Lessons of the West Virginia strike

Charleston, W.Va. — West Virginia teachers and school service workers triumphed in a major victory on March 6. After striking for nine working days, 20,000 teachers and 13,000 school service employees wrung substantial concessions out of a right-wing billionaire governor and reactionary state legislature. The strike began on Feb. 22.

Their win included a 5 percent, single-year wage increase, not just for themselves, but for all state employees. Potentially. West Virginia teachers rank 48th in the U.S. in wages — just two steps above rock bottom.

Education worker militancy also succeeded in forcing Gov. Jim Justice to pull anti-education, anti-worker bills from the legislative agenda. These included a charter schools bill, a “payroll deception” bill (stopping deductions for union dues) and a bill to eliminate seniority protection for teachers.

The education workers were also fighting for lower health insurance premiums and proper funding of the state Public Education Insurance Agency. This issue remains unresolved.

The strike won creation of a taskforce to study how to adequately fund PEIA to reduce worker payments. But of 23 appointees the governor recently announced, only five represent the workers’ interests, including the heads of the striking unions: the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, the West Virginia Education Association and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association.

The preponderance of the taskforce are CEOs of insurance companies, heads of hospital conglomerates and West Virginia legislators who fought tooth and nail against the workers’ demands. There is even a representative of the state police, historically used as deadly strikebreakers in the state, the same as police are used everywhere.

The anti-worker composition of the taskforce makes it highly likely that workers may once again have to mobilize and act to get their basic demands met.

Breakthrough tactics

In West Virginia, all teacher wages and working conditions are determined by the state legislature. The teachers and school service personnel were striking against the state, not a corporate boss. Though represented by their unions, the workers had no right to strike under state law, so their strike was “illegal.”

This was not a conventional strike where the union’s collective bargaining agreement expired and the boss refuses to bargain. The education workers had no options: no contract and no bargaining rights. And their situation was worsening.

So the West Virginia rank-and-file members escalated their tactics beyond lobbying and rallies to direct action. They took class struggle to a higher level. Perhaps they had learned a lesson from the 2011 struggle in Wisconsin. There, under assault from a right-wing austerity governor, a mass uprising of workers and community actually occupied the Capitol building for a month.

But the majority of labor leaders in Wisconsin, working with the Democratic Party, told union members to abandon the occupation and take no other forms of direct action, such as a statewide strike. Subsequently, right-wing, anti-worker, anti-oppressed, anti-community, Big Boss initiatives were passed and rolled over workers in Wisconsin.

Rank-and-file leadership

The biggest lesson of the West Virginia struggle was that the rank and file led the strike. Workers saw the power they truly have — and this was recognized by and had an impact on the union leadership.

Even before a formal strike authorization vote, roughly 2,000 teachers and service employees from Mingo, Wyoming, Logan and Raleigh counties walked out on Feb. 2 and took their demands to Charleston, the state capital. Significantly, the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, the militant union struggle of 10,000 workers against Big Coal bosses and state police, took place in Logan County.

Rank-and-file strike leadership was primarily in the hands of women. Their effectiveness in building solidarity was such that when the three unions walked out on Feb. 22, all 55 counties went on strike simultaneously. Historically, women have been the backbone of West Virginia strikes — as strikers, strategists and the support that sustains strikes.

When the governor proposed a “deal” to end the strike and the union leadership urged workers to accept what seemed to be a premature compromise, the rank-and-file leadership remained militantly steadfast in continuing the strike.

Dave Sole, a former president of United Auto Workers Local 2334 in Detroit, was in Charleston March 5 as part of a Workers World Party-Detroit delegation to support the strikers. He reflected on the seeds of the workers’ militancy for Workers World:

“The West Virginia strike was distinguished by the unity between the [teachers of] NEA [the National Education Association], the AFT [the American Federation of Teachers] and the school support staff union. Talking to many staff and teachers at the March 5 rally in Charleston, it was clear that almost every striker had connections to the mineworkers in their family or neighbors and friends, whose history of struggle still permeates the state. When national leaders thought they could get the workers back on the job with some backroom promises, the workers refused and the union leaders had to rush to get back in front of the strike. Teachers we spoke to revealed that the rank and file were able to organize from below using their smartphones, combining old West Virginia traditions with the modern age.”

West Virginia’s education worker militancy is spreading to other states.

Oklahoma teachers have commented on social media: “If West Virginia can do it, so can we!” That state’s pay for teachers is the lowest in the U.S. The Oklahoma Education Association is initiating “Together We Are Stronger” community meetings in every county to prepare for an April 2 strike. (tinyurl.com/y77ns598) The Oklahoma Public Employees Association, representing all workers employed by the state, voted on March 10 to join the action.

In Kentucky, right-wing politicians are plotting to steal 33 percent of retired teachers’ pensions. Opposition is mounting, with teacher and student walkouts, “walk-ins” and rallies. (tinyurl.com/y8vuughj)

Building solidarity

Before the strike, there had been some stress and tension between teachers and school service workers. But solidarity was constantly increased through the process of on-the-ground struggle, the conversations on the picket line, mass rallies in Charleston and the #55United digital-age communication.

