Skip to content

This is possible!

5th anniversary of the red state teachers’ rebellion

In 2018, teachers struck across the South. These strikes were initiated and led by the rank-and-file in states that do not recognize collective bargaining and won significant gains for educators. In this first of two articles (part two is here), Darrin Hoop interviews four rank-and-file workers about their experience and draws lessons for labor organizing today.

In 2018, rank-and-file educators, largely through the use of statewide Facebook pages, helped lead and coordinate strikes of tens of thousands of educators in the traditionally Republican-led, right-to-work states of West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona. In addition, mass sickouts and one-day rallies occurred in other Republican-led states like Kentucky and North Carolina. These strikes, which came to be known as the “Red State” strikes, helped inspire workers in other industries to also strike, turning 2018 into the highest number of workers on strike in the U.S. since 1986.

Twenty thousand West Virginia teachers started the strike wave in late February with their nine-day strike. In a state where teachers ranked 48th out of 50 in teacher pay, they won a 5 percent pay raise for not only teachers, but for all public employees in the state. Two different times they rejected proposals that would have given lesser raises to other public employees and continued their strike. Rank-and-file teachers took the lead organizing in both the leadup to and the strike itself by setting up a Facebook page, West Virginia Public Employees United, that at its high point had 24,000 members on it. It’s important to remember that wages and benefits in all these states were determined by the Republican dominated state legislatures so organizing a statewide strike was imperative for any success.

Next up on April 2, Oklahoma teachers shut down two-thirds of public schools in the state for just over two weeks affecting 500,000 students. In the build-up to the strike, the Republican-dominated legislature passed a $6,000 pay raise for all teachers to try and avert the strike. In a state with the lowest average teacher wages in the country, where many starting teachers earned as low as $31,000, what amounted to roughly a 20 percent pay increase for some was unprecedented there. In Oklahoma at the time, only 34 percent of teachers were organized in the state affiliates of the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers. That’s why just like in West Virginia, it was crucial for rank-and-file educators to organize themselves through statewide Facebook pages like Oklahoma Teachers United and Oklahoma Teachers Walkout. While the Oklahoma legislature refused to restore funding for schools after years of cuts and teachers were unable to win pay raises for all public employees, the high point of the struggle, when 50,000 people rallied on April 9 at the Capitol in Oklahoma City showed the widespread support for teachers there.

In Kentucky, some 12,000 teachers and public employees rallied at the State Capitol on April 2, shutting down schools in all 120 counties. (100 were closed because it was spring break, the rest because of a one-day sick-out.) In North Carolina on May 16, some 30,000 educators, public school workers, and supporters rallied at the State Capitol in Raleigh in what was the largest teachers’ mobilization in the state’s history.

The final major statewide strike occurred in Arizona starting on April 26 and ending on May 3. Like in West Virginia and Oklahoma, teachers in Arizona were woefully underpaid. The Morrison Institute for Public Policy found that Arizona had the lowest-paid elementary school teachers in the country when factoring in the cost of living, and that high school teachers ranked 48 out of 50. Over the course of about two months, a team of less than 10 rank-and-file educators–most of whom hadn’t even met previously–built a rank-and-file educators group from the ground up that eventually spread across the state and led a statewide walkout of some 60,000 educators.

Primarily through the Arizona Educators United (AEU) Facebook page with over 45,000 members, educators created a network of 2,000 liaison educators in at least 800 of the roughly 1,500 schools around the state. With the support of the state’s main teachers’ union, the Arizona Education Association (AEA), they united teachers, counselors, librarians, school bus drivers, school psychologists, office staff, academic coaches and other staff. When compared with the Republican governor’s initial funding plan of only $65 million in new funding, the final amount of around $400 million in new funding which included an average of around 10 percent pay increases for teachers was an enormous victory.

2023 marks the 5th anniversary of the “Red State” strikes. To both celebrate the inspiring victories, and attempt to learn valuable labor organizing and strike lessons both for educators and other workers around the U.S., Tempest’s Darrin Hoop interviewed four educators and leaders of the strikes in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona.

Nicole McCormick was a teacher and vice-president of her local during the nine-day 2018 statewide strike of 20,000 teachers in West Virginia. She was a self-proclaimed “shit stirrer” who helped moderate the Facebook page West Virginia Public Employees United which led the build-up to and strike itself. Currently, while no longer a teacher, she works remotely advising Education majors. She also organizes with the statewide educator caucus, West Virginia United, which was born from the original Facebook group and strike.

