At last month’s Labor Notes conference, a biennial meeting of labor activists held in Chicago, everyone wanted to hear from a particular group of workers: teachers. Educators from Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky and West Virginia, Puerto Rico, Brazil and Britain gathered to share lessons they had learned from this year’s strikes. In doing so, they fueled the spark lighted during the West Virginia teachers’ strike. If West Virginia teachers — some of the most poorly paid educators in one of the country’s poorest states — could win a 5 percent raise for all public employees, maybe working people needed to rethink the realm of what’s possible. With Arizona teachers winning a 20 percent raise in May (a significant, though partial, victory — as The Washington Post reported, the strike ended before winning the increases to state funding for public education demanded by many teachers), it’s time to reiterate what many in the labor movement have long argued: strikes work.
It’s easy to forget that fact as you survey our present political landscape. Much has been written about the frustration with the Democratic and Republican parties in the wake of Donald Trump’s election and the bitterly contested 2016 primary. Clearly, many feel they’ve been cast out of the political mainstream. In response, millions have turned to the politics of street protest, as was powerfully displayed during the past two years of women’s marches. But those strategies may not be enough to force the change we so desperately need. However, if coupled with increased workplace action, they just might get us there.
While labor activists refer to the ability to strike as “labor’s strongest weapon,” Americans’ willingness to strike has drastically subsided in the past few decades. As economic analyst Doug Henwood recently pointed out, the average number of days of “idleness” — the official term for days lost to work stoppages — was nearly 24,550,000 between 1947 and 1979. In the years since 2010, the average is 708,000, a 97 percent drop. The steep decline is a sign of a labor movement on the back foot, as union membership declines, wages stagnate, and job instability increases. Throw in a conciliatory regime of labor law, one that prioritizes “labor peace” and outlaws secondary strikes — not to mention the incorporation of no-strike clauses into contracts, which stipulate high fines and even imprisonment should workers strike anyway — and you get our recent, largely strikeless, present.
But strikes work for a reason. As Chris Brooks, a Labor Notes staff member, put it, workers’ power lies in their ability to withdraw their labor. “The only reason our communities function is because workers show up every day,” Brooks said. But, he added, in the wake of the recent strike wave, “workers are recognizing they have leverage” when they withdraw their labor. The recent successful strikes bear out that argument: In those states where teachers have struck, they’ve won concessions from GOP-dominated legislatures that would never have otherwise been willing to budge.
As one striking Kentucky teacher told me, the key to the teachers’ success was getting the public on their side. Writer Meagan Day has recently argued that in contrast to private-sector workers, when those in the public sector demand better working conditions, it’s all too easy to suggest that they’re “betraying the public.” After all, their paychecks come from taxpayers.
However, when Kentucky governor Matt Bevin tried to demonize striking educators, calling them “selfish and shortsighted,” few were convinced. In the lead up to the strike, educators had held walk-ins, standing outside their schools in the morning as parents and students arrived, talking to their community about their demands and getting support for more militant action. Teachers, already positioned in the center of their communities, had self-organized distribution networks to ensure those children who relied on school for meals didn’t go hungry. The public felt teachers weren’t fighting only for themselves but also for everyone. Similarly, West Virginia teachers and support staff proved this commitment to the broader community when they rejected a deal negotiated by West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) and union leaders that would’ve given teachers a higher raise than other state employees. The educators chose to continue forgoing the meager pay upon which they rely, staying on strike until all public employees got the raises they demanded.
In contrast to the view of political action as limited to, in Brooks’ words, “the tired formula of ‘phone bank, rally, march, go home,’ ” striking teachers wrung concessions from politicians who would never have willingly handed them over. They did so out of desperation and at great risk: These strikes were illegal and took place in right-to-work states, meaning, states where unions are prevented from automatically collecting fair-share fees from the workers they represent, allowing workers to “free ride” and draining union coffers in the process. Further, some of these states, such as West Virginia, do not grant collective-bargaining rights to public-sector employees.
The illegality of such strikes necessitated meticulous organizing at the level of the rank and file. Illegality is “absolutely an obstacle,” said Bill Fletcher Jr., an author and longtime labor organizer over the phone when asked about the legal status of these strikes. In the case of those states that have seen recent educators’ strikes, illegality raised the risks for those workers who first went on strike, increasing the need for “#55united” — the hashtag West Virginia teachers used to emphasize that all 55 of the state’s counties struck together. Without building allies in the community, Fletcher Jr. said, these strikes could’ve been repressed. After all, while strikes can win huge gains, they can also dangerously fail, for reasons that range from repression to a lack of organization to failure to win over the public. But because teachers prepared, and prepared thoroughly, antilabor laws, while an obstacle, weren’t insurmountable.
The efficacy of these teachers’ more militant approach has earlier antecedents: Take the case of the 2012 Chicago Teachers’ Union (CTU) strike. Up against the political machinery of Mayor Rahm Emanuel, the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), a reform caucus formed in 2004 by teachers who wanted to move the union left, which had won control of the union in 2010, led the union out on strike. They did so to prevent school closures and education “reform” in the form of privatizations, all of which would’ve disproportionately affected working-class students of color. Because of their position at the center of their communities, and willingness to fight for those students, not just themselves, they won the public to their side. Eventually, Emanuel was forced to concede to their demands.
This isn’t a lesson limited to the education sector: Nurses, too, are a leading edge of the current American labor movement and have been making smart use of their ability to advocate for policies that will improve not only their lives but also those of their patients. Whether it’s educators’ recent demands for greater funding of public education via taxes on extractive industries, nurses’ advocacy for single-payer health care, postal workers’ fight against the replacement of full-time jobs with unstable, part-time ones, or ILWU Local 10’s long history of work stoppages in service of social movements against racism, the lesson is clear: If workers can meld their own interests with the broader interests of working-class and poor people, they can win public support that strengthens their leverage against intransigent management, be they in the public or private sector.
Union leaders need to be pushed by powerful democratic, rank-and-file-led campaigns. If they want to survive a possible national right-to-work Supreme Court ruling in the near future — not to mention the court’s recent anti-worker ruling that will force employees to cede their right to sue their bosses — they’ll need to devote more resources to organizing, not just to funneling members to the polls, which has been unions’ primary political strategy for too long. It’s all well and good to “Remember in November,” but reversing inequality and fighting injustice also demands class power, built from the bottom-up.
The inspiration workers across the country and around the world have taken from the West Virginia teachers’ strike is crucial. This uptick in labor militancy may transcend status distinctions, with blue- and white-collar workers alike learning from their “pink-collar” counterparts in West Virginia. As it stands, the spark ignited in West Virginia has engulfed the heartland, with teachers striking in Arizona, Colorado, Kentucky and Oklahoma. More states join the list seemingly every week — just this month, murmurs of possible strike actions surfaced in Louisiana, Nevada and North Carolina.
Meanwhile, on the picket line at the recent Columbia University graduate student strike, union members carried signs referring to the West Virginia teachers, speaking enthusiastically, if hesitantly, of the possibility that once again, unions are willing to use their power to strike. The idea of elite Ivy League university graduate students taking inspiration from West Virginia teachers may seem perplexing in a country where the language of class has eroded, but it shouldn’t. What they saw there was a success story, one that can be repeated when working people see one another as allies.
CORRECTION: This article originally misidentified the frequency of the Labor Notes conference.