The following article gives background to the current teachers’ strike in West Virginia, where under immense threat of attacks from the government, teachers have launched a strike that is technically illegal, across the entire state.
Talk of a statewide strike by West Virginia teachers has been simmering for weeks. After several one day walk-outs by teachers to attend rallies and lobby state legislators in the state capital of Charleston, strike balloting in 53 of West Virginia’s 55 counties has returned greater than 70% approval for the teachers’ unions to call a strike that will begin on Thursday, February 22, 2018.
It’s in many ways a repeat of the illegal 1990 West Virginia teachers’ strike:
“West Virginia last had a widespread teacher strike in 1990. The walkout lasted 11 days and shut down schools in 47 of the state’s 55 counties. It ended on March 17th when Governor Gaston Caperton, legislative leaders and union representatives announced a settlement.
It’s worth noting that the 1990 strike was illegal. Then-Attorney General Roger Tompkins, in an opinion delivered to then-State School Superintendent Hank Marockie, said that “There is no right to strike against the state. Thus, any strike or concerted work stoppage by public teachers of this state is illegal.”
Tompkins opinion was based on a series of previous rulings by the Attorney General’s Office, as well as court decisions. He cited a 1970 federal court decision supporting Governor Arch Moore’s decision to fire striking State Road Commission employees.
The court ruled that “to permit a strike by public employees at any level is inconsistent with the orderly process and sovereignty of government.””
Due to the peculiarities of the material situation of West Virginia teachers and public employees generally, they simply can’t be PATCO’d. Public employees in West Virginia are among the lowest paid in terms of their total wage (money wages plus deferred compensation) in the United States. Most, if not all, public workplaces suffer chronic staffing shortages due to a permanent ‘brain drain’ in the state. Due to this situation, the state simply can’t afford to fire the teachers since it already can’t fill a huge number of teacher vacancies as it is. And the teachers know it, just as they knew it back in 1990. The leader of the West Virginia Education Association commented last week that:
“Let’s say you fire 15,000 people… how are you going to replace them? That’s not really an issue in making the decision we are going to make.”
Unlike most US states, West Virginia does not have a formal public employee collective bargaining system. Public employees have very few trade unions rights of any kind, and trade unions that represent public workers do so on an ad-hoc and informal basis.
“West Virginia teachers have that knowledge and that confidence: they’ve called an illegal strike without the protection of formal union representation. As in Wisconsin, the teachers in West Virginia are the tip of the spear among the public workforce.”
The issues at stake in the incipient statewide strike that will begin Thursday of this week involves wage increases and the perennial attack on public employee healthcare. The Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) has been subject to steep cuts for a decade or more. Now, any raises granted to the teachers and other public employees will be swallowed by planned increases to the workers’ health care contributions and deterioration of their meager coverage.
But, this is not about the teachers in particular. All West Virginia public employees are affected by the same low wages, the same deteriorating health care, the same speed-ups due to staffing shortages and other concrete interests and needs. There is an obvious and compelling identity of interest that does not depend on what specific job a worker does or where in the state they do it.
In many states following the acute crisis of 2007-08, attacks on public employees were met with dramatic resistance on the part of the workers. But in Ohio, Minnesota and above all Wisconsin in 2011, the workers did not have the knowledge and the confidence that if they went on an illegal strike, they would not be fired and replaced. West Virginia teachers have that knowledge and that confidence: they’ve called an illegal strike without the protection of formal union representation. As in Wisconsin, the teachers in West Virginia are the tip of the spear among the public workforce.
School service employees are being called out in support of the teachers. The question now is how to broaden the strike to other state workers: highway workers, clerical workers, hospital workers, etc. Given the prevailing political conditions in the state, all of West Virginia’s state, county and municipal workers must merge their demands related to PEIA and wage increases and staffing with that of the teachers and join them on the picket lines for any chance at victory.
“It’s necessary for public workers to move beyond the trade unionist politics of the contemporary AFL-CIO in which labor is merely a partner in the Democratic Party and organize independently on a class basis to make and win such demands.”
The bigger questions raised by this strike include how to include private sector workers in the struggle and how it raises the tangible need for a workers’ political party. Strikes and other forms of struggle by public workers are inherently and immediately political. The events in West Virginia outline a path for the general (political) demands of the workers involved: an unabridged right to strike; full trade union rights; no backward step in compensation or benefits — for all public workers. It’s necessary for public workers to move beyond the trade unionist politics of the contemporary AFL-CIO in which labor is merely a partner in the Democratic Party and organize independently on a class basis to make and win such demands.
Private sector worker engagement with the strike must be actively sought and cultivated. The town/country divide, poor economic conditions, demographics and inertia has largely kept West Virginia workers out of the national Fight For 15 and minimum wage movements. It is necessary for the teachers and other public workers on strike to engage with private sector workers as a facet of their struggle: they have to make the case that the inconvenience of organizing childcare for the duration of the strike is important and for good reason.
This is also an opportunity to create the durable links within the class for a tangible solidarity. General class demands related to the defeat of “right-to-work,” for a $15 minimum wage, for trade union rights, defeat of the recently enacted ‘voter ID’ law, against the use of the anti-immigrant ‘E-Verify’ system to gain public employment and others remain possible only in the course of the class struggle and through independent political organization.