Teachers’ strikes: The rank and file takes the lead

April 2018 Okl. teachers 2 David Wallace : The republic

Teachers rally before the statehouse in Oklahoma City, on April 2. (David Wallace / The republic)

By MARK BRUNT

Across the country, teachers have taken West Virginia’s lead after a successful wildcat strike. In Kentucky, legislators passed a teacher pension reform bill, and, although a strike on the specific day was not planned, so many teachers called out on March 30 that 20 counties were forced to close schools. They remained out the following week.

In Oklahoma, legislators passed a bill to increase teacher pay that they hoped would put an end to strike talk. But teachers were not solely concerned about their own income; on Facebook, teachers from Oklahoma posted photos of decrepit textbooks that still referred to George W. Bush as the current president. Teachers walked out on April 2 and, as of this writing, have yet to return. In Jersey City, teachers struck for a single day before a new contract was negotiated. Teachers in Arizona are aggressively talking about striking.

Oklahoma teachers are among the lowest paid in the entire country, and around 20 percent of the school districts are so underfunded that they have cut back to a four-day school week. Meanwhile, the state legislature is seeking to redirect a billion dollars in funding to building two new prisons. While students suffer, Oklahoma’s incarceration rate ranks second in the nation.

Educators across the country have taken the lead over their unions. By and large, union officials have tailed behind rank-and-file organizing. Walkouts have been organized on Facebook and other social media platforms. In West Virginia, teachers refused to return to work even after union leaders called for an end to the strike.

The timing of the wave of strikes couldn’t be more appropriate. In oral arguments before the Supreme Court on Janus v. AFSCME, in which right-wing forces are seeking to undermine unions by striking down direct collection of agency fees, union attorney David Frederick warned that a ruling in favor of Janus could “raise an untold specter of labor unrest throughout the country.”

Frederick’s words proved to be even more prescient than he likely intended. Indeed, the original ruling in favor of agency fees, in Abood v. Detroit, was largely a concession by the capitalist class in the hopes of weakening one of labor’s strongest weapons—the strike. By mandating agency fees, the state reasoned, unions would no longer have to be militant in order to attract members. And while agency fees did, in fact, strengthen union protections for public-sector workers, it also minimized union militancy, and created a relative peace between labor and capital.

Frederick’s warning that labor unrest, always bubbling beneath the surface of American society, could resurface was meant to frighten the Supreme Court justices on the grounds that striking down agency fees could lead to new, radicalizing unions. But if the justices need to see the possibilities of labor unrest, they need look no further than teachers, especially those in conservative states, who have consistently been targeted since the Reagan era.

Teachers are the largest group of public union workers in America, and yet their pay, benefits, and overall respect are a constant target for the right wing and the political establishment. The strike in West Virginia was the turning of a tide. Striking primarily over health insurance premiums, teachers took to the streets, and refused to go back even when their union bureaucrats accepted a deal that was substantially less than what the rank and file had demanded. The unwillingness of rank-and-file teachers to simply obey the edicts of the bureaucracy and politicians announced that the power of labor is not dead and buried. The wildcat strike went on to win far greater concessions than the union had previously been offered.

Oklahoma teachers also threatened on Facebook to drop their union membership in response to the union bureaucracy’s willingness to accept a lesser deal. While Socialist Action does not endorse dropping union membership, we recognize that this is a sign of the threat of labor unrest and the rising of the sleeping giant of increasingly hard-pressed workers, no longer prepared to submit to what Lenin called, “labor lieutenants of the capitalist class,” meaning bureaucrats whose primary purpose is to preserve stability at the expense of workers’ interests. Socialist Action encourages workers to struggle to make their unions fully democratic, as fighting institutions that are answerable to the needs of the membership.

Perhaps most interestingly, these strikes are taking place predominantly in deep “red” states. They represent the power of the working class to make gains, even against the most reactionary elements of the ruling class. Demands in West Virginia were not won against progressive reformers, but against the forced hands of conservative lawmakers who had no choice in the face of a conscious and confident workforce. This model can be applied everywhere. No governing body is too reactionary for militant labor action to succeed.

The wave of teacher strikes has the power to fundamentally alter the face of labor in the United States. Is the era of “labor peace” over? We have yet to see for sure. But the willingness of public-sector workers—especially some of the most targeted and demoralized in the country—to walk out even against the orders of labor bureaucrats is indisputably a turning point.