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Sparks fly from West Virginia, but will they ignite?

Ben Beckett

In the wake of the historic West Virginia teachers’ strike, educators in the states of Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky have begun mass actions of their own, making similarly ambitious demands of their state governments. Much is uncertain, and the situation in all three states is highly fluid. Furthermore, after West Virginia, the capitalist class in these states is more prepared, showing greater class cohesion and more quickly granting partial concessions in the hopes of curbing strikers momentum.

Of the three states, Oklahoma has seen the most significant labor actions so far, with virtually all public schools in the state closed for ten days due to worker walkouts. After decades of hundreds of millions in education cuts–corresponding to tax cuts for the oil industry–the legislature agreed to almost $500 million in new school funding and a one-time, $6,000 raise for teachers. On Thursday, the state teachers union, the Oklahoma Education Association, called off the walkout. Despite some grassroots worker efforts to prolong the walkout, by Monday, it appeared nearly all schools in the state had reopened.

In Arizona, a state on the Mexican border with a large Spanish-speaking population, teachers have been demonstrating for weeks, though generally not on work time. The grassroots workers’ group Arizona Educators United appears close to calling a walkout, despite the governor’s proposal to increase pay for teachers by up to twenty percent by 2020. The group is concerned that the pay raises would come from cutting money for school improvements, and rejected the idea that other school workers would not get a raise along with teachers. “It’s called Arizona Educators United, not Arizona Teachers United,” Derek Harris, a lead organizer of the group, told the Arizona news site Tucson.com. One of the most significant aspects of the education worker movements across all the states has been the strong solidarity between teachers and school support staff, who generally make even less than teachers.

In Kentucky, there have been intermittent “sick outs” since late March, as teachers protest legislation that would cut their state-funded pensions. (A sick out, usually considered less aggressive than a full walk out, is when workers coordinate to call out sick from work in protest). On Saturday, the state legislature overrode the governor’s earlier veto to increase school funding in the state. However, it was unclear if school worker raises were part of the package, and the pension cuts remain in effect. With the state legislature now out of session, it is unclear what the teachers’ next move will be.

For better or for worse, these scenes preview the American labor movement’s future, at least for workers in the public sector. Union membership in all three state teachers unions is low, with many teachers who have taken part in walkouts not paying dues to the union. The recent mass actions do not seem likely to foster greater support for the unions as institutions. Across all three states, the leaders of the state education unions have been eager to take whatever concessions from the government they can get, claiming victory as soon as possible and urging teachers to return to work. The leadership has also urged the members to “wait until November,”

when they will have a chance to elect ostensibly more labor friendly politicians to office. While these calls may be sincerely based on legal constraints and leadership’s beliefs of where the best interests of the workers lie, they demonstrate that at least in the education sector, workers are willing to take more risks than their leaders.

With a case at the Supreme Court that would allow even more American workers to stop paying dues to their unions, we could see the dynamic spread: unions as weak, hollow entities, and periodic, uneven grassroots worker organization with minimal official union involvement, especially in the planning stages. While many teachers have expressed outrage at their elected officials, many have also commented in the news or posted to social media that they are upset at their unions as well. In many cases, the West Virginia and Oklahoma teachers viewed the union leaders as trying to undercut their struggle as often as support it. However, while the workers’ frustration is understandable, the situation also shows the ways in which ultraleft dogma about the reactionary nature of union leaders is oversimplified, at best. In both states, but especially in Oklahoma, there have not been significant working class uprisings in decades. Both the current workers and the current union leadership are inexperienced with class struggle and mass action. To win a $6,000 raise is not a complete victory, but it is a significant one.

Compared to Oklahoma, another factor in West Virginia’s success was precisely the workers’ relatively higher rate of engagement with the formal union structures than in comparable rural states. As Eric Blanc notes in Jacobin, it is unlikely that the strike in West Virginia could have succeeded without a small but experienced network of radical teachers: “Many of these rank-and-file leaders first coalesced during the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign. Others, particularly in the southern part of the state, like Mingo County, had already been politicized into a multigenerational tradition of militancy going back to the Mine Wars of the early twentieth century.”

These leaders, who typically held elected office in their unions at the school building or school district level, were able both to motivate workers in their own schools and to coordinate across the state. The other states lack these networks, at least to the same degree, leaving teachers to learn how to organize on the fly. At their best, statewide unions could foster and grow such networks–and indeed, if they are going to thrive, they must.

The other critical aspect has been the development of class-wide solidarity, at least on the issue of education. By tying their demands for pay raises to demands for improvements in school conditions for students, the teachers have garnered ideological, material, and organizing support from enormous portions of the working and middle classes. What the United States lacks is a party or organization that can consolidate this newfound cohesion and broaden the solidarity from an issue basis to a full-fledged class basis. While the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have begun to try to unite these same classes around the issue of universal single payer healthcare (Medicare for All), the work of rebuilding a left that can unite workers based on class, rather than issue, has only just begun.

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