State Watch

Teachers flex political muscle in red-state strikes

Thousands of teachers marched Monday on state capitals in Oklahoma and Kentucky, shuttering schools and demanding that Republican-controlled legislatures vote to increase their pay.

The demonstrations come on the heels of a nine-day strike in West Virginia, where teachers secured a 5 percent pay raise, and protests in Arizona last week, where teachers wore red and gathered at the state capital to demand a much larger 20 percent pay increase.

Teachers in Oklahoma received a pay raise when Gov. Mary Fallin (R) signed legislation last week hiking their salary as much as $6,100 a year, but they are seeking a bigger across-the-board $10,000 raise. Average teacher salaries in Oklahoma were lower than all but one other state before the recent hike.

The protests in Kentucky revolve around a pension reform bill that passed the state legislature last week just hours after it was introduced. That bill would replace the existing defined benefit pension plans with a plan that couples 401(k)-type savings accounts with traditional pension benefits.

The walkouts, sickouts and strikes are the first major actions since the end of the recession, when state budgets were squeezed across the country, making raises untenable. A 2016 study by the center-left Economic Policy Institute (EPI) found teachers make 17 percent less than workers in other industries with similar education and skill levels, a gap that has grown in the post-recession years.

"Teachers in particular have seen their wages and benefits, their compensation in total, lag behind that of other workers for more than 20 years," said Larry Mishel, a distinguished fellow at EPI. "In this recovery, teachers have not fared very well. [Legislatures] been cutting back on school budgets and letting teacher pay lag and attacking teacher pensions, all while they manage to give out tax breaks for corporations."

Some who supported the teachers said the massive movements dovetail with other protests over the previous year, since President Trump was inaugurated.

"Those who voted for Trump may have wanted to shake up the system, but there's a lot of other people that want to shake up unfairness," said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. "You saw that in the women's marches, you see that in the 'Me Too' movement, you see that in the kids in Parkland," who rallied for stricter gun controls.

The protests, stoked in part by the largest teachers unions in the country - Weingarten spoke to The Hill from Oklahoma City, where she was participating in Monday's rally - give Democrats hope that union energy will spark high voter turnout in this year's midterm elections. Coupled with antipathy toward Trump among energized voters, especially women and millennials, those voters could deliver Democratic victories in states where the party has struggled in recent years.

And those very states are at the center of the current wave of protests. Arizona, Oklahoma and West Virginia pay their teachers far less than the national average. All three states are in the seven states where average teacher salaries are lowest, according to the National Education Association, the nation's other major teachers union. Along with Kentucky, all four states voted for Trump in 2016.

The four striking states are also among the 29 states that are spending less on education now than they did before the great recession. Most states have bolstered their fiscal standing in recent years, and teachers are eyeing budgetary pies that are bigger than the lean post-recession years.

"When we typically think of a strike, especially a teachers' strike, we think they would strike against management. But that's not what's happening. They're striking against the legislature," said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a center-right education think tank based in Washington.

Legislators have been quick to back down in the face of teacher protests. In West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice (R) promised legislation raising teacher pay just days after the strike began, though teachers stayed out of the classroom until he signed the bill. In Arizona, legislators have pledged quick action. In Oklahoma, Fallin signed the first pay increase even before teachers walked out.

Kentucky, where crippling pension debt saddles the state budget, is the lone holdout. Gov. Matt Bevin (R) called teacher opposition to an earlier version of his pension reform plan "selfish and short-sighted."

The protests are also playing out against the backdrop of a Supreme Court decision that is likely to rob unions of some of their political power. The high court in February heard arguments in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Council 31, in which a state employee in Illinois challenged a state law that requires him to pay union fees even though he is not a member of the union.

A similar case in 2016 ended in a split decision on an eight-member court, after Justice Antonin Scalia died. Most observers expect Justice Neil Gorsuch, who took Scalia's seat, to break the tie in favor of conservatives, dealing a blow to public sector unions that could cost them millions in member dues they might otherwise use for political purposes.

Petrilli, whose organization is no fan of teachers' unions, said this week's demonstrations show that teachers still wield powerful political clout even if their unions are weakened.

"Teachers will still have a lot of political power, because there's a lot of them, because they're a sympathetic group, because they have the ability to make life difficult for a lot of people," Petrilli said. "Even if they can't use collective bargaining as a way to get their demands met, they have other tools at their disposal, and they're reminding us of that."

Most observers said they expected further protests in coming weeks or months, as legislatures finalize budget plans and teachers use their political leverage when the moment is right. If success begets success, after all, the West Virginia strike could be the beginning of a wave.

"These types of actions must start on the ground with rank and file, and that's what's happened in West Virginia, and that's what's happened here," Weingarten said.

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