Saturday, March 3, 2018

West Virginia Teachers and Education Workers Heroically Defy Bosses and Union Leaders.

By Richard Mellor
Afscme Local 444, retired

“If there’s no deal, we’re not going back.” High School Teacher

Despite limited media coverage an historic event is taking place in West Virginia. Striking teachers, members of the AFL-CIO affiliated American Federation of Teachers (AFT) have shut down the state’s education system. At the time of writing, all schools in West Virginia’s 55 counties have been shut down for a week.

We have written extensively on this blog about the political crisis of US capitalism as the era of political monopoly by the two capitalist parties that has lasted over a century is ending. The economic crisis is over the horizon and what is happening in West Virginia is a glimpse of the turmoil that will engulf organized labor and the rest of society in the period ahead. A period where for the unions, the obstacle of the present leadership will be cast aside.

The developments in West Virginia are exactly what Facts For Working People has described over the past period, on our blog and in our weekly conference calls. *

Initially small rolling strikes were called in early February as teachers tried to push back against low pay and costly health benefits; but we have to remember, West Virginia has a powerful and militant labor history. Many of the teachers on strike are daughters of miners who walked picket lines when their fathers were out. As the New York Times reported; last month when one teacher told her father, a veteran of many labor wars, about the “rolling strike” idea he was adamantly opposed and that if you want to win, “It’s got to be all-in or nothing,”. And on February 22nd after the governor offered the teachers a 1% raise, to kick in by 2020 mind you, the all out strike was on. Every school day in the past week teachers as well as bus drivers and cooks and union supporters rallied at the State Capitol in Charleston demanding action.

What is happening in this dispute is a microcosm of what is on the horizon as far as organized labor is concerned. On Tuesday after four days of striking and in response to the militancy and resolve of the strikers, the governor backed down and agreed to a 5% wage increase and strikers were told by their leaders to return to work Thursday morning according to Payday Report.   The pay agreement passed West Virginia’s House of Delegates but the Senate kicked it back to a finance committee and the workers, sensing a betrayal, refused the union leadership’s call to return to work. As the New York Times puts it, “The teachers disregarded their own union leaders’ advice to return to work earlier this week, opting instead for a thunderous showdown with members of the state’s increasingly conservative leadership.”

Teachers, supporters, and other workers in and around education stormed the capital shouting “We got sold out”.

An Illegal Strike
We have to chew on the fact that this is taking place in a state where it is illegal to strike with no formal bargaining process and it terrifies the trade union officialdom and their Democratic Party allies as any strike victory does because it undermines their arguments that we can’t win. In dispute after dispute workers are told that concessions have to be made. This has happened for decades. “We have to be realistic”, “We can’t win”,We must not raise our expectations” "we can't break the law".

This sort of rank and activity, despite the media bias, is being watched by workers throughout the country. The union officials who have built their relationship with the bosses based on labor peace, have to try and undermine it, put the genie back in the bottle, temper the militancy of the affair and confine it to letting off steam and staying within boundaries acceptable to their Democratic Party allies. They know that a victory, especially under these illegal circumstances, will inspire millions of workers within organized labor as well as the unorganized. It would change the balance of class forces in US society and increase the confidence of the entire working class. Their leadership and role in suppressing any movement from within their ranks that challenges this labor/management Team Concept will come in to question as well as new struggles develop and fresh leadership emerges.

Labor History Refreshed
Facts For Working People pointed out in our Statement on Guns and US Society last week that class-consciousness in the US is low for various reasons, no worker/labor party of our own and the role of the heads of organized labor in suppressing that history.  But West Virginia like many parts of the country has a rich and militant tradition of working class struggle. And we should remember that West Virginia is also synonymous with the term Matewan where in 1920, thousands of miners faced off in the five-day Battle of Blair Mountain against armed strikebreakers and government forces in one of the largest labor uprisings in American history. This history is still present in families and will re-emerge in this individual example and as the offensive of capitalism on US living standards continue.

Another aspect of these situations when class conflict becomes more acute and the “gloves are off” as they say, is that illusions, if there are any left, in politicians of the two capitalist parties and the labor hierarchy, are weakened, opportunists are exposed.

An important lesson for all activists is to recognize that after years of cooperation from labor leaders and relative peace with regard to strikes, the bosses are overconfident and prone to mistakes. In the case of West Virginia where the governor went from a 1% to 5% wage increase in a matter of days shows us how overconfident they can be and how powerful mass united action is.  An army of lawyers and so-called professional negotiators couldn’t do that is six months. I know, I’ve been through three sets of negotiations and in one of them we struck. Our strike back then was illegal also as public sector workers and I recall us negotiators having to run every time we saw a process server.

Whether or not the West Virginia strike spreads or links up with other movements remains to be seen but it is truly of huge social importance in more ways than one. The AFT is affiliated to the AFL-CIO and the West Virginia AFL-CIO has 80,000 members.  The rank and file power that has shut down an entire state’s education system (in violation of the law) has the potential to win this strike and transform the US labor movement if it reaches beyond the immediate.  As the father of the teachers said to her  “It’s all fun and games in the early stages but it’s going to get serious. You go over the line, you’ve got to finish it.”

It is at times like these that our enemies are the most insidious. The bosses want the rising union/worker power contained. The heads of the AFL-CIO including Randi Weingarten of the AFT wants it contained as do the Democratic Party politicians.  As we explain often, it is not so much corruption or criminal activity that is at the root of this collaboration with the employers, this constant effort on the part of the labor hierarchy to bail them out at their members’ expense. It is their understanding of the world, their view that employers and workers have the same interests, are on the same team. In fact they call it the Team Concept and it is this, not so much the excessive salaries and perks the top union officials give themselves that is at the root of the betrayals, although these  add to the tendency of the union leadership to betrayal. The unleashing of labor and workers' power can only lead to chaos as it threatens capitalism and there is no alternative to capitalism from their point of view.

There is much poverty in West Virginia and the surrounding communities. This is an opportunity for the rank and file of the movement taking place there to reach out to other communities, to raise the need for environmentally friendly jobs that don’t poison the water or the air we breathe, for free health care at the point of use and for an end to the trillion dollars spent on military ventures that are good for the energy and war industry but are paid for in declining living standards for US workers. The drug epidemic has also hit West Virginia hard.

We have pointed out on this blog that it is up to the union rank and file to change the present leadership through building opposition caucuses in the workplaces and union halls, linking day to day workplace activity with community activity and rejection concessions in words and mass action. Struggles are taking place throughout the country around all these issues, drinking water is a major one in urban and rural centers. These struggles and the opposition to them must be brought together and the power of labor on the job is a crucial aspect of this united fight back against austerity.

Since the weakening of the UAW through a united front of the auto bosses and the heads of that union, the public sector has become the last stronghold of trade unionism in the US; it is us they are after now. The public sector is about 30 to 35% % unionized. Without the public sector the percentage of workers in trade unions in the US is less than 7%. 

We have benefited as public sector workers. In general our workplaces are more humane due to unionization and being in the public sector. Too many of us have been silent too long as our private sector sisters and brothers have taken a beating. We must use our power now not to just defend our own conditions, but to help revitalize the US trade union movement and fight to defend our standard of living and extend it to all.  It's never too late. We must make the old US saying a reality, "An Injury to One is an Injury to All."  We have the power, let's use it.

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