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Power grab

Author Eric Blanc talks teacher strikes and working-class politics

Demonstrators pack the Oklahoma State Capitol during the 2018 Oklahoma Teachers’ Strike.

Joseph Rushmore

When Oklahoma educators organized and flexed their collective power last spring, it shook more than the crumbling halls of 2300 N. Lincoln Blvd.

Local teachers joined a national wave of education strikes that continues today, as working people around the country demand better pay and increased funding for education from their political leaders—Republican and Democrat alike.

To get a better sense of who was striking and why, former San Francisco high school teacher and activist Eric Blanc embedded with local educators for three weeks around the walkout, reporting on it then for the democratic socialist magazine Jacobin. Blanc has since written a book, Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics, delivering a richer and more nuanced take on this populist surge than what you’ll find on cable news or elsewhere.

Matt Carney: What was the mood and spirit of the Oklahoma walkout itself?

Eric Blanc: Though Oklahoma didn’t win as much as educators really wanted, the strike itself was a big success in that it brought together tens of thousands of teachers and students and gave a sense of power, solidarity and creativity to people who felt really hopeless. When I talked to teachers about what it meant to them, [they said] the strike gave them a sense of pride that they were finally making their voices heard. And that finally they weren’t just accepting all of the policies that had been imposed for so long.

The spirit of being out there was so moving. It had a festival vibe at points where people were treating each other like good friends even if they’d never met before. You could go and be fed free food from strangers.

There was music and dancing. The spirit of the strike, which I think often gets lost, is the creative side and its empowering dynamic.

One of the things I liked most about Oklahoma was how many people spent so much time making creative signs, with puns and various messages. And people would just walk around the capitol admiring and praising each others’ signs. So there was a kind of magical feeling at the walkout which made it sad when it ended. Not only because it didn’t win everything. But because you got a sense of how life could feel and be different from everyday life.

Carney: There’s an important distinction between two demands in the Oklahoma walkout. Teacher pay, which was increased, and statewide education funding, which was not. Why did the strike win one and not the other?

Blanc: The particular demands and how to fund them, beyond pay, were not always made extremely clear. So in absence of a clear platform of what exactly was demanded around funding and how exactly people were proposing to pay for it, it made it easier for the legislature to wiggle out and say, “Look, we gave teachers their pay raise. Now it’s time to go home.”

Readers might remember that the pay raise was actually won before the walkout even began on April 2 [in 2018]. So the walkout really was just for funding. But because of the haziness of the demands, it was not really effectively made clear to the public what exactly the walkout wanted.

Carney: Tell me more about the haziness of demands.

Blanc: I think the union leadership, the O.E.A. leadership, deserves a lot of credit for having brought things as far as they got. That said, one of the major criticisms I heard a lot from teachers was that the union leadership—which was seen by the legislature as the main spokesperson for the demands—kept changing its demands over the course of the walkout, in terms of exactly what it wanted and how it might get that.

So part of the difficulty was that every day teachers and the legislators would get a new set of demands, and it wasn’t clear then, either to the public or to the teachers themselves what exactly was being demanded each day. And I think part of that had to do with a lack of imagination by union leadership. Had they staked out a clearer perspective—“We’re going to stay out until this demand is met”—and made that case to the public, they might have been able to win more. Instead, I think they got a little wrapped up in some of the legislative backroom discussions.

Carney: You note in the book the inclusion of school support staff (cafeteria workers, janitors, etc.) in many of these strikes around the country. Did you encounter many of them on the ground at the Oklahoma walkout?

Blanc: One of the differences between the Oklahoma strike and West Virginia, for instance, that shows why Oklahoma didn’t get as far, was that it wasn’t a strike for all school workers. So the Oklahoma schools weren’t completely shut down. A lot of the service personnel came to work, even if the students didn’t necessarily come. That created a little more leverage for superintendents and legislators to write off the walkout. And it shows that the movement itself wasn’t as united as it could’ve been.

The first day, April 2, you did see a very large number of school workers. Many of them called in sick. But unlike teachers, they weren’t excused from showing up due to legal reasons, so it wasn’t that the other school workers weren’t as important. But, unlike West Virginia and Arizona, the Oklahoma strike leaders really tried to stay within the legally accepted parameters, which meant not bucking the superintendents to call on all school workers to come out.

