Militant struggle rolls back bosses’ anti-worker offensive
Striking teachers in the Republican-controlled US state of West Virginia have won a significant pay rise. Their illegal strike has become a cause celebre for trade unionists and socialists, showing that determined militant action by workers can halt the current capitalist offensive to drive down living standards and working conditions. Charles Cannon, of Socialist Alternative in the US (co-thinkers of the Socialist Party) reports on the strike and its valuable lessons.
“Until they sign it, shut it down!” chanted West Virginia teachers from all 55 counties across the state at a demonstration in the capitol building, Charleston, on the eighth day of an illegal strike.
The assembled teachers, three quarters of them women, defied insults hurled at them by politicians calling them “dumb bunnies” and “rednecks”, by wearing bunny ears and red bandanas.
Winning a 5% raise for all public employees in a ‘red’ state (ie the party colour of the Republicans) that only recently passed anti-union ‘right-to-work’ legislation, the teachers exposed the mass anger in society against the neoliberal agenda of cuts to education, healthcare, and social services alongside handouts to the super-rich and corporations.
The victory is likely to inspire an increased determination by working people to fight for a decent standard of living. In Oklahoma, one of the few states that pay teachers less than West Virginia, teachers are now planning a state-wide walkout in April. There is also talk of strike action by teachers in Kentucky, Arizona and New Jersey.
As the Supreme Court considers the Janus case (see below) the teachers’ stand is all the more inspiring. This fight shows that working people and unions do not need to take these attacks as done deals – they can be beaten back!
After 30 years of retreat by the labour movement which has seen union membership decimated, West Virginia teachers have drawn a line in the sand.
Third-lowest paid in the nation and facing not only a teacher shortage but increasingly difficult challenges (many students are from impoverished homes, in the midst of a raging opioid epidemic), West Virginia teachers had had enough.
Echoing the ghosts of past militant labour struggles, the strike was born out of a rank-and-file revolt and deep reservoirs of class consciousness.
Reacting to pitiful wage increases that did nothing to cover out of control health costs, teachers demanded a 5% pay hike for all public employees and for the legislature to address the ballooning costs of the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA).
Represented by two unions, the West Virginia Educators Association (WVEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), it was an emerging layer of rank-and-file leaders who organised the strike in the weeks and months leading up to it, while the top leadership of the unions had failed to mobilise teachers.
West Virginia Governor Jim Justice, a billionaire coal baron, has, like previous governors, given huge tax breaks to extractive industries such as coal and natural gas. His administration has imposed austerity while he owes millions in back taxes in West Virginia as well as Kentucky.
Bernie Sanders won all 55 West Virginia counties in the 2016 Democratic primary. No wonder, since Hillary Clinton was quoted as saying “I’ll put coal miners out of business.”
Clinton’s neoliberal policies in the general election were overwhelmingly rejected by voters. But without a credible pro-working class candidate on the ballot, this opened the door to the right populism of Donald Trump.
While anti-immigrant sentiment certainly played a significant role, West Virginians primarily voted for promises of jobs and protectionist trade policies.
Many on the American liberal left dismissed the working class in states like West Virginia, which voted 68.7% for Trump, as one reactionary mass. In contrast, Socialist Alternative explained the contradictory reality and the need for the labour movement to take a stand by addressing the common interests of all working people while also boldly fighting racism, nativism and sexism.
The West Virginia teachers, less likely to vote Trump than the state as a whole and also inspired by the emerging women’s movement, point precisely to the class contradictions in Trump country. Led in part by the left, the rank-and-file revolt won the support of the mass of the West Virginia working class in a stand-up fight with a reactionary, Republican-dominated legislature.
In the months leading up to the strike, the WVEA and AFT leaders attempted in vain to prevent a strike through backroom negotiations with the state legislature.
The union leaders, not anticipating or wanting a strike, failed, in the words of one teacher to “do the job we are paying them to do, organise a strike.”
When it began, they had little ability to contain it as action had been organised from the bottom up. As a result, a new radical leadership is developing within the teachers’ unions in West Virginia, some of them identifying as socialists.
The teachers built solidarity with other school service personnel and more broadly, through demanding a 5% raise for all public sector workers. The strike vote included non-union members and the community was actively involved in the strike.
This built a strong movement that was able to stand up to hardline tactics from the state legislature and public attacks on the strike by Republican legislators.
Through their own families, many teachers were connected to militant labour traditions of the past, especially of the mineworkers.
One teacher, echoing a common sentiment, said: “If the strike is illegal, all that means is that we don’t have to play by the rules they made for us.”
When union leaders and the Democrats announced on 27 February, three days into the strike, that a deal had been made with the governor to give teachers a 5% raise and all other public employees a 3% raise, they asked teachers to trust them to finalise the deal and go back to work.
