At the center of the recent teacher insurgency is one particular form of direct action—the strike. The strike occupies a distinctive place in the popular consciousness of teachers and working people more generally, primarily because of its extraordinary visibility, leverage, and power as a tactic but also because of the mythology and romance that is often associated with it. Despite their success in establishing public-sector unionism and collective bargaining (including teacher unionism) in the 1960s, teacher strikes became increasingly ineffective by the mid-1970s and 1980s and had dwindled to a mere handful by the start of the twenty-first century. The success of the teacher insurgency in reestablishing the strike as a powerful tactic is a welcome development, but to maintain and build on that success, we need to be acutely aware of the approaches that best situate teacher strikes to win.
For much of their early history, both the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) had official no-strike policies. Negative public reaction to the 1919 Boston police strike had generated major political and legislative setbacks for public-sector union organizing, including the destruction of all existing police unions. The young AFT thought a no-strike policy was necessary for its survival. The two public-sector unions formed in the 1930s—the American Federation of State, Council and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and the American Federation of Government Employees (AFGE)—would also adopt no-strike pledges.
Despite these policies, there was a small flurry of teacher strikes after the Second World War, punctuated by high-visibility walkouts organized by AFT locals in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Buffalo, New York. During the war, real teacher salaries had fallen by 20 percent, while the pay of industrial workers had increased by 80 percent; in 1946, the average teacher was earning less than the average autoworker and the average meatpacker. These conditions led to increased militancy by teachers, including a limited number of strikes. Yet when a number of state legislatures responded with draconian legislation that imposed heavy penalties for striking, such as New York State’s Condon–Wadlin Act, the strikes petered out, leaving no lasting effects.
The 1960 strike for collective bargaining by New York City’s United Federation of Teachers (UFT) would prove to be a decisive turning point in this history, both in terms of the use of the strike as a tactic and in the success of strikes in winning their objectives. In the decade and a half that followed the UFT strike, teachers would seize on its example: there were more than 1,000 teacher strikes across the United States, involving hundreds of thousands of teachers. The great preponderance of those strikes focused on demands for union recognition and collective bargaining, and for salary increases and benefits enhancements through first contracts, and they were successful on both counts. By the end of the 1970s, nearly three-quarters of all American public school teachers were covered by a collective bargaining agreement, and in one significant measure of accomplishment, teacher salaries had increased dramatically—both in absolute terms and in relation to other professions that required similar levels of education.
This explosion in the number of teacher strikes was part of a larger public-sector strike wave, with dramatic increases in strikes across all types of government employment. It also drove that wave, as teacher strikes accounted for close to half of all public-sector strikes during the 1960s. The late ’60s and early ’70s would also see strikes spread to the private sector, which experienced its own strike wave. Just as the strikes of the 1930s and ’40s had played a pivotal role in establishing industrial unionism in the United States, the strikes of the 1960s and ’70s would be central to establishing public-sector unionism. And teachers were the catalyst: “The vanguard place in union militancy,” wrote former union organizer and labor academic Jack Barbash, “goes to the teachers.”
Yet this period of teacher strike potency would not last. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, the first signs of trouble had appeared with long and bitter strikes in New York City and Newark, New Jersey, generating deep racial divisions and leaving lasting wounds in the civic fabric of those cities. By the mid-1970s, a major unraveling in the power of the teacher strike had begun. Just as the 1960 UFT strike had marked the beginning of an era, the 1975 UFT strike marked its closing and the advent of a new period. In 1973, the U.S. economy entered into its deepest and longest recession since the end of the Second World War, with a devastating combination of rising unemployment and inflation that had not been experienced in previous economic downturns. By 1975 New York City was experiencing its highest levels of unemployment since the Great Depression, largely due to the loss of manufacturing jobs. The revenues of state and local governments across the United States had plummeted, and many were experiencing major fiscal crises.
As the beginning of the 1975–76 school year approached, New York City announced thousands of teacher and educator layoffs, massive increases in class sizes, and a freeze on salaries. In response, the UFT went on strike. But in these circumstances, its leverage was limited; after a week on strike, a divided union unhappily swallowed an agreement that fell well short of satisfactorily addressing the devastating cuts to the schools and their teachers. It was another month before even this deal was secure, guaranteed only after teachers’ pension funds were invested in bonds that would keep the city from going into bankruptcy. It would be decades before New York City’s schools and teachers made up the ground lost in 1975.