Carney: So it was an unwillingness to break the law that ultimately prevented Oklahoma educators from achieving as much as they could have?

Blanc: Yeah. Whereas in West Virginia, most teachers credit the bus drivers for winning the strike because halfway through, when the legislators and some of the union leaders tried to end it, the bus drivers said, “We’re not showing up,” which let the strike continue. You didn’t see that happen in Oklahoma.

Carney: One of the narratives that was widely reported during the walkout was about how many side jobs Oklahoma educators were working. What were the most common side jobs among the teachers you talked to?

Blanc: Across the board you saw a lot of teachers were driving Uber and Lyft. It was such a common theme that to get to and from the Capitol you’d get picked up by a teacher. Some irony there.

Another common job was working nights as a server or waiter in a restaurant, which allowed you to teach during the day. I spoke with a teacher who worked at a Chevy’s four nights a week. I met a teacher who worked three jobs. A teacher named Mickey Miller [at Booker T. Washington High School] in Tulsa was a baggage handler at the airport, a coach in the evenings and a full-time teacher.

Carney: One thing I appreciated about your book was how you went to the trouble of highlighting Oklahoma’s history with labor and socialism going back to the early part of the 20th century when we were all a bunch of farmers who mistrusted the government. It’s not really taught in public schools here.

Blanc: One of the specific characteristics of the strike wave was that these rank-and-file leaders, a lot of them in other states, were socialists. People who’d been radicalized by the Bernie Sanders campaign. There were similar activists like that in Oklahoma, but unlike the other states, none of them were teachers. So they had to only support from the outside, whereas in West Virginia and Arizona, the main rank-and-file leaders were socialists and had this vision and some political experience.

Carney: What was it about Bernie’s [2016] campaign that made it so influential on these teacher struggles across the country?

Blanc: Yeah, I think it was huge. The thing that it did was break this myth that everywhere in between the liberal blue states on the coast is a deep red conservative bastion. By talking about class politics and putting forward demands on behalf of the working class against billionaires, [the Sanders campaign] showed that there’s a wide audience—really a majority of the population—that is looking for an alternative to the status quo, against both the Democrats and the Republicans.

A lot of the educators and organizers I spoke with pointed to these big rallies that Bernie did as giving them a sense of power, that they weren’t alone. And that other people in their states agreed with them. Because until then there was no real form through which you could tell that there were actually tens of thousands or more people who agreed with you and wanted to see something different. Bernie gave space for that sentiment to come out in the open and cohere.

Carney: One of the strongest voices who emerged from the book was Stephanie Price [a black educator working in rural Oklahoma]. How did you meet her?

Blanc: Covering the strike, I tried to talk to as many different rank-and-file teachers as possible, to get a bottom-up view of what was going on. I met Stephanie at the Capitol and she ended up being really important for the book and for some of the journalism I was doing.

I do think that trying to get to an accurate assessment of the role of race in strikes is important. Because on one hand you have people who dismiss the entire state of Oklahoma (or West Virginia, or Arizona) as just 100 percent Trump racists. And then on the other hand you have people who continue to overlook the realities of structural racism, as Stephanie mentioned. So I tried to get a more nuanced take. The strike really did bring people together across racial divides. But that didn’t mean that a lot of the white teachers came to a more sophisticated understanding of exactly why black and brown communities are more disadvantaged than their white equivalents in Oklahoma or elsewhere.

Carney: When you were among the teachers at the capitol, did you pick up on any urban-rural narratives?

Blanc: The big story was the extent to which those were bridged by the statewide walkout. It was really inspiring to see people every day coming back, and sometimes even more than the day before, from really far-flung parts of the state. And there was a lot of pride among the local counties showing up and uniting, and a sense of camaraderie in overcoming these divisions. That being said, it wasn’t fully overcome. Generally speaking, the places where schools weren’t shut down ... were mostly rural areas. So I think that does reflect a bit of continued divide between the urban and rural parts of the state.

Carney: What else happened at strikes elsewhere in the country that didn’t happen in Oklahoma?