The teachers were seething with anger. Faith in the politicians’ ‘guarantees’ had evaporated and they saw that the status of PEIA was not addressed.
As the union leaders failed to respond to workers’ questions about the deal, rank-and-file leaders encouraged teachers to stay on strike. The teachers voted the next day with their feet to continue the strike.
When the state legislature attempted to punish the strikers by lowering the raise to 4%, teachers threatened to occupy the capitol building.
The strike being already underway, teachers prepared over the weekend for the long haul, vowing to remain until their demands were met and to accept no compromises or promises. By Monday night, 5 March, it appeared that the strike would continue indefinitely.
On the morning of 6 March, union leaders and Democratic Party politicians attempted to demobilise and end the strike yet again. Alongside the governor, they appeared before the striking teachers massed outside the state senate doors to announce that the strike had been won and that the teachers should go home.
Shouting from the crowd, many teachers asked to see this victory in writing. Teachers and other workers chanted “Words mean nothing, sign the bill!”
It quickly became clear that no one would leave until the bill was signed. The Democratic Party responded that, according to the state senate rules, they had to wait 24 hours for the finance committee to review the bill before they could sign it. To this the teachers responded with chants of “Until they sign it, shut it down!”
After a few hours, all the supposed red tape that Democrats had used as an excuse for why the bill could not be finalised disappeared and both houses had signed the bill.
While the 5% increase is a clear victory, the question of healthcare costs remains to be properly addressed. This could spark another phase of the struggle in coming months.
The West Virginia strike showed the country what solidarity looks like. The $320,000 plus raised online for the strike fund and the hundreds of pizzas rolled in on carts daily, paid for by the San Francisco teachers union, are the most visible examples. The strongest show of solidarity came from the working class across the state of West Virginia itself.
Socialist Alternative members from Pittsburgh, Columbus, Philadelphia, and Seattle travelled to Charleston to stand in solidarity with the striking teachers.
We engaged in many conversations, listening to what workers had to say and expressing our support for their struggle. Teachers were more than happy to talk to us even though there was some suspicion of ‘socialism’. But once we established that we were there to listen and support their struggle, they were actually excited to speak with open socialists.
The key question coming out of this strike for the labour movement nationally is whether this is the beginning of a real turnaround after decades of retreat.
There were specific factors that helped the teachers in West Virginia, including powerful traditions of solidarity and the serious shortage of qualified teachers.
The current threat of strike action by teachers in other states points to how this can spread but, at this stage, the upsurge is centred on teachers and there are very specific reasons for that. 20 years of savage attacks on public education have left teachers across the country deeply discontented.
The role of women in these movements can’t be understated. Women in labour unions have a pivotal role to play in building a wider fightback by working people.
The momentum coming out of the West Virginia victory is a crucial opportunity to start a serious fightback of public sector workers, led by militant teacher unions. But there are real obstacles facing insurgent forces in the public sector unions, including the leadership of the national teacher unions which have favoured trying to use ‘political influence’, rather than collective power to push back.
In practice, this almost always means supporting and lobbying Democrats. But under Obama, the Democrats were in the lead in attacking teachers through high stakes testing, attacking seniority rights, and privatisation schemes, including trying to replace public schools with charter schools.
In the era of Trump, the stakes are even higher. Trump’s solicitor general was in front of the Supreme Court right before the West Virginia strike presenting arguments supporting Janus anti-union law suit (see box) and attacking the role of public sector unions for allegedly “compelling” people they represent to give union dues.
As we have consistently said in relation to Janus, labour needs a strategy that is not based on accepting that we will inevitably lose.
Workplace meetings and rallies should be held at every unionised public sector workplace in the country against Janus. This should be the launching point for a massive national day of action. This will put the labour movement on a direct collision course with Trump, the Republicans and the whole corporate elite but that’s exactly what needs to happen.
West Virginia shows that even under reactionary administrations, offensive struggles can be waged and gains won. As in previous periods, socialists will have a key role to play in that effort.
The ‘Janus v American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees’ hearing in the Supreme Court will determine nationally whether public sector trade unions will retain the right to collect dues or ‘fair agency fees’ from non-union members covered by workplace collective bargaining agreements.
The status quo has existed since 1977 and is based on the fact that non-union members benefit from the union’s collective agreement with the employer and therefore should contribute to union funds.
Republican-controlled West Virginia state, after a delay, enacted a misnamed ‘right to work’ law last year that outlaws these collective bargaining arrangements. 28 states have similar ‘right to work’ anti-union laws.
A right-wing neoliberal offensive in recent years, backed by corporate billionaires, has targeted union organisation and rights in order to make it easier to super-exploit workers.