As Jon Shelton’s Teacher Strike! details, the dismal results of the 1975 UFT strike fit a pattern that was repeated across the country, as teachers and their unions unsuccessfully employed increasingly unpopular strikes in attempts to stem the tide of government austerity policies that followed in the wake of the state and local fiscal crises of the mid-1970s. As the efficacy of strikes diminished, their numbers fell: strikes were already in decline in both the public and private sectors by 1981, when President Ronald Reagan broke the high-profile strike of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO). Reagan’s destruction of PATCO would dramatically accelerate the fall in the number of strikes, and by the first decade of the twenty-first century, strikes of all types—teacher strikes, public-sector strikes, and private-sector strikes—had faded to a mere handful in the United States.
The strikes of the teacher insurgency are the first positive signs in a long time that the strike could be reinvigorated as a powerful direct-action tactic for teachers and other working people in the United States. If these trends are sustained and spread to the private sector, it will not be the first time that teachers blazed the path for the American labor movement in a strike wave. Yet the history of teacher strikes also stands as an object lesson for those who insist that militancy and strikes alone are sufficient for teacher unions and other unions to make progress. A successful teacher strike requires more than a willingness to fight and demands more than acts of political will; it requires a thoughtful strategic approach that incorporates lessons from the history of the strike and understands how and why teacher strikes could swell in number and efficacy and then ebb in power and dwindle to a precious few.
The Declining Power of Labor
In 1960, New York City was a bastion of union power. The political and financial support of the city’s unions would prove critical in converting the momentum generated by the UFT’s strike into a victory for collective bargaining for teachers. This prototype repeated itself across the nation—teacher unions and other public-sector unions were first established and became most potent in places where the labor movement was already strong. Legislation enabling public-sector collective bargaining was first and most fully enacted in states where the labor movement had a powerful political presence. Conversely, teacher unions found it more difficult to acquire a foothold in states, mostly in the South, where the labor movement was weak; the same states that had adopted “right-to-work” laws to forestall the unionization of private-sector workers would pass legislation prohibiting collective bargaining for public-sector labor.
At the start of the 1960s, the American labor movement was near the high point of its economic and political power. The percentage of union members in the workforce stood at 31.4 percent, still close to its all-time high in the mid-1950s, and the absolute number of union members was still growing. The labor-liberal political coalition that had been the basis for the New Deal remained politically hegemonic, anchored by the labor movement and progressive industrial unions such as the United Auto Workers (UAW). Starting in the late 1930s and 1940s, and continuing well into the 1960s, the economic and political power of unions had produced an era that the economist Paul Krugman has called the “Great Compression,” as income inequality in the United States was dramatically reduced. Union political power would provide much of the muscle behind the civil rights legislation and the liberal programs of the Great Society during the 1960s, including the War on Poverty, and made it possible for Bayard Rustin, A. Philip Randolph, and Martin Luther King, Jr. to think that the broad social democratic agenda of the Freedom Budget could be enacted. Teacher unions and other public-sector unions benefited immensely from the political power of unions as a whole during this decade.
Over the course of the 1960s, however, the membership rolls and density of the industrial unions began to decay, a product of employment lost to technological change, of corporate-dominated globalization that sent industrial jobs to countries with authoritarian governments that suppressed labor and kept it cheap, and of an increasing resort to harsh anti-union measures by American businesses. By the 1970s, the growing loss of members had begun to impact the political power of these unions. The effect on the larger labor movement and labor-left political coalition was initially masked by the growth of public-sector unions during the 1960s and 1970s, but it began to take an increasingly visible toll. By the late ’70s, the American labor movement was in retreat, and the labor-liberal coalition was coming apart. In the subsequent decades, the decline of the economic and political power of unions led to an explosion in income inequality, returning it to the Gilded Age levels of extreme wealth and poverty we are now experiencing.
