The recent victorious strike by teachers in West Virginia, which was organised bottom up by rank-and-file teachers, 75% women, has demonstrated the truth of what worker militant and songwriter Joe Hill wrote: “There is power in a band of working [people], when they stand hand in hand!”
As a headline in the March 8 New York Times said: “Striking Teachers Defied West Virginia, and Their Own Union, Too”.
The strike occurred against the background of a very weak US labour movement, saddled with a conservative and class collaborationist bureaucracy mainly interested in lining its own pockets. As such, the West Virginia teachers have given an important lesson for all working people on the way forward.
The teachers faced big obstacles. In West Virginia, public workers cannot legally strike, facing being fired if they do. They are barred by law from collective bargaining.
The state affiliates of the two national teachers’ unions are the National Educational Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Being barred from collective bargaining, all these unions can do is take up teachers’ grievances.
The teachers knew the risks of striking, but as one said: “If they fire me I’ll get a job at Target with better pay.” The teachers decided they had nothing to lose.
West Virginia ranks near the bottom in teachers’ pay – 47th out of the 50 states. Many are forced to take on second jobs to make ends meet. Another issue behind the strike was plans by the state’s Republican leaders to pass on health care costs to the workers.
New leaders emerged as the struggle developed. One example is Katie Endicott, who is a teacher in Mingo county. Her husband, a fellow teacher, learned about the proposed attack on teachers’ health insurance at a small rally in the state capital, Charleston, in January.
To let others know, he made a Facebook video that went viral. Endicott began to get many calls from outraged fellow teachers and, when she and her husband called a meeting in response, hundreds showed.
Endicott told Socialist Worker that was “basically all of our bus drivers, office workers, teachers and cooks” in the county. The teachers reached out to all school employees. They discussed what they could do, and came to the unanimous conclusion to begin with a one-day strike on February 2.
The teachers later broadened their focus to include all public workers in the state.
“If we had the courage to step out, I knew other counties would follow us — that we wouldn’t be alone,” Endicott said. Teachers and other school workers in other counties began to hold their own meetings.
Soon, teachers in all 55 counties in the state had voted in mass meetings for a strike. This forced leaders of the teachers’ unions to call a state-wide mass meeting, which set February 22 and 23 as the dates for work stoppages.
But the rank-and-file wanted more. Endicott said: “In our school, our county and neighbouring counties, based on what my friends told me … everybody was saying that if we go out, if we’re going out those two days, we’re not coming back until it is finished.”
So the strike continued, with rallies, demonstrations and mass decision-making meetings.
About 5000 teachers and other public workers staged an occupation of the State Capitol building. There was wide public support for the struggle.
Under growing pressure, West Virginia’s Republican governor Jim Justice told union representatives on February 28 that he supported a 5% pay raise. The union leaders told the teachers to go back to work.
But the rank-and-file reaction was anger. They said that “promises and handshakes in the Capitol were not good enough,” the March 8 NYT said. “No matter what union leaders said, they were staying out until they had what they wanted, and in writing.”
At that point, the ranks took charge and the union leaders followed.
Promises from the governor notwithstanding, the Republican-controlled state legislature had to approve a pay raise. Finally, reluctantly, and facing the threat of the continuing strike, they agreed to the 5% rise, which convinced the ranks to end the strike.
The 5% raise was not only for teachers, but all public employees. This was a big victory. But the raise still leaves West Virginia teachers among the worst-paid in the country.
The governor also promised he would convene a task force to address the health care issue, which sceptical teachers intend to monitor.
One lesson of this struggle is that workers do not have to automatically follow decisions by union leaders — if they can rely on the mobilised power of the rank and file.
The problems US workers face in relation to the power of the union bureaucracy was illustrated by the position taken by the national AFT leadership concerning a Supreme Court case just after the strike ended.
Previously, courts have ruled that public sector unions could insist that workers who refuse to join the union would still have to pay an “agency fee” for costs the union incurred representing them. The new case seeks to overturn that.
AFT president Randi Weingarten warned the Supreme Court that overturning the agency fees would “lead to more activism and political action” like what happened in West Virginia.
“Collective bargaining exists as a way for workers and employers to peacefully solve labour relations,” said Weingarten, whose annual salary is US$500,000. She warned that “the activism [seen in West Virginia] will be multiplied and magnified across the country if collective bargaining is struck down”.
Leaving aside the conflation of agency fees and collective bargaining, the key thing to note is Weingarten’s view that unions are crucial to limiting the growth of militant class struggle. She was elaborating on statements made by a union lawyer to the Supreme Court: “Union security is the trade off for no strikes.”
Another lesson is the importance of workers’ democracy in mobilising workers’ power. The importance of championing the interests of other workers is another.
The US labour movement needs to be rebuilt on a class struggle basis. That cannot be done from the corrupt union tops. It will only come from the bottom-up, through the kinds of rank-and-file organising carried out by the West Virginia teachers, with democratic decision making that places reliance on the strength of the workers themselves.
This rebuilding will take time. There will be victories and defeats in the course of many struggles. The anti-worker offensive carried out for decades by the ruling capitalist class and its two parties will impel new battles.
In these struggles, new leaders will emerge, as in West Virginia, and either the old unions will be transformed or new ones built. Both developments took place in the US’s great labour upsurge of the 1930s.