Red State Revolt: An Essential But Flawed Story of the Teacher Rebellion

Review of Red State Revolt, The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics by Eric Blanc on Verso Books, 2019.

By Michael Mochaidean

Last year’s wave of public teacher strikes and walkouts was the highest number of workers walking off the job in three decades. Whether it will be the start of a larger trend across other sectors is yet to be seen. But understanding how these strikes came to fruition is an important lesson of modern labor history.

So how did a group of young, radical, education unionists manage to stage statewide walkouts across the nation in 2018?

This is the question that Eric Blanc seeks to answer in the much anticipated release of his first book, Red State Revolt. Blanc is a doctoral student at NYU and for the past year has acted as correspondent on the Left for the larger education struggles. Given that Blanc has spent the better part of a year covering these struggles, interviewing by his estimates over 100 participants, and being a former educator himself, Blanc is uniquely qualified to write about these matters in ways few others can.

The three largest conclusions that Blanc comes to in Red State Revolt are as follows: 1) the Left’s connection to labor struggles has been dead for the past half-decade, and only this recent upsurge can revitalize it; 2) education workers are the front lines in a battle against austerity, neo-liberalism, and the right for public workers to successfully (and legally) strike; 3) the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have played a unique role leading up to and building for these strikes.

Blanc’s overall assessment of the 2018 Education Strikes centers crucially on the ability for DSA and Bernie-inspired radicals to join, build, and lead the new labor movement. In Chapter Three, for example, Blanc purposefully juxtaposes Oklahoma’s statewide walkout to the more successful strikes in West Virginia and Arizona to build Blanc’s calculation for the reader: when there are no active DSA members in a labor struggle, it suffers; when there are active DSA members in a labor struggle, it thrives. This simplistic analysis of these statewide revolts reveals more about Blanc’s overall judgment on the efficacy of one socialist organization than it does anything about how these struggles dealt with issues of race, geography, and gender, to name a few.

Blanc’s political leanings however weigh heavily and cloud the narrative throughout Red State Revolt. He is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the neo-Kautskyist Bread and Roses caucus (formerly known as the Spring Caucus), and a staunch supporter of the Bernie 2020 campaign.

Origins of the Strike and Blanc’s Narrative Don’t Align

As a teacher who was involved with organizing the West Virginia teacher strike and who has been working with key strike leaders across the country, as well as those interviewed in Red State Revolt, I can say from my own direct knowledge and experience that the analysis built up by Blanc props up a narrative that fits his own political outlook and doesn’t always hold up under scrutiny.

For example, Blanc begins his introduction by stating that his work is more than a recounting of the year’s long strike wave of 2018, but “also a behind-the scenes account of how militant teacher-organizers – most of them young radicals inspired by the 2016 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign – initiated these illegal rank-and-file rebellions and guided them to victory in alliance with their trade unions.” By ‘young radicals,’ Blanc is referring to several individuals who self-identify as democratic socialists and are members of DSA who had some tie, however loosely and informally, to Bernie Sander’s 2016 presidential run. As he states, “though few in number, young socialists inspired by the Bernie Sanders campaign played an outsized role [in the strikes].” The self-identified democratic socialists inspired by Bernie’s campaign that Blanc points to – Emily Comer, Jay O’Neal, Nicole and Matt McCormick each from West Virginia, and Noah Kervallis from Arizona – make up a small percentage of the overall interviews conducted by Blanc, yet receive the bulk of attention from his retelling of the strikes.

For Blanc, the origins of the strikes can be found in a reading group that had started in a nascent Kanawha Valley DSA chapter in Charleston, WV. Organizers with the Kanawha Valley DSA wanted to help organize teachers in 2017, and so they began by reading Jane McAlevey’s No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the Gilded Age. The chapter disbanded for a period, yet the few teachers still in the group wanted to continue this work. The Facebook group that launched in October 2017 was the culmination of this organizing, and its genesis, according to O’Neal, was from the Facebook groups set up for DSA chapters, caucuses, and working groups. From there, power was built by organizing local sessions around PEIA (the state health insurance agency for public employees), banner protests at the governor’s state of the state address, and holding #RedForEd days at schools, whereby teachers would dress all in red and post solidarity pictures with one another.

The point of this retelling is to draw a comparison between the 2018 West Virginia walkouts and the 2012 Chicago Teachers Strike. The Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), which later took over the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) prior to 2012. In so doing, Blanc’s retelling of this story is intended to connect the two struggles, divided by half a decade and vastly different geographic settings, despite the fact that few teachers in West Virginia were aware of the background of the CTU strike, its history, or its impact on the labor struggle at the time of their own walkouts.

As Blanc continues in his section on West Virginia, the reader is given the background of the social media page – West Virginia Public Employees United. None of the organizing that took place could have done so without this secret Facebook page, as told by individuals Blanc interviewed. Tying this to the organizing work of specific members of DSA, however, is a false narrative. While DSA members Jay O’Neal and Emily Comer did help to create this page, similar pages were likewise created by non-DSA members in Kentucky and Oklahoma at the same time. Furthermore, the page’s initial birth was intended to channel collective anger towards online organizing for much smaller actions – the Lobby Day that took place in January, 2018 – not for larger goals of direct action. It became the success that it was because it allowed for a greater number of education workers to access information that had previously been the purview of only union leadership, staff, and those capable of attending monthly meetings.