The recession and fiscal crises of the mid-1970s gave New York City’s financial elite formidable leverage, much as they gained across the country. The city’s major financial institutions had become global operations, and their bottom lines were no longer closely tied to local economic fortunes. When they stopped purchasing the bonds of a city in increasingly desperate financial straits, and the federal government held back on providing financial aid, it raised the specter that the city would default on its obligations, including payroll for municipal employees, and enter into bankruptcy. With default and bankruptcy, the city would lose control over its economic affairs, creating severe hardships for the city’s working-class and poor who relied on its services, and making it possible to tear up union contracts with the city. The financial elite were able to leverage this threat to have New York State establish a shadow city government in the form of an Emergency Finance Control Board (EFCB), which held what amounted to veto power over the city’s budgetary decisions. The EFCB imposed severe austerity, which would cut deeply into the very muscle and bone of the public sector, including public education. Many of the policies and public-sector programs that had made New York City into a social democratic oasis since the days of Mayor Fiorello La Guardia and the New Deal, such as the free public college education at the City University that produced so many of the famous “New York intellectuals,” were either eliminated or transformed into faded facsimiles of once-robust public goods and services. The financial elite forced changes in the city’s very social and economic fabric, introducing an era of extreme economic inequality. Failed strikes carry real costs.
The 1975 UFT strike and the other teacher strikes of the mid-1970s were swimming upstream against powerful currents. Arguably, even the most strategically sound strikes would have had real difficulty achieving any measure of success under these circumstances, yet the teachers unions’ strike strategy in this period had major weaknesses. They failed to grasp how the changing world required a retooling of what had worked so well only a decade earlier. It is important to learn how to avoid replicating these weaknesses if the teacher insurgency is to be sustained.
Organizing and Mobilizing Strikes
Strikes are not spontaneously born, the natural and inevitable expression of “an ardent sentiment of revolt, always present in the soul of the worker,” as the syndicalists would have it. They are a form of collective action and, like all collective action, they must be organized and mobilized. As protest and direct action, strikes can gather energy and acquire momentum from the general tenor of the times. In a period of mass protests such as the 1960s and early 1970s and again in more recent years, teachers and other working people are inspired by witnessing and participating in nonviolent direct action against the exercise of illegitimate and arbitrary authority. Such protests make clear that resistance is possible. But inspiration is the start, not the finish, of effective collective action, and is no replacement for organization.
Strikes are complex operations, involving a multiplicity of critical tasks that must be coordinated: picket lines, rallies, internal union communications, union meetings, media relations, community relations, and negotiations. The better organized the strike and the more fully these tasks are accomplished, the greater its chance of success. In this respect, the 2012 and 2019 Chicago strikes and the 2019 Los Angeles strike, with their careful and thorough school-by-school and teacher-by-teacher organizing and years of preparing the ground for the actual strike mobilization, stand as exemplars.
The most essential organizational task is winning and keeping the allegiance of teachers to the strike. Teachers are knowledgeable and discerning political actors. They understand full well that strikes are a high-intensity and high-risk tactic, with the potential both to deliver advances and victories that could not be otherwise obtained and to end in major setbacks and defeats. The risk side of this equation is particularly acute in the three-quarters of all states where teacher strikes are illegal; in these states, striking becomes an act of civil disobedience and can result in severe penalties to teachers and their unions.
To be willing to go on strike and stay out until a settlement is won, therefore, teachers need to be convinced on a number of different counts: first, that they are fighting for important, worthwhile objectives; second, that those objectives cannot be achieved through other means that are not as high-intensity and high-risk as a strike; third, that the strike has reasonable prospects of success; fourth, that the strike objectives have strong support in the community; and fifth, that the solidarity among teachers, which is essential to a strike’s success, is strong and will hold. In significant measure, the last of these points is dependent not simply on the organization and mobilization of the strike, but also on the four antecedent conditions. If teachers become doubtful on any of these points, it will become difficult to mount or sustain a successful strike.
Given these conditions, what political reasoning do teachers employ to make the difficult decision to strike?
