Wave of Strikes in Education in the United States Workers Must Fight on Class Terrain to win their Struggle!
(«Proletarian»; Nr. 15; Winter 2018)
Since the beginning of 2018, the United States has been affected by massive strikes by education workers. The trigger was the struggle in West Virginia.
From late February to mid-March, 20,000 teachers and more than 10,000 school bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other support staff went on massive strikes for higher salaries and better coverage for medical expenses. This strike was partly successful: workers gained 5% more for themselves but also for all public sector workers. This victory is partial because nothing has been achieved for health care; however, increases in medical care costs, only temporarily «frozen» for 17 months, risk effectively cancelling the salary increase.
DESPITE THIS, THIS STRIKE IS EXEMPLARY BECAUSE IT WAS CONDUCTED, IN PART, ON CLASS TERRAIN
The workers fought over their own demands – wage increases and cheaper access to health care – and not over the prospect of reforming the education system to make it more «democratic» or «emancipatory». The salary issue is essential: many earn a real salary of less than $15 an hour, the families of some teachers must access the government’s food stamp program, and many teachers are forced to hold two jobs... The plight of non-teaching staff is just as dramatic.
They fought with a class weapon: the strike without prior limitation of duration. The workers have stopped work for nine days without exhausting themselves in the strategy of flurries of pre-announced or one-day rotating disengagements which – by their punctual nature – do not attack the employer but only beg to be «listened to». The strategy of «days of action» or one-day preannounced work stoppages favored by collaborationist forces, serves only to weaken the struggle and exhaust the strikers.
In contrast, in Virginia, for nine days, all public schools (757 in total) in the state’s 55 counties were closed. This total strike period was conducted when all the union apparatus’ wanted was to call for a rotating strike and then a two-day limited strike.
The struggle was conducted in unity. The fight brought together workers affiliated with unions representing different categories of employees: the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA), the West Virginia Teachers’ Federation (AFT-WV) and the West Virginia School Service Employees Association (WVSSPA) and included non-union members. In addition, the strikers fought for wage increases for all public sector workers, 200,000 people (more than 10 percent of West Virginia’s population).
This strike was conducted despite and against bourgeois legality. The right to strike is limited in West Virginia and, in 2016, a law known as the «right to work» came into force in order to paralyze trade union activity as much as possible. Shortly before the strike began, the State Attorney General declared the strike illegal and threatened workers with «action» (i.e. repression) because «the imminent cessation of work is illegal». In West Virginia, teachers’ and other public employees’ unions have never had legal recognition, they are considered «voluntary associations».
Workers have organized themselves. The strike was triggered by discussions in schools, as well as on social media, by teachers in the southern coal-mining counties. The very bourgeois New York Times noted that teachers in West Virginia had «found ways to organize and act outside of traditional unionism. Teachers and public service workers across the state expressed their frustrations in a huge Facebook group, and their walkout eventually included members from three different unions and many non-union members» (1). Unions were forced to work together but also with non-union members at county level (2).
This is how the strikers succeeded in countering the maneuvers of the collaborationist trade-union bosses. Not only did the strikers refuse to allow themselves to be locked into a time-limited strike, but they did not agree to return to work after the initial announcement of an agreement between the governor and the unions. The strikers, rightly considering the guarantees insufficient (this agreement also provided that the increase in wages would be paid by a reduction in social spending), voted county by county. At the end of the vote, the decision was clear: continue the strike, keep the schools closed.
The education employees sought class solidarity. They didn’t launch interclassist calls upon the «users» or for the defense of a supposed «general interest». They turned to the many-faceted working classes of this mining state. They showed a real classist solidarity towards the proletarian families. In a state where poverty is rampant, where two-thirds of the students depend on free breakfast and lunch, strikers and their supporters collected and distributed food for the pupils throughout the strike.
They commemorated the miners’ struggles in the 1970s when picket lines completely shut down production. They proudly wore red scarves, recalling the great miners’ strike of the 1920s: the Coal Wars. During these conflicts, thousands of miners armed themselves to face troops, cops and scabs. It was one of the greatest proletarian uprisings in U.S. history; many miners were murdered and thousand were tried on charges of murder, conspiracy, and treason.
EVEN IF THE STRIKERS’ VICTORY IS PARTIAL, THEIR STRUGGLE IS EXEMPLARY FOR MANY REASONS
The West Virginia teachers’ strike has been widely commented on by groups that claim to be revolutionary. While some wanted to see in it more than it really meant – a promising first step – others denigrated it because of its limitations. This is particularly the case of the Trotskyists of the International Committee of the Fourth International (their national sections are called the Socialist Equality Party and they operate the wsws.org website) who present its outcome as a defeat and a betrayal: «Contrary to the proclamations of the unions, however, the deal reached to end the strike is not a victory for teachers. It does nothing to address teachers’ central demand—an end to escalating health care costs through the Public Employee Insurance Agency (PEIA) that effectively wipe out any pay raises. Moreover, the one-time five percent raise for public workers will be funded by deep cuts to social programs (...).Instead of taxing the wealthy and the energy corporations that dominate the state and control both the Democrats and Republicans, any additional funding for meager pay increases will come from the cancelation of a free community college tuition program, a $10 million reduction in the Medicaid health care program for low-income residents, the elimination of new funding for free health care clinics, and other cuts» (3).
