Editor’s Update: The West Virginia Teachers have won their strike! Their unity and determination forced the Governor and the legislature to agree to a 5% raise for the teachers and other public employees.
This shows that fighting back, uniting all the workers in struggle and being willing to break anti-labor laws can achieve victory. However, the struggle is far from over, and teachers and other workers can already see the politicians of Big Business preparing further attacks. This 5% raise comes after a four-year freeze on salaries. The Governor is also having their health benefits reviewed by a “state task force”—a blatant attempt to reverse the victory. These politicians are also planning to cut Medicaid and other government services to divide the population against the teachers.
This victory can only be safeguarded by elevating the struggle to the political arena. The Democrats and Republicans are united on making the working class pay for the crisis of capitalism. The next step is for the teachers and other public and private sector workers to run their own candidates in the coming election. Millions of workers have been inspired by the example of the West Virginia teachers. By standing against austerity and demanding that the rich pay for the crisis, such a campaign would receive enthusiastic support across the country.
The 55-county-strong strike of all West Virginia teachers and support staff is an event with major implications for workers across the country. Ordinary teachers, bus drivers, janitors, secretaries, maintenance workers, classroom aides, and lunch ladies have put their names in the pages of American labor history with their display of refreshing militancy—foreshadowing a new stage of the class struggle in the US.
For decades union leaders have stuck to the strategy of playing by the rules and appealing to the “good sensibilities” of the guys across the table. By no accident or coincidence, this era in American labor history has been an era of defeats, demoralization, and a dwindling of the ranks of organized labor.
To every pessimist, hesitater, or routinist in the movement who questions labor’s chances in a time of Janus vs AFSCME and the so-called Right-To-Work laws, now there is a simple answer—the West Virginia teachers’ strike, occurring in a state whose recent history serves as a symbol for the decline of the American labor movement. The once-dominant West Virginia miners union has deteriorated under the pressure of markets and profiteering, losing ground to the coal industry’s turn to the more automated method of surface mining on one hand, and the investment shift to natural gas, on the other. Across the unions, the rank and file lost faith in the losing game of lesser-evil politics, and voters more and more tended to stay home or follow the unions’ own pro-business rhetoric to its logical conclusion, voting for the even more pro-business Republicans. Today, the state that hosted the Battle of Blair Mountain and the first shots of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 is the state that since 2016 passed Right-To-Work legislation and sat its richest man and mine-owner in the Governor’s Mansion.
None of this prevented the West Virginia teachers from giving the whole country an instruction in the ABCs of class struggle.
The West Virginia teachers’ strike is unlawful—a reminder that the right to strike is far from guaranteed under capitalism. This was explained by the Republican state Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who cited the Supreme Court sanctioned position of the Democratic then-Attorney General Roger W. Tompkins during the last teachers’ strike in 1990. Morrisey threatened an injunction and sneered, “Breaking the law does not set a good example for our children.” This failed to discourage strikers from tying red bandanas around their necks—a “redneck” callback to the old Coal Mining Wars.
When push came to shove and the strike was called, state officials declined to press its criminality. Given the seven hundred teacher vacancies in the state, they are not in a position to open any more.
The West Virginia teachers’ strike is the most brilliant innovation in education implemented under the tenure of Secretary Betsy Devos. One informative lesson is the power of unions when workers are not divided by bureaucratic rivalries and top-down territorial competition. Another is the potential of the creative energy and participation of the rank and file to rapidly transform the situation on the ground.West Virginia ranks 48th in the country for teachers’ pay, and when the state government laid out another round of budget cuts—which would mean an effective pay cut by raising healthcare costs—a handful of teachers formed a secret Facebook group to plan a “lobby day” at the state capitol. Soon the state National Education Association (NEA) affiliate was sponsoring an official rally to catch up with the initiative. In the words of Erica Newsome, an English teacher in Logan Country, “The unions kind of followed us.” One thing led to another, and the secret Facebook group “West Virginia Public Employees United” grew to 20,000 members. The state capitol protests mushroomed in size, and school district after school district saw walk-out strikes, eventually planned across counties as “rolling walkouts,” which would set the basis for the “55-strong” strike in every West Virginia county. The enthusiasm of the rank and file sidelined the petty competition between the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the NEA apparatuses, and workers across the state moved to cast their strike ballots together, recruiting members of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association which represents personnel such as bus drivers and cafeteria servers. Remarkably, even non-unionized school employees were included in the ballots.
In the 2016 governor’s race, the West Virginia AFT and NEA endorsed Jim Justice, the business magnate notorious for unpaid taxes and mining safety violations. Before running, Justice had changed his party affiliation from Republican to Democrat. In August 2017, he spoke at a Donald Trump rally in Huntington and changed his affiliation to Republican. It would be difficult to make up a better example of what happens when unions elect Democrats instead of running candidates on an independent labor ballot. Today, Gov. Justice, who coaches a high school girls basketball team when he’s out of the office, can look forward to a picket of protesting teachers at home and away games.