Steph Price was a speech language pathologist (SLP) in Oklahoma during the 2018 statewide Oklahoma teachers strike. Currently, she’s a SLP in Washington state and the secretary of the Federal Way Education Association. In addition, she helps lead National Educators United.

Dylan Wegela was a teacher in Arizona and one of the main rank-and-file leaders of Arizona Educators United which led the statewide strike of 60,000 educators in 2018. In the lead-up to and during the strike, he helped coordinate site liaisons. His role was to help train, guide, communicate with, and organize site leaders, who then would go on and organize their schools. Since the strike, he moved back to his home state of Michigan. After teaching for a year and a half, he ran for state office. He’s now in the Michigan House of Representatives representing District 26 in Michigan, which is Garden City, Inkster, Southeast Westland and Northeast Romulus.

Rebecca Garelli was a teacher and also one of the main rank-and-file leaders of the 2018 statewide strike in Arizona. She created the original Facebook page Arizona Teachers United which later became Arizona Educators United. She helped coordinate and develop the escalation plan and the 8-week organizing blitz that led up to the strike. Since the strike, she quit teaching in the classroom and served in the role of Science and STEM specialists at the Arizona Department of Education for the last four years. She recently transitioned to being a full-time self-employed consultant providing professional learning for science for districts across the state of Arizona. She was also a teacher and part of the Chicago Teachers Union strike in 2012. Currently, she helps lead National Educators United.

Part 1 of 2

Darrin Hoop: Welcome everybody. Good to have you all here. First, could you introduce yourself, where are you from, what role did you play in your state’s strike back in 2018, and what are you doing today?

Dylan Wegela: My name is Dylan Wegela. I’m from Michigan, but people listening to the interview or reading this will know me from Arizona Educators United. Since the strike, I have moved back home to Michigan. I taught there for a year and a half, but also during that time, I ran for state office.

Now I am in the Michigan House of Representatives representing District 26 in Michigan, which is Garden City, Inkster, Southeast Westland and Northeast Romulus. In the strike with Arizona Educators United, I was our site liaison, co-liaison coordinator, or coordinator of site liaisons. Essentially my role was to help train, guide, communicate with, and organize our site leaders, who then would go on and organize their schools.

Rebecca Garelli: Hi, I am Rebecca Garelli. Since the strike, I quit teaching in the classroom and served in the role of Science and STEM specialists at the Arizona Department of Education for the last four years and then recently transitioned to being a full-time self-employed consultant providing professional learning for science for districts across the state of Arizona.

We didn’t have a title for my role in 2018. I was the one who created the original Facebook page where I met Dylan and many of the other leaders called Arizona Teachers United. And we collectively turned it into Arizona Educators United to be more inclusive and incorporate everyone who works in a school. My role was really about coordinating and developing the action. I became the jack of all trades in building the escalation plan and the eight-week organizing blitz.

Drawing upon my experience from the 2012 Chicago Teachers Union strike, we used some of those tactics and modeled them here in Arizona.

Nicole McCormick: I’m Nicole McCormick, and I’m from the beautiful state of West, by God, Virginia. At the time of the strike, I was a vice-president in my local, which was one of the largest locals in the state.

We had another strike in 2019 when I was union president. My role during the 2018 strike was to be kind of a shit stirrer. I helped moderate the [Facebook] page and  helped to make sure that we shared information, because people were angry, and we wanted to make sure that the information was accurate and also to share news from other places to say, “Look, They did it. This is what a walk-in is. This is how they did it. This is why they did it.” We had a secret Facebook group. There are only about 20,000 teachers in the state of West Virginia. We only have about a population of 1.7 million.

At the height of the strike in 2018, we had 24,000 people on the page. We created West Virginia Public Employees United because we were talking about our healthcare. And I’m super proud that we helped win a pay raise for people who didn’t even strike with us. I think that’s probably one of the best highlights of my life.

Right now, I am remotely advising education majors. I’m also doing work for our caucus, West Virginia United, which was born from the Facebook group and from the strike. Things are not great in West Virginia, but the people are defiant and that’s what keeps the fire burning.

Stephanie Price: Hey, I’m Steph Price. I am a Speech Language Pathologist in Washington State, although at the time of the teacher strike in Oklahoma, I was in Oklahoma. I grew up there, spent the majority of my life there, and worked there for over a decade as a speech therapist in the public schools.

