Teacher Strikes Are Spreading Across America With No End in Sight

(Bloomberg) -- One month after a teachers’ “wildcat” strike ended with a deal to hike pay for all West Virgina state employees, teacher strikes are spreading fast across the country, with no clear endgame in sight.

In Oklahoma, teachers on Monday made good on their threat to shut down hundreds of schools throughout the state, preventing students from taking tests that are required by the end of the school year to ensure federal funding. In Kentucky, schools are closed as well—many because of spring break, others because teachers have swarmed the state capitol building in Frankfort. And in Arizona, teachers last week gathered at the statehouse in Phoenix with buttons reading “I don’t want to strike, but I will.”

In each case, teachers are pushing Republican governors and GOP-controlled legislatures to hike their pay, saying declining real wages threaten to drive staff out of the public school system. Educators see leverage in tight private sector labor markets and inspiration in West Virginia, where strikers defied union leaders by holding out for a better deal. They’re reviving the tactics of an earlier era: In the five years that followed World War II, as teachers felt left behind amid crowded classrooms and accelerating private sector wage growth, there were around 60 teacher strikes across the U.S.—many without legal protection or official union support.

“The way we see it is, we don’t really have any other choice,” said Kentucky special education teacher Jennifer Bolander, who took part in a “sick-out” Friday and now is protesting on spring break.

Legislators who might have said, ‘Well, why not more tax cuts and let schools take care of themselves somehow,’ they’re now looking around going ‘I don’t want this to explode in my state,’ ” said Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association. For decades “schoolchildren were left to pay for those big tax cuts. That chicken has now come home to roost.”

The showdowns may not end anytime soon. After Oklahoma union leaders, under pressure from teacher members agitating for a walkout, announced their April 2 strike plans, both houses of the deep-red legislature approved tax hikes to fund a $6,000 raise. But many teachers say that plan, the first tax increases authorized by the legislature in decades, doesn’t go far enough to improve their pay, which is among the nation’s very lowest. Meanwhile, legislators have already passed a separate bill repealing one of the new taxes, a levy on hotel stays.

Eskelsen Garcia said that the decision by Oklahoma legislators to repeal the hotel tax means that teachers are “going to want to see something actually signed, sealed, and delivered before they’ll believe that this is real.”

All this leaves union leaders in a tough spot. Members have proved they’re not only willing to go “wildcat,” but that they may keep doing so even if the union cuts a deal. But some officials worry that prolonged strikes against conservative lawmakers who’ve already coughed up some cash will end badly for their organizations. While Oklahoma’s National Education Association affiliate is backing an indefinite walkout, the president of Oklahoma City’s American Federation of Teachers local last week announced that his union accepts the $6,000 deal as a “down payment,” and warned that if the strikers stay out of work for too long, their numbers, support from school boards, and leverage could start to dissipate.

Such concerns don’t sway strikers such as John Waldron, who argued the public backs union calls for more education spending and smaller class sizes. “Right now, we’ve got a lot of momentum,” said Waldron, a social studies teacher in Tulsa and a member of the Oklahoma Education Association’s legislative committee. “We’re not just walking out for ourselves anymore—we’re walking for everybody.”

To contact the author of this story: Josh Eidelson in Washington at jeidelson@bloomberg.net.

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