When striking teachers in Dedham ratified a new contract on Monday afternoon, they joined a nationwide movement of educators agitating for better pay and improved working conditions, from West Virginia to California.
Each successful strike, experts said, inspires another, and in their brief three-day walkout, Dedham teachers advanced many of the arguments that have been successful in teacher strikes elsewhere. And although many of the recent actions were illegal, teachers have claimed victory in nearly every one.
“We have seen a dramatic increase in the number of teacher strikes across the country,” said Kent Wong, the director of the UCLA Labor Center. “It’s a reflection of how desperate the situation has become for teachers to just feel like they cannot in good conscience do their jobs with the lack of support they are getting.”
More workers were involved in strikes and work stoppages last year than at any point since 1986, according to The Wall Street Journal, with public school teachers accounting for the vast majority of those walking off their jobs. Since a massive statewide teachers strike in West Virginia in the spring of 2018, educators have participated in dozens of strikes across the country. The Chicago Teachers Union is currently on strike, entering its ninth school day.
With deteriorating conditions in some public schools and stagnant wages for many in the classroom, educators involved in the strikes have said they have no choice. In Dedham and elsewhere, they have framed their position as fighting not just for higher wages for themselves, but also for better education for the students they instruct. One of the most popular rallying cries is that teachers are fighting for the schools that students deserve.
“It’s not just about more money. . . it’s about schools that actually function. It’s about communities that actually function,” said Erik Loomis, a professor of history at the University of Rhode Island and the author of “A History of America in Ten Strikes.”
That argument has resonated widely with parents and students. In Dedham, where the strike affected some 2,700 students, some families joined the teachers on Friday on the picket line and at a Saturday rally.
The primary reason that so many teachers are walking out, scholars say, is because states have slashed public education funding, which has left 94 percent of teachers paying for school supplies out of their own pockets, according to a Department of Education survey. And while the weekly wages of college graduates have generally risen since 1996, the weekly wages of public school teachers have actually decreased in that time period, according to a report from the Economic Policy Institute. About 1 in 6 public school teachers has a second job.
Those economic realities have fueled the wave of strikes across the country, said Rebecca Tarlau, a professor at Penn State’s College of Education. But the strikes have been sustained by a network of teacher activists — not traditional union leaders — who have taken over their unions and made a more forceful push for resources.
Particularly in districts that have disinvested in schools with majorities of black and brown students, teacher activists have been “able to frame their struggle not just as an economic struggle, but as a racial justice struggle,” Tarlau said.
In the agreement in Dedham ratified by the union, teachers won a 10-13 percent wage increase over four years, depending on their level of seniority, said Tim Dwyer, president of the Dedham Education Association. They also won new sexual harassment language and a policy that would restrict cellphones in academic settings, among other provisions. Before the strike, the two sides had met for 21 months to work out an agreement for teachers, nurses, school psychologists, and counselors, but talks stalled in August. The Dedham School Committee plans to vote on the agreement Tuesday night.
If approved, the contract would be retroactive to the 2018-2019 school year. Superintendent Michael Welch said the missed school day from the Friday strike will be added to the end of the academic year.
“No one goes on strike lightly, especially an illegal strike,” Dwyer said. Other unions in Massachusetts and nearby states may be taking note.
“I would find it hard to believe that it would not influence other people, given the success of the last week,” Dwyer said, pointing out that the School Committee had refused to bargain with the union since Aug. 1, but after one day of striking, the school committee “negotiated and came to an agreement.”
Although it is illegal for public school teachers in many states to strike, Loomis said, it’s rare for teachers to be punished, partly because of the reasons they walked out in the first place.
The Dedham strike was believed to be the first strike by Massachusetts public school teachers in 12 years.
“The teacher’s job is so low-paying now that there’s not going to be a huge amount of strike-breakers who are going to go to Dedham or wherever the next strike is and say, ‘Oh, I want that job that isn’t paying me enough to buy a house,’” Loomis said.
The state Department of Labor Relations’ Commonwealth Employment Relations Board issued a ruling last week ordering the Dedham union to “immediately cease and desist” from the strike and return to work. But the new contract includes a no-reprisal clause for anyone who participated in the strike, Dwyer said.
While each strike hinges on a set of local conditions, experts said that each serves as an inspiration, and a model, for the next.
“The thing about strikes is that most people don’t really want to do it. It’s scary,” said Loomis, adding that between the mid-1980s and a few years ago, strikes were rare. But seeing others go on strike — and win — makes people less afraid.
Loomis pointed to another prominent strike in the region — the walkout by some 31,000 Stop & Shop workers earlier this year.
“Just within New England, how many of these teachers saw Stop and Shop workers on strike earlier this year? It all kind of builds on each other,” Loomis said.
Dwyer said he and his fellow teachers had been watching the teacher strikes beyond state borders.
“The strikers have made us all proud,” he said, “all around the country.”