I am currently still a public school speech therapist. I am the secretary of my local union. I am working on speech pathology advocacy for my group. At the time of the teacher strike in Oklahoma, my role was just as a participant. The teacher strike was really the beginning of my realizing what collective action could do, what power we actually have.

It was the beginning of my learning to use my voice as an organizer, as an activist. That really led to my later becoming the vice president of my local and chairing the racial equity team there as well. So it was kind of like a jumping off point for me, realizing that we have power, our voices have power, and we can win when we come together.

DW: I spent two years as a union president for my local, but then I took a two-year gap. I had to take a break from organizing. I had to recharge for two years. It’s so hard to keep that energy up. Did anyone else have to take that mental break?

Dozens of teachers wearing red carry signs reading red for ed. There is a red and white banner with this slogan on it also.
Photo by Gage Skidmore for Arizona Education Association.

NM: In 2019, the caucus actually was the reason the strike even happened to try to beat back privatization. We succeeded during the regular legislative session, but they called a special session. There was so much pushback from official statewide union leadership that people didn’t feel like they could legitimately not go back to school as a way to kill the legislation again.

So now we have vouchers in charter schools in West Virginia. And it was devastating. I felt like I was going to die. It was a really dark place for probably a month during the summer of 2019. When the fall rolled around, I decided to run for union president. I got the idea when I was in Seattle. I felt like Lady Gaga. I had a handler who took me around between Seattle and Portland for a week. It was this great guy. His name was Peter Hasagawa, and he worked for the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Labor Council in Seattle.

We were in the car going from one thing to another and I said, “You know what? I’m so sick of people being in power who have no gumption, who have standing golf course invitations from the governor.” And he responded, “Why don’t you run?” And I said, “Peter, I have four kids under six. I don’t think I could do it.”

But then I realized, 80 percent of educators are women. Why shouldn’t the role fit me and what I need? Why should it be tailored to some idea that obviously isn’t working? Building relationships with the people in power isn’t going to change anything. So we got together as a caucus and we decided to run for leadership.

I ran for vice-president. Jay O’Neill ran for president. Jenny Craig and Daniel Hodges ran for executive committees. Everybody in the caucus decided who was going to run for what position. We all lost. It was rough. I ended up taking a break for a while, but I just couldn’t really quit.

Many people called me for an interview, asked me my opinion, or asked, “How do we do this?” People never expected anything from West Virginia. We compete for last place with Mississippi. We’re a right-to-work state, too. Yeah, I did have to take a break, and now I feel like I’m in a really good place.

SP: I had to take a break. I wasn’t leading organizing during the strike, but afterward I was working with my caucus. I was working on racial and social equity. I was dealing with a toxic system and environment. I honestly just got to a place where I shut down because I got so tired of fighting against a broken system and constantly having to fight to have my voice be heard.

And then I moved here [Washington State]. I thought, I’m not going to try to run for any position on the executive board of the union. I’m just going to show up to things occasionally. I need a break. And, of course, here I am again. It didn’t last long. I had to do it because I felt like, “Well if not me, who?”

RG: I think I’m the odd man out here. I have not stopped at all. In fact, I took on more and more. And even now, I work for Social Movement Technologies. The reason I was tapped to be invited to this amazing group of people who organize globally using social media tools is because of how we used Facebook to organize [during the strike].

I teach classes on how to organize. I actually taught a class three days ago where I woke up at 3:00 a.m. to teach how to build online communities for a digital certificate campaign class for people all over the world. They had people from the Americas, Asia, and Europe.  Someone from Sweden was asking me for advice. I just felt like I belonged there.

I’ve never found my place in my whole life more than in the organizing world. I think that in Arizona we built such an infrastructure. And big lists. I’m talking mega, mega lists that I just couldn’t give up because we put all that work into it.

I kept trying to hand the reins to other people. I kept trying to invite folks to be leaders. We’ve had various leaders come in and come out. It seems impossible to sustain a movement like this. You guys know that. But I love the idea of continuing. We just launched a new initiative for Arizona Educators United. I’m still kind of the lead there.

We’re going to do a book study. We’re giving out free books and t-shirts for Secrets of a Successful Organizer because we are getting back to basics and helping people. Anybody’s welcome. We’ve got grad workers here who have asked us for advice. It’s the same thing Nicole said. People keep asking, “How’d you do this?”

I keep being pulled back in. I put together a presentation that now I give all over the place. I’ve built PowerPoints explaining how we did this. I built graphics. I wrote a chapter in a book about it. I just keep being pulled back into the work. I’m here until that pull is no longer strong enough to keep me here. I’m just going to keep going.

