Before the West Virginia teachers went out on strike on February 23, Jenny Craig’s local union wasn’t terribly active. The union, like most others in the state, was held back by the lack of legal collective bargaining for teachers in West Virginia: that meant it didn’t have the right to negotiate a contract that would cover the teachers at the workplace level. Rather, the union functioned as a voluntary association, and most of its work was in lobbying elected officials and trying to elect favorable candidates to office.

Craig grew up in Ohio County, in the state’s northern panhandle, where she is now a middle school special education teacher and the president of the Ohio County Education Association. Many in her community qualify for various forms of government aid. “We are a diverse community of hard-working families that often struggle to make ends meet,” Craig said.

Inspired by teacher walkouts in other parts of the state last February, Craig and the other teachers in her county began to organize meetings, educational pickets, and make fliers to distribute to teachers and to parents and students across the community, explaining their wage and insurance issues and calling for more funding for the schools. This work, Craig said, brought them “from complacency and lack of knowledge to a progressive movement in which we garnered support from our communities and other labor organizations.”

It’s impossible to live “off of heat and momentum” of a strike for longer than a few weeks.

The ensuing statewide teacher strike, which took place over nine days, won a five percent raise for every single public worker in the state. It also kicked off a strike wave in Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, Colorado, and North Carolina, with teachers halting work to demand their state legislatures address the school funding crisis. For four months, the movement known as “Red for Ed” (playing off the teachers’ red T-shirts and also a nod to the fact they were in “red” Republican-dominated states) gripped the nation, attracting nationwide front-page coverage. For Craig, the strike was a lesson in power that continues to transform her local union.

Strikes, however, said longtime organizer Jane McAlevey, author of No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, take enormous emotional energy to sustain. It’s impossible to live “off of heat and momentum” for longer than a few weeks. Half a year after the the last “Red for Ed” strike ended, the camera crews are largely gone, and the national conversation has moved on to Elizabeth Warren’s DNA test, the aftermath of Hurricane Michael, and midterm elections. And what comes next for teachers—rebuilding and changing their unions, confronting elected officials at the ballot box, and consolidating and expanding on their power, all out of the limelight—will make shuttering schools look like the easy part. The hard part is building an effective union in the 21st century.

The Big Wins

Lori Burris, a middle-school special education teacher and president of the Mid-Del Association of Classroom Teachers in Oklahoma says the Red for Ed strikes in her state were transformative. The state, the second to strike, now has teachers ready to organize at a moment’s notice and to bring the community with them. Burris calls them “50,000 emergency certified activists.” Teachers forced Oklahoma to raise taxes for the first time in 28 years in order to raise teacher pay. “It is no longer business as usual,” Burris said.

Photo by Ralph Freso/Getty

In Arizona, where teachers won a 19 percent increase in their wages, the biggest change, says Noah Karvelis, a music teacher and now president of his local union, isn’t in pay. “When you are walking through the school, you don’t feel alone anymore. You feel like your co-workers, your friends, your colleagues have your back and you can do anything.”

“In some places we are having to rebuild the union from zero,” Karvelis continued. Where previously the union had sporadic representation on campuses, the union has been able to increase membership to the point of having representatives at every campus in the district.

Language arts teacher Jay Barbuto says that his union, the Phoenix Elementary Classroom Teacher Association (PECTA), had been mostly dormant before the strikes. “It was unfortunate because our district is located in the heart of downtown Phoenix, yet it was almost considered embarrassing to join PECTA,” he said. Younger teachers are now flooding into the union, which has developed a reputation for enthusiasm and solidarity. “Administration at the district level knows that PECTA means business,” Barbuto said.

What is happening in these states is a fundamental shift in how these unions work, which goes hand in hand with a renewed perception among Americans that unions might be the thing they need to bring them some badly needed political and economic power. Rank-and-file teachers who may have thought of the union as a third party that existed to pressure politicians on their behalf have now learned what it is like to experience being the union. Barbara Madeloni, education coordinator at Labor Notes, a media and organizing project within organized labor, and former president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, noted they are now bringing that knowledge back to the workplace and their daily lives.

