Book Review: Red State Revolt

Eric Blanc’s Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics offers a sharp summary of the lessons of last spring’s teacher insurgencies. He drives home the points that (1) strikes are the source of our power and (2) if it can happen there, it can happen here.

The tens of thousands of teachers who went out on illegal strikes in West Virginia, Arizona, and Oklahoma in 2018 won demands that couldn’t be won any other way. Teachers learned by watching and communicating with one another.

Blanc was on the ground in all three states, observing the strikes up close, helping build local and national solidarity, and interviewing many of the central participants. He reveals the fine dynamics of this learning process and gives it to the rest of us to use. What could be more productive than that?

MOVEMENT MOMENT

The book accompanies what many of us sense is a burgeoning “movement moment”—where workers are starting to defy inequality on their own terms and take action collectively. The undercurrent which the red state revolt captured is a ripple of non-acceptance, of throwing off hopelessness and fear.

By documenting and interpreting the factors that contributed to this extraordinary moment, Blanc provides so much of what we need to spread this impulse: lessons from history, insights on the contemporary economic and legal influences that shape our work lives, warnings about pushback from conservative union leaders, critiques of dead-end lobbying strategies, encouragement about surprisingly sturdy worker-community alliances, and understanding about the role played by the “militant minority”—that layer of worker activists, some of whom consider themselves socialists, who help keep things moving.

Those who followed Blanc’s steady coverage on the Jacobin website of the teacher strikes in West Virginia, Arizona, and Oklahoma will recognize the voices of many vibrant, grassroots leaders. The book captures a number of moments when they realized the source of their collective power.

Jay O’Neal, a middle school teacher in Charleston and one of the co-founders of the West Virginia Public Employees United Facebook group, describes when teachers spontaneously defied the governor and their own state union presidents by rejecting a deal and refusing to go back to work: “It was my favorite moment of the whole strike. I was watching everyone around me and my jaw dropped. I saw that people, my co-workers who had felt powerless for so long, now after four days of striking felt their collective power.”

Rebecca Garelli, a Phoenix science teacher and member of the Arizona Educators United leadership team, had already gotten a taste of teachers’ collective power during her earlier experience in the Chicago Teachers Union strike of 2011: “That was an incredibly powerful experience for me. I didn’t realize the full strength of our union until the organizing began for the strike. It was real democratic unionism. People who weren’t political—it made them political. And it sparked such camaraderie and solidarity in our building.”

Reflecting on the experience in Arizona seven years later, Garelli noted: “The movement and the walkout really increased people’s political awareness and our level of grassroots organization.... People now have the courage to fight.”

Gabrielle Price, a Tulsa, Oklahoma, middle school teacher, observes that her colleagues “took a crash course in politics and government and will never be able to unsee what they have seen.”

A DEEPER ACCOUNTING

By telling much of the story through interviews with rank-and-file activists, Blanc achieves a level of nuance and detail that goes way beyond mainstream media coverage and renders the whole process accessible to other workers itching for change.

Many aspects of the strikes were echoed over and over in media accounts—seriously depressed wages, governors and legislatures (both Democrat and Republican) who had slashed taxes and imposed austerity on schools, and mass euphoria as teachers found their collective voice and power. Blanc captures all of this, and gives each point weight and attention, but also goes deeper. He touches on other matters that worker activists need to understand if they are going to shift the balance of power.

Take the question of union democracy—a subject of keen interest to readers of Labor Notes, but generally unaddressed in commercial media, not to mention union publications. Blanc describes the anemic state of most U.S. unions. Most teachers, he writes, “have for years treated the unions as, at best, a distant and ineffective third party, useful mostly for providing some form of insurance in case of individual trouble with administrators.” With atrophied communication systems and all-but-meaningless channels for collective decision-making, the union structures in these three states didn’t provide the platform that teachers needed to expand and guide their insurgency.

But to understand the rebuilding of effective communication among union members, Blanc has to take us beyond the oft-cited “Facebook miracle”—where a page blows up from 20 members to 20,000 in one week—to recognize that much more is needed, and was created, by the newly emerging grassroots leaders.

Arizona Educators United (AEU), the grassroots group at the heart of the statewide strike there, started as a Facebook group, but then methodically recruited, trained, and integrated at least 1,200 “site liaisons,” many of whom were not even union members (since only 25 percent of teachers belonged to the statewide union).

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The robust two-way communication between the ad hoc leadership team of AEU and these school-based activists was critical to the strike’s success. As AEU activist Dylan Wegela reflects, “It turned out that the liaisons were the most important part of the movement. They organized their schools, got a sense of where people were at, and served as the channel of communication between the rank-and-file and our AEU leadership team. We couldn’t have done any of this without them.”

