First, West Virginia teachers in February 2018 went on strike and lobbied state legislators for higher salaries and more money for public schools. These protests were then followed by teachers in Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona and Colorado. In full view of the nation, low-salaried teachers struck to get higher pay and lobby legislatures to allocate more money to public schools.
These states (except for Colorado) barred unions from collectively bargaining with district school boards; they were right-to-work states–there are 28 that ban unions. Still these teachers organized walk-outs from schools and bus trips to state capitols to persuade legislators to increase funding for public schools. Enough was enough, these teachers said to those who make educational policy for state systems.
These state-wide protests bubbled up from classrooms, schools, and districts and spread like a flash fire. Most of these legislatures increased spending for salaries and allocations for districts–see article about Oklahoma. Teacher-led flash fires, yes. Unions involved? Not directly, because collective bargaining was banned in these states. But indirectly through the American Federation of Teachers (under one million members) and the National Education Association (nearly three million members) which had organizations in these states.
If there is one clear example of teacher-led changes that was bottom-up, incremental, and political–no political actions occurred in the spread of student interactive notebooks in Part 1 of this series–then these state-wide protests resurface the late-19th century’s efforts of teacher Margaret Haley’s campaign to organize Chicago teachers.
The decades surrounding the beginning of the 20th century were when Haley and a cadre of fellow teachers organized the Chicago Teachers Union to stop administrators’ arbitrary dismissals of teachers, raise salaries, and make pay equitable between male and female teachers (see here and here).
Teacher unions spread across the country with states in the Northeast and West eventually becoming the most organized regions. The NEA, however, had admitted administrators to their ranks since its founding and initially frowned on teachers copying private sector industrial unions of the day; in the late-1960s, however, NEA barred administrators from the organization moving gradually to become the largest U.S. union representing teachers.
A bottom-up reform? Yes, here are mostly women teachers who dominated the profession listening to “Maggie” Haley in the early 20th century and Al Shanker later in the century to organize into unions that would fight for equitable salaries, better working conditions and the right to bargain with school boards over policies affecting teachers and their classrooms. While NEA and AFT were private organizations supported by dues-paying teachers, union lobbying–and state and federal legislation–got many states to recognize the right of teachers to collectively bargain with boards of education–Wisconsin being the first to do so in 1959. Over time, unions became an actor in formulating and adopting state and district policies that raised pay, improved schools as both workplaces and places to learn, and established due process in district decisions about firing teachers.
Incremental? Yes, throughout the 20th century, unions gained collective bargaining in bite-sized chunks, made advances in securing protections from capricious dismissals, gained a single salary schedule for teachers–elementary school teachers earned less than secondary school teachers–and equal pay for male and female teachers. Slow but steady progress occurred over the decades amid threatened and actual strikes (in many states teachers strikes were prohibited). In some instances, unions retreated and in other cases, lost out to state decisions that banned collective bargaining but teacher unionism became a mainstay in state and local school policymaking (see here, here, and here).
Political? Yes. With extensive lobbying of school boards, city councils, and state legislatures—unions mandate that new members must pay dues that permit political activity–states and districts modified policies involving teacher pay, educational funding, school improvements, and due process in evaluating teachers’ performance. And state legislatures and district school boards have changed policies over time. Unions also acted politically through running slates of local and state candidates who endorsed union agendas, protests and strikes–even in states that banned work stoppages–to secure their rights and particular changes.
So bottom-up, teacher-led reforms that seek incremental policy changes toward desired goals combined with political action capture the origin and growth of teacher unions over the past century.
In part 3, I turn to another teacher-led, bottom-up reform that involved political action and ended up providing safer schools for both teachers and students.