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Mar 8, 18

Not All Strikes Are Created Equal

What follows is a critical look at the outcome of the West Virginia teachers’ strike and the current unfolding Frontier strike in West Virginia and Virginia.

West Virginia teachers and school service personnel have returned to work. I wasn’t sure if they would accept the settlement and return to the schools today, but I saw the buses on the road on the way to work. The state capital in Charleston was full of energy last night as the masses of workers inside the capital complex cheered the signing of a 5% raise for all state employees and more details about the PEIA “Task Force” were divulged by our coal operator Governor.

“Not surprisingly, the reactionaries used this opportunity to end the school strike by robbing Peter to pay Paul, from one group of poor workers to another group of poor workers.”

Elsewhere yesterday, in Flatwoods, West Virginia, a scab pulled a gun on a Frontier striker. I didn’t see any police at any teachers’ and school workers’ pickets, but they’re definitely there outside Frontier performing their primary function: protecting private property. Whatever the scab would-be gunman did, it was bad enough for the cops to arrest him (and not the striker) – which means it must have been worse than the union’s statement makes it sound.

Most people don’t want to stand out in the cold and the rain to walk a picket line, let alone risk getting arrested, beaten up or shot. The capitalists play by different rules when it comes to private property, their private property.

There are those who see in the West Virginia public school strike an echo of the Chicago Teachers Strike and the promise of a future for both organized labor and the ‘unorganized’ working-class. In very specific ways, there’s truth in that. Generalizing demands (public school workers demanded all state employees get the same raise), impeccable solidarity across jobs, workplaces, geography and social divisions (in this case, age and seniority was a big one), flaunting the law when the law is in your way, etc. are some of those ways.

Some have correctly observed that there was a kind of carnival atmosphere in certain areas of the state during the public school strike and among the workers who flocked to the state capital buildings to protest. Things are different on the picket lines at Frontier. Cops and scabs protected by guns aren’t the makings of a carnival. You can’t export the dynamic of a teachers’ strike to private industry; you can’t judge the class struggle in private industry according to the example of a teachers’ strike.

But we have to confront capital on its explicit terrain – on the terrain of private property. A strong fraction of the working-class in the public sector is not a substitute for a weak working-class in the private sector.

The public school workers’ strike is over in West Virginia. In the end, the final settlement that the workers accepted is much the same as the one they rejected, with the exception that the 5% raise is the same for all public workers (rather than the 5% for teachers and school service workers and 3% for the rest). Governor Justice went ahead with creating a PEIA “Task Force” through executive order. That is as close as the workers ever got to a PEIA fix.

Generally speaking, the West Virginia public sector gives raises in a very specific fashion. I started working as a low-wage (but full-time) public employee right after the crisis of 2007-08, when wages were frozen and the escalating cuts to PEIA began. After the wage freeze that prevailed for years under the Democratic Party administrations of Governor’s Manchin and Tomblin started to show signs of softening, we were granted a token raise of 2%. It did not affect base pay, so newly hired workers would not see this wage increase, and to qualify for it, a worker had to have worked for the state for at least a full year as a regular (non-temporary, non-probationary) employee.

At this early date, my assumption based on past experience is that this 5% raise won through the strike action will be paid out according to the same conditions. This means that the state of West Virginia will remain at the bottom of the ranks regarding teacher (and public employee) pay. Some news outlets have framed this raise as a turning point in making West Virginia more attractive to teachers; even the head of the American Federation of Teachers said as much. But it is extremely unlikely that this will help recruit teachers to fill the 700 vacancies (that will rise to over a thousand in a couple years). New hires most likely aren’t going to see this raise. If the teachers and public school workers demobilize, they aren’t going to see another raise like it in the future.

Where the money came from is another, even bigger, blow to workers in West Virginia. This raise bill was passed unanimously by a reactionary-controlled state legislature because it was paid for by taking money from social services: specifically, Medicaid.

Surprisingly, West Virginia has a relatively robust and well-funded Medicaid program, especially when compared to neighboring states. It’s the state with the largest percentage of residents whose sole or majority income is from Social Security checks. Welfare programs are a literal lifeline here, from food stamps to unemployment benefits to disability benefits to subsidized child healthcare.

Not surprisingly, the reactionaries used this opportunity to end the school strike by robbing Peter to pay Paul, from one group of poor workers to another group of poor workers. The one time 5% wage increase will be forgotten when the cost of living keeps rising and PEIA health coverage and benefit levels decrease; but these cuts to Medicaid won’t be. They’re here to stay now.

Governor Justice’s PEIA “Task Force” is comprised of 27 members, of which only 8 belong to labor. Those 8 include 1 representative from each of the 3 trade unions that represent public school workers, 3 full-time public employees and 2 retired public employees (1 educator, 1 non-educator).

The rest are reserved for politicians (6 Republicans, 4 Democrats and the Governor’s Chief of Staff), a PEIA Finance Board member and 7 insurance industry “experts” (company men).

This PEIA “Task Force” is mandated, “over the course of the year … to study and analyze the current state of the PEIA insurance plan, and come up with ways to control and reduce medical costs and to make the plan more cost efficient.”

That’s another way of saying PEIA will continue on its decade-long course in reducing the quality of coverage, reducing the number and scale of medical services and prescription drugs it covers, raise worker premiums and promote ever-more invasive data collection schemes meant to punish enrolled workers for their bodies and behaviors (otherwise known as “Wellness Programs”).

This is an old game in West Virginia. Many years ago, labor was offered positions on the PEIA board, ostensibly to influence policy and represent enrolled workers’ interests. In reality, they were a cover for the cuts because they were structurally incapable of influencing policy or representing workers’ interests. Now, it has happened again but in a more spectacular way. I’m bad at math, but 8 is less than half of 19. If the 8 labor members of the “Task Force” form a bloc and don’t break ranks, they need to convince at least 6 of the members from the group of politicians and insurance agents to get a majority, while the politicians need only get 4 from among the workers or insurance agents to run the table, or if the politicians split along partisan lines, the Republicans need only get the insurance agents and 1 worker on board.

The only viable option is for the members of the “Task Force” from the workers’ ranks to boycott this sham, just like how that was the only solution for the labor representatives on the PEIA Board years ago. But it won’t happen, just like it didn’t happen the first time.

A victory is only rarely a victory, and a defeat is always a defeat.

This strike did not end in a workers’ victory.

But the Frontier workers are still out. Will masses of supporters from across the country travel once again to West Virginia to support a picket line?

– A former West Virginia public employee


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