Blanc: It would be a mistake to only look at the limitations of the Oklahoma strike. So I would preface any comparison by reminding folks of how many people experienced gaining their own power, which is important. One of the things that Oklahoma didn’t have that West Virginia and Arizona did have was a group of experienced rank-and-file teachers who could push the strike forward despite the hesitation of the union leadership. In all the states, the unions played an important role in providing resources and a framework for the struggle. But the main orientation of the union leaders everywhere was primarily towards lobbying. They had to be pushed in from below to the strike.

So what really drove the success in West Virginia and Arizona, and which you didn’t quite see in Oklahoma was the rank-and-file cohere a strategic vision for how to win. So in Oklahoma I think the folks who came forward from below really deserve a lot of credit for helping cohere the struggle.

There were a couple of different Facebook groups that acted as a sort of site for discussion and mobilization. The leaders of the movement didn’t have experience as union organizers or what it took to win a strike. I think there was an over-reliance because of that, on social media, and somewhat of an underestimation of how much work it took and how much buildup you needed to get a successful strike.

West Virginia took months to build for the strike, and same with Arizona. And one of the particularities of Oklahoma, was within a few days of West Virginia happening, the rank-and-file called for a walkout as soon as possible. It didn’t quite give the movement enough time to build up sufficient forces. So I think on that one actually the union might have had a more accurate assessment that more time was needed to build up for a walkout.

Carney: You use a really great phrase in the book: “learning conditions.” Did you talk to any students at the Capitol about what their teachers were going through?

Blanc: I think that one of the strong points of the Oklahoma strike was the extent of student participation. There were a lot of students there the whole time, and even student-specific rallies that they organized themselves in support of the walkout. It was mostly high school students in the bigger urban areas. There was a majority sentiment of support and understanding for the walkout.

I found some student organizers who spoke about how the underfunding of schools was a direct attack on them and their families. And that they supported their teachers because they understood that their teachers were fighting not just for themselves, but for all of the students. So I think the student participation was significant. And it’s not hard to understand why, given that students were facing the brunt of this underfunding in the everyday deterioration and conditions of schools. Everyone remembers the pictures of the old textbooks, leaky ceilings and broken chairs.

Carney: In Red State Revolt you write “labor grievances typically emerge not from absolute deprivation but from relative deprivation.” What is the difference between these two?

Blanc: People strike when they think they deserve more than what they have. That’s what relative deprivation is. Part of the reason you don’t see many strikes is that, at most times, working people, including educators until recently, have accepted their current situation. They might not like it, but they don’t necessarily feel that they can realistically fight for something better. And so the question then isn’t just how bad things are. Because teachers actually make more in almost all of these states than the average worker. Part of the reason you see these strikes now is that there is a particular gap between expectations and reality for teachers. Because teachers are relatively well-educated and they face conditions that are much worse for people at their same level of education.

Also they want to be effective—I was a teacher, and one of the things that motivated the strike was that teachers want to teach. So it’s not just about pay. It’s that they want to be able to do their job well. When schools are systematically underfunded, it hampers their ability to do their job well. So it’s that gap between what people expect—which is relative deprivation—and what they have that generated the discontent that exploded in the strike.

Carney: You write that liberals tend to overemphasize pay rankings because they misunderstand the roots of working class struggle under capitalism. Why is this?

Blanc: I think the root of why liberals get this wrong is their assumption that if people aren’t fighting back, it’s because they’re doing too well. So there’s this assumption that, for the most part, the majority of people are middle class and getting by. And I think, just in reality, the reason there hasn’t been more resistance until recently is not that people are doing too well, but in some ways the opposite: that people are so beaten down by the system and so scared of taking an action that could risk them getting even further behind in debt—like a walkout—that people are scared to take action, and are therefore resigned to accepting what’s in front of them.

So we don’t need to wait for things to get worse. That’s not really what the impetus for change is. It’s more about giving working class people incentives. And a hope and power in their ability to change their conditions. So I think that’s what liberals miss, because of their lack of connections, oftentimes, to working class people.

Carney: How does your teaching experience inform your work as a journalist?

Blanc: I experienced firsthand a lot of the same problems that teachers in Oklahoma and West Virginia faced and led them to strike, so it wasn’t hard for me to either want to write about them or have a sense of why they were rising up or what their issues were. Part of the reason I was able to write the book in the way I was—which is largely based on behind-the-scenes information—and relied on a large degree of trust from teachers telling me their stories, was that they saw very early on that I was one of them. I didn’t have any pretense of being neutral. I supported these walkouts and tried to promote them without being uncritical, and I think because of that I was able to make connections with teachers in a way that a lot of journalists had a hard time, because they were more distant.

