It’s been a year, and the state-level teacher strikes that swept through several states show no sign of abating. The most recent one in Oakland, Calif. just ended March 4 after the 3,000 picketing teachers won an 11 percent salary increase. Right before the California walkout, West Virginia teachers thronged the state capitol and succeeded in squashing legislative efforts to expand school choice. (This came a year after their February 2018 strike sparked the walkout trend).
Other strikes in Oklahoma, Arizona and Kentucky gave momentum to the RedforEd moniker and movement, spurred by organizing from major teachers’ unions the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. Basically, the unions argue, even in traditionally conservative states, teachers are fed up with their level of pay, classroom funding, and other education issues. West Virginia English teacher and activist Jessica Salfia explained the strikes came from a failure to heed ordinary teachers’ ideas for reform, adding, “I am DONE being disrespected.”
Salfia and her colleagues across the country may have worthy ideas about what to do to improve schools. We educators at Free to Teach may even find several areas of agreement, such as working towards smaller class sizes, reducing the emphasis on standardized testing, and bringing respect to our schools and our profession.
But as our organization director and 21-year educator Keith Williams notes, “If teachers really want respect as the white-collar professionals they are, striking is not the way to get it.” Strikes force students out of school, heighten animosity between parents and teachers, make negotiations with school administrators harder, and simply hold everyone–including the community itself–hostage to union demands.
Northeastern Pennsylvania teacher Cheri Gensel wrote late last year that the PSEA’s rigid determination to strike in her school district years ago hurt a supportive community and soured her against teachers’ unions.
..the strike revealed the particular intransigence of the union. I suggested offering concessions like smaller class sizes rather than demanding higher pay only at the bargaining table, but the union president said they couldn’t bargain over issues like that. What that proved to me is that the union is not really about students and they’re not really about members—they’re about an agenda pushed by the PSEA.
In other words, if the RedforEd strikes represent a grassroots movement, they’re failing to represent all the grass at the roots.
Not all teachers want to strike to resolve problems, and not all agree that a lack of funding–the unions’ main talking point–is the worst problem assailing American public schools. (Some of our members, for example, teach at the very charter schools folks like Salfia excoriate. These teachers know first-hand how they are providing a welcome alternative for families desperate to escape violent or failing neighborhood schools).
The type of advocacy education needs isn’t the red-shirted picketing sort, it’s the reasonable kind that deepens teacher credibility. Call it CredforEd, if you will. That’s what many teachers want instead of shouting in the streets.