Firstly, stopping a strike, even on a compromise, especially when it is the workers themselves who decide it, and not the trade union bureaucracies in their place, is not necessarily a failure and even less a betrayal. The balance of power may be too unfavorable to continue the struggle with a chance of success; it is then better to stop the conflict and resume it later with a greater chance of success, rather than risk a crushing defeat that would demoralize and disorganize the workers for a long time to come.
As Marx and Engels said in the Communist Manifesto: «Now and then the workers are victorious, but only for a time. The real fruit of their battles lies, not in the immediate result, but in the ever expanding union of the workers». A struggle should not be judged solely on the basis of its immediate contingent results. This is why it is necessary to know how to appreciate the real possibilities of success according to the balance of forces at a given moment and to set immediate objectives on the basis of this relationship of forces, without losing sight of the longer-term objective of maintaining and strengthening solidarity and class organization. It is clear that the workers of Virginia did not have the capacity and the organization to impose a more favorable balance of power to go further (for instance some strikers had proposed to occupy the Capitol).
Second, in addition to reformism («taxing the wealthy») there is another shameful process: dividing the ranks of the workers by accusing the strikers who obtained an increase of being responsible for the austerity measures that hit the proletarians (and these were planned anyways!) It is worthy of bourgeois politicians and media who like to present certain categories of workers as privileged. Whether the SEP/WSWS likes it or not, proletarians cannot, as long as the bourgeois state and capitalism persists, claim absolute victory every time and everywhere, even by using strike action, even with classist methods. But what they must be absolutely convinced of is that there is no more effective way to achieve satisfaction.
Virginia’s education workers have shaken the malignant social status quo by using the only weapon to resist capitalist attacks: strike action. This strike was massive, unifying and generated class solidarity. Today, it serves as an example for large-scale struggles in education in Arizona, Kentucky, North Carolina, Colorado, and Oklahoma...
In Oklahoma, budget cuts have been very significant (30% in reductions in ten years), teachers have to pay for some school materials and schools have to close one more day a week to limit operating expenses.
In Arizona, the situation is staggering: «classrooms are overcrowded, desks are broken and not replaced, and ceilings are in danger of collapsing. Chairs are missing but there is no shortage of rodents invading the schools, the equipment is out of date and school buses are not equipped with air conditioning. One of the maps displayed in a classroom still displays the Soviet Union, textbooks still speak of President George W. Bush» (4).
There again, the workers organized themselves autonomously by taking advice from the strikers in Virginia.
They prepared the strike thoroughly for two months before commencing. This brought together more than 100,000 people – education workers but also families – in a thousand demonstrations on 11 April, which were also opportunities for discussion to decide on the forms of struggle to be implemented. As early as 12 April, the governor was forced to swallow his 1% increase proposal and announced a 20% increase in teachers’ salaries by 2020, but also an increase in the education budget. This first tactical thrust was not enough for the workers because they defended an increase for all staff and not only teachers. In a vote, nearly 80% of the 57,000 participating workers voted in favor of strike action. This took place from 26 April to 3 May, and it obtained satisfaction: an immediate increase in the wages of all workers of 10%, to which will be added 5% in 2019 and 5% in 2020.
EDUCATION WORKERS HAVE SHOWN THAT FOR THE EXPLOITED: «OUR WEAPON IS THE STRIKE!»
More than ever before, in the face of the maneuvers of collaborationism, which puts forward its «days of action», its «go-slow strikes» or its «rotating strikes» and these only when all other legal, juridical and parliamentary means have been exhausted, the proletarians must know that only a strike without prior notice and without any time limit makes it possible to build the most favorable balance of power for obtaining demands and makes it possible to unify the struggles in order that tomorrow the proletariat is able to launch a proletarian counter-offensive against the bourgeoisie’s attacks.
(1) ‘West Virginia Walkouts a Lesson in the Power of a Crowd-Sourced Strike’, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/08/us/west-virginia-teachers-strike.html
(2) Strikers reportedly told union officials: «You can either get behind us or we’ll run you over»! See http://www.internationalist.org/westvirginiateachersrevolt 1803.html
(3) «Lessons of the West Virginia Teachers Strike»,. https://www. .org/en/articles/2018/03/08/pers-m08.html This is also the position of the Internationalist Communist Tendency (Battaglia Comunista) whose anti-unionism on principle makes it oppose even rank- and- file organizations. See: http://www. leftcom. org/en/articles/2018-06-01/usa-the-role-of-the-union-in-the-teachers-strikes
(4) «The Teachers’ Revolt in the United States», npa2009.org
International Communist Party