DH: What kind of organizing took place in the lead-up to the strikes in 2018? What did your various caucuses do? Or, if you weren’t in a caucus, talk about the organizing that you did or the people around you did. What were the key issues that you all were organizing around that led up to your strike?

NM: Jay O’Neill and Emily Comer created this group, West Virginia Teachers United, in August 2017. There were around 30 of us there. Jay wanted to do book studies and everybody was like, “No thanks, dude.” Then we found out that they were going to radically raise the out-of-pocket and premium costs of our publicly-run healthcare, which is PEIA, Public Employee Insurance Agency. The more you make, the more you pay, which I think is fair. And instead of it staying that way, they collapsed the tiers. They went from something like ten tiers down to three. So everybody in the lower tiers paid more. Everybody in the middle kind of stays the same. But the people at the top who could afford to pay more for healthcare were paying less. They were balancing it on our backs. All public employees, state troopers, DHHR (Department of Health and Human Resources) workers, people in education, people who keep the snow plowed during the winter. We’re all public employees. That’s the biggest employer in West Virginia.

We saw that this was happening. We also saw that nobody knew that it was happening. They held these hearings, and they were just a sham. It’s this group of men in suits. They’re appointed by the governor. They get their budget from the state legislature, which has the ultimate power. They have to figure out how they’re going to make that money work within the budget.

It’s not like they really have any power. But the politicians and the people at the top are ripping the workers’ hearts out, handing them to people while saying, “Oh, I’m so sorry about it.” It was very dehumanizing. People were angry and they didn’t know where to put that anger. We moved from Teachers United to Public Employees United because we all had shared the same healthcare costs and issues.

This was probably in late November, early December of 2017. The teachers and the education employees were probably the largest group of organized workers. But again, we don’t have collective bargaining. We don’t have any real rights.

You either sign your contract or you don’t. We used the union structure although you don’t have to belong to one. This is before the Janus decision. [At the time] The unions [were already] fighting each other for membership.

So we used the union structure, but we also organized alongside it and outside of it. We were people who would never have talked to one another. We would never have  talked to people in other counties. We would never have talked to people in other organizations or with other job titles.

We used that online space to do that. There were thousands of leaders. It wasn’t just a handful of us. There were thousands of leaders throughout the state who said, “You know what? We’re going to wear red on this day. We’re going to wear purple on this day to show solidarity with state employees that are represented by blue. We’re going to stand out front with signs. This is how we’re going to educate parents. We’re going to have a town hall. And these are all things that none of us had any experience with. It really was a beautiful, terrifying, and wonderful time when people actually looked at one another.

Even with it being so easy to fall into politics, they [organizers]  were able to go beyond that. They were able to focus on the real issues and not focus on whether someone was a Republican or a Democrat. They are just different wings of the same bird.

Those escalating actions just continued. People got mad. They shared the asinine things that politicians said and did. It came to a head in four counties. [Teachers organized] a fed-up Friday. They walked out without the permission of anybody and shut down their county school systems.

Everyone else thought,  if they can do it, we can do it. We essentially pushed the state leadership into declaring a strike. Then midway through, they tried to act like they had a deal with the governor. People booed and said go back to the table. And we went wildcat.

And that’s how we eventually got to be successful.

Three people in winter coats stand in front of tall white buildings holding signs reading I am a proud public school teacher and Senator Warner vote no Devos
Photo by Ted Eytan.

RG: So key issues. Well, we didn’t really have to spend a lot of time identifying issues that were widely and deeply felt because there were so many of them. We were last in the nation for pretty much every education statistic including per-pupil funding, largest class size, lowest teacher pay, and lowest overall funding.

People were demoralized already. Since the 2008 recession, [the state] had taken a billion dollars away from education that was not restored.

We had buildings that were crumbling. People taking home paychecks that were only $900 biweekly. Really just demoralizing with giant class sizes. I had 34 kids in each of my classes, six a day. Competitive pay for classified employees was also really horrific.

Key organizing that took place up to the strike included eight weeks of a very structured organizing blitz, starting with very low-risk actions. When you think of an organizing thermometer, we started with wearing red on Wednesdays. Noah put together the first Red for Ed Wednesday on March 7.

That’s when we started to learn how to use Facebook to get people to plug into and show support for actions. Then the next step was to wear Red for Ed and hold up a sign with three reasons why you wear Red for Ed. Next we started asking people to join the movement.

Many of us were union members. We worked alongside the union, but we also worked outside the union.

