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Why the Arizona Teachers' Strike Should Terrify Anti-Union Governors

As in other recent red-state teachers' strikes, the Arizona teachers were agitating not just for raises but for a wholesale improvement of the state's system of education.
Arizona teachers march toward the State Capitol in Phoenix, Arizona, on April 26th, 2018.

Arizona teachers march toward the State Capitol in Phoenix, Arizona, on April 26th, 2018.

Last week, 50,000 Arizonan teachers, parents, children, and supporters took to the streets in Phoenix and marched to the state capitol. Their demand: Fund public education.

Arizona teachers have just agreed to finish striking, an act that's technically not legal in the state. Like most red states, Arizona has systematically delegitimized the rights of public employees to unionize and strike. But the strength of a union has never been to follow rules—it's to consolidate the power of labor to act in unity. Workers organize so that they can exercise power even when it's inconvenient to those who pay them. Now, the wins of the "wildcat" strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Kentucky have emboldened educators in the Southwest. As Dwyer Gunn has reported for Pacific Standard, a new model of protest seems to be emerging nationwide. Republicans, though, aren't going to give up easily. Their next move: Divide and conquer.

As the threat to strike grew, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey promised a hefty 20 percent raise for all teachers by 2020 (which would still leave the state's teachers far below the national average). Rather than generate new revenue to cover the cost, though, Ducey, as reported by the Arizona Capitol Times, is counting on "rosy revenue projections and a mix of funding sweeps, lottery revenues, and spending reductions." The rosy projections are imaginary, but the sweeps and reductions will be all too real. The targets for cuts include arts and university programs, but also programs for people with developmental disabilities and children who need extra help learning English.

Twenty percent might sound like a lot, but Arizona teachers weren't striking to pad their pockets, but rather to shift the whole funding structure for higher education. When labor journalist Mike Elk interviewed marching teachers and supporters, he found unity. Different marchers had specific issues—cuts to language services for Latinx students, programs for disabled students, teacher pay, class size, and more—but the message was clear: Salaries are nice, but Arizona schools need more serious help.

It's true. David Wells, a policy analyst and lecturer at Arizona State University, argues in an article in the California Journal of Politics and Policy that Arizona's schools are in particularly bad shape even compared to those of other austerity states. Wells notes that former governor Jan Brewer (like Ducey, a conservative Republican) sought to increase funding for schools starting as early as 2010 through a small hike in the sales tax, though her efforts were significantly hamstrung by the recession. Ducey, on the other hand, created the #classroomsfirst hashtag slogan after he took office in 2015 to suggest that schools had plenty of revenue, but were simply spending it badly. The money, Ducey claimed, needed to go the "classrooms first." He and his party then initiated $117 million in cuts. The Arizona School Boards Association cites $4.56 billion in cuts to public education since 2008. This figure includes the effects of the recession, but while other states then raised spending as the economy recovered, Arizona kept cutting. A 2017 study from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities found that Arizona cut more funding per student (36.6 percent) than any other state in the country, and only partially recouped that shortfall with Brewer's sales tax hike. Add it all up and it's clear that the issue goes far beyond teacher pay.

What's happening in Arizona would be a big story at any moment. Now, though, it looks more like a sign of strength among this new wave of education-based labor action sweeping through conservative states in reaction to a decade of austerity. Not only are teachers ignoring laws that tell them they can't strike—they are refusing to be bought off by mere pay raises. In West Virginia, teachers refused a pay raise that came from cutting the salaries of other state workers. In a statement, the American Federation of Teachers in West Virginia wrote: "You do not equalize pay for different groups by simply taking away from one and passing it to another. The purpose of this is clear: to divide us and pit us against each other." The eventual raise that ended the strike was not contingent on restricting raises for other employees. In Oklahoma, teachers walked out after they were offered a $6,000 pay raise, motivated by collapsing schools and decades-old textbooks. They demanded a systemic overhaul and only ended the strike after receiving new guarantees for funding and salaries. In a state where cuts to education have led the way for years now, at least it's a step back in the right direction.

Meanwhile, the strike seems to be lurching to an awkward close. Ducey announced he had a deal without ever consulting with the teachers, but once he committed to maintaining sales tax funding for schools and 20 percent raises (well above his initial proposal of 1 percent raises), the teachers agreed to go back to work. As of the time of publication, it wasn't clear whether the Arizona legislature could manage to pass a budget and end the standoff. We'll just have to wait and see whether further school funding can be generated without stripping away support from others. If not, more labor unrest will surely follow.

As I've written in reporting about health care, divide-and-conquer is an old strategy for GOP leaders as they try to play the needs of vulnerable groups off each other. Today, it seems, teachers and their supporters are winning, with each new state feeding off the success in others. Divide and conquer works well when people are scared, but that doesn't seem to be the case in Arizona. As teachers and other public employees act as a unified force, GOP governors are going to have to develop a new playbook. Perhaps, for once, they could just invest in the schools.