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 THE LESSON FROM WEST VIRGINIA TEACHERS? IF YOU WANT TO WIN, GO ON
STRIKE   [https://portside.org/node/16698] 

 

 Miles Kampf-Lassin 
 March 6, 2018
Working In These Times
[http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/20965/west_virginia_teachers_strike_victory_raise_oklahoma]


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 _ After the nine-day strike, West Virginia teachers won a 5 percent
pay increase. _ 

 Spencer Platt/Getty Images , 

 

For many years now, observers have been ringing the death knell for
the U.S. labor movement. West Virginia teachers haven’t just pumped
life back into that movement—they’ve reaffirmed the fundamental
principle that the key to building power and winning is for workers to
withhold their labor.

On Tuesday, Republican Gov. Jim Justice signed a bill passed by the
state legislature that will provide a 5 percent raise for teachers and
school personnel. The deal reportedly also includes a 5 percent raise
for all state employees, though that will have to be finalized through
an upcoming budget bill. The state has also agreed to set up a task
force to address the increasing costs in teachers’ healthcare
plans—a key issue for striking teachers. 

While the details on how the pay hike would be funded were not
immediately clear, what is certain is that the prolonged strike has
forced the state’s hand—and teachers have won major concessions
that will directly improve the lives of workers across the West
Virginia. 

A REMARKABLE STRIKE

The strike in West Virginia has been astonishing from the outset.
Since Feb. 22, more than 20,000 teachers in all 55 counties took part
in what became the longest
[https://twitter.com/NewsroomJake/status/970821660919189506]statewide
strike in West Virginia’s history. The mass action was led not by
union leadership but by rank-and-file members who refused
[http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/20955/west_virginia_teachers_strike_wildcat] to
accept a compromise proposal last week and continued to rally at the
capitol in Charleston, demanding an increase in pay and healthcare
protections. They were joined by other public-sector workers standing
in solidarity with striking teachers. And teachers benefitted from
goodwill and support
[https://www.apnews.com/50bbbb160df44549a3d331ebb4f10c33/West-Virginia-leaders-reach-deal-to-end-teachers-strike] from
the public, which helped make their protest all the more effective.

All of this has taken place in a state that does not officially
recognize collective bargaining or the right to strike. Teachers in
West Virginia have proven that even under hostile conditions for
labor, winning is possible when workers are willing to take risks and
stage dramatic and militant actions. This is a lesson that will become
all the more important following the Supreme Court's decision
in _Janus v. AFSCME_, a case that could defund public-sector unions
across the country. 

The strike sent political shockwaves throughout West Virginia, halting
other business at the capitol and catapulting the struggle for labor
rights into the public eye. Workers draped in red—a callback to the
state’s history of mineworker activism—stood on picket lines and
held mass rallies across the largely rural state for nine days. The
potential effects of the strike on other workers around the country
are already beginning to come into focus.

STARTING TO SPREAD?

Just days after the West Virginia strike began, teachers across the
state of Oklahoma announced
[http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-oklahoma-teachers-20180306-story.html] their
intention to walk off the job in order to win higher pay. As is the
case in West Virginia, Oklahoma teachers are among the lowest paid in
the nation and are similarly prohibited
[http://oklahomawatch.org/2018/02/19/is-a-teachers-strike-imminent/] from
striking by state law. Yet following West Virginia’s lead, 41,000
Oklahoma teachers could be on the picket lines within weeks
[http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-oklahoma-teachers-20180306-story.html],
and some teachers are already contemplating
[https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-03-06/could-west-virginia-s-wildcat-teachers-strike-spread] a
wildcat strike without the official consent of union leadership.
Alicia Priest, president of the Oklahoma Education Association, tells
[https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-03-06/could-west-virginia-s-wildcat-teachers-strike-spread]_Bloomberg_’s
Josh Eidelson that while some teachers may have previously been
reticent to engage in a walk-out, the West Virginia strike “has
given them an emboldened sense of purpose and a sense of power.”