We began asking people to join us. We came up with the idea for liaisons in our very first meeting together. How do you get people in places to build towards a strike? You need representation in the different schools. So we called them liaisons to be the intermediary between us, the leadership group, and the school sites.

Over time, we kept pushing out and organizing through Google, getting people to join and then giving them very strategic actions. We moved up to the next tier, which was 10-minute meetings on Fridays. We would build agendas for them, slide decks, and basically teach them how to map their workplace without using that union language.

We needed to know how many people were showing up.  How many people are going to wear a red shirt? How many people can come to a protest? We did simple mapping of who’s with you, who might be the opposition, and we made sure you talked to everybody in your room: bus drivers, clerks, secretaries, everybody. Walk around, gather that information.

DW: I think we were very lucky that West Virginia and Oklahoma went first and our union got to see that. I think that when the grassroots and unions get put together, it made them play a little nicer with us. I don’t think they would have if they hadn’t seen what had happened in the other two states. But I do remember our specifically calling leaders at school site “liaisons” because the union called them “site leaders.” The union membership in Arizona is so low that we knew we would not be able to build a big movement if we stuck just to union membership.

And honestly we didn’t. We just asked people to do everything and anything that they could and gave them full autonomy to do anything they thought would continue to build this movement. The tasks we gave site leaders to start was to get everybody’s contact information. That was the number one thing that we said to do.

What’s funny, though, is that we had people doing so many things that we didn’t coordinate. We didn’t have a really strict structure. We were, honestly, disorganized. I remember early on we had them fill out a Google form for us. Then I would sit there for hours at a computer, copy-and-pasting the contact information and sending it back to the liaisons.

Now that I’ve been organizing for longer, I realize that there are so many better ways we could have done that. Eventually, we got hooked up with Action Network and started using that as an organizing platform, which I actually think hurt the movement long-term because we stopped relying on the liaisons to do the organizing and we started communicating out massively.

We used to just give the message to the liaison. Then it was a responsibility of theirs to go and spread that message within their school. We had so many things that people did on their own. But we really focused on giving the tools to the liaisons.

One other thing I do want to mention, though, which is really weird about Arizona, and I don’t know if any other state had this, none of us in Arizona Educators United knew each other really at all before we started organizing.

We jumped on this call. I didn’t know anybody on the call. Rebecca, did you know anybody on the call? We just trusted each other. We only misjudged one person in our group. The odds of that occurring I think is kind of amazing when you think about it.

RG: There are a million more things that we did, but one thing I do just want to make clear is that we intentionally slowed people down because people thought you go from zero to 60, right? You go from zero to strike. I remember getting on Facebook Live and saying, “You do not do this. This is not how you strike.” This caught the attention of Dr. Lois Weiner, who sent me a message recognizing that people thought you just get together and you go on strike. They don’t understand the power of building that community. We spent all of April–we called it community solidarity month–canvassing businesses, getting them to put up our signs, getting together, painting your cars with Red for Ed messages.

Then we did three weeks of walk-ins to get more and more community. And we set those structure tests along the way and said if we can get a thousand schools doing walk-ins, that means we can have a thousand schools walking out. That was a huge structure test because the next step was going to be the strike authorization vote.

Week one, it didn’t happen and people were grumbling. Week two, it didn’t happen. People were like, “All right, we’ve done your cute walk-ins. Can we go on strike?” And I said, “No, we’re not at a thousand yet.” By week three, we basically had over 1200 schools. We not only exceeded the goal, we also had 120,000 people show up because we asked them to take attendance of even community members at our walk-ins.

So then we thought, I guess we’re going to go on strike now. That’s the importance of those structure tests. I just wanted to put that in there since we’re talking about organizing. I feel like we need to use that language of how important it is to know where you’re at, to be ready to go on to the next step.

DH: Steph, in addition to the questions of the organizing, the lead of the caucuses, and what role they played, I appreciate Dylan mentioning the connection to West Virginia. Was there anything inspirational you all took from West Virginia, which was first, and Oklahoma second?

SP: It’s been five years, so I feel like I’m missing things and forgetting things. I think too, because I didn’t have the same understanding of organizing then that I do now, I probably didn’t see things the same way. For us, we had the same issues across the board. Obviously, like the other “red states,” we were fighting against reactionary politics and anti-unionism and the lack of education funding that had been happening for over a decade.

