By La Voz
After a 13 day coordinated strike involving all 55 counties of West Virginia and every school therein, the teachers and the school’s support staff (bus drivers, cooks, janitors, etc.) proved to be victorious by winning a 5% raise for themselves and other public employees. Though impressive on its own, the implications of this strike go far beyond the specific victory. The fact that they were not part of a collective bargaining unit, and in a conservative “right to work” state, makes the events in West Virginia so much more momentous. The challenge of right to work laws typically hurt unions, but in this case it gave the workers freedom from the constraints of bureaucracy, and made for a more meaningful and inspirational outcome for West Virginia and the labor movement as a whole.
Pressure and Power from the Rank & File
Leaders of W.V. American Federation of Teachers and the West Virginia Education Association tried to prematurely negotiate a deal with Governor Jim Justice, but they made the fatal mistake of not communicating with the rank-and-file and their representatives before making decisions and proclamations of settling on a deal. The teachers and staff did not trust this compromise bargain, which promised a 5% raise, but didn’t take on the state’s continual funding cuts to the Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA), and they were highly dissatisfied by these union officials’ lack of democracy. As a result, they decided not to go back to work until they achieved the results they wanted. Their rebuke of the officers’ decisions would likely not have happened in a typical collective bargaining arrangement with no-strike clauses. It was the lack of the rigidity and top-down control inherent to most unions of today that made it possible for these teachers to claim their own agency and decision making abilities leading to the sustained strike.
With the impending Janus v AFSCME Supreme Court decision, which will likely result in the loss of the ‘fair-share’ fees that non-members pay, we can expect unions as we currently know them to change dramatically. What has somewhat worked to sustain union power, and hold more labor-friendly politicians accountable, will be severely damaged by the elimination of these “fair-share” fees and the well-funded anti-union campaigns that are sure to follow. Cases like Janus and many other anti-labor legislation have been funded by right wing interest groups (ALEC, State Policy Network etc.) and the ultra-wealthy, like the Koch Brothers, in order to weaken, and ultimately, destroy unions leaving the working-class with few ways to wage an effective fight back. As evidenced by current right-to-work states, union membership will likely decrease significantly, which means less dues money will be available for union officials to influence politics, at least in the manner they have become accustomed to for several decades. In addition, workers in states like Wisconsin that went ‘right-to-work’ also experienced lower wages and worsened working conditions.
Reliance on agency fees has arguably caused the bureaucracy to fall into patterns that weaken union democracy. It is a natural tendency to consolidate power in competitive, hierarchical, scarcity-driven economic systems. Union “bosses” want to keep their relatively higher salaries and their status, often at the expense of the members who they are elected to serve. When these officers automatically receive dues payments without having to deliver beneficial results, they will sooner or later slip into a low point in performance for their constituencies.
In most modern unions, especially teachers unions with their stance of distancing themselves from industrial blue-collar trade unions, the ethos has favored a labor-management collaboration approach to working out differences. This runs in direct opposition to organized workers’ earlier strategy of power through militancy, with its chief tactic of the strike and related forms of withholding labor. These two characteristics: anti-democracy and anti-militancy, the results of becoming reliant on ‘fair share’ dues and earlier “business unionism” (made prevalent by former late 19th century AFL leader Samuel Gompers), have weakened the labor movement to the point at which today there is only 6.5% private and 34.4% public union membership. Thus, the future’s successful mass strikes may necessarily be illegal (and not limited to legal actions). Part of the strategy to building fighting and radical unions’ movements will mean confrontations with the union leadership, especially if there are no radical and socialist currents who have won over the rank & file to their strategy for democratic, member-driven, militant social movement unionism.
Why did this Happen in West Virginia?