Education workers were quite clear that they were striking for all state workers. WW talked to one high school teacher who said: “We want to get 5 percent. And we want all the state employees to get the same. They can’t strike and we can. We are striking for them, too.”

The teacher explained that workers employed directly by the state of West Virginia are subject to no-strike restrictions. But teachers, who are employed by counties, have more due process if fired.

When the strike ended on March 6, the education workers were proud they had fought for and won a 5 percent raise for all state employees. They clearly expect all state workers to receive the raise.

The workers also built solidarity with other unions and community groups. In parallel to the school workers’ strike, about 1,400 Frontier workers, organized by the Communication Workers in West Virginia and Ashburn, Va., went out on March 4. When WWP organizers visited school picket lines across the state on March 6, and school workers were getting news of a likely win, they immediately began packing up extra food and supplies to take directly to CWA picket lines in their county. When the Roanoke Peoples’ Power Network contingent from Virginia arrived at the Capitol with their banner “Class Struggle in Session,” they raised cheers from the strikers.

Widespread solidarity among students, community members, striking teachers and school workers was evident everywhere in the state. Students organized a separate march and rally in Charleston on March 2 to support their teachers. The teachers, well aware that many students would go hungry without school meals, put together comprehensive plans to feed their students when schools were closed. Teachers made sandwiches, packed meals, worked with churches and other community groups to get food delivered. They made it clear they were not “abandoning” students, as right-wingers accused.

Role of a communist party

In the 2016 election, every single one of West Virginia’s 55 counties voted for Republican billionaire Trump, with his false promises to “save” workers and his solidarity-wrecking racist slurs. Trump got 70 percent of the state  vote.

Workers overturned that vote with the 2018 West Virginia strike. Education workers united as a multinational force and came out for their own class interests in every one of the 55 counties

Faced with the grim reality of their struggle for livable wages against the legislative dominance of Big Oil and Big Banks, the education workers rose up independently of existing political parties and took action for themselves and for all workers. This unity was forged despite the atomization of workers in the past decade, despite differences and contradictions between workers, despite anti-worker, racist propaganda spewed by the capitalist class.

When workers rise up in this way, the duty of a communist party is to support the workers in their struggle. We know that no matter how hard the contradictions, it is possible for workers to face them, unite through solidarity, rise up and forge new strengths to move forward. That is the potential for growth in the living struggle.

Workers World Party was committed to that support during the West Virginia strike and had a presence there from the beginning. A WWP organizer on the ground visited workers on picket lines throughout the state, handing out informational leaflets, literature and this newspaper. One banner raised by WWP comrades was “Money for People’s Needs, Make the Banks and Oil Companies Pay.” That sentiment was strongly echoed by education workers who want Big Oil taxed at higher rates to pay for their underfunded health insurance agency.

The delegation from Workers World Party-Detroit passed out thousands of union statements and resolutions on March 5 in support of the strikers, including those from the Southern Workers Assembly and the United Steelworkers Local 8751, Boston School Bus Drivers.

Workers eagerly took hundreds of WW newspapers featuring the front-page headline “Defying anti-strike law, Workers shut down West Virginia schools” and photos of the strike.

From banners, headlines, photos —  even without reading the text — workers knew immediately: “WWP supports you.” The party offered support to resist the capitalist ruling class and political parties, to resist racism and other bigotries, and to move forward in an anti-capitalist, internationalist, socialist direction.

WWP-Detroit organizer Jerry Goldberg spoke on the steps of the state Capitol on the racist predatory bank foreclosures in Detroit, the attacks on pensions, the school privatizations. He invited strikers to the National Conference to Defeat Austerity in Detroit on March 24: “We understand the attacks waged on all of us by the banks and the corporations. We stand with you. We have confidence in your victory. You are inspiring people all over the country. The struggle is spreading. Solidarity!” (Complete statement at tinyurl.com/ybl782dp.)

Militancy sparks militancy

The West Virginia strike has many lessons about the connections that must be made between the broadest workers’ struggles and the fierce struggles by oppressed peoples against injustice — the fight against racism, immigrant bashing, hatred of LGBTQ people and women, and discrimination against people with disabilities.

At the Capitol rallies, thousands of multinational people, though majority white women, chanted: “I believe that we will win!” — a chant that rings out during Fight For $15 and Black Lives Matter marches. Never has it been more important for workers to fully live the old slogan: “An injury to one is an injury to all” and join with all workers across bigoted divisions the bosses impose.

Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers and famous for his legendary role in the 1989-90 Pittston strike, rallied strikers to militancy on Feb. 26. He emphasized the civil disobedience tactics of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “We need to fight like Dr. King. I call on every union member in the state of West Virginia to stand with these workers. Workers who stand united will never be defeated.”

Martha Grevatt also contributed to this article.

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