Nearly three decades ago, the labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan determined it had become “insane” for American workers to go on strike. Observing the weakening of organized labor during the Reagan and Bush years, and the failure of numerous high-profile stoppages to achieve their aims, he gloomily concluded: “Every strike ends in disaster.” Unions grew increasingly reluctant to resort to walkouts, and since then, as Jake Rosenfeld wrote in What Unions No Longer Do (2014), “labor’s most powerful and prominent weapon in wage and benefit negotiations has nearly vanished from the American economic landscape.”
But public-school teachers in West Virginia recently issued a reminder of just what a well-executed, wide-scale walkout can accomplish. Without collective bargaining powers or the legal right to go on strike, some twenty thousand teachers left their jobs in early February to protest stagnant wages, dwindling benefits, and cuts in education funding. It was one of the rare statewide teacher strikes in U.S. history, and its size and scope proved critical. Drawing on their state’s ancestral tradition of coalminer activism, strikers took an “all-in-or-nothing” approach, while using social media and crowdsourcing tactics to ensure solidarity among far-flung union members and win support from the public. Notably, a decentralized rank-and-file made up mostly of women managed the effort, sidestepping a cautious and seemingly slow-footed leadership to get what they wanted—not least, a 5 percent raise. It was a strategy that reportedly flummoxed legislators who were convinced a strike couldn’t possibly be mounted, much less succeed.
That success has not gone unnoticed in states (many red) where years of tax and budget cuts, hostility to public employees, and disdain for the common good have exacted a damaging toll. Public-school teachers in Oklahoma, who have not received a raise since 2008, are set to strike on April 2, seeking not just better pay but also an end to decades of cuts in instructional funding that have scaled back academic offerings and eliminated numerous extracurricular programs. Teacher unions in Arizona and Kentucky have amped up their demands for pension protections and more educational funding. Importantly, residents of these states increasingly view the protests favorably, which seems to be getting the attention of elected officials.