This is the stuff that labor history is made of. But the current crop of labor leadership is trained in a different chapter of American labor history, specifically the last four decades of business unionism, rank-and-file demoralization, and a historic loss in union membership. The true pleasure of any bureaucrat is peace and quiet, and noisy strikes put the top union leaders in a place of genuine discomfort and strain, not to mention a conflict of interest for people committed to closed-door bargaining, Democratic Party campaigning, and reaching across the table for a handshake strong enough to yank them to the other side.
On Tuesday evening Gov. Justice announced an agreement with the union leaders to return to work on Thursday in exchange for promised pay raises, healthcare premium freezes, and more concessions. The concessions would have been remarkable in another period, but they fall far short of the central demand of the workers to fix the chronic underfunding of the WV Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA). This was a shock to AFT and NEA members. They reacted on the official union Facebook pages:
“Sold us out!!!!!”
“I keep checking my texts, then my email, then this AFT page. Why haven’t I heard from you??”
“This isn’t what the majority of us wanted. Now the 5% raise can go to pay my outrageous insurance premium. Four days of striking and still no fix for PEIA. We promised W.V. citizens that we weren’t fighting for just a raise but fixing PEIA. Now with our union selling out it shows many that it was just a raise.”
“AFT you represent US so don’t speak for us until you ask us what we want… and we don’t want a freeze!”
“This isn’t at all what I was fighting for?”
“Way to turn an inspiring historic life changing event into a kick in the gut.”
“Where did you’re power go? You seemed so fearless on Day 3? You said we had a voice. Now you are asking us to cave and go back to being sheep!”
The only comments in support of ending the strike were posted by anti-union trolls. The comment sections in fact resemble the national AFT Facebook page two years ago when it announced an endorsement of Clinton instead of Sanders early in the primaries. The clear consensus: shock, outrage, and revulsion to the anti-democratic arrogance of business unionism.
The February 27 agreement was rotten not just by its insufficiencies and misdirections, and not only because it trusted Justice to fight for the bill and the Republican legislature to vote for it. The rotten core of the agreement consisted in a direct expression of the union leaders’ desire to hide from their membership, make friends with the governor, and demobilize the members. The members had other ideas. Murmurs of a “blue flu,” a tactic of collectively calling in sick, began to circulate on social media as a first warning.
According to Gov. Justice, Wednesday would be a “cooling off day” before a return to work on Thursday. His wishes were not to be respected. The rallies outside the state capitol reached a boiling mood. Down the street at the union meeting, teachers with red bananas tied around their necks overflowed the capacity of the church it was held in. At the podium, a flustered speaker in a suit sometimes had to fight to speak over the crowd. One audience member balloted his surrounding co-workers, “Is Kanawha County going back to school, or not?” The answer: “No! No! No!”As the proposed agreement affected all state employees, solidarity actions between the strikers and other state workers started to take shape, like the example of the United Electrical workers picket at William R. Sharpe Jr. Hospital.
By nightfall, about 40 counties had announced school closings for the next day. The rest of the 55 followed early Thursday morning. Against the direct policy of their leaders, the teachers stood by the strike and turned the situation upside down.
The strike is not only a major event of recent American history. It is also a major indication of events to come. The Great Recession represented a wider organic crisis of the capitalist system that continues today, and the ruling class expects the workers to pay for it. The fight back cannot be negotiated away or procrastinated. Any effort to delay the workers’ struggle can only have the effect of intensifying the explosion of future events.
The example of the Madison, Wisconsin workers’ movement in 2011 is of extreme importance. As in West Virginia today, teachers played a leading role in a movement against proposed budget cuts and anti-union measures. The Wisconsin movement began in February and lasted into the early summer. A March 12 rally at the capitol had an estimated turnout of 100,000. Organized labor stood on the verge of a general strike, and some labor organizations passed resolutions calling for one. But the tops of the labor leadership lagged behind and had no intention of catching up and joining their members. They did not organize a general strike. They instead focused on demobilizing the mass movement and directed the struggle to an electoral recall campaign against the anti-worker Governor Scott Walker. The lost ground would never be recovered.
A recall election against Walker could have been a powerful tool if it had been paired with an independent labor party campaign and the execution of the proposed general strike. Instead, Walker’s opponent was a pro-business Democrat who refused to even commit to repealing Walker’s legislation, and by that effort he lost the election against Walker fair and square. The union leaders succeeded too well in demobilizing their members, and Walker would have a free hand in continuing his attacks on unions and public sector workers, eventually leading to the passage of the dreaded Right-To-Work legislation.
Since his Tuesday session with union leaders, Gov. Justice has advocated a 5% raise to teachers and a 3% raise to all state employees. As any state employee knows, teacher or not, they are all underpaid. Other than a cynical attempt to divide and conquer the workers’ movement, there is no reason all state employees should not receive the 5% raise. In fact, the fight for this demand would draw more layers of the working class into the struggle and strengthen the unions. The formation of a common front with other public sector unions would prevent the bosses from pitting one sector against another.