That kind of experience of power can’t be swept away by legislators, governors, or even the U.S. Supreme Court, which handed down the Janus decision in the midst of the strike wave. Janus ruled that public employees could not be required to pay fees to the unions that represent them, effectively hitting public-sector unions in their pocketbooks just as teachers were modeling a different way of being a union.

To further the goal of creating a new kind of union in West Virginia, O’Neal, Craig, and some of their colleagues have created a caucus, West Virginia United, which includes members of both the West Virginia Education Association or the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, to continue pushing for militancy at the rank-and-file level. “This really was our power during the strike, reaching out across affiliation lines and supporting each other,” Craig says.

The caucus is a step toward answering the important question of whether classroom teachers are going to lead a broader movement to make bigger demands for public schools and public services.

The biggest test for the West Virginia teachers remains the battle over their health insurance, which spurred the strike to begin with. For now, state officials have dodged the issue of a tax hike, announcing they can put $100 million into the insurance fund from state surpluses. But the teachers still want to see the state’s wealthy corporations taxed to pay for schools, says Brendan Muckian-Bates, a high school English teacher from Morgantown. Specifically, they are still looking for an increased tax on natural gas, which politicians in hock to the extractive industries want to avoid.

Such progressive taxation, McAlevey notes, will be key to re-funding public schools everywhere, not just in West Virginia. Around the country, teachers are keeping an eye on the PEIA fight. The task force assigned by the governor to solve the problem, O’Neal says, hasn’t done much, and teachers, he says, “are starting to think, ‘Huh. Okay. This isn’t working.’”

But could it come down to another strike? O’Neal notes that a second strike would be much harder than the first for a variety of reasons, but he doesn’t rule it out. The strikes, Muckian-Bates says, made teachers feel like they had awakened their power, but they were aware the fight wasn’t over. “They were like, ‘Now, just be ready for round two.’”

Turning labor wins into ballot-box power

“It was very apparent during our walkout that teachers could be a force to be reckoned with,” Lori Burris says. One of the ways that has been made clear, she said, was in how many teachers and their supporters ran for office this year—and how many have already succeeded in knocking off some of their key opponents by running in Republican primaries. Of the 19 Republicans who voted against the tax increase for teacher pay raises last March, just four will make it to the general election.

“We call ourselves, in my local, ‘the Gallery,’ because we filled the state capitol gallery every day of the strike to let the legislators know we are watching,” Burris said. And their work has already paid off in the defeat of one of their local legislators. “It was such a big victory for us. We saw her dismiss us during the walkout and then say she didn’t think she needed the ‘teacher vote.’ We showed her that she did need us.”

Teachers have held candidate forums, gone canvassing, written postcards, and phone-banked for candidates on the local and even national level. They’ve built alliances with community groups and are challenging candidates to support public education through their constant presence during the campaign.

The Republican primaries are particularly significant, McAlevey says, because despite popular perception, teachers’ unions are not simply liberal affinity groups. A broad-based union will often have some 30 percent of its members registered Republicans, and even more in Republican-dominated states like Oklahoma. It’s also been true for years that in cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, Democratic politicians are more than willing to square off with teachers. Rather than be wedded to the Democratic party, McAlevey says, teachers’ power comes from challenging anyone who opposes them.

“We have been counting on some modicum of support from the judicial system. It is going to fail us increasingly.”

Jay O’Neal also warns of too much focus on elections and political parties. After all, the strike in West Virginia brought a Republican governor and a Republican legislature to the negotiating table. “Even if they flip both houses here, I still think you are going to have to push people to actually get a fix on this and actually make a change.”

“It is not that voting isn’t significant,” says Madeloni. “Certainly, watching the hearings for Brett Kavanaugh helped us remember that there are results that can be pretty damaging.” But with Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court—a court that already had a reputation for being anti-union and anti-worker, power in the workplace and the streets will be even more important.