Carney: I don’t work regularly as a journalist anymore, but when I read your coverage in Jacobin and then your book I was floored by how your sources opened up to you.

Blanc: I appreciate that.

Carney: As somebody who follows these strikes closely, what does state leadership tend to say, whether it’s in Oklahoma, West Virginia, Los Angeles or elsewhere? What are the recurring lines you hear from conservative leaders, whether they’re talking about teachers or the strikes in general? What should we as a public be skeptical of?

Blanc: You’re saying, what is the line of the Republican state leadership and the legislature?

Carney: Yeah, and how do we know that it’s bullshit?

Blanc: Gotcha. There are a couple of big lies that Republicans—and to be honest, large numbers of Democrats as well—have bought into. First of all, that there’s not enough money. This was told to Oklahoma teachers, both before the walkout and during the walkout to get them to go home. It needs to be said that this is a lie. In fact there are plenty of resources and there’s sufficient potential revenue. The reason it’s not going to schools is that legislators are in the pay
of big energy corporations and therefore refuse to raise taxes on these corporations to pay for—not just schools—but healthcare and other vital public needs.

So this idea that there’s just not enough to go around, so teachers and students need to make do with what they have is factually inaccurate and needs to be challenged. The second thing is that state leaders, both Republicans and Democrats, have done everything possible to prevent these walkouts and end them as quickly as possible when they erupt. And the line is “work through existing channels.” So if you have disagreements, just vote for a different politician. Go lobby on lobby day. And whatever you do, don’t do mass protests, don’t do walkouts, this is going to hurt the children. That’s the line that they put forward. Which is, again, extremely hypocritical, given that their policy has been the extreme underfunding millions of students across the country for decades.

The biggest gains —including for schools in Oklahoma—over the last three decades have been won by these walkouts. The proof is there. What changed the narrative, politically, about the roots of the crisis over education and what brought more resources to schools finally was not just electing new politicians or lobbying. In fact it was withholding labor. Teachers staying out of school forced those in power to listen. They won because they were able to lean on the power of strikes.

Carney: Where did you find the big-D Democrats in these strikes? Where were they, what were they doing, who were they there with? Were they present at all?

Blanc: The majority of Democratic party politicians in Oklahoma and other states supported the walkouts. But it’s hard to draw too strong of conclusions from that because they were out of power so they had nothing to lose by siding with a very popular issue.

So if you look on a national level, one of the things that’s very interesting, the more recent strikes have been for the most part directed against Democratic party leaders. Los Angeles, Denver, Oakland, etc., these have been strikes directly against the Democratic party. Because in states where Democrats are in charge, they have implemented very similar, almost identical policies of privatization, underfunding and other attacks on public education. So I really think on a national level the big lesson is that the regressive education policies that educators have been fighting against are bipartisan. There are some notable exceptions. Bernie Sanders is one. But for the most part the push has been against both parties.

Carney: What is something that non-educators in Oklahoma do right now to help?

Blanc: The main thing is to recognize that the struggle is far from over. Non-educators can continue to support the unions and the rank-and-file groups mobilizing, because they are still committed to winning more funding for schools and they haven’t given up on winning the demands from the walkout that remain to be won. And I think it’s important for the public as a whole to keep in mind that the educators’ struggle in many ways has just begun.

Carney: And how about educators? How can they help themselves right now?

Blanc: I’m reluctant to give advice as an outsider to organizers on the ground. I know enough about organizing to know that you have to be rooted somewhere to most effectively organize. So all that I’ll say is that part of winning is going to be learning from and building a national movement. Because although education is a state-by-state issue, the national movement is what led to the Oklahoma walkout. West Virginia sparked the Oklahoma walkout and everybody acknowledges that. And I think in turn, learning from the victories and lessons from elsewhere is going to be what allows educators in Oklahoma and other states to rebuild their forces and be even more successful in the next walkouts and the next strikes. They can look at Los Angeles and West Virginia’s two strikes to see what worked.

Red State Revolt is available now from Verso Books.

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