Do-It-Yourself Class Struggle

One lesson from the West Virginia teachers’ strike is clear: nobody is coming to save us. We’ll have to do it ourselves.

West Virginia teachers, students, and supporters hold signs on Friday on a Morgantown, WV street as they continue their strike. Spencer Platt / Getty

Earlier this week, the Supreme Court began hearing oral argument in Janus v. AFSCME, a lawsuit that seeks to gut public sector unions by denying them so called “agency fees,” or mandatory dues contributions from workers. One component of the deliberations was the question of “labor peace” — the state’s interest in stable, predictable labor-management arbitration. Justice Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor, and others questioned whether undoing agency fees would open the door to a more tumultuous and unpredictable labor-relations regime. The argument on the union side was an interesting one — in the words of Illinois’s solicitor general Lisa Madigan, “[w]hen unions are deprived of agency fees, they tend to become more militant, more confrontational, they go out in search of short-term gains that they can bring back to their members and say, ‘stick with us.’”

As though to prove the point, 200 miles away, across the border in West Virginia, the state’s teachers had voted to extend an ongoing illegal strike against a Republican legislature that had threatened to drastically increase the insurance premiums for workers whose pay already ranks among the lowest in the country. West Virginia is a “right to work” state, meaning workers are denied the right to collectively bargain or the stability of the “closed shop,” in which workers automatically contribute dues to the union whether they sign up or not. Such automatic collection prevents workers from “free riding” — that is, benefiting from union activity without contributing equally to the organization’s finances — while also providing a reliable stream of income to fund the activities of the union apparatus.

Militant Minorities

Meanwhile, in scenes reminiscent of the 2011 Wisconsin struggle against anti-union legislation, West Virginia teachers took over the statehouse, leading a raucous protest of public sector workers against a draconian, austerity-minded Republican legislature — a stark reminder that for the American working class, the economic crisis of 2008 never ended.

Teachers are poised to lead such social movements by virtue of their work as caregivers in schools, which ties them intimately to wider layers of the working class. As public employees, their demands are inherently political insofar as they must be addressed to the state. For this reason they have been repeatedly thrust to the frontlines of movements against austerity — Wisconsin in 2011, Chicago in 2013, and now in West Virginia. The right wing understands this — indeed it is part of their argument that such organizations “mandate” their members’ “political speech,” a key contention of anti-union lawsuits like Janus. By kneecapping teachers’ unions, they strike a blow against one of the last remaining bastions of working-class economic power.

There is something very much of the moment about the movement in West Virginia, the locus of so much liberal hand-wringing from the Democratic establishment, for whom the “white working class” ranks with Russia as the key culprit and explanation of Donald Trump’s catastrophic election. Nervous and confused, they wring their hands about whether to “reach out to” workers whom they imagine to be in thrall to racism and besotted with false consciousness. Besides deflecting blame from Hillary Clinton and her fealty to Wall Street, there are the echoes of a guilty conscience in some of these jeremiads, the Democrats having long abandoned the state’s workers to the coal and natural gas industries.

What the West Virginia movement shows — with teachers packing lunches for their students so they wouldn’t go hungry while they walked the picket line; with picket signs blazoned with images of Harriet Tubman, John Brown, and Martin Luther King, Jr — is that American workers bear no resemblance to their one-dimensional, Hillbilly Elegy-type portrayals. Workers have no stake in such a debate, based as it is on a flat, stereotyped image of working-class life. These discussions imagine us as passive dupes to be pandered to, rather than as agents of our own destiny, capable of struggling in our own self-interest. West Virginia is a bracing challenge to this narrative.

The Janus case before the Supreme Court essentially seeks to undo the postwar system of labor relations that did so much to stabilize the labor movement and improve the living standards of the American working class. After the explosive struggles that built the CIO in the 1930s and the general strikes that followed the Second World War, there was an urgent need for capital to domesticate the nation’s tumultuous labor relations and steer it into predictable channels.  Institutionalized collective bargaining and wage gains traded for productivity increases were the price to be paid for labor peace in an expanding economy. So-called “agency fees,” or automatic dues deductions collected from paychecks ensured a steady income stream for union officialdom, and shop-floor struggles over working conditions were redirected into a bureaucratic grievance procedure that empowered the union bureaucracy and demobilized workers. The repressive corollary of these incentives were labor laws like the Taft-Hartley Act, which placed limits on strike activity, and the paranoid savagery of McCarthyism which drove the Left out of the labor movement. Without this “militant minority” of workers, the official union apparatus — reformist in outlook and closely tied to the Democratic Party — was left to preside over a much more docile labor force than that of the preceding period.

Organic Leaders

It is this stable ecosystem of labor-management relations that Janus seeks to undo. The labor movement has been full of gloomy prognostications about labor’s demise in the wake of this decision, and to be sure, the fact that conservatives are now able to undo the once mighty public sector unions is a sign of how far we have fallen.

