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A Look at the Education Labor Movements Emerging Across the Country

A round-up of the strikes and protests organized by educators around the country who are frustrated with low pay and gutted school budgets.
Oklahoma teachers rally at the state capitol on April 2nd, 2018, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

Oklahoma teachers rally at the state capitol on April 2nd, 2018, in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

Welcome to State of the Unions Week, where we look at the past, present, and future of organized labor in America.


The biggest education story of 2018 has been one of mobilized labor. Since late February, thousands of teachers and other school employees have organized strikes and protests in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, Colorado, and Arizona—all states that pay teachers at least $7,000 less than the national average salary of $59,660.

There are a handful of motivators behind the burgeoning protests: sub-par salaries, anxieties over pension cuts, and, perhaps most insidiously, dramatic reductions in states' education funding over the past decade. Altogether, these pressures have left many educators feeling unable to do their job. It's hard to teach when you have to pick up extra jobs to make ends meet, or when you're stuck using 40-year-old textbooks.

Those sacrifices are common under budget cuts, which inevitably mean states spend less on students. Twenty-nine states spent less on students in 2015 than they did pre-recession in 2008, according to a report from the left-leaning Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The report also found that some states slashed income taxes in that time, shrinking a major source of education funding. Those states include Arizona, where dozens of districts and charter school networks informed parents on Monday that they will close tomorrow in response to a teacher walkout meant to pressure the state legislature into spending more on education. Governor Doug Ducey (R) already conceded some degree to protest plans. He vetoed 10 bills—all covering separate issues—last Friday, each time bouncing back a request to the legislature for higher spending on education. Namely, he asks for a budget that raises teachers' salaries 20 percent by 2020 and "restores additional assistance" to schools. But the legislature has not committed to those demands—which already fall short of what teachers want—and so remains the focus of teacher dissent.

It's unusual for public educators to direct their demands at state lawmakers like this, says Philip Harvey, a professor at Rutgers Law School–Camden. "I can't remember another situation like this, where teachers are appealing directly to the legislature" rather than to their districts, or instead of lobbying behind closed doors, he says. "Using strikes really means that they're appealing to the public. Their success really depends not on the targeted party, but on: 'Does the public support the strike?'"

Recent data suggests it does. In a survey conducted this month by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, 78 percent of Americans over the age of 18 said that teachers are underpaid, and 52 percent approved of striking to protest low pay as well as budget cuts. The survey asked specifically about strikes—a word that some union organizations are steadfastly avoiding, due to the complicated state laws around strikes from public employees.

Only 12 states—Colorado included—explicitly permit public-sector strikes, and even those must dance around a range of regulations, such as a requirement to try arbitration before striking, or bans against strikes from firefighters, law enforcement, and hospital police on the grounds that public safety requires those people to work. Districts that cannot legally strike—meaning they stop work without their employer's permission—often turn to the walkout or protest options, negotiating time off with administrators or using paid leave time to rally.

Regardless of their method, educators are building real momentum with these protests, largely through genuine grassroots organizing, says Paul Secunda, a professor at Marquette University Law School and director of the school's labor and employment law program. "I think it's very interesting that when you look at each of these states and their work stoppages, there's not a particular personality or individual who has stood out," Secunda says. "There's a wave of discontent. I think these are just people who are like: 'We can't pay our bills, we can't feed our children, and we're professionals. We are teachers, and yet we're being treated like trash.'"

Below, a breakdown of that discontent as it is playing out in the five states that have seen state- or city-wide movements this year:



Are Public Employee Strikes Explicitly Legal: No

Educator Demands: A substantive pay raise, rollbacks of measures to expand charter schools and to eliminate seniority, protection for unions' ability to collect member dues through payroll, and a response to skyrocketing health insurance costs.

Outcome: The strikes closed schools across the state for almost two weeks. Educators and other state employees received a 5 percent raise for the next fiscal year. They also won their legislative requests, the Nation reported, and a promise of a health-care task force that includes organized labor representatives. State Attorney General Patrick Morrisey—the first Republican to hold that office in West Virginia since 1933, and a United States Senate candidate—tweeted that the strike was "unlawful."


Are Public Employee Strikes Explicitly Legal: No

Educator Demands: Pay raises and a long-term increase in the state education budget.

Outcome: The walkouts closed hundreds of state districts for nearly two weeks. The mere threat of them forced pay victories before the protests even began: Teachers won an annual raise of about $6,000—a roughly 16 percent hike—and support staff will receive a raise of $1,250. But it's unclear whether Oklahoma will reverse its trend of decreased funding for schools.


Are Public Employee Strikes Explicitly Legal: No

Educator Demands: Major increases to state education funding and reforms to Kentucky's stringent pension system, which was tightened in a recent bill rushed through the state house and senate that imposes new restrictions on the application of sick days to retirement benefits. State Attorney General Andy Beshear (D) has filed a lawsuit against Governor Matt Bevin (R) challenging the pension bill.

Outcome: Educators rallied on April 2nd and April 13th, closing schools in dozens of districts both days (with some schools already closed April 2nd for spring break). In response, lawmakers voted to override Bevin's veto of a two-year budget that raises education spending, in part via a tax increase of more than $480 million. The pension fight continues. Bevin stated that children had ingested poison, been sexually assaulted, or been physically harmed after being left alone due to the strikes, comments he later claimed were misunderstood and caused unintended hurt.


Are Public Employee Strikes Explicitly Legal: Yes

Educator Demands: Since 2009, Colorado has cut the state budget by relying on a "negative factor": reductions to funding for schools in rural areas, in resort towns, and other locales with a high cost of living, and in communities with many at-risk students. The Colorado Education Association—the state branch of the country's largest teachers' union—says this has led to the legislature undercutting schools by more than $822 million a year. Protesting teachers want the legislature to close that gap in the next fiscal year, fund schools in the long term with the billions of dollars they have lost to the negative factor since 2009, halt new bonds for transportation until the state matches the national average for per-student funding, and protect pensions by blocking proposals to raise the retirement age to 65 and to reduce cost-of-living adjustments for retirees, according to CEA communications director Mike Wetzel.

Outcome: Hundreds of teachers took personal leave to gather at the state capitol on April 16th, and districts, including the state's 10 largest, have canceled or shortened classes Thursday and Friday in response to planned teacher walkouts. Colorado state senators have introduced a bill to prohibit teacher strikes, technically legal in the state, by barring districts from paying educators for any day they take part in a demonstration. Teachers in the city of Pueblo have voted to go on strike, and are waiting on a decision from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment to proceed. Decisions on the state budget and pensions remain open.


Are Public Employee Strikes Explicitly Legal: No

Educator Demands: Teachers want a 20 percent pay raise effective next year (which still would leave Arizona salaries below the national average), as opposed to Governor Doug Ducey's plan for a 20 percent total increase by 2020. They are also demanding pay increases for support staff, a restoration of education funding cut in past years, and a halt on tax cuts until the state matches the national average on education spending.

Outcome: The vote from teachers to strike today marks the first such vote for the state. As of Tuesday, Ducey held to his plan for a 20 percent raise across two years, to which the legislature has not committed. Strike participants could lose their teaching credentials, though so far no districts have threatened punishment.