The Centrality of the DSA?

The actions that Blanc relays about successful organizing at the capitol – banners, op-eds, meeting with representatives – occurred in one location, the more metropolitan center of the state. Peripherally, however, local organizing from non-DSA members were far more numerous yet receive far less attention in Red State Revolt. Blanc’s recounting of this strike’s genesis from the point of view of a select group of DSA-affiliated members hinges the success of this action on the DSA’s operational hegemony – the “Militant Minority” that are the focus of this work. Had it not been for DSA’s attempt to organize teachers, the strike may never had happened, so Blanc explains.

This point is driven home later in his retelling of the Oklahoma strike. Blanc makes it evident that social media alone could not win the day. In the state, two large and competing social media pages were set up months prior to the statewide strike. In this case, according to Blanc, the lack of on-the-ground organizing in Oklahoma meant that the success of their strike was always hampered by personalities jockeying for control of the movement. Between the Oklahoma Teachers United page, set up by “fiscal conservative” Larry Cagle, and Oklahoma Teachers Walkout-The Time is Now, set up by Alberto Morejon, there was little desire for these individuals to work across pages and with the Oklahoma Education Association (OEA). Infighting soon began with Cagle’s pugnacious style overshadowing the OEA, and Morejon’s inability to grapple with his new role as an organizer.

This feud foreshadows the ultimate defeat of Oklahoma educators, but more importantly, Oklahoma’s less-than-successful strike acts as a foil to Blanc in one greater respect – the fact that DSA members did not play a (more) active role. For Blanc, “the present-day rebirth of a socialist movement in Oklahoma can be traced to February 28, 2016” when, on that day, “Bernie Sanders electrified a rally of over 6,000 in Oklahoma City.” Bernie presented Oklahomans with “an outlet to the deep dissatisfaction that existed with the status quo.” What differentiated Oklahoma from West Virginia, though, was that “none of these Oklahoman DSAers had jobs in the schools” and, for this reason, “they were unable to transmit class politics or organizing know-how into Oklahoma’s education movement, either during the lead-up to the walkout or once it had begun, and they were limited to providing outside support.”

Why Race Matters in Labor

Although Blanc does acknowledge the dynamics of race and gender in his work, he paints over them quickly so as not to divert attention away from the theme of Bernie/DSA’s role in igniting this new labor movement. And this is where the assessment and narrative of the book falls apart. Blanc acknowledges from the beginning that he is not going to discuss any other strikes that took place in 2018. Had he done so, Blanc’s understanding of the components of race and the limitations of this movement independent of a holistic class-based analysis would have disproven his argument. Blanc quickly surveys the DeKalb County bus driver strike (without acknowledging the role that the Industrial Workers of the World played in organizing this strike), only to conclude that this strike was unsuccessful because “calling a strike and winning a strike are two distinct tasks. To organize an illegal strike and win requires strong internal unity and external support.” Blanc does not address the fact that the striking bus drivers who lost their jobs were predominately Black and that this strike did not receive the attention it deserved, or the organizing assistance it needed to thrive, principally because of the dual components of race and class status. Even now, these fault lines are presenting a greater necessity for understanding why race matters in the labor struggle both in terms of student population and teacher demographics.

Red State Revolt is simply a well-written narrative that covers the dysfunction of the Democratic Party, a brief history of labor’s neutered existence in the past half-decade, and a “how-to” guide for new organizers. Blanc does all these well. Yet, without understanding the power dynamics behind the scenes, it is unclear why Blanc spends an extended time covering the backgrounds of these organizers as he does. What is an otherwise well-written narrative for young organizers on the historic nature of last year’s walkouts becomes a hagiography of certain principal education workers. All quoted respondents who identify as socialists state that they identify as a democratic socialist, and are in some way inspired by Bernie’s 2016 presidential run. This is intentionally selective. Blanc’s affiliation with the Bread and Rose caucus, as many other DSA education workers quoted in Red State Revolt do, means that the story of socialism in the 2018 walkouts can only be explained as a phenomenon of DSA’s exceptional organizing capacity unparalleled on the Left since the 1960’s. Indeed, no other socialist organization, tendency, or affiliation are even mentioned, despite the fact that both the International Socialist Organization and the Industrial Workers of the World played equally critical roles in these strikes.

We are all indebted to Blanc for his coverage of these strikes and for providing a mostly accurate picture of their set-ups and setbacks, successes and failures. It is truly an important text for any organizer to read in order to gain greater insight into the intricacies of online to on-the-ground organizing campaigns across entire states. However, if future generations remember these strikes through Blanc’s political lens as simply successors to Bernie’s 2016 presidential run and the rise of the DSA, we will all be the worse off for it. Its flaws notwithstanding, Red State Revolt is a helpful tool for those new to organizing, those looking for a perspective on the 2018 walkouts outside the mainstream press, and those hoping to grapple with where the labor movement can learn from the triumphs and pitfalls of organizing against enemies on multiple fronts.

Michael Mochaidean is a public school teacher, organizer, and member of WVEA and the West Virginia IWW. He is currently co-authoring a book detailing the 2018 education walkouts, their triumphs, and limitations one year later.

If you enjoyed this piece then check out additional writing by Michael Mochaidean, “Do All Organizing Roads Lead to Bernie?” and “Strike To Win: How the West Virginia Teacher Strike Was Won.”