When media reported that the West Virginia teachers strike had ended in victory for that state’s teachers and other public employees, a newsletter to which I subscribe (link unavailable) described the potential fallout:
As striking West Virginia teachers win their demand for a 5% increase for themselves and all of the state’s public employees, teachers in Oklahoma, Mississippi, and Arizona are poised to follow suit, amid reports that “a backlash is brewing against the Republican tax-cutting frenzy.” The Payday Report’s Mike Elk reports that “West Virginia Governor Justice vowed to veto any bills that would fund charter schools, strip teachers of their seniority, or reduce or remove the deduction of union dues from their paychecks even if those dues are applied to political work.”
It was especially noteworthy that the bargaining effort was mounted despite the fact that it occurred without official union backing. The union representing teachers in West Virginia–as elsewhere– has been hamstrung by state law; it was too weakened to attempt an action like this. As a column in the Guardian noted, “The teachers walked out on their own, fed up with a status quo that was leaving them nearly destitute.” It was an illegal wildcat strike.
Is this a turning point? A breaking point? With the rightwing Neil Gorsuch poised to cast the deciding vote in the Janus v AFSCME, the US supreme court is on the verge of dealing a devastating blow to public sectors unions. If it’s not a deathblow – unions in labor-friendly states will find ways to retain power, while those elsewhere will wither – it’s something not far off.
In West Virginia, there is hope. The first Gilded Age gave rise to labor militancy; oppressed workers across the country proudly organized unions to strike back against the oligarchs who were torturing them day and night. The eight-hour day, vacation days, and all the other labor protections we take for granted were born out of union advocacy.
The victorious strike by teachers in West Virginia did not only result in a long overdue pay raise. With the exuberance of a nine-day teach-in, the teachers and their supporters have taught the nation a compelling lesson on the historical role of a true resistance.
The author then indulged in a series of “what if” questions: what if everyone who detested the NRA joined a nationwide strike for more stringent gun laws? What if all teachers, students and other school workers refused to come to work in buildings powered by fossil fuels?
This kind of resistance does not allow onlookers to look away, especially in an age of social media. It brings the story to those who have refused to read it. It forces everyone to take part in the national discussion, and engage in the still small possibility of justice.
Nationwide strikes of this sort remain highly unlikely, although West Virginia has arguably given impetus to more localized efforts.
On balance, we can draw a couple of important lessons from events in West Virginia: (1) You can only beat working people down for so long before they refuse to remain acquiescent; and (2) There are more of them than there are of the plutocrats and their bought-and-paid-for legislators.