How we are winning teacher strikes with social justice unionism

By studying the history of nonviolent struggle, the Red for Ed movement is strong and growing in California’s wine country.
Teachers with the Rohnert Park Cotati Educators Association on strike in March 2022. (Facebook/RPCEA)

In Sonoma County, California, there had not been a teachers’ strike for nearly 40 years prior to 2019, despite it being one of the most expensive places in the nation. As of 2018 not one of the 40 school districts in the county was paying their teachers above the statewide average pay despite many districts being amongst the most well funded in the state. Moreover, nearly half of students are on free or reduced lunch and Latino.

However, since 2019, Sonoma County educators have had three successful, short strikes in less than three years — the most recent lasting six days this March. During this timeframe, in our 36 local California Teachers Association chapters, educators across the county have conducted 16 strike votes with nearly 100 percent support from members — and all but three averted strikes by winning historic contracts.

“A strike is not a threat but a peaceful solution to economic inequality.”

In short, the Red for Ed movement — that started in 2018 by striking teachers in West Virginia and spread across the country — is strong and growing in Sonoma County. The proof is in the numbers. The national average teacher pay for 2020-21 rose only 1.8 percent. Sadly, the California average teacher pay grew even less than that. Meanwhile, the average teacher pay in Sonoma County increased by 5.07 percent. When the new numbers come out later this school year, they will be even higher.

Furthermore, in Forestville, where we struck in August 2019, during the last two rounds of bargaining, our educators won wage increases of 26.5 percent, plus very significant district healthcare contribution increases and huge structural changes to the salary schedule. We also removed the cap on years of experience for new hires. In neighboring Sebastopol, our educators have won more than 31 percent in pay increases over the last three contracts. These collective bargaining victories certainly help us recruit and retain the best educators for our students.

Learning from movement history

Since 2018, educators in Sonoma County have implemented a Social Justice Unionism approach that makes a deliberate effort to view and practice our union work under the framework of nonviolent action. We connect with the legacy of Martin Luther King, James Lawson and others from the 1960s freedom struggle, as well as leaders from the early 1900s union movement like A. Philip Randolph.

Through the Sonoma County Educators Council, we meet each year for a summit at the beginning of the school year and then each month to coordinate our collective bargaining and learn about the legacy of Social Justice Unionism. We see important links between the 1930s sit-down strikes and the 1960s sit-ins and our struggle today.

As the well-respected but overlooked movement leader Bob Moses said, public education remains the “unfinished business” of the 1960s freedom struggle and where we can see the “clearest manifestation of our caste system.”  

West Sonoma County teachers on strike in November 2019. (Facebook/WSCTA)

Through these sessions on Social Justice Unionism, Sonoma County educators are learning to be masters of creating justice and unity through nonviolent action and participatory democracy. Rohnert Park-Cotati high school teacher and chapter president Denise Tranfaglia summed it up well when she told the school board, “A strike is not a threat but a peaceful solution to economic inequality.” This is especially true for educators who are mostly women and are already vastly underpaid compared to other professionals with similar education.

Like most educators across the country, we were inspired by the Red for Ed teachers’ strikes and also discussed how they were linked to the Chicago Teachers Union strike in 2012.

What makes what is happening in Sonoma County special is the sustained nature of this strategically coordinated and planned movement over a four-year period that has continued throughout the pandemic.

We looked to the sustained, strategic, multi-year nonviolent campaigns in the 1960s — from the Nashville sit-ins to the Freedom Rides and Birmingham campaign — that radically changed the course of our nation as a model.

Today, we need something similar to address economic inequality and all the other social issues that are deeply connected to it.

A model for unions

Assertive but nonviolent coordinated countywide bargaining in Sonoma County has revealed itself to be a model for addressing economic inequality and expanding democracy.

As Jane McAlevey, a fellow at the UC Berkeley Labor Center and strike correspondent for The Nation has said, “Unions have so much value not just to build the power required to undo the rot of democracy and rampant income inequality, but also to teach Americans how to unite again.”

Unions, at their best, can be models of democracy. We cannot have a democracy without having a democracy in the workplace where people spend most of their waking hours.

It will take millions of coordinated people participating in strikes — with different employers in strategic key sectors that can shut down business-as-usual for the economic elite — to change the power dynamic, create a new social contract and address the great challenges we face as a nation and world.

In Sonoma County, we have studied how we originally got our rights to a union and collective bargaining. We have studied how workers created a different society. Massive private sector strikes in the 1930s in key industries (auto, steel and rubber) created a new economy, one in which workers had a right to share in the wealth their labor produced. For decades, the causes for which the strikers sat down — collective bargaining, secure jobs and retirement, better wages and working conditions — were achieved.

In the late 1960s after the Memphis public sanitation workers strike, educators and public sector workers replicated the massive strikes of the 1930s. Today, public sector educators are leading us all in the fight for a better future, but more educators, unions and workers in general will need to learn from history and act on its lasting lessons.

Can a little-known model of nonviolent social change in Sonoma County help educate us all on how to achieve a more perfect union today? We, the teachers, of Sonoma County think so.

This story was produced by Fellowship Magazine

Since 1918, the Fellowship of Reconciliation has published the award-winning print magazine Fellowship. It is also now online, offering original grassroots analysis, movement research, first-person commentary, poetry and more to help people of faith and conscience build a nonviolent, compassionate world.

Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.