An old lyric by early 20th century songwriter and labour activist Joe Hill goes: “There is power, there is power, when a band of working [people] stand, hand in hand!”
A victorious strike by teachers in West Virginia, organised by rank and file teachers, 75 percent of whom are women, has demonstrated the song line’s truth.
The US labour movement is saddled with a conservative and class collaborationist bureaucracy mainly interested in lining its own pockets. Against this, the teachers have given an important lesson for all working people.
The teachers faced big obstacles. In West Virginia, government workers can be fired for going on strike. There are state affiliates of the two national teachers’ unions, the National Educational Association and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). But because government workers are also barred by law from collective bargaining, all they can do is take up teachers’ grievances.
The teachers knew the risks of striking, but as one teacher said, “If they fire me, I’ll get a job at Target with better pay”. The teachers were at the end of their rope, and 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 second jobs to make ends meet. That was one issue. Another 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, Katie Endicott, was interviewed by Socialist Worker. She and her husband are teachers in Mingo County, near the Kentucky border. Her husband attended a small rally in the state capital, Charleston, on 15 January, where he learned about the proposed attack on teachers’ health insurance and other bills attacking public education.
Katie told him he should tell people what he learned, “because people in my school didn’t know”. He made a Facebook video that went viral. She got many calls from outraged fellow teachers. They called a meeting and hundreds showed up.
She said that “basically all of our bus drivers, office workers, teachers and cooks” in the county showed up. The teachers contacted all school employees. They discussed what they could do, and decided unanimously to begin with a one-day sick out strike, on 2 February.
Besides mobilising all school employees, the teachers broadened their goals 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. That turned out to be true; soon, teachers and school employees in many counties were mobilised. Then, all 55 counties were on board for a strike, having taken votes in mass meetings. Under this pressure, the leaders of the teachers’ unions called a state-wide mass meeting, which set 22-23 February for work stoppages.
But the rank and file wanted more. “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”, Katie said. So the strike continued, with rallies, demonstrations and mass decision making meetings.
The teachers and other public workers staged an occupation of the state capitol building of some 5,000. There was wide public support.
Under this growing pressure, the governor told the union representatives he was for a 5 percent pay raise. The union leaders told the teachers to go back to work. The rank and file reaction was anger.
At that point the rank and file took charge, and the union leaders followed.
The Republican-controlled state legislature had to approve any pay raise, and spent days arguing about it. Finally, reluctantly, and facing the threat of the continuing strike, they agreed, and the rank and file called off the strike.
The 5 percent pay raise was not only for teachers, but for all public employees. The teachers had become the vanguard for all public workers in the state.
This was a big victory. But the raise still leaves teachers in West Virginia among the worst paid in the country. The governor promised that he would convene a task force to address the health care issue, and the sceptical teachers will be monitoring that.
One lesson of this struggle for all workers is that they don’t have to follow unpopular decisions of the union leaders if they have mobilised the power of the rank and file.
What US workers face is illustrated by the position taken by the AFT just after the strike ended. Previously, courts have ruled that public sector unions could insist that workers who refused to join the union would still have to pay an “agency fee” for costs the union incurred representing them. A new case now at the Supreme Court seeks to overturn that.
Randi Weingarten, president of the AFT, 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 $500,000. She warned that “the activism [in West Virginia] will be multiplied and magnified across the country if collective bargaining is struck down”.
Union leaders are crucial in limiting the growth of militant class struggle, in her opinion. 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 was the importance of workers’ democracy in mobilising workers’ power. Championing other workers was another.
The US labour movement must be rebuilt on a class struggle basis. That cannot be done by the corrupt union tops. It will come only from the bottom up through the things the West Virginia teachers did: organising the rank and file through democratic discussion and decision making and relying on the workers themselves.
This rebuilding will take time. There will be fits and starts, victories and defeats in many struggles. The anti-worker offensive by the bosses and their representatives in the Democratic and Republican parties, which has been ongoing for decades, will impel new battles as more workers realise that their backs are against the wall.
In these struggles, new leaders will be thrown up, as in West Virginia, and either the old unions will be transformed or new unions will be built.