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Here’s Why So Many Striking Teachers Wear Red

With strikes breaking out across the country, lots of teachers are going “Red for Ed.”

Striking Arizona teachers in Red for Ed shirts.
Arizona teachers turned out in Red for Ed shirts during their strike that ended this month.
Ralph Freso/Getty Images

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Today, schools in North Carolina closed as teachers marched for more pay, benefits, and state funding for students. The one-day strike makes North Carolina the sixth state this year where teachers have walked out in protest. Just Sunday, the first teachers strike to take place in Colorado in 24 years ended. The action was part of a movement that has seen educators across the country demanding fair wages and more school funding. But their fight for better compensation isn’t the only thing the striking teachers have in common. Whether the educators walking out of schools have done so in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, or West Virginia, they have all made themselves easily identifiable by color-coordinating. Some wore blue, others wore pink, but by far, most of the striking teachers turned out in red.

There’s a reason teachers and other union workers wear the color.

Red is an expression of solidarity

On August 15, 1989, Gerry Horgan, chief steward of the Communication Workers of America Local 1103, was killed on a picket line in Valhalla, New York. Horgan was taking part in a strike against the now-defunct telephone company NYNEX Corp when a driver ran him over. The motorist was the daughter of an NYNEX higher-up and was never jailed for the incident. Rather, corporate sympathizers in the police department reportedly suggested that Horgan jumped on the car’s hood, causing his own death. Fellow strikers maintain that Horgan’s killing was intentional.

In remembrance of Horgan and the risks striking workers continue to face, union members across the country wear red. Labor unions often designate a day of the week to do so, such as Wednesday or Thursday.

“Solidarity is not just an idea,” the CWA explained in a statement about why workers wear red. “It is a belief that together we can protect and improve our way of life. We must stand united.”

Rosie the Riveter cosplay
A striking Oklahoma teacher wears a red bandana and blue shirt like Rosie the Riveter.
Photo: J Pat Carter/Getty Images

During a strike in particular, wearing the same color signals solidarity and makes a bigger visual impact than marching workers who aren’t color-coordinated, labor unions say. The public sees a sea of one color, instead of throngs of strikers wearing random prints and shades.

As United Automobile Workers explains, “A whole department wearing red can have more impact than a few people spread out.” Wearing one shade is also an easy way for demonstrators to start conversations with curious passersby about workers’ rights, the labor union notes.

Unions so believe in color coordination that they suggest workers accessorize in the same shade as well. Red bandanas, tote bags, and ties are encouraged, as are social media photos that capture the show of solidarity. United Teachers Los Angeles urges educators to wear red shirts during general meetings specifically for photo ops.

Red has particular significance for educators

In education, the symbolism behind the color red has broadened. The grassroots movement Wear Red to Support Public Ed aims to push for more funding of public education, and striking teachers have taken to wearing “Red for Ed” shirts as a result.

Instead of being in the black, or fiscally sound, public schools are in the red, or fiscal crisis. Moreover, many of the states where teachers have demanded more pay are in red (Republican) strongholds, like West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona.

“My 2nd job paid 4 this sign.”
A striking Oklahoma teacher holds a sign that says, “My 2nd job paid 4 this sign.”
Photo: AFP/Getty Images

Some teachers have been warned against “Red for Ed” shirts during school hours. In early May, Arizona teachers ended their statewide walkout after winning a 20 percent raise. But at least two school districts in the state have alerted teachers they could face fines for wearing clothing with the “Red for Ed” slogan.

A recent notice from Buckeye Elementary in the Phoenix area warned teachers, “Clothing or signs that specifically advocate for political action to influence an election are prohibited.” The Kyrene School District in Tempe has issued a similar warning.

That’s because the Red for Ed movement is associated with an Arizona ballot measure called the Invest In Education Act, which aims to route more funds to public education by raising taxes on high-income people. In light of the proposition, teachers can be fined as much as $5,000 for wearing “Red for Ed” shirts. They are still allowed to wear plain red clothing to support the movement, however.

Pink-collar workers continue to get the short shrift

On May 7, when teachers in Pueblo, Colorado, kicked off a five-day strike, the teachers union captured snaps of educators decked out largely in pink. While red symbolizes the violence workers face and the funding crisis public education now faces, pink represents everything from universal love to the fact that teaching is a women-dominated profession.

People who work in such professions are known as “pink-collar workers.” Workers in these fields, which include nurses, secretaries, and food servers, have traditionally earned less than their counterparts in mostly male industries.

Pueblo, Colorado, teachers strike
Pueblo, Colorado, teachers wear pink shirts during their teacher strike last week. Pink-collar workers work in female-dominated professions and are traditionally paid less than their counterparts in male-dominated professions.
Photo: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post via Getty Images

With this in mind, wearing pink serves two functions for teachers. It allows them to present a united front, as wearing any color does. It also highlights how even today, professionals in traditionally female sectors are overworked and underpaid.

When the next group of teachers goes on strike — the Brookings Institution predicts that Mississippi educators will be next — pay attention to what they’re wearing. Be it pink, red, or another color, the hues striking workers wear aren’t chosen at random but are part of a concerted effort to raise awareness about the risks they face on the picket line and the funds they’ve been denied in the workplace.