By Gerard Di Trolio
There has been a modest but not insignificant revival of the strike in the United States. After all, it is the ultimate weapon of workers and its decline alongside that of the American labour movement has had a disastrous impact on economic inequality and working conditions.
Teacher strikes have been a major part of this revival. The successful Chicago Teachers Strike of 2012 electrified the American labour movement and inspired new ways of building community-labour alliances.
Chicago is of course is a city with a large union presence and in is in a state with no right-to-work laws. There are historical and structural reasons why such a strike was able to pull off an impressive victory there.
But successful teacher strikes in Arizona, Oklahoma, and West Virginia seemed impossible not that long ago. These are solidly Republican states that all have right-to-work laws.
But in Eric Blanc’s new book Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics, it becomes quite clear that strikes and working-class politics can be successful even in conservative States.
Blanc, a former high school teacher knows what it is like to be a teacher and has used that experience along with his activist work to gain access to many rank-and-file union activists and social media groups for teachers in each of the States covered in the book.
But Blanc is also a socialist, and this combination lends itself to a very clear and sharp analysis of the teachers strikes.
Red State Revolt is organized into only three chapters and an epilogue. But each chapter plays a vital role in taking an expansive look at the strikes.
The first chapter lays out the political situation in each of the States, the challenges facing teachers in each of those states, and challenges liberal presumptuousness that such working-class insurgencies, many of them unlawful, could happen in places where the Republicans dominate.
It’s easy to forget that organized labour once wielded a significant amount power in West Virginia, and that Oklahoma once had the largest per capita membership of any state in the Socialist Party of America in the early 20th Century.
The second chapter deals with the strikes themselves. Blanc begins by discussing why the strike is important and powerful for workers and then gives us details on how teachers who were not rank-and-file activists could be won to a pro-strike position, even it it was an unlawful action. The chapter also deals with the strategy and tactics used by the strikers.
For example, it was important that the strikes did not stop until State governments were actually serious about offering changes to wages, benefits and working conditions. Otherwise, agreeing not to strike or halting based on a promise from the Governor backed by no legislation would ultimately lead to no changes.
And building a broad community-labour alliance requires framing the struggle as something beyond pay and benefits for teachers. There were efforts to make the case to the public that working conditions for teachers are learning conditions for students. And it was important to link the strikes to racial justice, and in Arizona, particularly immigration justice. For example, in Arizona, the Red for Ed movement there helped to get the issue of immigrant rights and ICE crackdowns out to a broader audience creating more space for that movement.
The third chapter deals with question of militants and radicals in the labour movement. Blanc makes a strong case that the intervention of experienced union activists and socialists played a major role in the success of these strikes. Though not ascribing their intervention to single handedly making these strikes successful, Blanc does tie this increase in labour militancy as a process that has gone hand in hand with movements that have been energized by the success of the Bernie Sanders campaign and the rise of the Democratic Socialists of America.
And Blanc does not employ a reductive rank-and-file vs. union bureaucracy analysis. Blanc absolutely points out how union leadership sometimes sought to moderate the actions and demands of the rank-and-file. But at the same time, he notes that even the leadership of the teachers’ unions still played a role in legitimizing these strikes even if they at sometimes acted conservatively. It was then up to rank-and-file organizations like Arizona Educators United to help propel things forward.
In my opinion, the most insightful part of the book was all of the quotes that Blanc gathered from his interviews with teachers in the States involved. While Blanc of course spoke with activists and socialists, he also spoke with teachers whose perspectives were transformed by becoming involved in the struggle.
For example, this quote from an Arizona teacher is prime example of transformation through struggle: “The word ‘union’ does not scare me anymore. I joined [the Arizona Education Association] and plan on continuing to fight for what is right for educators and students. I feel the most empowered I have ever felt as an educator and now do believe that change is possible” (p. 8).
At a little over 200 pages, Red State Revolt is an easy read. While it discusses organizing and socialist strategy, there is no theoretical jargon, and Blanc clearly explains the socialist concepts he uses to analyze the strikes.
This isn’t just a book for teachers, nor is it just for trade unionists. Any kind of activist can take lessons from this book on how to build a broad coalition that can put pressure on governments to enact change.
And within the Canadian context, if teachers in conservative States facing a labour law regime that is probably the most restrictive of any democratic country, then Canadian teachers should be able to fight back against education cuts as long as they are willing to put up a fight.
Eric Blanc will be in Toronto on May 29 to discuss Red State Revolt. Check out the Facebook page for the event here.