Arizona teachers and education advocates march at the state capitol in Phoenix on March 28, protesting low teacher pay and school funding. Protests like this one and the previous rallies in West Virginia have been largely organized on social media.
—Ross D. Franklin/AP
The successful West Virginia teacher strike has lit the match for a spate of teacher uprisings across the country. The main place teachers are gathering to strategize? Facebook.
Although Facebook has been under fire lately for its involvement in a data-harvesting effort that may have influenced the 2016 election, for teachers, the embattled social-media platform has recently proved a lever for democracy. In right-to-work states where unions don’t have as strong a presence, teachers have used Facebook to rally support and launch grassroots movements for higher pay—and with some success.
West Virginia educators started the trend with a nine-day, teacher-driven strike this month that concluded when the legislature passed a 5 percent pay raise. Oklahoma teachers just received a $6,100 pay raise from the legislature after threatening to shut down schools across the state. Teachers there will still walk out on April 2 to protest years of funding cuts, but the passage of the tax hike to pay for the raises—the first tax increase in nearly three decades—is being hailed as a historic victory.
In Arizona, teachers have called on the legislature to pass a 20 percent raise for teachers and have threatened to strike if lawmakers don’t take action. There have also been protests organized among teachers in Kentucky to protect their pension benefits.
In all of these states, tens of thousands of teachers have flocked to Facebook groups set up to discuss their demands and action steps. The teachers’ unions, for the most part, have played a support role rather than orchestrating the movements.
“Organizing has changed over the years—it’s not just talking to people in a breakroom,” said David Madland, a senior fellow and the senior adviser to the American Worker Project at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank in Washington.
A Facebook group started by an 8th grade U.S. history teacher in Stillwater, Okla., titled “Oklahoma Teacher Walkout—The Time Is Now!,” has more than 70,000 members.
Shelly Unsicker-Durham, a middle school English/language arts teacher in Norman, Okla., said watching the group’s membership grow by the tens of thousands convinced her that a statewide walkout was feasible.
“Nobody really saw this coming,” she said. “[The Oklahoma Education Association], I thought they were just done, they had given it their best shot. This felt different—a different energy.”
Facebook has become particularly important in these recent movements in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona, in part because the teachers’ unions don’t have a stronghold over the educators there. All four are right-to-work states, meaning that teachers don’t have to pay dues to a union as a condition of employment.
In right-to-work states, “unions are going to be inherently weaker,” Madland said.
That changes the way organizing happens, he said: “You don’t have the typical institutional channel to have these discussions. You get reaction more in the streets.”
(Union leaders and supporters have warned that if an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court decision effectively turns the public sector into a right-to-work zone, labor unrest could happen more often.)
A Grassroots Movement
In 1990, before Oklahoma and West Virginia passed right-to-work laws, teachers in both states walked out of their classrooms to fight for higher pay.
“The difference is, the union was much stronger in 1990,” said Melonie Hau, the superintendent of the school district in Duncan, Okla., who picketed at the state capitol at the time. “We weren’t real sure that they could get anything off the ground [this time]. There was a lot of questions among superintendents about that—what is the possibility that this could really come together and organize?”
But educators weren’t on social media in 1990, Hau said.
“That is the factor now that is pulling folks together,” she said. “The majority of our district isn’t affiliated with any professional organization, but they are all on Facebook, and they feel a sense of solidarity through that social-media movement.”
In Oklahoma, teachers on Facebook swayed the union’s work-refusal strategy. When the union called for teachers to walk out on April 23 if the legislature didn’t meet their demands, teachers exploded in anger on Facebook. The date was far too late, hundreds of people wrote on the union’s Facebook page, floating an alternative of April 2.
Alberto Morejon, the “Time Is Now” organizer, posted a poll: Did teachers want a walkout date of April 2 or April 23? About 9,000 people voted for the earlier date, with about 300 people choosing the later date.
The union, which had received hundreds of angry comments on its Facebook post announcing the April 23 date, deleted the post and agreed to move the walkout date to April 2.
OEA President Alicia Priest said the union has been on the trajectory for a statewide walkout for about a year, but officials there are now working “in partnership” with Morejon’s Facebook group.
Indeed, these Facebook groups are a boon for union leaders, especially those who have fewer resources in right-to-work states, said Rick Wartzman, the director of the KH Moon Center for a Functioning Society at the Drucker Institute, a think tank that’s part of Claremont Graduate University in the Los Angeles area.
“If I were a union leader, I’d be reading these comments to learn a lot [about the rank-and-file teachers across the state],” he said. “It may be an efficient way to get a quick handle on what they are most concerned about, what they really want to fight for. That’s really valuable information for an organizer.”
Meanwhile in Arizona, the Facebook group “Arizona Educators United” has grown to about 37,000 members after music teacher Noah Karvelis started it earlier this month when he saw the state teachers’ union president tweet about getting organized.
Now, the Facebook page has become the central forum for teachers to discuss their goals and action steps, Karvelis said. Teachers have also shared information about protests, like donning red in schools across the state or demonstrating at the state capitol.
Karvelis characterized Arizona Education Association’s approach as, “We’re going to be hands off, we’re going to let you guys steer this ship,” while offering resources and insights when needed.
“They’ve really been focused on this being a grassroots, educator-led movement, and that’s really proved to be vital for us,” he said. “It’s kept us super focused.”
The West Virginia strike also showed the reciprocal relationship between union leaders and rank-and-file teachers.
“[Union leadership] had some power because grassroots was willing to go to the streets,” said Madland, of CAP. But “an ordinary teacher couldn’t just go talk to the governor on their own. … It’s hard to see how either one could do this on their own. They need each other.”
Having Facebook be the central hub for a major, statewide movement has its benefits and challenges—especially when it’s managed by teachers who are not trained labor organizers.
Social media provides a forum for teachers to share their grievances, enables parents and community members to publicly show support, and connects teachers from all corners of the state in one place, said Madland.
In West Virginia, he added, social media “provided an opportunity for them to really connect in a way they hadn’t before.”
And it allows teachers to feel part of a larger community: West Virginia teachers received encouraging comments from educators across the country during their strike. Now, they’re returning the favor—teachers from the Mountain State regularly leave messages of support on Oklahoma walkout posts.
But organizing a statewide movement on Facebook can create some logistical challenges, Karvelis said.
“You have a group of 35,000 people who are angry, and … some of them are pissed off,” he said. It takes a lot of time and effort for moderators to squash fights that break out and keep the discussion on track.
And running a group with tens of thousands of people is basically a full-time job, he said. Every morning, Karvelis wakes up to dozens of Facebook messages and notifications from the group.
Then, he said, “I go to work, and I’m not like a labor organizer anymore—I’m teaching 3rd graders.”
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