A critical week lies ahead in the West Virginia teachers’ strike

The West Virginia teachers’ strike marks the return of the mass strike to the US in 2018. The dispute has brought thousands of educators out and closed down the state’s public schools, and as confidence in their self-organisation has grown so has the teachers’ militancy.

Teachers in the Capitol building. Image: AFT-West Virginia

The strike of the West Virginia teachers and school support staff is set to continue, as lines of division between strikers and the Republican-led Senate deepen. At face value the conflict appears simple: a division over 1%. That’s the gap between the 4% pay rise that the Senate has proposed and the 5% that, at minimum, the strikers’ demand. The conflict is about pay and health insurance, about the struggle to make ends meet and live well, but it is about much more. It is a tale of the 1% and the 99%, it is the face of class conflict in Trump’s America, it is a social reproduction insurgency.

This struggle is very much about place so let us start there. West Virginia – did you predict it would host America’s most militant mass strike of the Trump era? Through metropolitan-elitist eyes, West Virginia is a benighted boondocks. America’s third poorest state, also its third whitest, is highly dependent on coal and gas. Here, a higher proportion of voters chose Trump than in any other state, and it saw the second-biggest shift toward the GOP nominee compared to the 2012 and 2016 elections.

How did the strike begin? At one level it was individuals taking action. Teachers began to reach out and discuss with colleagues, set up a Facebook group, organise, push back, raise demands. At another level it was helped along by a tight labour market. Teachers could laugh when the employer threatened to find replacements. (“From where?!”) So far, so normal. But it was also about a Fitbit-type gadget – those seemingly innocuous devices of personal body-perfectionism. How this technology suddenly found itself the lightning conductor of class struggle would require a separate article. In brief: in a context of soaring health insurance premiums, it was weaponized in West Virginia by the insurance companies as a system of biometric data-gathering. Teachers and other school staff were to permit their bodily metrics to be continually harvested, in exchange for reduced premiums. All users had to jump through particular hoops or the data would be rendered invalid and the premium-reduction annulled. The result, above all for such body-policed or body-shamed groups as women, the elderly, the fat or the sick, was humiliation at the intrusion on privacy, at their guinea pig treatment – and boiling rage.

The centres of militancy have been the southern mining counties: Logan, Wyoming, and above all Mingo (site of the Battle of Matewan). Among striking teachers and support staff from the mining belt especially, but elsewhere too, memories of industrial conflict are rich and raw – the mine wars of the early twentieth century, more recent miners’ strikes, and the state-wide teachers’ strike of 1990. Class struggle, in the broad sense of workers defending their interests and communities against employers’ impositions and state oppression, is a felt reality. Yet, in the neoliberal decades, that feeling faded. Or more precisely, it retreated from its vital workplace presence, receding into family and folk memories. This contradiction helps us understand why the strike went wildcat last week, as Kevin Prosen has explained. Ironically, it may be the very weakness of the West Virginia unions that left the field open for workers at the grassroots to take ownership of the strike. For, “unlike the stable institutional labour relations that prevailed in Midwestern states [such as Wisconsin], 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.”

The strike, so far, has been solid and united. The school superintendents each day shut the schools in advance, for they know the teachers won’t be coming to work. Attempts to hire itinerant teachers have been defeated on the picket lines. The picket lines act as organising hubs through which connections to the local community are built – with the provision of food to children who would otherwise depend on school dinners, for example, and the planning of schoolkids’ marches around the Capitol building.

Some commentators have questioned the wildcat character of the strike. There is no question that it is. This does not imply that the strikers are hostile to the unions – they are not. Fact is, however, that when the unions (last week) called for a return to work, and the local union reps transmitted that call, they met with mass rejection – in some places unanimously. Union officials are widely mistrusted and many strikers advocate a shake-up of union structures.