The Strike and the Civic Republican Traditions of Labor
Adapting the precepts of the civic republicanism expounded by Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, among others, the nineteenth-century American labor movement saw the strike as a fundamental right of citizenship. According to this perspective, the strike was not simply an expression of the collective power of working people, but also a manifestation of the republican liberty of free labor—an assertion of the freedom from domination that is the necessary foundation for the self-rule of the citizenry in a republic. Workers must be able and willing to withdraw their labor through a strike, nineteenth-century unionists contended, or they will no longer be their own masters, but powerless subjects in a system of wage slavery. Much as elections and voting were understood to be the means for the civic reenactment and renewal of the social compact on which the republican government was based, strikes were viewed as public affirmations of the dignity and civic worth of the citizen-worker. The often-elaborate pageantry of nineteenth-century strikes—the marches, demonstrations, rallies, and picket lines; the songs and dramatic performances; and the banners, garb and regalia of the unions—would symbolically stake this public claim on a republican citizenship for working people.
While this civic republican understanding of the strike as a declaration of the rights of citizenship is more often sublimated than explicit in the U.S. strikes of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, its continuing presence is powerfully captured in such moments as the 1968 Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. The “I am a man” picket sign held by the African-American workers has become an iconic emblem of American strikes, with its demand for the recognition of the rights of citizenship. Successful teacher strikes often highlight an analogous theme of the dignity and civic worth of teachers and the value of the work they do, and that powerful symbolic statement is one of the less appreciated motivations for teachers when they go on strike. It has been a theme in the strikes of the teacher insurgency.
If this discussion of the republican liberty of working people seems like an exercise in antiquarian history and political philosophy, it is worthwhile to consider that undercurrent American labor law, a worker surrenders most of her rights of citizenship—her freedoms of speech, press, peaceful assembly, and the right to petition to seek redress of her grievances; her right to due process; her right to fair and equal treatment—at the door of a non-unionized workplace. The legal protections for workers organizing a union have been whittled away over seven decades, and they are now very weak and mostly unenforced by government. American law allows non-union workplaces to be “private governments,” or what philosopher Elizabeth Anderson calls “dictatorships in our midst.” Under the doctrine of at-will employment that governs such workplaces, workers can be fired for any reason or no reason at all, save those instances where a firing involves documentable discrimination against a member of a protected class under civil rights law. In jurisdictions with incomplete civil rights protections, a worker can be fired for nothing more than her sexual orientation or gender identity—only twenty-two states provide full employment protection for LGBTQ employees. If a worker in a non-union workplace wears a button supporting a candidate for public office opposed by her employer or has a bumper sticker on her car supporting a cause opposed by her employer, she can be fired with no remedy in law.
As Alexander Hertel-Fernandez has thoroughly documented, U.S. employers in non-union settings use their unchecked power over their workplace to compel political action on behalf of candidates, legislation, and causes that promote the interests of the business and its owners. When economic domination is turned into political coercion in these ways, it collides directly with the foundational republican idea of the self-rule of citizens. This is why the founding slogan of the AFT—“Education in Democracy, Democracy for Education”—focused on the vital connection unionists saw between teachers’ ability to exercise the rights of citizenship inside the educational workplace on the one hand, and their work to promote democracy through their teaching on the other.
Civic republicanism was the source of another central concept in American labor’s understanding of the nineteenth-century strike: the duty of solidarity. The first truly national labor union in the United States, the Knights of Labor, articulated a labor-republican vision of the future society it sought to establish, the cooperative commonwealth. At the center of that vision was the idea that government should promote the common good: “The best government (is one) in which an injury to one is the concern of all.” For the Knights of Labor, this principle of seeking the common good—what classical republicans called civic virtue—not only defined how government and society should function, but also how working people themselves should act with respect to each other. Contemporary American unionists will recognize the Knights of Labor formulation as an early version of an axiom of labor solidarity that has continued to this day: “An injury to one is an injury to all.”
At the heart of republican citizenship and civic virtue is the willingness to make personal sacrifices: citizens in a republic exercise civic virtue through a myriad of sacrifices, great and small, from putting their lives at risk to defend their nation from attack to paying taxes that support government goods and services that do not personally benefit them. Going on strike and practicing solidarity entails sacrifices ranging from the loss of one’s income to the loss of one’s job. When strikes are prohibited by law, rank-and-file unionists can incur fines and union leaders can go to jail. Yet American teachers have demonstrated again and again that they are prepared to make such sacrifices if going on strike means that they can secure a better future not only for themselves and their families, but also for the students they teach and nurture, the schools in which they work, and the communities they serve. By their very choice of vocation, entering an occupation with modest pay and benefits in order to make differences in the lives of young people, teachers have demonstrated that they are prepared to make sacrifices for a greater good.