INSIDE THE UNIONS

With the benefit of fine-grained interviews, we’re also privy to the shifting balance of power inside the unions as officers responded to the grassroots surge. In West Virginia, the presidents of the two teacher unions (the West Virginia Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia) and the support staff union (the West Virginia School Support Personnel Association)—normally non-collaborative—joined together to conduct a statewide strike vote in an uncharacteristically cooperative and democratic move.

In Arizona, Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas conceded to AEU leaders that he knew the grassroots group was driving the bus. He committed to bring the union on for the ride, and made good on this promise, providing resources, staff, and logistical support to the strike. In exchange, he tried to push more cautious strategies, and was particularly hesitant about calling a strike. But the unleashed energy at the grassroots—the base of AEU’s power—was a strong counter-force.

Nor does Blanc avoid looking at disturbing examples of union democracy thwarted, where state union leaders attempted to control the bubbling militancy from below, producing toxic results. He quotes Price, a Tulsa teacher, responding to the Oklahoma Education Association’s unilateral ending of the walkout with no meaningful consultation from the members: “I appreciate OEA. They have provided shuttles, bathrooms … which is great. However, ... I didn’t get a poll [to go back]. I was never asked on whether or not I thought the walkout should continue. There aren’t a ton of union members, but I am a member and I was never asked about ending the walkout… This was a teacher-led walkout. This was not any organization’s walkout. This was not OEA’s decision for us to go fight. This was our decision.”

With this sense of betrayal widespread, membership dropped and many teachers soon withdrew from the struggle they’d started. And though the walkout resulted in significant new salary money from the legislature, the larger goal of restoring resources to students—staff and programs that had been cut in the 2008 fiscal crisis—was lost.

DEMOCRACY IS POWER

The crucial lesson for unionists everywhere is that we need participatory union democracy— meaningful and accountable decision-making structures. Without that, members will feel demeaned and return to a state of disengaged powerlessness. Red State Revolt addresses this question in a practical way, by showing activists—the “militant minority”—interacting with the conditions they faced and turning helplessness into productive power. Blanc sums up his project elegantly, and points us forward, in his conclusion:

“A whole series of economic and political processes underlay the upsurge. And unions, with all their contradictions, played a pivotal role in coordinating and strengthening these movements. Yet, had it not been for the efforts of such rank-and-file organizers, things could have turned out very differently. Without activist interventions, for instance, it’s unlikely that rank and filers would have been able to overcome the hesitations of their top union leadership. Mingo County teacher Katie Endicott put it as follows: ‘We love our unions; we couldn’t have accomplished what we did without them. But we did have to overstep them along the way at certain times.’”

It’s relevant to note that Blanc—a unionist, socialist, and former teacher—has helped some of these activist teachers to connect with one another and with Labor Notes, which coordinates the United Caucuses of Rank-and-File Educators (UCORE), a network of progressive caucuses within both the NEA and AFT. UCORE provides a platform to share the lessons of bottom-up unionism. Through direct exchange among teachers, this network helps sustain democratic unionism, allowing the wisdom earned through struggles by teachers across the country to consolidate and expand—a necessity when entering into such uncharted terrain.

The experiences captured in Red State Revolt are first and foremost a rallying cry: Wherever you are, in a strong or weak union or even without a union at all, you can jump-start a process of bottom-up resistance to the policies that have undermined teachers and public education for decades. Now get to it!

Who Should Read Red State Revolt?

This is a profoundly inspirational book for rank and filers and frustrated workers anywhere, with one lesson foremost: “If they can do it, I can do it too!” For people who are devoting their lives to this movement, it is endlessly instructive.

The lessons of this book will be immediately useful to employees in public higher education. Recent strikes by graduate students, adjuncts, and even tenured faculty show that there are conditions driving people towards militant action.

The book could also have direct relevance for other public sector state employees, another large group affected by neoliberal austerity. The red state teacher strikes were not specifically strikes against the employer in a conventional sense—they were more precisely political strikes against state legislatures. Both state and municipal employees, suffering a lot of financial stasis and hardship and cutbacks, could also engage in political strikes.

Another group that could benefit from these lessons is health care workers. Teachers and unionized hospital and nursing home workers share some particularly complex issues around what it means morally and ethically to walk away from your job and withdraw your labor in a strike. There are always heart-wrenching discussions that go on when teachers are getting ready to “walk away” from their students. For workers in a hospital, it’s a good deal more pointed.

There are also shared issues of understaffing that leave both teachers and health care workers overstressed, exhausted, and feeling ill-equipped for their tasks. When you talk about understaffing, the question quickly becomes: Why are they doing this? Where did the money go? Why don’t state and municipal governments have enough money? How do we understand that there’s so much profit being made in health care but not enough money to adequately staff our emergency rooms?

Ellen David Friedman is a retired organizer for Vermont NEA. She helps facilitate the United Caucuses of Rank-and-File Educators (UCORE). Purchase Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics for $20 at versobooks.com. Want to organize a study group? Unions or caucuses can get 50 percent off by ordering in bulk.