All this explains the electrifying quality of the teachers’ action. It is a ’mass strike’ in the sense in which Rosa Luxemburg used the term. It combines political and economic struggles, with workplace conflict spilling into political demonstrations. It radiates from the strike-hit schools out into the communities. It inspires new forms of organisation and revitalises old ones. It is, in Luxemburg’s words, a “many-coloured picture” of the broader society-wide clash of labour and capital and the state; one that “reflects all the complexity of social organization and of the political consciousness of every section and of every district.”

The “complexity” of consciousness in a mass strike – the word does seem apt for the West Virginia teachers. I’ll give a few illustrations, beginning with the question of Trump-voting teachers. We shouldn’t exaggerate Trump’s hold on West Virginia. He secured 489,000 votes in a state whose population is 1.8 million, and many voters regard themselves as independent. (Typically uttered with a local inflection, as if to say “ain’t no one gonna take West Virginians for granted”.) That said, many strikers did vote Trump. But they are far from constituting a homogenous reactionary block. One Republican-voting union activist (!) with whom I spoke rejoiced in the “women’s empowerment” that the strike had unleashed. She is now shifting party allegiance.

Or consider what could be called the contradictions of collective self-determination. On one hand, it’s a wildcat strike. The workers are the driving force and the creative element, with the union officials panting to keep up. Many of the most militant proposals and demands (e.g. “occupy the Capitol building overnight”; “5% for all public-sector employees”) come not only from organised leftists but equally from ‘non-organised’ strikers. On the other hand, attitudes to the West Virginia Senate, and to its negotiations with other power centres (the House, the Governor, the superintendents, the unions), can slip quickly into a supplicatory or petitioning stance.

Another area of contradiction, or cognitive dissonance, pertains to class and resources. All agree: the teachers represent the community, the interests of the kids, the future of West Virginia, while the enemies in the senate represent nothing but their own wallets and their big business cronie. All agree: the senate is for sale. Venal senators have sold their souls to corporate donors, democracy has been kidnapped. All agree: a tax hike on the gas and coal corporations should be the principal source of funding for the teachers’ pay raise. But this class demand finds itself accompanied by a set of other, secondary, proposals: for a tax on sugary drinks, even on food in general – a highly regressive measure. There appears here a partial internalisation of a neoliberal precept: that the workers are obliged to present plans for the funding of their pay raise.

As a final illustration let us turn to the ‘environment’. If the strikers align themselves with ‘the children, our future’, what stance do they take to the future of the planet on which we all sit? In an economy based on extractive hydrocarbon industries, what sort of environmentalism do we see? Very widespread among the strikers is what one could call a ‘social democratic environmentalism’. By this I mean a tacit acceptance of the existing economic structures, including gas and coal extraction, but a critique of its extent, coupled with demands that the corporations be taxed to pay for the general welfare, and that they mustn’t “come here and chew up the landscape” and then, locust-like, move on elsewhere, leaving our environment in ruins. This is not a revolutionary environmentalism of the kind that this journal aspires to – centred on a ‘just transition’ to a non-carbon economy sharply tightened environmental regulation, and so on. However, in a state that supposedly flipped rightwards electorally in the 1990s and 2000s due in large part to support for hydrocarbon extraction, the prevalence even of this ‘environmentalism’ is significant. There is room here for ‘climate jobs’ ideas to be pitched.

It would be foolhardy to predict which way this strike will turn, even in the next few days. There have already been moments of ‘alternativity’ – where the points could have quickly switched. An example: on Friday two teachers proposed to a mass meeting that the Capitol building be occupied permanently. It was a popular demand, or at least one that other teachers had earlier voiced. A vote was taken – the result was unanimous. Yet come evening the state house halls were bare again. Had strikers at the meeting not properly heard the proposal? Had they not realised it was for an overnight occupation, and not simply for a continued daily mass gathering in the state house (which occurred all last week)? Either way, the moment somehow slipped away.

We can be sure that further such switching points will arise. The strike now faces a critical week. Building support and solidarity – including with new strikes breaking out in Oklahoma – is of the essence.


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