The Strike as Direct Action
“The strike is the only weapon labor has,” said Harry Bridges, leader of the 1934 San Francisco general strike and longtime president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, on the occasion of his retirement. Still deeply embedded in the syndicalism of his youth, Bridges minced no words: the strike was not a weapon, or even the primary weapon, of labor—it was the “only weapon.”
Today, there are advocates of this single-minded focus on the strike within the labor movement; it is fetishized as a magical cure for more than a half-century of long-term secular decline in union power. No one has made that case with more force and consistency than Joe Burns, a one-time union organizer, local leader, and labor lawyer who has dedicated two books to the subject of “reviving the strike.” For Burns, the strike is the only means for rebuilding the American labor movement; he explicitly discounts the positive contributions of other direct-action tactics, organizing the unorganized, building strong relationships with community, social unionism, and labor law reform. Eric Blanc, author of Red State Revolt, a book chronicling the teacher strikes of 2018, argues that the labor movement’s long decline was a result of a focus on engaging in electoral politics—what he characterizes as “simply lobbying the Democrats”—as opposed to “building power by striking.”
But the decline in the use of the strike has been as much an effect of the decline of the power of the American labor movement as it has been a cause. A successful strategy for the revitalization of unions must be more multifaceted and more dialectical than a simple focus on mounting strikes.
The irony here is that reliance exclusively on the strike creates the very conditions for weakening it as a tactic, making it less powerful and less effective. One of the reasons why teacher strikes went from being formidable tools for improving the lives of teachers in the 1960s and early ’70s to becoming ineffective and at times counterproductive by the late ’70s and ’80s was the fact that teacher unions had become wholly dependent on it, and did not increase the repertoire of direct-action tactics in their arsenals. When the only tool a union has is the hammer of the strike, it treats every strategic challenge as a nail, even when different problems could be better addressed by a different direct-action tool or by political action.
At its height during the 1960s, the civil rights movement engaged in constant tactical innovation and experimentation, with the insurgency peaking again and again as new forms of direct action were introduced. As Doug McAdam explains in his study of the “Black insurgency,” this creativity was key in keeping the Jim Crow regime off guard and off balance; no sooner did white supremacist authorities adjust to one tactic, finding ways to respond to and check it, then they would find themselves confronted with a new strategy.
There is no reason why unions—especially teacher unions—could not do the same. At the height of its influence in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the United Farm Workers (UFW) employed a strategy along these lines, surrounding the strike with other tactics of civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action, such as boycotts, sit-ins, and public fasts; the farmworkers’ struggle to unionize and win a better life was framed as a struggle for civil rights and citizenship rights by a workforce of people of color, wedded to community organizing. A strategy that was entirely dependent on the strike would never have achieved the victories won by the UFW in those years.
The point here is not to retreat from the use of direct action, with its capacity to disrupt the existing balance of political forces, but to expand its use—to not become dependent on just one tactic, even a tactic as potentially powerful and important as the strike. To the extent that teachers and their unions have a wide repertoire of direct-action tactics, every action in that repertoire—including the strike—will be more effective.
Strikes and Political Action
Even among labor movement thinkers who recognize the value of different tactics of direct action, there are still those who counterpose the strike to political action. Labor organizer Jane McAlevey has insightfully analyzed different direct-action approaches in both union organizing and community organizing, but she dismisses electoral politics when she concludes, “Ultimately, I don’t think there’s any way out of the crisis we’re in in this country right now unless we start having more strikes.” This is a revealing formulation, given the obvious challenge that it avoids discussing—the fact that in the United States and many other nations, much of the machinery of the government has been in the hands of authoritarian, racist populists of the far right. The electoral defeat of Donald Trump has not ended the crisis of democracy, but it is impossible to conceive of a realistic scenario where it was not a necessary first step in that process. Without any explanation of how “more strikes” would translate into electoral victories over these forces, the strike becomes a totem for addressing a crisis that, if unchecked, could lead to the consolidation of political forces that are unequivocally hostile to unions.