Education wasn’t getting the money that it needed to properly educate our students, to properly care for our staff and our educators. Yet we were giving multi-billion dollar oil corporations cuts for their business in our state. There were, I think, three different bills in the legislative session over a period of a couple years that just kept getting voted down. For the final one, the union invited people to go to speak in support, to have conversations, and to watch the session because this was the final push. We needed funding for education, and it lost.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, in Oklahoma, in a red state once again, they’re going to try to defund public education and push for vouchers and charters. We lost. It was after that happened that a lot of educators really started having conversations.

I heard a lot of conversations in my buildings, on social media, and in my union about what to do.  I think that organically people started having to think, “Well, maybe we strike.” That’s what happened.

We weren’t having the same kind of on-the-ground conversations, organizing, or building up that I saw happening in places like Arizona later. When I went to Oklahoma later and saw what they were doing, and also West Virginia, seeing that damn, they won. They walked out. They stood up for what they wanted, what they deserved, and they won. That gave people a sense of hope.

Part of the issue for Oklahoma, too, was all the Facebook groups that started popping up. These groups were a way for people to start seeing what other educators were dealing with and for us to really start having more conversations with people outside of just our buildings or just our cities, for example, conversations about posting pay stubs and talking about our insurance costs. Talking about how much money we actually bring home versus our level of education. Some educators were on food stamps, and others were struggling.  A lot of this started taking place, and it eventually got to the point where the union was like, “Oh shit, we have to do something. These people, our members, are upset.”

There are two teachers’ unions in Oklahoma. There’s OEA (Oklahoma Education Association) and there’s AFT (American Federation of Teachers) for different parts of the state. But OEA took charge eventually. Because people were organizing in the Facebook groups, talking about striking and organically coming together in these groups, the union eventually got on board.

There were some informational pickets, some informational sessions, those kinds of things. We’re all going to wear red. But it wasn’t quite the same. It really turned more into a union when they realized that we needed to take action because the members were saying we did. Then they got on board and sent us a survey that asked, “Do you want to strike?” and “How do you feel about this?”

DH: Regarding West Virginia or Arizona: What was your relationship with your state or your local unions? What did they do or not do?

NM: Something Steph said about sharing pay stubs–that’s probably one of the most powerful moments. It was actually my husband of all people–we both taught in the same county and he shared our bank account–he named it something ridiculous like “Ode to Two Days Before Payday,” or something like that. The balance was something like $2.45 cents. It was nothing. There were hundreds of comments. Nobody had more than 15 bucks and lots of people were in the hole. I think it just made people realize, because you feel like it’s a personal failing. I shouldn’t have taken out those student loans. I shouldn’t have eaten at Taco Bell. I shouldn’t have had all these kids. Whatever it is, you’re blaming yourself. Maybe if I just sacrifice, I can own my own yacht. It’s how we’re guilted into it.

I did not have the language. I did not know that what I was doing was organizing. I knew nothing. I just knew what I knew. I liked people. I loved my state. I loved my students, and I knew the more people I talked to the more people I could fire up.

I knew that the more people I fired up, the more that they would, too. I had no reference for anything other than, well, this is how you pass around information to get people angry. I didn’t know anything about escalating actions. I just knew that we needed to get this message out more.

How are we going to do that? “Oh, look what they did over in Mingo County. They did that. We can do that.” But the union, well, they were trying to stop it. I got personal texts. My husband did too. “Y’all need to stop talking about striking,” and, “This isn’t going to happen here.” There was a strike in 1990 in West Virginia. I started kindergarten the following fall. I had no frame of reference, and so every now and then people would bring it up in passing: “Well, you know what we should do,” but nobody was really attending meetings or anything like that.

The union was set on this idea that relationships change things, not relationships with your members, but relationships with politicians, and who you’re buddy-buddy with is how you make real radical change. When of course it really is, “We members have the power. We are the majority. We own the table.” We just didn’t acknowledge it.

The union literally finally got out in front when they realized that they were going to get run over. Like, “Oh shit, we better do something or we’re going to be completely just impotent forever and ever.” Then when they stepped up. It just rained membership cards. It just benefited them.

But it took them actually having a little bit of humility to acknowledge, “Oh, well, maybe we don’t know exactly what we’re doing,” and all of these random, regular folks apparently did have the magic formula and it wasn’t with the union in charge.

RG: Arizona. Dylan, this is your favorite subject my friend, have at it.

DW: I want to give credit where credit’s due. I think our local, or rather, our statewide union intentionally put us out front. But, I think that  there are obviously some different motives behind that as well.

