This win is a huge step forward for the labour movement in the United States
Many pundits have commented on the remarkable volatility of politics across the Western world in the 21st century. Rarely has this been more striking than in recent events in the US state of West Virginia. In 2016 this notoriously neglected part of the country, rated the second poorest in the US, voted for the abominable Trump by a greater proportion than any other, 75% of eligible voters. It should be noted, however, that Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton in the Democrat primary in the state in 2016, demonstrating the potential there for radicalisation from the left.
Sowing the seeds
Shortly after the election, the worst President in living memory staged a victory rally in the state, absurdly wearing a miner's helmet to project the laughable notion that he would be a friend of the working class. At the beginning of this month, however, teachers in the state have mobilised the most important trade union based defiance of Trump and his Republican acolytes, won a sensational victory, and possibly sowed the seeds of a significant revival of the US labour movement. In an astonishing development on March 6th, teachers in West Virginia forced the state authority to award a 5% pay rise not only to themselves but also to all state employees! Equally remarkable, this was on the back not of official industrial action authorised by union leadership, but after nine days of a wildcat strike that had no legal sanction.
This incredible victory in one of the supposed heartlands of Trump's America may not even be the end of the story as the spirit of rank and file militancy has spread into other states and is threatening a hot spring and summer of resistance across the whole country. The Republican leader of the state's Senate expressed the surprise of the local elite that such militancy has flared up apparently unexpectedly and without official backing: "You’re not negotiating with a particular, a unique set of participants. There’s just this organic sort of — I don’t know what to call it. More like an uprising."
The action began towards the end of February when the ironically named Governor Jim Justice announced a 2% pay rise for the state's teachers beginning this summer with a further 1% in 2020-21. Low pay has been one of the principal reasons the state has a shortfall of over 700 teachers that it cannot find to supervise classrooms. The derisory offer sparked an immediate walkout by 20 000 teachers that affected 300 000 children. The dispute also revolves around the underfunding of the Public Employee Insurance Agency that one in seven workers in the state depend on to provide vital healthcare insurance in America's notoriously threadbare social security system. The PEIA is estimated to require an extra $50 million just to maintain current demand in the near future. A crucial part of the teachers' demands is that this shortfall should be provided by taxes on the carbon-producing energy companies that have profited from the Appalachian mining chain that dominates the area's economic profile.
One of the most prominent supporters of the campaign has been Democrat State Senator, Richard Ojeda, who perceived the wider significance of the dispute:
The teachers of West Virginia are not just fighting for themselves, our children or all public employees. In my view, teachers in West Virginia are joining a fight for the soul and spirit of West Virginia that started hundreds of years ago.
Within hours of going out, teacher rank and file groups mushroomed throughout the state 55 counties, notably a Facebook page, West Virginia Public Employees United, that attracted 24 000 followers. The strikers organised meals at their own expense for students on free school meals, thereby undercutting the usual hypocritical mantra from management that teachers' strikes penalise children. Picket lines were sizeable and vibrant with many strikers donning the iconic red shirts pioneered by Chicago teachers in 2012, the last major victory of the US labour movement.
Hilariously, the 5% raise was won almost accidentally as an administrative error led state legislators to approve that figure when they were only supposed to be debating 4%! After they had approved the former, it was politically unthinkable to row back and push for the lower figure. Even then, the strikers did not immediately accept and only after the rollout of the pay offer to the rest of state employees did the teachers agree to return to the classrooms. The two official teachers' unions in the state initially backed the first 5% offer but were forced to publicly withdraw their support after the groundswell of rank and file activists demanded it be expanded across the public sector.
The dispute in West Virginia has been a sensational victory but it is far from assured. Governor Justice is to begin a consultation process around the state on the future of PEIA funding and will undoubtedly look for some means of evading the strikers' demand that the mining companies carry the load through taxes. Justice himself is a former coal magnate who defected from Democrats to Republicans last year, so political chicanery will not be unknown to him. At the federal level, the US Supreme Court is currently hearing the critical case of Janus v AFSCME that threatens to undermine the collective bargaining capability of unions even further. Many bosses have spoken of their fear that if the verdict goes against the unions, West Virginia -style militancy will actually become more likely as the official labour movement finds itself outflanked by the type of grassroots activism that has triumphed in this case.
Most significantly, there are real indicators that the West Virginia action has created a ripple effect that has spread to neighbouring states and could go even further. One of the striking teachers, Annette Jordan, commented
We’re getting support from teachers all over—Alaska, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. ... These places are saying, ‘We know that if they’ve done it in West Virginia, we can do it here too,’ so I think this strike is going to start spurring some action in other states.
West Virginia is ranked 48th out of the 50 US states in terms of teachers' pay but nearby Oklahoma is even lower so it is no surprise that most of that state's 10 000 school staff recently indicated they would support similar action at the start of next month. Kentucky is lined up for a battle with its teachers over a pension fund that is running dry.
In the background to these battles over pay and conditions, of course, is the particular danger facing American teachers from the country's anachronistic gun laws, which resulted in yet another pointless slaughter of staff and students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida last month. Unlike similar events recently, however, the MSDH massacre prompted an upsurge of student defiance, which led to scenes of chanting students marching on the state legislature to denounce Trump and his sponsors in the NRA. These different vectors of militancy in the US education may yet converge to create an upsurge of struggle that puts pressure on Republican politicians at state and federal level.
The teachers' victory rally in the state capitol of Charleston was reminiscent of similar scenes in Wisconsin in 2011 when a campaign against the anti-union Governor there kick-started the Occupy movement. The challenge for the protesters of 2018 is to ensure their equally impressive revolt is not diverted into the electoral dead-end of Democrat politics. The Momentum-style activism of the Democratic Socialists of America played a vital role in generating public solidarity throughout the West Virginia strike but there is the danger their priority from now on will be exclusively on the November mid-term elections and getting the vote out for Democrat candidates.
Heritage of struggle
West Virginia is a state with a radical tradition as potent as anyone in the US. In the era of the Wobblies prior to WW1, legendary union organiser, Mother Jones, conducted mass recruitment campaigns among the Anthracite miners that populated the state. In the 1920s, the Battle of Blair Mountain between miners and bosses left 50 dead, most of them the former of course. The Matewan massacre of 1920 was turned into an acclaimed movie by radical filmmaker, John Sayles. The teachers of 2018 have spectacularly demonstrated that tradition is not just one for the history books.