The stunning victory of the West Virginia teachers and other school workers in their 9-day strike in February and March has triggered a wave of similar strikes, mass protests and plans for action in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona and beyond. After decades of virtually unchallenged austerity attacks by ruling-class capitalists and their hired politicians, the teachers’ strikes are pointing toward the sort of nationwide resistance that the entire working class needs. And with the Trump tax cuts for the rich rammed through Congress at the end of last year setting the stage for escalating attacks, a massive working-class fightback is necessary.
The WV strikers not only won a 5 percent raise for themselves and all state workers – even more importantly, they dealt a defeat to the reactionary Republican legislators and the Democrat-turned-Republican governor who had been planning further cuts to state public services. Unlike many union “victories,” where bureaucratic leaders trumpet small gains but yield more givebacks, this time the strikers pushed past an inadequate deal agreed to by their union officials and stayed out long enough to win their main demands. In doing so they exposed the fake pro-worker (that is, pro-white worker) pretensions of Trump and his allies.
The strikers also called for full funding of state workers’ health coverage through the Public Employees Insurance Association (PEIA). PEIA had been starved of cash for years, and workers were facing skyrocketing costs and reduced coverage. The strike settlement froze those costs temporarily; and further action was delegated to a “task force.” The strikers had also raised the demand for taxes on the state’s natural gas industry to provide funds for PEIA and while that was not won, the strikers succeeded in spreading the idea among working-class people who responded positively, setting the stage for future struggles.
A remarkable feature of the strike was the broad working-class solidarity it inspired. West Virginia teachers are notoriously underpaid along with the rest of public sector workers. Rather than just look out for themselves, the striking school workers insisted the full wage raise apply to all state workers. That means gains were won by about 200,000 workers (including 20,000 teachers and 10,000 other school workers), over one-tenth of the population of the state. Many of the strikers and their supporters explained that West Virginia’s long history of labor militancy centered on the coal miners in the past century inspired them in their struggle.
The WV strike also refuted sexist stereotypes that women are typically passive and conservative. The strikers were 75% women, and women were prominent in showing militancy and leadership. And when the schools were closed, the strikers worked with churches and local food banks to buy and prepare free meals to replace school lunches. This was particularly important because West Virginia is a poverty-ridden state, especially after the decline of the coal industry. Over two-thirds of its school-children qualify for free or subsidized lunches on school days. No wonder the strikers had the backing of so many parents, students and the public generally!
Kentucky and Oklahoma have seen similar popular responses. In Oklahoma, where teacher pay is also near the bottom among all states, the teachers are calling for major funding increases across the education board, not just for their own wage raises.
The key moment in the strike came on the fourth day, when leaders of the teachers’ unions and Governor Jim Justice announced a deal which fell short of the teachers’ basic demands. Strikers held impromptu meetings in the state capitol to reject the call to end their strike. That was followed by county-by-county votes across the state, and the decision was overwhelming: continue the strike, keep the schools closed. And this should be a reminder of how important it is to fight for every strike to be organized by committees of elected leaders with regular mass meetings that debate and decide on the way forward.
The strike initiative had come from teachers in coal-field counties. The movement then drew support from the state’s teachers unions, the AFT-WV and the WV Education Association. In every one of the state’s 55 counties, teachers and school personnel voted to strike. The unions did not formally endorse the strike, which was nominally illegal – although unlike with the anti-strike Taylor Law in New York, for example, there are no specific penalties for striking in West Virginia. The strike was organized and continued by teachers through mass meetings, local unions and social media channels.
Conditions are similar in other “right-to-work” states, where unions have few rights. Union members and leaders have played key roles, but non-member teachers have also organized on social media to hone demands, organize actions and mobilize their colleagues. West Virginia’s strikers’ insistence on holding out and then winning substantial gains has clearly inspired teachers in other states to rise up to overturn their governments’ long-lasting starvation of public education and other services.
