What the 2018-19 Teacher Walkouts Mean for Labor in a Post-Janus World

By Donna Cao

Associate Editor, Vol. 24


The 2018 teacher movement, monikered “Red for Ed,” is the first post-Janus demonstration of the future of the U.S. education labor movement. Educators wear the color red to represent their advocacy for increased funding for public schools, many of which operate in the red, and to describe the teacher walkouts which began in states with Republican-controlled legislatures.[1] In June 2018, the Supreme Court held in Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees that public-sector union workers must affirmatively opt-in to paying dues for union representation, a decision that was predicted to decrease union membership, financing, and organizing.[2] Prior to Janus, public-sector unions were entitled to collect “fair-share” or “agency” fees from employees who declined to join the union. Such fees paid for the non-political activities that benefited all employees covered by the union contract. In the wake of Janus, teachers’ unions feared decreased organizing power and influence at the bargaining table.[3]

“Red for Ed” exemplifies teacher union activism in the face of Janus and the continued, adaptable strength of teachers unions when educators are committed, active, and aware. The movement transcends union demands for higher pay and school funding to represent a cry for a more equitable U.S. public education system, one which can create access and opportunity to those groups which are most disproportionately impacted by disparities in education funding, including women and minority educators and students.[4]

The movement began in February 2018 in West Virginia, whose teachers’ salaries have historically averaged 47th in the nation.[5] Thousands of educators went on strike after Governor Jim Justice signed a bill[6] that would have provided them with a 2 percent salary hike starting in summer 2018 and another 1 percent in 2020 and 2021.[7] Educators complained that the raises did not account for cost-of-living increases and that they failed teachers in areas beyond just salary, including insurance, healthcare, and payroll tax deductions. After a 9-day strike, West Virginia’s 2018 strike ended with an agreement to give teachers and other state employees a 5 percent pay raise.

Unlike ones before it, this strike—and subsequent ones—are unique in communicating a model of and desire for organized labor at a time when its power has been eroded. For West Virginia, a state with no collective bargaining rights, no contract, and no legal right to strike, its teachers’ successes came as a surprise, the result of grassroots mobilization through social media and a remarkable show of unified defiance against the state of public education.

West Virginia’s education labor challenges are not radically different than those facing other states that revolted in subsequent teacher strikes, including Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona. Encouraged by the West Virginia strike, activist teachers across the country have taken to staging statewide walkouts and organizing work stoppages with and without the help of unions. Across the country, school districts similarly face severe teacher shortages and the effects of fiscal austerity, including increased classroom sizes and inadequate funding for resources. Oklahoma, a state without mandatory teacher union membership, and Arizona, home to weak labor unions and a strong school-choice movement, exemplified the continuing teacher walkout movement. Most importantly, these walkouts exhibit the post-Janus future of organized labor working alongside grassroots teacher activism.

“Red for Ed” has become a nationwide movement as similar protests have erupted in Colorado, North Carolina, and parts of Washington, prompting lawmakers to increase salaries, per-pupil spending and funding for textbooks, technology, and infrastructure. The walkouts have also prompted legislative changes to important teacher protections, including evaluation, tenure, and retirement or pension plans. Now, with “Red for Ed” spreading to Los Angeles and other parts of California, a state with strong union representation, above-average teacher wages, and a Democrat-controlled government, with demands of higher wages, smaller class sizes, and greater resources, many argue that the 2018-19 teacher activism has transcended partisan politics in favor of nationwide solidarity against shortcomings in the public education system.[8]

In the past year, nationwide wins have renewed recognition of the power of collective action and unions.[9] “Red for Ed,” then, is the post-Janus education labor movement in the making, a developing model of organized labor despite Janus. union membership, at its core, stands for strength and stability in the form of worker voice.[10] And when it comes to public education, where student population diversity is expected to increase,[11] educators are primarily women,[12] and teachers of color are overwhelmingly employed in public schools serving student populations with high proportions of students of color,[13] teacher voice transcends salary discussions; it is the influence behind the fight for improved, equitable public education in a diverse America. These collective voices must stay resilient, flexible, and committed to a future that will overcome labor challenges.

[1] Nadra Nittle, Here’s Why So Many Striking Teachers Wear Red, Racked (May 15, 2018), https://www.racked.com/2018/5/15/17357550/teacher-strikes-wearing-red-solidarity.

[2] 138 S. Ct. 2448 (2018).

[3] Moshe Marvit, Labor Rights in a Post-Janus World, The Century Foundation (July 6, 2018), https://tcf.org/content/commentary/labor-rights-post-janus-world/?agreed=1; Bradley D. Marianno & Katharine Strunk, After Janus, Education Next (2018), https://www.educationnext.org/after-janus-new-era-teachers-union-activism-agency-fees/.

[4] Lindsey Cook, U.S. Education: Still Separate and Unequal, US News & World Report (January 28, 2015), https://www.usnews.com/news/blogs/data-mine/2015/01/28/us-education-still-separate-and-unequal.

[5] Rankings of the States 2016 and Estimates of School Statistics 2017, National Education Association (May 2017), http://www.nea.org/assets/docs/2017_Rankings_and_Estimates_Report-FINAL-SECURED.pdf.

[6] Gov. Justice Signs Pay Raise Bill, Office of the Governor Jim Justice (February 21, 2018), https://governor.wv.gov/News/press-releases/2018/Pages/Gov.-Justice-signs-pay-raise-bill.aspx.

[7] Molly Olmstead, The Political Power of Fed-Up Teachers, Slate (November 1, 2018), https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2018/11/arizona-teacher-strikes-midterm-elections-red-for-ed.html.

[8] Diana Lambert, Teacher activism nationwide fueling protest movement in California, EdSource (December 21, 2018), https://edsource.org/2018/teacher-activism-nationwide-fueling-protest-movement-in-california/606340.

[9] David M. Perry, Why the Arizona Teachers’ Strike Should Terrify Anti-Union Governors, Pacific Standard (May 3, 2018), https://psmag.com/education/why-the-arizona-teachers-strike-should-terrify-anti-union-governors.

[10] Bradley D. Marianno & Katharine Strunk, After Janus, Education Next (2018), https://www.educationnext.org/after-janus-new-era-teachers-union-activism-agency-fees/.

[11] The State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce, U.S. Department of Education (July 2016), https://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/highered/racial-diversity/state-racial-diversity-workforce.pdf.

[12] Liana Loewus, The Nation’s Teaching Force is Still Mostly White and Female, Education Week (August 15, 2017), https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2017/08/15/the-nations-teaching-force-is-still-mostly.html.

[13] The State of Racial Diversity in the Educator Workforce, U.S. Department of Education (July 2016), https://www2.ed.gov/rschstat/eval/highered/racial-diversity/state-racial-diversity-workforce.pdf.