There is a fundamental problem with this counterposing of strikes and politics. In the United States, politics have always been central to the outcomes of strikes, both in victory and defeat. The refusal of President Franklin Roosevelt and Michigan Governor Frank Murphy to use troops to suppress the 1936–37 Flint sit-down strike was decisive in forcing General Motors to recognize and negotiate with the UAW, thus generating the breakthrough of industrial unionism in the United States that followed the unionization of the largest corporation of its era. President Reagan’s willingness to break the 1981 PATCO strike destroyed their union and was a significant factor in the decline of strikes as a direct-action tactic of unions in the following decades. Different elected officials with different relationships to labor would most likely have produced different outcomes.
What is true of strikes in general is doubly true of teacher strikes and other public-sector strikes, as the employer is the government. By their very nature, these strikes are political. The 2018 strike in West Virginia had the most success of the strikes that year precisely because the unions in that state were well-established, with strong union density and a real and active political force; they were able to use their political capacity to move the state legislature and governor to act on those demands. The 2019 Los Angeles strike brought to public attention the question of how charter-school expansion had a negative impact on district schools, but it still required the organized political presence of the state’s teacher unions to pass legislation that reformed, for the very first time, the process by which new charter schools were authorized. A reliance on the strike alone would not have achieved either of these victories.
The Strike and Relationships to Community
This understanding of strikes as part of a broader strategic approach is especially important when one considers a critical factor in the decline of the potency of teacher union strikes in the late 1970s and ’80s: the divisions that had opened up between the unions and the communities they served. The austerity conservatism that emerged out of the fiscal crises of the mid-1970s—known as Reaganism in the United States—had as its primary objectives the gutting of the public sector and the evisceration of the social welfare safety net. It thus set its sights both on the workers and the unions that provided public goods and services on the one hand, and on the working-class and poor communities, disproportionately of color, that relied on those public goods and services on the other. Attacks on public-sector employees as lazy, incompetent, and overcompensated were matched with attacks on racialized “welfare queens” and the “undeserving” poor, and both were condemned as “parasitical” on the “taxpayer.”
To have had any realistic hope of blunting the assault of this austerity conservatism, it would have been necessary to develop a common front between the workers who provided public goods and services and the communities that relied on them. Like any political alliance, this front would have to be actively built and organized. But as much as the logic of joint opposition to attacks on the public services and goods was clear, there were also deep-seated suspicions and distrust on each side. The long and bitter Ocean Hill-Brownsville and Newark strikes were on the order of epic Greek tragedies: out of a mutual failure to grasp the larger dynamics at work, the main characters fell into mortal combat that brought down both sides. Teacher unions had concluded that these strikes were existential struggles; many in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville and Newark communities and beyond had concluded that unions were standing in the way of good schools for poor children of color. That accusations of racism and anti-Semitism pervaded these perceptions made them all the more intractable. These differences proved to be too great to overcome; neither teacher unions nor the communities they served saw each other as potential political partners at this critical moment. As a result, the strikes were politically isolated and unpopular, and a conservative politics of austerity won the day, to the detriment of both teachers and the communities.
One of the most positive aspects of the strikes of the teacher insurgency has been the strong support the teachers and their unions have received from their communities. That support did not appear ex nihilo, like Athena bursting forth full-grown from the head of Zeus. It was the product of a decade and a half of work on the part of teacher unions to build deep, long-lasting ties to communities.
Far too much of what passes for thinking about strikes in the United States— including teacher strikes—rests on a “field of dreams” theory: Call it, and they will come. We must go beyond such romantic notions, which are recipes for disaster, and consider the different conditions and approaches that have led teacher strikes to victory and defeat, to find a way forward that will continue the success of the strikes of the teacher insurgency.
Leo Casey is Executive Director of the Albert Shanker Institute, a think talk affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. Over the course of a forty-year career, he has been a rank and file public school teacher, the leader of the union at his school and a Vice President of New York City’s United Federation of Teachers.
This text was adapted from Leo Casey’s book The Teacher Insurgency: A Strategic and Organizing Perspective, out now from Harvard Education Press.