By MARK BRUNT
When West Virginia teachers walked out over health insurance premiums, few people predicted that, after feeling betrayed by union bureaucrats, the rank and file teachers would rebel and turn the strike into a wildcat action that would substantially increase their gains. Fewer still anticipated that the walkout would spark coordinated labor actions across the country amongst public educators in a wave of strikes across state lines on a scale that hasn’t been seen in America in years.
Yet this is precisely what came of it. After West Virginia’s teachers demonstrated their power, teachers in other states followed suit. First, Oklahoma and Kentucky took the reins. It is no surprise that these three states—among the lowest in teacher pay and education funding—saw no way out but direct action, and demonstrated to the country that when workers fight, we win.
Strikes in the United States, while unusual, are not unheard of. Chicago teachers struck in 2012. The power of the West Virginia strike lies in its wildcat action. The teachers shook the soul of U.S. labor when, after being told they were headed back to work by their union bosses, they refused. Offered a five percent raise for teachers (far less for other public employees) and the empty promise of a task force to seek out ways to improve the insurance system, they continued to occupy the state’s capitol building. They sang, in response to the weak offer, “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” which soon became the unofficial anthem of the movement.
West Virginia governor Jim Justice at one pointed criticized the teachers, suggesting there was only so much money in the state for him to find, and that he was “not king.” Justice, the richest person in West Virginia, has a net worth of over $1.7 billion, stemming largely from his ownership of over 50 companies. Unsurprisingly, the possibility of taking his businesses into public control and democratizing the wealth they produce did not occur to him as a solution.
On the heels now are Colorado and Arizona, and as of this writing, rumblings are being heard in Louisiana. In Arizona, when adjusted for inflation, teacher salaries are approximately $9000 lower than they were in 1990. Further, at just $7489, Arizona has the third lowest per pupil spending in the United States. Colorado teacher pay ranks 46th, and the state spends $2500 less per student than the national average. But the images of Arizona’s #RedForEd movement, the flood of working-class people in the streets in front of Arizona’s capitol building, give an idea of what is possible.
At the rally, several members of other unions showed up in support. Some of them vowed not to complete any work at public schools until the teachers’ demands were met.
Arizona’s teacher walkout highlights the power of working-class solidarity. The state’s Republican governor, Doug Ducey, tried to avert the strike by offering the teachers a 20 percent raise over three years. The union rejected the proposal, stating that they were not acted solely in the interests of their own salary, but were also seeking better funding from the schools. Criticisms of the strike actions—alleging that teachers are being selfish, and not acting in the interests of the students—fall flat when this fact is highlighted. Further, teacher walkouts teach students the power of the masses of people to demand change. A post on one of the walkout Facebook groups reads, “Your children’s teachers didn’t stop teaching. The lesson plan just changed.”
It would be presumptuous to call this wave of strikes a nail in the coffin of post-World War II labor peace, but there are still signs of panic amongst the ruling class. For example, Colorado legislators proposed a law that would give jail time to striking teachers. The bill is not expected to pass, but its mere proposal highlights the rising state of class conflict in the United States.
The struggle is also highlighted in the conflicts between teachers and union bureaucrats. West Virginia teachers refused the mandate of their union leaders when they felt the deal was not the best they could get—and they proved right. In Oklahoma, numerous teachers felt betrayed when the union called an official end to the strike without their full demands being met. The teachers had called for an extra $200 million in funding, and the state promised only $50 million. However, most returned to work regardless, for fear of losing their jobs. Many chose to drop their union membership—which is legal in Oklahoma, as a right-to-work state.
These conflicts are extraordinarily important in the coming period, because they are part of the contradictions of labor peace and right-to-work laws. Agency fees empower unions, but at a cost. Mandatory union dues protect workers, but also give the capitalist class more control over the union, as union bureaucrats do not have to be militant in order to command membership, and usually have close relationships with politicians.
It is no surprise that teacher strikes have occurred primarily in right-to-work states (Colorado being the exception). These states have fewer protections for workers, but far less ability to corral militant labor action. With agency fees seemingly on the chopping block (their survival depends on the vote of SCOTUS Justice Neil Gorsuch, who has never been a friend of labor), the path forward for labor is murky, but teachers are providing a way forward.
The wave of walkouts, while perhaps not the equivalent of the massive labor actions occurring in France, nonetheless represent a class that is awakening, that for decades has been on its heels but is prepared to re-engage in the class struggle.