racial equality. Being a daughter of public school educators, Healey promised to defend public education and its workers. 

However, in an interview with CBS on 2/5/23, Healey affirmed that she, like her Republican predecessor Charles Baker, is against legalizing strike action for educators. In the interview, when asked about the ban on public educator strikes, Healey said, “There’s a reason why that is in place… While I have a lot of sympathy and want to make sure that workers, in this case educators, are getting paid what they should for the important work they do, it’s still paramount that our kids be in school.” 

This is the same justification politicians use against rail workers, nurses, and any other workers in key sectors of society. Capitalists and politicians try to pit community members and other workers against people striking for better conditions, strikes which, if won, usually set a higher standard for other workplaces and improve living and working conditions in the broader community. 

The MTA is also trying to defend the right for educators and public sector workers to strike by putting forward state legislation that would permit strikes “after six months of failed negotiations with their employer.” But this is putting the cart in front of the horse! Workers won the legal right to strike and organize by striking and organizing. The government conceded legal protections to a powerful labor movement. 

Labor leaders today argue that unions must win legal protections for workplace organizing before they can organize more workers. But the reverse is true—only by organizing a powerful and militant labor challenge to the capitalists will we win any concessions from the bosses or the government. Unions can take steps to rebuild a powerful movement immediately by mobilizing their members in a fight for real improvements using militant tactics and demonstrating to each member how the union helps them. 

Organize Mass Strikes

One immediate step that educator unions can take is to organize, bargain, and act as one union. Education workers across the country need similar things in their contracts. We should be bargaining with the largest number of united workers possible! And, when workplace action becomes necessary, workers can organize exponentially more powerful strikes statewide, or even nationwide.

The Massachusetts Teachers Association, for example, organizes 115,000 educators across 400 local unions, each with individual contracts. This year, we’ve seen a rolling series of individual strikes in separate school districts as their contracts come up for renewal. In an example of the weakness of this divided approach to contract campaigns and striking, a Democrat mayor slapped the Woburn Teachers Association with $225,000 in city fines on top of  $85,000 in state fines for five days of illegal strike action this February. 

Members of the MTA should fight for the union to negotiate one statewide contract (with regional supplements as necessary) and strike together as the state’s largest workforce. The West Virginia Teachers Strike demonstrated unmistakably the power of essential workers in education, united in mass action, fighting for all public sector workers in the state. 

No union should fight alone. Educator unions need the support of students, families, and other unions. While educators fight public sector strike bans, they need the support of other public sector unions, other workers who are banned from striking, like railroad workers and pilots, and the labor movement as a whole. Any attack on union rights is an attack on everyone’s union rights. 

To fight anti-union legislation and attacks on public services, unions need to break with the Democrats and Republicans and build a new party. We need a workers’ party with internal democracy including the right to discuss and debate, to vote on decisions, to hold leaders and candidates accountable through immediate recall, and for those leaders to take only the average wage of the people they represent. 

Through such a party, unions could run candidates in elections to challenge the two corporate parties, could politically represent themselves instead of ineffectively lobbying politicians, and organize mass campaigns and movements to pressure the government and bosses, regardless of political party, to concede to workers demands. 

As socialists consistently raise, no legal rights or material gains are won permanently under capitalism. If we want guaranteed workers rights and fully staffed and funded public services, the labor movement must take up the fight for democratic workers control of the economy and a workers government. 

ISG Members in the Mass. Teachers Association (MTA) and United Federation of Teachers (UFT) put forward these demands for educator unions:

  • A living wage, with real cost-of-living adjustments for teachers and school staff exceeding inflation. Adequate staffing and competitive pay and benefits to recruit and retain educators.
  • No increased working hours without additional pay. More paid prep time for teachers, including multiple weekly common planning blocks in lieu of other duties.
  • No more cuts to public education! Tax big corporations and the wealthy, who are making massive profits. Cut bloated police budgets. Full federal funding for education and other public services, including free universal healthcare, paid childcare, paid sick leave, paid parental leave.
  • Forgive all student loans! No evictions or foreclosures! Invest in truly affordable high-quality public housing!
  • Unite the struggle to win more decisive victories: for other unions and the broader labor movement to build solidarity, including joint pickets, rallies, and solidarity strikes of educators, students, and families.
  • Fight for the right to strike! Organize a united national educators strike. Withholding labor is the most basic tool workers have to fight for their livelihoods, and we must defend and extend that right.
  • Independent political action for unions and working people. Democrats actively block the right to strike for both private and public sector workers. We need a new political party for unions and working people.