Without the ability to collect dues automatically, many unions will be forced to downsize their often bloated bureaucracies and cut back on the extravagant salaries of union leaders who bind them to the electoral priorities of the Democratic Party. There is substantial evidence that the anti-union “Act 10” legislation in Wisconsin, along with repressive voter ID laws and other forms of disenfranchisement, were critical in Donald Trump’s victory in a traditional bastion of union power. The birthplace of public sector unionism has now seen a permanent downgrading of its standard of living, with Pew describing it as the fastest-shrinking middle class in the country.

By gutting the institutions of the union movement, the Right hopes to achieve a permanent reduction in American workers’ standard of living while also gutting the electoral infrastructure of the Democratic Party. But the dangerous obverse of this is that they’re removing the brakes on much more explosive forms of worker activity.

In fact, many workers in Wisconsin have argued that it was the intervention of union officials into the militant upsurge of 2011 that demobilized the occupation of the capitol building and redirected workers’ energies into an unsuccessful electoral bid to oust Governor Scott Walker. The calls for a general strike that echoed through the rotunda represent the road not taken: had workers relied on their own power rather than deferring to elected officials and union leaders, things may have turned out differently.

What explains the different trajectories of the two struggles? Many workers in West Virginia point to the state’s history of explosive strikes, and indeed these traditions, passed down through families, constitute one key factor. But Wisconsin also has a history of militant labor struggle. Ironically, it may be the very weakness of labor unions in the greater South that left the field open for workers’ own activity; unlike the stable institutional labor relations that prevailed in Midwestern states, the union apparatus in West Virginia was largely hollowed out. While workers didn’t have the benefit of an active union involved in their day-to-day working lives, they also didn’t have ingrained habits of deference to union officials. As Jay O’Neal, a strike activist at Stonewall Jackson Middle School in Charleston, described to me: “Because there’s been such a surge of activism so quickly and many new, organic leaders have emerged, I think a lot of them don’t really have any relationship with the union leadership. I was in a meeting today and the head of one our state’s teachers’ unions came in and I heard someone next to me ask, ‘Who’s that?’ Leaders have emerged from below and are really doing the work.”

Teachers looking with trepidation at Janus have much to learn from our colleagues in West Virginia. They didn’t passively wait for “the union” to act on their behalf; the strike was not called from above, it was built from below, in part through social media, where workers were able to organize escalating actions independent of the union leadership. As one striker told me, “Leadership was largely based on communities and not always directly tied to the unions themselves. Communities looked to local leadership as to what to do, how to organize, when to hold votes, and when to hold impromptu walkouts.” Workers need strong unions, but they also need to organize independently in the workplace and learn to rely on their own power. Building durable rank-and-file networks and union caucuses is a crucial next step in revitalizing American labor.

The strike also shows that there’s no need to settle for less; union leaders are positioned as brokers between management and labor, and this position means their instincts are geared towards compromise. In West Virginia, when leaders returned to the picket line to announce a 5 percent wage increase but without a permanent fix to the public employees’ insurance system, it seemed enough for them to declare victory and send the teachers back to work. But workers understood that spiraling health care costs were the heart of the matter and that the wage hike wouldn’t be enough to cover them, so they kept the strike going. We know our interests better than our representatives do, and need to understand that the union officials work for us, not the other way around. In the words of one striker, a strike is not simply to earn more benefits from the state, but to force the state to negotiate with labor on labor’s terms.

Lastly, teachers cannot merely fight for their own, narrow interests. To earn the kind of public support necessary for such a large-scale struggle, they have to fight to improve the conditions of the working class as a whole. It is too easy to isolate workers who define their interests narrowly. After the teachers changed the name of their Facebook group from “WV Public Teachers UNITED” to “WV Public Employees UNITED,” its membership skyrocketed from 3,000 to 20,000, an example of the wide appeal of broad, class-wide demands. By making the fight about public employees as a whole, they were able to turn what would otherwise have been a narrow sectoral struggle into a popular insurgency of the working class against the rich.

Seizing the Initiative

West Virginia bears lessons for America’s burgeoning young left as well. Long isolated from the working class, socialists now have the greatest opportunity in a generation to close this historic rift. With the stabilizing institutions of the union movement being dismantled, we are likely headed for a period of renewed volatility in the labor movement; in fact, one has arguably already begun. A socialist movement previously confined to student milieus or eccentric corners of the internet can no longer be satisfied with passively studying labor history or showing up to support strikes organized by others. There is a world of difference between being merely interested in the labor movement and being implanted in it.

While it’s not possible to predict where such explosive struggles will break out, it is possible to understand how key sectors of the workforce like teachers are positioned to play a leading role. In the post-Janus world, the Left will have to seize the initiative rather than ceding the field to liberal labor leaders. We will have to learn the key lesson of West Virginia: nobody is coming to save us, and great leaps in organization and consciousness don’t appear like acts of nature. We have to create them ourselves.