“The truth of the matter is that in terms of state houses across the country and Congress, the judiciary, those institutions have not been serving the people. The real way we are going to change that is not through getting inside those institutions and then transforming them. We are going to have to build a movement to demand that they change.”

McAlevey agreed. “We have been counting on some modicum of support from the judicial system. It is going to fail us increasingly. Before it totally destroys our country, we have to have an alternative power theory. That alternative power theory was put forward by the education strikes last spring.”

That means teachers should be focused on what happens the day after the 2018 (and even 2020) elections, she said. The battle to shift power back into the hands of workers in the United States is not going to be won in one or two election cycles and by one or two high-profile national candidates. “The work that the right wing did in this country to get us to the 2016 national election didn’t start at the congressional level. It started at the city, county, school board state level.” Those low-level races changed politics for a generation.

In Arizona, teachers tried to put school funding directly on the ballot this year and received a potent reminder of the power of the conservative movement when the state supreme court blocked the initiative. Karvelis, Barbuto, and others gathered 270,000 signatures for the initiative, which would have raised $690 million each year for education by raising taxes on households earning more than $250,000.

Polling indicated the initiative was likely to pass.

But two years ago the state’s sitting Republican governor signed legislation that allowed him to add two seats to the then-five-person court, shifting the balance of power to a conservative majority, which ruled against the initiative.

The ballot initiative fight was a reminder that the learning curve can be steep for new activists—an imperfectly worded initiative can easily be tossed by an unsympathetic court, McAlevey notes. “The faster and the better people begin to understand how the power structures work, the more effective our movement is going to be. The corporate class has not meant the power structure to be obvious and easy. It is a warfront, as we know.”

Teachers on the frontline of a labor renaissance

To win that war, unions have to build support from the communities where they work. Parents walked the picket lines with teachers in all the strike states, and in turn, the teachers packed backpacks of food for kids who rely on school lunches. The West Virginia teachers expressed solidarity with the rest of the state’s public employees, prolonging their strike until the legislature agreed to give the five percent raise not just to teachers, but to every public worker, and that solidarity has given them some additional political power. In Arizona, the teachers are canvassing neighborhoods and building community connections.

In May, the teachers and education workers came together to support members of the International Association of Machinists Local 818, who had gone on strike at Tecnocap, a metal packaging plant. According to Jenny Craig, “The public employees’ strike in Ohio County mobilized us to become more labor conscious and supportive of each other.” The teachers collected donations and bought grocery gift cards to tide over the striking workers; they stuffed backpacks for strikers’ kids with school supplies and gift cards for school clothes.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty

Such organizing, Barbara Madeloni said, is spreading to states that haven’t been on strike but are inspired nevertheless and are thinking about how to build a movement in their own schools. “The huge waves that we saw this spring have not gone away,” Madeloni said, “I think we are going to see collective action and rank-and-file militancy from educators in the next year. I am pretty confident about that.”

Red for Ed benefited from an increase in worker energy from Wisconsin in 2011, when public workers occupied their state capitol to fight for their unions, and Chicago in 2012, where the teachers’ union went on strike and changed the narrative on austerity. They also broadened a debate about fair pay and fair treatment given new voice by the Fight for $15, which has won minimum wage increases around the country and most recently induced Amazon to give most of its workforce a raise. Most of these actions, it’s worth noting, were not the usual strikes, but required new strategies and new ways to press political leverage, and they’ve have shown workers a way to fight back against the long downward trend in wages and working conditions.

The value, McAlevey said, of winning a hard strike is that the union learns to engage with average people—not self-identified activists, but working people who want their kids to attend a good, well-funded school but don’t necessarily connect that to other political issues. “You have to go out and face-to-face develop the ability to reach across the aisle, community by community, workplace by workplace, and figure out how to be persuasive and engage with people who did not wake up identifying themselves in the resistance the day after the election in November 2016.”