Teachers' strikes a new social movement, researcher says

Jessica Buterbaugh
May 10, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — With every social movement, there is a moment — an event or instance that sparks a time for change. With the recent rise of teachers striking across the United States, one Penn State researcher argues that, for the first time in decades, public education is seeing its own moment that's prompted a new movement.

"The last big strikes of teacher unions in the United States were in the late 1980s and early 1990s," said Rebecca Tarlau, an assistant professor of education and labor and employment relations at Penn State. "In 2012 there was the Chicago teachers' strike, which gave new momentum to teacher unions. Then in 2018, there was this huge mobilization of teachers in West Virginia, which took everybody by surprise, and then there were strikes and walkouts in Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, North Carolina and Colorado. Why now? Why were teacher unions demobilized for so long and why are they suddenly very mobilized?"

Rebecca Tarlau

Rebecca Tarlau, assistant professor of education and labor and employment relations.

IMAGE: Penn State

Tarlau, an ethnographic researcher whose research is funded by a National Academy of Education and Spencer Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship, knew the best way to answer her questions was to immerse herself in the culture of teacher unions and speak with the union leaders and members across the country.

"My ethnography is about teacher movements within unions, so what I've been doing is trying to participate in teacher actions when they happen," she said, adding that she spent a week in Los Angeles in January during the recent teacher strike. She also spent time this year in Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Oakland, California. 

"I was not only interviewing people but also participating in the actions of the union. I was part of a volunteer team with the Unified Teachers of Los Angeles and I was able to observe their inner workings and help out during the rallies. It gave me this unique insight into what was happening on the ground," she said.

The big finding, she said, is that unions are now focused on social justice for students and not just teacher salaries and benefits, which were the primary foci throughout much of teacher unions' histories. Tarlau traces this new focus back to 2012.

"In 2012, Chicago teachers went on strike and they introduced a new phrase to their fight. They said, 'We're fighting for the schools that Chicago students deserve,'" Tarlau said. "During that strike, the Chicago teacher union and the Teachers 4 Social Justice (T4SJ) network joined forces to merge education and racial justice. You had communities of color where schools were getting shut down and the union helping to fight against that."

"The political economy of public schools has transformed since the early 2000s with No Child Left Behind and the rise of high-stakes standardized testing, merit pay, and school-choice and voucher policies. Teachers have a lot more precarious jobs and they're treated not as intellectuals in the classroom but really as technocrats who often have to follow a scripted curriculum."

— Rebecca Tarlau, assistant professor of education and labor and employment relations

Three impactful changes

But why did that happen? What caused the merger? That is something Tarlau is still investigating but she said she has identified a few emerging themes.

"The political economy of public schools has transformed since the early 2000s with No Child Left Behind and the rise of high-stakes standardized testing, merit pay, and school-choice and voucher policies," she said. "Teachers have a lot more precarious jobs and they're treated not as intellectuals in the classroom but really as technocrats who often have to follow a scripted curriculum."

Education is one of the biggest new markets for profits due to the number of education startups that are full of people who want a piece of the education pie, Tarlau said.

There's also been an increase in progressive organizers within unions who have been working for years to make change and to promote broader social justice goals.

"There's always been these little groups of people who have these broader visions within unions and sometimes they are able to take power," Tarlau said. "In LA, a group of very progressive people who were often linked to other social movements in the city took power of the teacher union in the early 2000s, but it was really hard to transform this monstrous union of 34,000 teachers and change the culture from a service culture to an organizing culture."

Although the LA teacher activists were not successful in transforming their union in the early 2000s, they did influence other unions.

"Once the LA leadership changed, Chicago teacher union organizers met with the LA union and brought those same ideas back to Chicago," she said. "They decided they needed to form a caucus and began to organize with communities of color and networks like T4SJ. They changed the dialogue from teachers' salaries to students and their schools."

In 2010, the organizer of that caucus took over leadership of the union and in 2012 the Chicago Teachers Union led its first strike in 25 years.

"I think Chicago represents a new moment in teacher union history," Tarlau said. "Since then, the focus of most teacher strikes has been on education quality, access, equality — all of these social justice issues."

"When I was in LA in the picket lines, I would ask people why there were there and they would say things like 'privatization, charter schools, lack of funding, we're trying to save LA's public schools,'" she said.

Having these progressive organizers within unions rise to power and merge the historic divide between unions and communities of color has been one of the greatest changes in the fight for public education, she said.

"I think teacher unions are always a good thing because they protect teacher rights and that's always important. But what I'm interested in is when do teacher unions become broader social movements fighting for changes and why does that happen?"

— Rebecca Tarlau

A crossroads for public education

Although public education is an issue at the forefront of society, research on teacher unions is lacking. According to Tarlau, most researchers who study teacher unions are political scientists; however, colleges of education are lacking in their research on these groups.

"I think teacher unions are always a good thing because they protect teacher rights and that's always important," Tarlau said. "But what I'm interested in is when do teacher unions become broader social movements fighting for changes and why does that happen?"

"I am still collecting data and will continue to collect data throughout the next year," Tarlau said, adding that although she has been studying the topic of education and social movements for 10 years, this focus on teacher unions is more recent. "Right now, I am spending time in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona and trying to understand how the 2018 strikes transformed the unions."

In contrast to LA and Chicago, she said, the "red state rebellions" were much more spontaneous and prompted by specific issues such as changes in health care or lack of state funding. However, even in these contexts, strikes were organized by local advocates and were fueled by a "bottom-up momentum," Tarlau said.

"What I'm looking at is what those activists are doing now. How the union leadership has responded and how they are trying to keep up with the grassroots momentum," she said.

Teacher unions are very dynamic organizations with internal disputes and diverse movements that take place from within, Tarlau said. However, the general public views teacher unions as homogenous and unilateral. Understanding unions from the inside offers insight into how these organizations work and influence public education.

"We're at a crossroads in the United States about the direction of public education. We have two very different visions about what public education should look like," Tarlau said. "On one side, there is the idea of more school choice, more charters, more standardized testing, which increases accountability, more merit pay, etc. And then there's a current in public education being led by teacher unions right now, which is that teachers are intellectuals and shouldn't be treated like low-skill workers. They should be given more autonomy and as a society, we need to defend and reinvest in public education."

It is these current moments and mobilizations that Tarlau believes will define what public education in the United States looks like in 10 to 20 years.

"The LA strike was not a strike just for teachers in LA. It was a strike against a paradigm of educational policy that the union successfully pushed back against," she said. "Anybody who cares about public education should care about these teacher strikes because they are shaping our educational future."

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated May 10, 2019