I think they recognized that in order for this movement to be successful, we had to take the lead because the union didn’t really have a leg to stand on at that point. We were really careful to keep us separate from them. As Rebecca mentioned earlier, having our own internal structure in having meetings away from the union as well as collaborative meetings.

Watching what happened in the other states  really helped us because our union knew no matter what was going to happen, we had the structure, we had the energy, we were the ones that people were looking to. I think they [the union leadership] had to make the decision: Do they want to be along for the ride or do they want to have an oppositional position?

That was just not the route that they took. I continuously argued, “We need to call a strike right now. Let’s do it right now.” Working with the liaisons, I could tell that this is what they wanted, too.

They were organizing because they wanted to go on strike. Every meeting I would just continuously bring it up to our union, “Hey, so, when are we calling the strike? People want to go on strike. I’m just here to tell you that again.” I think for a long time they were brushing me off, like I’m this radical.

As we continued to build momentum, we eventually called this meeting–a fundamental moment for us. I think it was when a lot of us went to Labor Notes and got a chance to meet people from West Virginia, Oklahoma, and other radicals from around the country. We left that conference thinking, “Hey, okay, this is happening and if the union’s not going to be on board, we’re going to do it anyway.” I think that is really when we kind of forced them to call a strike vote.

I do want to add, and maybe this ties in later, but I’ll say it now. I feel like our movement was kind of blindsided by the union in terms of coming back into the classroom. We had this meeting during one of the last days of the strike where the union basically just said, “Hey, we’re going to call for the end of the strike.” They were going to do it without really having feedback from us and, more importantly, no feedback from the people on strike. I pushed back as hard as I could in that meeting.

Then they said, “Well, we’ll go talk to people on the lawn,” as if  that was some measure of people actually wanting to end the strike. They did end up calling to end the strike. I don’t know if you remember that, Rebecca. I think you kind of came in at the last second and we’re like, “What the heck happened?” But I’ll turn it over to you.

RG: I was on a phone call outside while it happened, and I came back in and was saying, “I’m sorry, what?” They brought in a whole slew of National Education Association (NEA) field organizers. The idea was that the legislature was going to adjourn anyway, so we would be sitting ducks left out on the lawn.

Well, I didn’t care. We’re not going to open schools back up. So what? Who cares? We still hold the leverage here. It didn’t make any sense. I actually missed that entire conversation, unfortunately, which I regret very much.

I just want to add very briefly that there were 60 thousand teachers in Arizona at that time. Only one-third of those were plugged into the labor formation, dues paying members for NEA. That means there were 40 thousand additional people who were not plugged into some sort of labor formation. And that’s where the opportunity lay, right? 40 thousand people who were not organized, that we organized, and by the time we were done, we had 57 thousand people take a strike authorization vote.

That’s it for me. The power of the union wasn’t there. There was a stigma with the union. People didn’t believe that the union had any power, hence the lack of dues paying members. So our external structure allowed us to open spaces to have people come in and be plugged into a formation for the first time in their entire lives.

I really think the external structure was good. The reason that they not only needed us was because of that lack of power and the stigma and people going, “Well, the union doesn’t do anything. What’s the point?” I remember specifically Joe Thomas saying, “Well, we have to show up the next day.”

I said, “I’m not sure you know this, but I’m not going anywhere. I’m not just going to build this movement and then say, peace, see you later.” I think for the union the idea was that we’d build this thing and it would dissolve, but five years later, the union is still here. That’s a proud moment for me.

DW: I’ll add one last thing because afterward I was elected as a local union president. My union had this long standing practice of only giving information to union members when we had maybe 25 percent membership. I thought that was always the stupidest thing I had ever heard. We’re not going to not give information to other teachers at the school because they’re not paying dues. That somehow that’s going to be a motivator to pay dues so that they can attend union meetings. It just didn’t make any sense.

In that role, we actually expanded our email as a local to the entire district and we, for a couple of years there, had the biggest wins of any local. Major raises. We got a 40-minute lunch instead of 30 minutes. We got healthier breakfast programs. We limited standardized testing. We did all of these things in the matter of two years because we were continuing to organize.

I don’t think that happened everywhere in the state, but I just completely stopped working with the state union as a local president because we were trying to do something a little different.

DH: Rebecca started to connect with the next question I was going to ask, which is how did local or state politicians react to the strike? Was there support or was there opposition or maybe a combination of both? What are your memories of what politicians did in the lead-up to or during the strike?

