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Invoking Labour History to Win in West Virginia – A Strike Analysis

March 14, 2018

The West Virginia teachers’ strike showed how the past can inspire today’s workplace struggles

“A union movement in America will always be a scandal (because) the subversive thing about labor is not the strike, but the idea of solidarity.” – Tom Geoghegan in Which Side Are You On?

The nine-day West Virginia teachers’ strike that ended on March 7, 2018, revealed how workers can and will invoke labour history to help them hold the line and win. But as workers celebrate the WV victory, national and regional union leadership seem out of step with the rank-and-file membership and its sense of the power of history.

“Strikes as broad as the one in West Virginia are vanishingly rare,” as one New York Times contributor noted. “But when they do happen, they prove that our labor history is not that deeply buried. If workers are pushed hard enough, those ghosts will rise.”

The ghosts raised the hopes of an embattled labour movement, but it’s easy to miss the nuances of the deal signed by Republican Governor Jim Justice. The wealthy coal magnate appeared magnanimous in granting teachers and all state workers a 5 per cent raise, but where’s he getting the money?

Justice will pay for the raises with $82 million in cuts to the 2018-2019 state budget, according to the Charleston Gazette-Mail. In addition to gutting Medicaid, the raises will eat into $23 million for infrastructure repairs and $7 million designated for student tuition.

These cuts will hurt and it is possible that Justice is counting on the public to blame the strikers for taking a raise paid for with their needed state programs. ‘Blame the workers’ is another ghost of labour history that has often benefitted billionaires like the governor.

Blaming the teachers would be ironic, though. Aware that WV’s poverty level stands at 17 per cent, they stockpiled food for the kids to make sure the needy ones got meals at home while the strike was on. The public is unlikely to see them as the problem.

Early in the dispute, union leaders told members to take the Justice’s initial offer, but members weren’t happy with it. At an annual salary of $45,622, the state ranks 48th for average teacher pay, giving the strikers good reason to stay on the picket line. Even then, the 5 per cent won’t do much to raise their standard of living.

Effectively initiating a wildcat strike, they won a victory for teachers and all public sector workers. As history shows us, sometimes wildcats are the only way workers have of fighting back. But union leaders fear wildcats because they lose control. Apparently this is what occurred in WV.

Some critics say union leaders collaborated with the state to end the strike. Will Morrow, writing in wsws.org, a Trotskyist web site, charged that “the strike demonstrated that the growth of class conflict will bring workers into ever more direct conflict with the right-wing trade union apparatuses.” He argued that they “function as an industrial police force for the governments and companies,” adding that “it was the teachers’ defiance of the unions’ back-to-work order that galvanized the support.”

Another point lost in the victory celebration was the failure to resolve the insurance problem, Morrow notes. Among the strikers’ main demands was guaranteed funding for the Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA). Justice shifted attention to a task force to study the problem and put a temporary freeze on health care costs.

Considering the current Congress’s lack of interest in workers’ rights, it’s always possible that the governor will overrule any positive outcome of the strike. Tossing task forces and commissions at problems has been a typical government response throughout modern history, but this seldom produces results that truly help working people.

At a moment when the labour movement is waiting for a Supreme Court decision that could undermine it even further by eliminating dues payments for non-union workers, WV is a victory that could help stimulate union renewal.

Such a victory in a Republican right-to-work state like West Virginia, presents an opportunity to the nation’s severely weakened labour movement. Observers will have to wait and see whether it can build momentum based on WV’s victory. After all, everyone remembers the failure to stop Republican Governor Scott Walker from undermining public sector workers’ rights in Wisconsin a few years ago.

But the WV teachers, in invoking the past, particularly the coal miners’ struggles of old, showed that workers will rally around history and use it to win modern-day fights for workers’ rights and a decent contract. Teacher solidarity paid off in WV and perhaps labour history will inspire similar actions in Oklahoma, Mississippi, and South Dakota where salaries are even lower.

Thanks to the WV teachers, all workers across the country have a new example to follow. They used history to make history. It is up to the labour movement’s leaders to seize the moment and build a badly needed resistance movement before it seizes them.

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