In recent decades, public labor strikes have become rarer, especially those that unite workers statewide, but experts say this may now be changing, fueled by economic conditions and the use of social media as both a convening tool and an amplifier for stories of struggle.
One prominent example of this is the recently-settled teacher’s strike in West Virginia, according to David Madland, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. During the strike, every teacher in the state spent nine consecutive days out of classrooms before the union eventually received all that it asked for, including 5 percent pay raises.
Teachers walked off the job because of rising health-care costs and low pay, with many telling stories of working second jobs at fast food restaurants just to get by. The teachers, who don’t have a labor contract with the state, had not had an across-the-board pay raise in four years.
What happened in West Virginia is notable for a couple reasons. First, teachers in the state were among the lowest-paid in the nation, ranking 48 out of 50 states and Washington, D.C., according to Madland. Second, the size of the strike was unusual. It included every public school in West Virginia.
Labor organizers had to connect two unions spread throughout 55 counties of West Virginian terrain, which, with its valleys and mountain roads, made organizing difficult. To overcome this problem, the teachers unions spread stories of the dire economic situations they faced with the social media hashtag #55strong.
By crowdsourcing what was a grass-roots effort using social media, teachers were able to sustain the strike and win the pay raise they demanded, according to The New York Times.
“The big thing was they had a shared grievance that the economic conditions were really bad,” Madland said. “The political system wasn’t responsive to them in any other way, and so they felt backed into a corner and had to take dramatic action. Once they got to that point of feeling that way, social media helped them reach out to others, understand others were feeling the same way and then help organize their efforts.”
Now, that model is spreading to other states where teachers’ pay has been squeezed by reductions in education budgets, creating the same economic conditions faced by teachers in West Virginia. Teachers in Oklahoma, where schools are the most poorly-funded in the country, have set a strike date for April 2, and are also using social media as a tool to build a movement and post informational videos.
Teachers in Arizona have also turned to social media to build momentum around labor grievances. On Wednesday March 7, thousands of teachers wore red clothing to school in a show of solidarity (teachers in West Virginia also wore red during their strike), said Joe Thomas, head of the Arizona Education Association. Thomas said this was largely organized on social media via the hashtag #RedForEd.
Throughout the day, teachers, aids and students posted pictures of themselves wearing red, and later in the week many of them returned to social media to post videos and stories of the dire economic conditions they face, which Thomas said were comparable to West Virginia’s.
“It’s reaffirming to know that you’re not the only one thinking or feeling what your experience is,” Thomas said. “You can see there are other people across the state struggling to meet their bills, or who have class sizes where they can’t meet the needs of all their students.”
The personal stories and legitimate grievances of the public employees are a foundation upon which social media tools can be used to build a house of collective effort and support. Madland said there’s been a sharp decline in strikes across the country in the past 60 years, and “this might be a signal of a resurgence in strikes.”
“Underlying conditions have been bad for quite some time, and it does take a little spark,” Madland said. “I think West Virginia helped provide some of that spark to other states.”
Zack Quaintance is a staff writer for Government Technology. Prior to that, he spent five years working in daily newspapers, and another five years working in the tech sector. He lives in Northern California.