The West Virginia Option

West Virginia teachers, school bus drivers, custodians, and lunchroom workers kept schools shut for 13 days as they said no to premium hikes and low pay. Photo: Eric Blanc

West Virginia teachers declared victory with a 5 percent raise and returned to their classrooms today. Their organizing and their 13-day strike not only forced the legislature to raise their rock-bottom pay; it backed off corporate-linked education “reformers” on a host of other issues: charter schools, an anti-seniority bill, preventing payroll deduction of union dues. The teachers unions say they've seen big upticks in membership.

On health insurance, tomorrow the governor will announce the members of a task force charged with figuring out a long-term financial stability plan for the state fund that covers public employees. Activists plan to target members of the task force next.

Even before the strike, the unions had successfully pushed the governor to cancel his plan to drastically increase teachers' premiums and to enroll them in an invasive “wellness” program. Premiums are reportedly now frozen for 16 months.

And strikers won't be losing pay for the days lost, because sympathetic school superintendents closed schools. Lost days will be made up later as are snow days.

Although sour-grapes leaders of the state senate threatened cuts to Medicaid to pay for the public employees' raise (the 5 percent goes to all, not just teachers), Republican Governor Jim Justice said Medicaid will not be touched and that any cuts would have to come from elsewhere in the budget.

The teachers movement is spreading. Today the president of the Oklahoma Education Association posted on Facebook, “Our members are ready to act now. And so, we are accelerating our strategy... we're putting our lawmakers on notice. They must work swiftly to follow the law and pass an education budget by April 1. If that budget doesn't include a meaningful pay raise for teachers and support professionals, and additional funding to restore cuts to Oklahoma classrooms, OEA calls for statewide school closures beginning April 2."

And Arizona teachers are wearing red to school today to protest the state's low pay. Teachers spontaneously organized the #RedForEd effort — which has spurred talks on social media of a possible strike. Their Facebook group has 20,000 members after one week.

Here, Joe Burns, author of Strike Back: Using the Militant Tactics of Labor's Past to Reignite Public Sector Unionism Today, tells how earlier public sector unions used illegal strikes to grow. He suggests more unions look to “the West Virginia option.”

Celebrate the victory and meet West Virginia teachers at the Labor Notes Conference, April 6-8 in Chicago.
—Labor Notes editors

The ongoing teachers’ strike in West Virginia is remarkable in many ways. Thousands of public workers are engaged in a grassroots rebellion, defying restrictions on their right to strike. They’ve forced the state’s Republican governor to grant concessions, carrying on despite an announced deal by union officials. They’ve inspired other workers to think anew about militant action, both in West Virginia and outside the state.

All of this is fitting at a time when anti-union forces are trying to turn back the clock on collective bargaining rights. The modern public employee union movement was born of struggle — the product of a great strike wave in the 1960s and 1970s. The school personnel strike in West Virginia represents a return to those militant days.

Militancy Present and Past

Teacher strikes are unlawful in West Virginia. State law does not provide for collective bargaining, and public employees have no legally recognized right to engage in work stoppages. Yet legality has a way of drifting into the background when workers organize en masse.

During the high point of the 1960s and ’70s public sector strike wave — when millions of government workers were involved in work stoppages — unionists had a slogan: “There is no illegal strike, just an unsuccessful one.” Lawmakers could impose draconian penalties, courts could issue injunctions, and the corporate media could fulminate endlessly. But if the strike was strong, if the cause was just, and if community support was robust, harsh penalties were rarely imposed.

It hadn’t always been that way. As late as the 1950s, public employee unions barely existed. The ones that were around represented just a fraction of the public sector workforce and weren’t recognized by employers as workers’ representative. With minimal leverage, they were left to beg. That began to change in 1960, when New York teachers walked off the job.

Over the next two decades, public workers across the country would follow their example.

Outlawing strikes did little to deter government workers. Work stoppages occurred more frequently in states with bans on collective bargaining and striking. With no orderly process for bargaining, workers had no choice but to illegally strike to get their demands met. Faced with such intransigence, policymakers gave in and began recognizing public sector unions.



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We’re seeing a similar scene in West Virginia: after years of pent-up grievances, teachers felt there was no other option but to strike. They had little to lose and much to gain from flouting state law.

This isn’t to say that workers can always, everywhere, simply ignore the law and dismiss possible legal repercussions. Striking air traffic controllers found out in 1981 that tactics successful in previous years did not work because the ground had shifted beneath their feet.

But the West Virginia strikers seem well-positioned. They enjoy strong public support.

There is no indication that repressive action would make the dispute go away. And finally, and of particular importance: their strike is enormous. Rather than striking one school district or county, teachers decided to shut down schools in all fifty-five counties. Given the sheer number of striking teachers, politicians can’t jail or punish them all, and they can’t run the classrooms without them. An old miners’ slogan went, “You can’t mine coal with bayonets.” The same is true with teaching children.

It’s easy to imagine a different outcome if the strike was launched on a smaller scale. Isolated groups of teachers could have been easily fired and replaced. Confined to a few locations, the political impact would have been minimal — a blip on the radar rather than an event that’s seized the entire state’s attention.

The public sector strikes of the 1960s and ’70s were similarly captivating affairs, leveraging solidarity and mass action to grab headlines for weeks. When sanitation workers struck in Baltimore in 1974, for example, they were soon joined on the picket line by a range of other city employees. As garbage piled up, and all city workers went out on strike, the dispute dominated the news in the city and forced policymakers to respond.

Employers hate solidarity. They work to particularize workplace disputes, to make them problems of individual workers rather than group disputes. In the case of public employees, this takes the form of outlawing collective bargaining or, failing that, forcing workers to bargain in small groups. West Virginia teachers have rejected that restricted framework. In doing so, they have given the most powerful advice they could to the labor movement — “go big or go home.”

By all accounts, the strike is a bottom-up rebellion. It was organized by rank-and-file teachers, with state teachers’ unions scrambling to catch up. This, more than anything, should give labor partisans hope. We have had decades of inaction by national union leadership, thousands of pages of drivel from union pundits, and little in the way of action. If the labor movement is going to revive, it will be from the bottom up.

The early history of public employee unions is again instructive. Entering the 1960s, most public sector unions were conservative, weak, ineffectual, and adamantly opposed to public employee strikes. Most had provisions in their constitutions barring locals from striking, and believed the way to make gains was to appear respectable.

Rank-and-file workers rebelled against this framework. They ignored the national union leadership, court injunctions, and the corporate media. They dismissed union leaders who told them to go back to work. They replaced hidebound leaders, or formed new unions.

Through ambitious action, they made the public sector a bastion of unionism.

The Age of Janus

On February 27, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case Janus v AFSCME, which will likely bring “right to work” to public workplaces across the country. Janus is not really about union dues or even about exclusive representation. It is part of a concerted attack on public employee unionism that seeks to roll back the gains achieved over half a century ago. It is part of a deeper, historic attack on the very idea that workers should be able to band together to fight corporate power.

In the Janus framework, public employees (and all employees) should deal with employers as individuals. Unions — where they are allowed to exist — are merely collections of individuals instead of instruments of the working class.

Rather than accept that defeatist framework, labor must re-embrace solidarity and militancy, and look to rank-and-file action to propel it out of its moribund state. Call it the West Virginia option.

Joe Burns is a veteran union negotiator and labor lawyer and the author of Strike Back and Reviving the Strike. This article was reposted from Jacobin magazine.

For advice on how to prepare your union for a strike and win community support, check out How to Jump-Start Your Union: Lessons from the Chicago Teachers, available for $15 from Labor Notes.