The Importance of Teachers — Even When They Strike

Following the success of the teachers' strikes in West Virginia last month, teachers in Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky have gone on strike demanding a series of pay increases as well, calling for pension reform, better health care, and broader salary increases. The situation has gotten so dire that they’ve taken not only to the streets, but to the state capitols.

The teachers in these states earn well below the national average in teachers' salaries, but they're in it for so much more than their own wallets — they’re protesting the state of public education. All aspects of public education, including teacher salaries, have encountered dramatic declines due to severe cuts to education budgets following the recession. Some of these schools lack heat or textbooks, or can no longer operate five days a week. It’s unconscionable that we’re treating teachers this way. As a result, teachers in Oklahoma are calling for $200 million to be restored to education funding. In Arizona, they’re calling for a ballot measure to raise the sales tax for education. Education budgets in these states have been tightened for years, and now something has finally snapped.

Teachers have a long history of activism and progress through protests, and the success of the West Virginia marches has ushered in a new wave of organizing.

But surely some of the reason these states in particular are seeing strikes is because of a lack of union power. Arizona, Oklahoma, and Kentucky have some of the weakest teachers’ unions in the country. In Oklahoma, public employees aren’t allowed to strike, so today’s marches are technically “walkouts” — meaning the stakes are even higher, as teachers are taking personal days to be there. But if collective bargaining were a viable option, we wouldn’t be seeing these kinds of massive demonstrations!

Conflict resolution and advocating for students and teachers is part of what motivated me to become a union leader. Teachers have grievances that need to be addressed, like any other sector, and there must be proper means to do so.

These strikes are a wakeup call about the dismal state of public education in this country. They are also a lesson on the necessity of organized labor to effectively solve some of the biggest issues facing our nation’s most important public institution. When complex situations need fixing, labor can solve these problems.

There have always been some misperceptions about teachers’ unions, but all we ever wanted were the resources we needed to do the very important job we had to do. I want to commend all of the teachers who are marching this week, and who will continue to march until we have the kind of resources we need and respect we deserve. These marches, like so many of the other marches we’ve seen in the last few months in this country, give me hope. For the issues that matter, the people will always come together to make their voices heard and demand the change they need.