DW: One of the reasons why I ran for office was that I don’t remember any politicians reaching out to us offering support, asking questions, doing any of that until we showed up on their doorstep with 50 thousand members.

I remember just being sick. There was this time when I was on a call, myself and Kelly Fisher with the Democratic Caucus in the legislature at the time. I was asking them, “Hey, you all have a chance to stand up right now for education. Can you start proposing different amendments to some of these budget questions and fighting back?” This is a strategy that Eric Blanc gave us.

That happened in West Virginia, I believe, or Oklahoma. But they got so angry on the call with me, saying, “We’ve been here for teachers the whole time.” This, that, and the other thing. I was just very taken aback. So, one of the reasons I ran for office in Michigan is because I want people in office who can amplify the work of organizers, support them, and organize alongside them, instead of just waiting until the last minute to stand up. I’m finding that to be harder because I’m time strapped, but whenever people ask me to help support their organizing, I’m there at least.

NM: What about you, Stephanie?

SP: The expression that you used earlier Nicole, the Democrats and the Republicans being like two wings of the same bird. Is that what you said?

I saw the Democrats generally being more supportive of us and being more vocal. While we were there, particularly showing up at the Capitol in the tens of thousands, they had their doors open. They were supporting us. They were going to bat for us on the floor during the legislative session.

There were, of course, some people who had their doors closed or weren’t around during the strike when the teachers were there, or [politicians who] were getting angry. In particular, our governor called us spoiled teenagers who just wanted a new car. I’ll never forget that moment in the middle of the rotunda, just hundreds and hundreds of people dangling their keys and asking, “Where’s our car? Where’s our car?”

We had these sheets that Democratic legislators were passing out showing how different people had voted on education bills over the years. And I remember having this thing in my hand, looking at someone and saying, “It looks like right here you voted no. Can you explain to me how you can say right now that you support teachers, but on this and this and this, you voted no?”

He got red-faced and angry because I dared to ask him why he had voted no on this, to justify how he could say he supported education when his records showed he did not. That was a turning point for me when I realized these people are here for themselves.

They are not here for us. I definitely think we have the support of some folks, but look where they are now, they’re still in a position where they’re defunding education, where they’re electing people and politicians who don’t have the greater good of students and educators in the state at heart. So did they really support us?

NM: My favorite thing about our politicians was that we used them as fodder. Mitch Carmichael (Republican senator representing District 4) was the main bad guy. Mitch is such a wonderful name. So we sang like: “Move Mitch, get out the way” and “Mitch better have my money,” “A resting Mitch face”and “You’re a mean one, Mr. Mitch.” People even had signs like from the Mean Girls movie and they posted all of the politicians’ heads on the Mean Girls.

There were a couple of Republicans who were school employees that were with us, but in general it was the Democrats. I think that one of the really powerful days was when they wore these ribbons. They had a red ribbon, a yellow ribbon, and a blue ribbon. It was a representation of the teachers, the school employees, and the public employees. They started wearing them one day, and then they just wore them throughout.

Our governor called us dumb bunnies and said that we were being rednecks. Well, hell yeah, we’re being rednecks. We’re West Virginians. It’s where the term redneck comes from.

In the West Virginia mine wars, the march on Blair Mountain, they wore those red bandanas around their neck to show solidarity. Their original union contracts were ratified in 40 different languages because people came straight over from Eastern Europe. You can go and see tombstones with names with like 15 letters in one row.

People didn’t speak the same language. Yet they knew that bandana was a sign of solidarity, which is where the term redneck comes from. The Baldwin Phelps agents and the miners like the Coal Barons, they called them that. They said, “Look at those stupid rednecks.” So that term, unfortunately, just like red-baiting, is eternal.

I think my favorite thing about the politicians is that people shared their emails and their voicemails and really truly showed what a bunch of idiots that they were. It just ticked people off. So it served that purpose of bringing people together again.

I don’t remember people blaming “those dirty Republicans.” I don’t remember that. I remember people pointing out individual politicians, which again, I think helped with that solidarity, helped people see beyond what political party that they’ve been subscribing to.

So yeah, one of my favorite things about the whole thing was using politicians like bait and fodder.

To Part Two

Featured image credit: Photo by Gage Skidmore for Arizona Education Association; modified by Tempest.

We want to hear what you think. Contact us at
And if you've enjoyed what you've read, please consider donating to support our work:


Darrin Hoop View All

Darrin Hoop is a teacher in Seattle and a member of the Seattle Education Association and the Seattle Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators. In addition, he's a member of Tempest and helps lead National Educators United.