When we ask, “Why West Virginia?”, it’s easy to point to their 48th state ranking in public education spending, but we can also look to the legacy handed down to its people. The state of West Virginia has a rich history of militant strikes made famous by the Mine Wars (1912-21), when the grandparents of today’s teachers were forced to defend themselves from the anti-communists’ bullets and bombs. This pride certainly contributed to the confidence necessary to carry out such a bold feat. Given the traditional gender roles of unions, it’s significant to note that the West Virginia strike was led by women, who face the pressures from men who typically hold official union leadership roles assuming women to be less “political.’ Recent technological and social changes have also altered the methods of communication between workers. The strike largely relied on Facebook and WhatsApp to build the momentum that concluded with the strike.
The West Virginia strike also shows us that today’s strategic and most combative sectors under U.S. capitalism necessarily include education and health care sectors, which are also majority women and include many Black and Brown women. These are the sectors rising up in response to the Great Economic Recession and the neoliberal austerity attacks waged by the 1%. Teachers, nurses, & public sector workers in general have been engaging in the most frequent and largest strikes, like the Chicago Teachers Union 5-day strike in 2012 and the Massachusetts nurses strike in 2017. School workers have organic relationships with the broader community and are usually seen as one of the most positive forces in the lives of the youth and the community as a whole.
Another important lesson of the strike’s success was that they were able to mobilize the other sectors in the school system – not just the two different teachers unions, but also the bus drivers, cooks, janitors and other school support staff. Bringing the bus drivers, cooks and other support staff along helped paralyze the workplace and justified the need to close schools down to not have students stranded, unfed, etc. These workers who went on strike are also parents of the school children, so strong public support was integral.
Harkening back to the heyday of the Wobblies’ “workers of the world unite” slogan, today’s workers have to go beyond their union’s boundaries, and unite both within and outside of their sectors, because they are increasingly less unionized, and among the low rate of organized labor are often multiple locals who negotiate their contracts at different times. The WV strike provided a good example of this ethos when its leaders “opened up the voting to all workers, teachers and all other workers. We also invited workers who were not union members to vote because we knew we’d be stronger that way.”
Next Steps for the #StrikeWave
West Virginia teachers are looking ahead to mobilize for reductions in their PEIA contributions, whose rate increases were a major cause for the walkouts that led to the strike. To avoid cutting health insurance funding, one solution lies in moderately raising the severance tax on coal and natural gas extraction from the state’s low 5% to 7.5%, which would increase revenue by $585 million in the next 5 years. Working women are most motivated to fight for fully-funded health and reproductive care, and a national single payer campaign led by unions, and opening space for more radical demands, is becoming more and more likely.
The strike wave initiated by the West Virginia teachers is spreading. In Oklahoma, teachers are planning a strike in April to coincide with controversial and much maligned standardized testing. Similar to West Virginia, they have used Facebook to build a base, and they are receiving overflowing verbal and monetary support from individual workers and unions in many other states and nations. Tellingly, just when the WV Strike started, teachers in Pittsburgh reached a tentative agreement meeting all of their demands after threatening to strike. Other teachers unions are contemplating strikes, like the Arizona teachers union, and Kentucky teachers. Other states have been using the WV momentum to take and plan workplace actions.
Looking ahead to a post-Janus world, one can surmise that West Virginia and Oklahoma will not be the last of these heroic efforts to take on the state government.
During the International Women’s Day rally at UC Berkeley, UAW 2865 member Alex Bush said,
“The labor movement is not dead, it is alive and it is kicking and it is across this country, and what are the next steps? From a West Virginia teacher, ‘We have demonstrated through action that our priority is to take care of our kids who are living in poverty. The legislature has made it clear that they are not interested in helping poor people. They’re only interested in working for their wealthy donors. So I think that our next step in this movement should be to unite not just with our teachers and public employees, but with families of our students who are living in poverty.’ So this starts in the workplace sometimes, or sometimes it starts at home. But wherever it starts, keep it rolling because we have a lot of work to do.”
The “labor peace” is on its way out and we are entering a new era of class struggle. There is no better time to revitalize Socialist politics to get a foothold and become part of the discourse that steers our class into the seat of power.