Another important demand is that neither regressive taxation nor cuts to public services be used to pay for the wage increases or the funding to PEIA. Otherwise, West Virginia business interests will seek to pay state employees’ wages by taking the difference out of the paychecks of all workers.
On Thursday, the workers continued the strike with the slogan, “A freeze is not a fix”—a reference to Justice’s proposed freeze on PEIA premium increases. Socialist Revolution stands in solidarity with the fight to end PEIA’s parasitic drain on employees’ incomes, and we would add that it is impossible to address the monetary shortages of PEIA if the state of West Virginia cannot control the inflated prices that are charged to health insurance premiums and coverage. The only way to solve the problems of health insurance is by nationalizing the big healthcare corporations under democratic control for the enjoyment of all patients, which would abolish the practice of charging exorbitant monopolist prices for private profit. This demand would also have a powerful impact on all West Virginia workers, and other unions like the UE and the UMWA, joining the movement in fuller force.West Virginia is one of the poorest states in the US, but at the same time, large amounts of wealth are extracted from its resources to make the state a national leader in energy production. The problem of poverty wages and unaffordable healthcare cannot be addressed independently of the problem of private property and the profit motive. Any genuine pro-worker reform can only be paid for from the profits of big business, instead of regressive taxation or anti-worker budget cuts, but, in turn, the market will seek to regain the loss by capital flight or inflation. This is why Socialist Revolution proposes the nationalization of the investments and businesses of large capitalists like Jim Justice to pay for reforms like higher wages and universal healthcare.
West Virginia’s Right-To-Work legislation and lack of public sector collective bargaining rights pits union against union for a race to the bottom of competition. The teachers’ strike is “55 strong” because the teachers refused to be divided by the competition of the AFT and NEA leaders. The only way to avoid the demobilization that led to the defeat of the Wisconsin workers in 2011 is to preserve this gain of the movement and unify every striking teacher into the same united labor organization, composed of every teacher local in West Virginia holding the same democratic rights and relations to each other. If NEA and AFT leaders can unify to negotiate with Gov. Justice over the heads of their members, then NEA and AFT members can unify to defeat Gov. Justice, State Senator Mitch Carmichael, and the rest of the anti-worker establishment.
In fact, the bureaucratic closed-door bargaining style of the union leaders has played a destructive role in the movement. Complete internal transparency and democratic rights must be assured for the health of the labor movement. In matters as serious as a strike, any decision-making on the part of the union requires the active participation of the rank-and-file, or the end result will be dysfunction and demoralization. Any final deal must be subject to the approval of the entire rank-and-file. Workers need unions, and they need unions with bold, fighting policies that can face the offensive of the bosses head-on.
The rank-and-file teachers knew better than to accept the Tuesday agreement with Gov. Justice, an agreement which requires the unwilling signature of Carmichael and the rest of the thieves and vipers who sit in the halls of the State Capitol to go fishing in the wallets of working class West Virginians for their handouts to Big Business. The strikers have shown they have the power to bring the capitol to a political standstill. They also have the power to give both of the bosses’ parties a run for their money, and an electoral campaign of workers’ candidates on a workers’ ballot to build a labor party backed by the unions, independent from either of the bosses’ parties, could quickly turn into a mass movement and a game-changer for politics as we know it. The only way to fight for workers in elections is with candidates that the workers’ unions can control before and after the election.
The coming week promises to be no less momentous than the last. Rank-and-file proposals of occupying the state capitol in the style of the 2011 Wisconsin workers’ movement could bring everything to a new level. The rallies of high school and middle school students speak to the depth of support from the broader working class. The proposal for a statewide teachers strike in Oklahoma is a potent warning of the nationwide potential of the movement. At the same time, there is the danger that no formal organized rank-and-file opposition has arisen to give a lead forward after the Tuesday compromise with Governor Justice. The teachers continued their strike with the slogan “a freeze is not a fix,” but in the state capitol proceedings the exclusive focus has been the passage of the proposed “freeze, 5%, 3%” deal. In any great event of mass struggle, the lagging-behind of their own leaders is the greatest threat to the movement. The greatest need of the West Virginia strikers is an organized counterproposal against the failed compromise with Gov. Justice, otherwise, momentum will be lost to the disorienting difference between the terms discussed by leaders and the aims of the movement itself.
Whatever happens next, nothing will be the same in the state of West Virginia, and national implications will bear on the labor movement as a whole. In our lifetime, we have seen a dawn of a new era in labor, beginning with the opening of the crisis in the Great Recession and the offensive of the bosses against organized and unorganized workers everywhere. West Virginia teachers have proved by the test of living experience that there is no way to resist the bosses’ attacks except by fighting back. Workers across the country are watching West Virginia. A victory here will be a rallying point for everyone and lead to more events to come. Solidarity to the 55 Strong!