A contingent including transit-worker supporters of the Revolutionary Transit Worker newsletter from New York drove to Morgantown and Charleston WV to solidarize with the strike. Train Operator Seth Rosenberg recounted: “it was impressive to see strike support signs at groceries and restaurants all along the route, plus many people wearing red bandanas, the strikers’ symbol. One supermarket worker who saw our TWU union shirts and assumed we were strikers came over to thank us. A teacher told us that her uncle was an old coal miner, a veteran of the militant mine battles of the past. He had warned her when the first proposed deal emerged, ‘Don't go back – once you go back, you lose.’”
The struggle goes on. The health care task force will be appointed by the governor, but each of the unions in the strike will have a seat. Public hearings have to be held in each county, and the task force has to report back by the end of the year. Gov. Justice is of course not to be trusted. He is a billionaire mine owner who won re-election as a Democrat and then switched back to join the Republicans. He tried to sneak one past the strikers during the strike, enlisting the aid of union officials, and will undoubtedly try again. Republican legislators have already suggested getting funds by slashing the state’s Medicaid and other social programs, obviously a ploy to try divide the working class. To stop these schemes, another walkout that solicits the support of other workers and the poor dependent on such social services may be necessary.
Few politicians have signed onto the strikers’ tax plan to fund PEIA. One who has is State Senator Richard Ojeda, who has polished his reputation as a “blue-collar Democrat” by backing the strike and joining the pickets. He has proposed a tax bill aimed against the natural gas industry to fill the funding holes. But he has been no consistent ally of the working class. He voted for Trump in 2016, claiming he thought Trump would help his constituents, and now regrets it. Trump’s phony campaign promises to bring back the coal industry may have fooled some desperately poor people, but Ojeda has no excuse for having supported the outrageously racist and sexist Republican. That was a crime that shows Ojeda should never be trusted.
The state’s foremost Democrat is U.S. Senator Joe Manchin, one of the few senators who voted to confirm most of Trump’s corrupt and reactionary cabinet appointees. That figures: Manchin was governor from 2005 to 2010, when he slashed corporate taxes and undermined funding for all state programs. It is not surprising, in a state dominated by the coal and gas industries, that politicians from both capitalist parties would serve the interests of these capitalists.
The working class cannot avoid electoral politics, even though workers’ power is strongest when exercised in the form of mass organization and actions like strikes that halt business as usual. The Republican and Democratic Parties are tied ideologically and financially to the capitalists and their interests, which are inevitably opposed to those of the vast majority of working people. As we see around the country, Democrats often look better than the GOP when it comes to working-class interests – when Republicans are in office. When the Democrats have power, their attacks on social services are sometimes less harsh, but we many working-class already have learned that the Democrats are incapable of reversing the long history of structural attacks on working people aimed at boosting profits.
The working class needs its own party independent of the capitalists and their politicians – and dedicated to replacing pro-capitalist governments by governments of, by and for our class pointing the way to a socialist society that serves all the people.
The depth of class struggle that could bring about such a party has not been seen in the U.S. for decades. Still, West Virginia shows that the mood in the country is shifting. Last summer, mass protests confronted neo-Nazi and white-supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Boston and elsewhere, and won the support of millions. Right now, young students in Florida and all over are forcing politicians to listen to their demands for a solution to school massacres. (See LRP statement ‘Solidarity with the Student Protests Against the NRA and Republican Merchants of Death!’)
The West Virginia strike confronted not just the local politicians but a capitalist system in decay. Business tax cuts have starved hospitals and education as well as kept wages down. Health care costs are skyrocketing while benefits stagnate. Nationwide, inequality between the capitalist billionaires and ordinary working people is at record highs.
We hope that as more struggles like this one rise, workers and young people who see the need for united mass action will begin to work together more broadly to advance the movement to defend our democratic rights, jobs and living standards. We all have to defend what has been gained under the capitalist system from further attacks by the capitalist bosses and their politicians. But the capitalist system itself must be replaced. We need a genuinely different society, a caring one that offers good jobs, good wages, good health care, good education, good public services to all people. We believe the experience of united struggles will see more and more becoming convinced of the need for the working class to seize power from the capitalists in order to start to build a new socialist world of freedom and abundance for all.