On Feb. 26, graduate students at the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign launched
[http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/20960/illinois_grad_students_strike_uiuc_working_class_west_virginia] an
ongoing strike to protect tuition waivers and make the university
accessible to low-income students. On that same day, teachers in
Jersey City, N.J. voted
[http://www.nj.com/hudson/index.ssf/2018/02/jersey_city_teachers_take_step_toward_first_strike.html] to
authorize a strike over increasing healthcare costs.

And the militancy is not limited to educators: On March 4, 1,400
Frontier Communications workers in West Virginia and Virginia walked
off the job
[https://www.cwa-union.org/news/releases/frontier-communications-workers-in-west-virginia-and-virginia-on-strike-save-good-jobs] to
demand a fair contract including increased job security.

LABOR’S ONSLAUGHT

The spirit of defiance and disruption fueling these worker-led actions
is a welcome development for a U.S. labor movement that is
increasingly under attack. In addition to the threat of an unfavorable
ruling in _Janus_, the Trump administration’s labor department has
been hard at work rolling back workers’ rights, including allowing
[http://www.newsweek.com/trump-department-labor-tipping-wage-theft-799683]bosses
to pocket their workers’ tips, opening the door
[https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-01-10/unpaid-internships-are-back-with-the-labor-department-s-blessing] to
the spread of unpaid internships, making it easier
[http://www.epi.org/perkins/trump-administration-stays-ee0-1-pay-data-rule/] for
employers to pay women and minority workers less, and refusing
[https://www.bloomberglaw.com/public/desktop/document/State_of_Nevada_et_al_v_LABR_et_al_Docket_No_1641606_5th_Cir_Dec_/13?1504629329] to
defend an Obama-era rule that would have provided overtime
protections.

Meanwhile, the National Labor Relations Board, now stacked with Trump
appointees, has repealed a slew of rulings that had previously buoyed
union organizing. As Mark Joseph Stern reported
[http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/jurisprudence/2017/12/donald_trump_s_union_busting_appointees_just_incinerated_obama_s_labor_legacy.html] for _Slate_,
“Taken together, this spate of decisions will hinder millions of
employees’ abilities to unionize and bargain collectively.”

This onslaught comes on top of state-level efforts to curtail the
power of labor unions. Twenty-eight states already have “right to
work” laws on the books, and the _Janus_case could, in
effect, spread
[https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/janus-unions-supreme-court-case_us_5a873b4de4b00bc49f43decd] these
laws to the public sector in the remaining 22. These laws, allowing
union members to “opt out” of paying dues, have been shown to
weaken the power of labor unions while undermining their ability to
protect and bargain for their members. They also lead to lower
wages: Research
[http://www.epi.org/blog/so-called-right-to-work-laws-will-lower-wages-for-union-and-nonunion-workers-in-missouri/] from
the Economic Policy Institute shows that wages are 3.1 percent lower
in “right to work” states for both union and non-union workers
alike.

The push by many states to privatize public services and starve public
budgets of funding through austerity measures has put public-sector
workers at greater risk of seeing their jobs disappear—and left them
fighting over scraps when it comes to pay and benefits.

WALK OFF TO WIN

The teachers’ strike in West Virginia is a prime example of how
workers can organize and win in the midst of such an anti-labor
climate. Rather than agreeing to accept a meager 2 percent pay
increase previously signed by the governor, teachers channeled their
anger and frustration into collective action. By banding together and
refusing to work, the teachers exerted monumental pressure on the
state government and won a pay increase more than double what had been
on offer a mere two weeks before.

This is the kind of victory that proves why strikes work. Teachers and
all workers who are considering walking off the job to win demands can
look to West Virginia and say, “it worked for them, so why not for
us?” 

Winning a 5 percent pay raise is already a triumph, but if West
Virginia teachers help spark more militant worker action across the
country, the impact of their victory could be transformative—and
just what an imperiled labor movement needs.  

_MILES KAMPF-LASSIN, a graduate of New York University's Gallatin
School in Deliberative Democracy and Globalization, is the Community
Editor at In These Times. He is a Chicago based writer.
[log in to unmask] @MilesKLassin_

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