By Benjamin Beckett
On February 22, nearly 20,000 teachers and other school workers in the rural state of West Virginia went on strike. Every single public school shut down for nine days, and the strikers forced a reactionary state government to more than the double the raises it offered to all state workers, not just teachers. The strike is even more remarkable in an American context because in West Virginia, teachers have no legal right to strike, nor does the employer–the state government–have a legal obligation to collectively bargain with them. So called “illegal” strikes have been exceedingly rare in the United States for decades.
Four days into the strike, the US Supreme Court heard arguments in Janus v. AFSCME, which has been winding its way through the courts for years. The case would allow federal, state, and local government workers to refuse to pay union dues, while still receiving the benefits of a union contract. A string of similar cases, funded by wealthy capitalists, have made their way through the court system since 2011. Another such case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association failed at the court in 2016, when arch-conservative Justice Antonin Scalia died suddenly just a month before the ruling. Scalia’s replacement on the court, Neil Gorsuch, was appointed by Trump and shows every sign of being at least as reactionary as his predecessor. Almost everyone expects the right to prevail at court.
Unions have been bracing for the blow, with some federations expecting a third or more of members to stop paying dues. Because many unions organize both government and private sector workers, the loss of funding will impact many unions’ ability to organize and represent non-government workers as well. For the capitalists behind these legal cases, that is precisely the point: to weaken the unions by removing their funding. Unions are scrambling to renew members’ loyalty, but many public sector unions have not done significant organizing in decades. Instead, they often relied on lobbying and donations to the Democratic Party to slow the rate of concessions they were ultimately forced to agree to.
Despite the legal risks, the West Virginia workers rejected an initial deal brokered on February 28 by the state’s Republican governor and the leaders of the state teachers’ unions that was in line with this paradigm of slow, managed decline. The proposal would have increased raises, but would have done nothing to address the rising health insurance costs that eat up a larger and larger portion of workers’ wages each year. After the negotiations, both the governor and the union leaders announced the strike had ended; the problem was no one consulted the teachers. Convinced that promises to fix their health insurance costs down the line were empty, the teachers and school workers refused to return to the job.
On Monday, as many as 4,000 people occupied the state capitol and many others picketed across the state to demand a permanent fix to their health insurance before they would return to work. Another remarkable facet of the strike is the cross-industry solidarity: one of the teachers’ key demands is a raise and a health insurance fix not only for themselves, but for every public employee in the state, on equal terms.
West Virginia is a poor state with a complicated political history. It split from its larger neighbor, Virginia, during the American Civil War, when regional leaders refused to join the slavery-supporting Confederacy. Dominated by the coal and later natural gas industries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, some of the largest and most violent labor uprisings in the country took place in the state, including the infamous Battle of Blair Mountain. As Jay O’Neal, a West Virginia teacher and strike leader told Democracy Now, “almost every West Virginian knows somebody who’s been on strike—parents, grandparents, friends, aunts, uncles.” But West Virginia is not immune to the forces of white populist reaction that have swept through many parts of the country in recent decades. Historically a home for conservative, even segregationist, Democrats, it went for Trump in 2016 with 68% of the vote–after Bernie Sanders narrowly defeated Clinton in the Democratic primary.
Perhaps nowhere else in the country are the contradictions facing the downwardly-mobile white working class drawn as starkly as they are in West Virginia. As O’Neal told the socialist magazine Jacobin in a separate interview, “People like to dismiss West Virginia as Trumpland. But that’s a simplification. A lot of people here didn’t vote for Trump. And you also have a lot of people who voted for him, but who are involved in the strike.”
Like elsewhere in the country, the liberal managerial order embodied by Clinton and the conflict-averse heads of the public sector unions is suffocating. To one side, forces of capitalist reaction have taken the gloves off, no longer even paying lip service to workers’ dignity or welfare. To the other, a small but energetic left populism: a growing socialist consciousness exemplified by Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Socialists of America, and a broader class consciousness demonstrated most prominently by workers across an entire industry, in an entire state, to win key class demands from a reactionary government.
Tuesday afternoon, the West Virginia government passed a bill that gave all state employees a five percent raise and a freeze on health insurance costs. Teachers sang jubilantly in the capitol building. The strike brought them not only material gains, but has forced the right wing in the state to retreat on a series of neoliberal education bills. Schools across the state reopened Wednesday as teachers and other school employees returned to work.
Already, the strike wave may be spreading. 1,400 telecom workers in West Virginia, represented by the militant Communications Workers of America, went on strike on March 3. Teachers in Oklahoma, another rural state 1,800 kilometers southwest of West Virginia, have set an April 2 strike deadline in their negotiations with the state government. Like West Virginia, it is illegal for Oklahoma government workers to strike. Graduate student instructors at the University of Illinois, a public college serving 32,000 undergraduates, have been on strike for ten work days. As of this writing, educators in Jersey City, a working class suburb of 260,000 people just outside New York City, were preparing for a possible walk out as well.
The Supreme Court, one of the least democratic institutions in American society, is poised to cut the legal and financial basis from a large swath of the American labor movement. In the short term, the results will be catastrophic. But American capital could be about to experience the curse of getting what it wants. If the recent teacher organizing is any indication, we may be in for a period of growing worker militancy. As legal protections for unions and workers are stripped away, the task for American socialists is to seize the moment of chaos and demonstrate to workers what the West Virginia teachers showed so well: that real protections and real advances have to be made the old fashioned way: through organizing, class struggle, and solidarity.