By Blair Bertaccini
April 3, 2018
Now at the beginning of April the successful West Virginia school employees strike has helped set off job actions and demonstrations in Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona.
The situation of public employees and indeed all workers in the three states is very similar. Austerity budgets and the de-funding of public services has driven teachers and other school workers to a level of strikes and protests not seen in this sector since the 1970s.
The strike comes as the US Supreme Court deliberates its ruling on the Janus vs. AFSCME case which could put public employees in much the same legal situation as those in these four states, a situation causing much anxiety among union leaders.
Even if they are not as successful as their West Virginia brothers and sisters teachers in other states are engaging in tactics that no one predicted in the current economic and political climate.
Educators work in a public service with which an overwhelming majority of the public and their fellow workers have or had some type of contact and who see education as a valuable public good.
This puts teachers in a more advantageous position compared with other public employees who have less opportunity for direct interaction with the public. If teachers are tactically adept they can present their case in a way that wins the public to their side in what can become more a political struggle than an economic one. Indeed the strikers in West Virginia did just that. They held walk-ins, informational pickets and planned so that students receiving school meals would not lack this service while the schools were closed.
What has produced these job actions at this particular moment when the labor movement struggles to regain some political and economic initiative? Certainly political conditions are in turmoil, but with conservative politicians in power in the many state legislatures and state executives, they did not appear propitious for strikes, especially in states where public employees had no right even to collectively bargain.
Yet this political turmoil contains an undercurrent which has produced movements such as Black Lives Matter, the Dreamers and immigrant rights, students to stop gun violence and regulate firearms etc. It has been developing and gaining momentum since the Trump regime took power.
But a more fundamental undercurrent has been austerity policies pushing workers into more dire economic straits. Many of the teachers speaking out now talk having to hold down second jobs to meet the needs of themselves and their families. Teachers in the states at the bottom of the pay scale start barely make above what a full time $15 per hour worker would earn in a year. This low pay,
plus a steady erosion of benefits and overall funding for schools, has produced a breaking point for these teachers.
Economic misery does not always produce revolt. It takes organization, which is not built overnight. These job actions are not spontaneous. All had some level of planning, although once they start there are certainly spontaneous actions taken by the participants and rank and file leaders.
In all three states one or both of the two major education unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers have been organizing teachers for many years. Even if the union leadership was or is not leading these strikes, the union provides a structure within which teachers can plan and coordinate.
History plays a role too. One West Virginia rank and file leader mentioned that she lived in the county of Matewan and the Battle of Blair Mountain, so clearly some teachers knew why militant struggle is necessary and what it had produced in the past.
Social media, particularly Facebook, have played an important role in building support for the job actions and creating a momentum that produced one victory and may lead to others.Indeed social media increased the awareness of what was being done in West Virginia and helped push cautious union leadership to take more militant stances and not accept compromise.
However without a conscious militant minority that initiated much of the social media use, the tool would not have been of much use. Economic conditions coupled with a growing movement
against right-wing and centrist policies produced an anger resulting in action among teachers that was set off in West Virginia by initially only a few hundred teachers walking out.
What is needed to sustain this movement and make it spread? So far this new militancy is limited to a specific sector of public unions, so we should not overestimate where it will spread. Public employees in most states where they have the right to collectively bargain are prohibited from striking and are accustomed to using arbitration processes of limited value to workers.Strikes are at an all-time low in the private sector.
How should left unionists who believe in class-struggle unionism respond?
First, we should remember something a US Communist leader, Gus Hall, involved in the CIO drive to organize steelworkers, wrote about trade union struggles, “The class struggle is the main contradiction. We are always working to change the balance of forces between the two main classes. There can be no strategic line without this foundation.”
Unless we are developing a militant minority within unions at the local union level, this new militancy may not spread as we would like. The West Virginia rank and file leaders have emphasized unity and solidarity as keys to their success. All 55 counties of West Virginia voted to strike and held strong until they won. Unity across all the lines that capitalists use to divide us is of primary importance.
We must also make clear who the enemy is, the capitalist class, at whose behest politicians adopt austerity budgets and slash public services. If we are able to do this, then independent politics then becomes part of the struggle.
Kentucky teachers are pledging to vote out politicians if they do not come up with a package that satisfies their demands, but this will be for naught if they are replaced by ones who do not
really share their vision.
To be effective in changing the balance of class forces what is sorely lacking at the moment isan organization through which union militants who understand the need for a class struggle labor movement can operate, share ideas and coordinate struggles. In the 1920s William Z. Foster, a Communist Party labor leader who developed the concept of the “militant minority” helped launch and develop the Trade Union Education League which became a vehicle for such unionists in the 1920s
and led to the organizing victories of the 1930s.
We must work to develop a similar organization today.