In late December, Trump decided to close the government to further his crass political objectives. The fact that hundreds of thousands of federal workers, along with other workers who are employed by federal contractors, did not get paid for a month had no impact on Trump or his cronies in the cabinet.
However, these political hacks left an important variable out of their calculations: the power of the working class. In the profit-making “private sector,” not a penny is made by the bosses unless the workers produce the commodities that they sell. In the public sector, which provides services and infrastructure required for the private sector to function, the economy can be quickly paralyzed if the workers withhold their labor.
Trump was given a graphic lesson in this reality when the air traffic controllers at four airports, including the very busy LaGuardia in NYC, “called out sick,” forcing the cancellation of several flights. Trump and the entire government suddenly realized that if these workers were pushed further, similar job actions could spread. Sara Nelson, head of the Association of Flight Attendants, a key transportation union, actually mentioned the words “general strike” during the lockout. These words, when uttered seriously by a workers’ leader, send shivers up the spines of the bosses in America, who have been lulled into believing that militant strikes and job actions are a thing of the past.
This comes after the wave of teachers’ strikes that hit many states in 2018, kicked off by West Virginia teachers and other school employees. In these actions, we saw new rank-and-file leaders rise up and lead their strike against the wishes of the conservative trade union leaders. Their strategy was bold. They united teachers with bus drivers, other school workers, and the entire West Virginia state workforce. They reached out for support from parents and students. They violated the government’s anti-strike laws, instinctively understanding that it was the ability to withhold their labor that gave them bargaining power. They united teachers and workers in many different unions and even won many unorganized workers over to their side. The entire strike was organized from below, and they did not allow the top leadership to make a premature deal to end the strike until their demands were secure. In the end, all of them received a 5% increase in wages.
This victory built up their confidence and class consciousness, which was put to use in February when the West Virginia bosses counterattacked. The West Virginia legislature, like all bourgeois legislatures, is the agent of big business. They were looking to retaliate against the victorious teachers and decided to propose a law to give tax money for tuition to private schools and allow “charter schools” to be set up—a first for West Virginia. The goal, of course, was to create nonunion schools with lower pay and benefits.
West Virginia teachers again organized a strike, closing schools in 54 of the state’s 55 counties. They not only struck on February 19, causing the lower house of the legislature to “table” the bill in question, but they also stayed out an extra day to make sure that the state Senate would not try to pull a fast one. In the end, the teachers won this fight as well. Once again, they went further than their own leadership, whose approach is to give concessions rather than fight to victory. One remarkable aspect about the February strike is that, while the first West Virginia strike was about wages, this one was about legislation. In effect, it was a political strike, a very rare occurrence in the US. When political strikes become more common, it will be clear that the working class is beginning to contemplate a world without bosses.
The first West Virginia strike set off a wave of strikes that has continued into 2019. Recently, the L.A. teachers won a partial victory in their strike. Oakland teachers recently struck for seven days. Teachers in Denver, Colorado also went on strike, for the first time in 25 years, and also beat back so-called “performance pay” and received an 11% increase.
There are many lessons to draw from these struggles. Over the last few decades, the labor leadership has given up serious concessions to the bosses and has rarely fought back. In those cases where the workers have forced them to put up a fight, they have done so within the narrow limits of the existing antilabor laws—which are designed to ensure that the workers will lose and be demoralized.
The West Virginia teachers and the FAA air traffic controllers show that with unity and solidarity, along with an organized and engaged rank and file, strikes can be won if we are willing to discard antilabor laws and put no trust in the politicians of the enemy class. In struggle, leadership is decisive. These new rank-and-file leaders must organize themselves and try to win control of the unions from the present class-collaborationist leadership. To lead the unions in a different direction, they must look beyond particular struggles and understand that all workers must be united, that the working class needs its own political party, and that the working class is the only class fit to run society. As the workers rediscover their traditions and learn through struggle, they will see that the bosses need the workers, but the workers do not need the bosses!