The Teacher Strikes Could Set Off a Private Sector Strike Wave—If We Dare

Joe Burns

We should celebrate the teacher strike wave, but also apply its lessons to the private sector. (Photo by Ronen Tivony/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

In the spring of 2018, teach­ers across West Vir­ginia improb­a­bly shut down schools statewide, cre­at­ing a polit­i­cal cri­sis that forced Repub­li­can Gov. Jim Jus­tice and the GOP-led leg­is­la­ture to back down. Draw­ing inspi­ra­tion from the West Vir­ginia strik­ers, teach­ers in the red states of Ari­zona and Okla­homa soon fol­lowed suit by car­ry­ing out statewide strikes of their own.

In his new book Red State Revolt: The Teach­ers’ Strike Wave and Work­ing-Class Pol­i­tics, writer and for­mer teacher Eric Blanc details the his­to­ry of these teach­ers strikes while pro­vid­ing inci­sive analy­sis, informed by his vis­its to the sites of these labor strug­gles and his access to key play­ers which pro­vid­ed inside accounts of strate­gic and tac­ti­cal debates. 

By pro­vid­ing this on-the-ground per­spec­tive, Red State Revolt cap­tures the exhil­a­ra­tion and twists and turns of these strikes. Blanc recounts how an ini­tial Face­book group among teacher activists explod­ed in West Vir­ginia, help­ing lead to the first ten­ta­tive calls for a walk­out and, in a mat­ter of months, to the mas­sive statewide strike of teach­ers and sup­port staff. Red State Revolt shows how lit­tle steps can lead to big results.

As sim­ply a strike his­to­ry, Red State Revolt would stand as a thought­ful con­tri­bu­tion for labor activists who could find inspi­ra­tion and learn from the suc­cess­es and mis­steps of strik­ing teach­ers in these three states. For­tu­nate­ly for those of us in the labor move­ment, Blanc dri­ves deeper. 

The core of Red State Revolt is built around of the con­cept of the mil­i­tant minor­i­ty,” explored in depth in the longest chap­ter of the book. As Blanc explains: An indis­pens­able ingre­di­ent in the vic­to­ries of West Vir­ginia and Ari­zona was the exis­tence of a mil­i­tant minor­i­ty’ of work­place activists — that is, indi­vid­u­als with a class strug­gle ori­en­ta­tion, sig­nif­i­cant orga­niz­ing expe­ri­ence, and a will­ing­ness to act inde­pen­dent­ly of (and, if nec­es­sary, against) the top union officialdom.”

These activists helped push their strug­gles for­ward and at key moments helped the rank-and-file con­tend with more con­ser­v­a­tive union offi­cials. And, as Blanc points out, a num­ber of these activists con­sti­tut­ing the mil­i­tant minor­i­ty were social­ists, though not all. As Blanc explains: Though all gen­uine social­ists sup­port class strug­gle union­ism, not all class strug­gle union­ists sup­port social­ism.” Includ­ed in the lat­ter cat­e­go­ry were the mil­i­tant teacher lead­ers of the South­ern for­mer min­ing strong­holds of Min­go Coun­ty and adja­cent coun­ties in West Vir­ginia who led a one-day strike in ear­ly Feb­ru­ary 2018 which helped set the stage for the statewide walk­out lat­er that month. 

Blanc notes that many of the activists at the core of the West Vir­ginia strike were demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ists inspired by Bernie Sanders’ 2016 pres­i­den­tial cam­paign, which helped moti­vate them to demand far-reach­ing changes at their work­places. As rank-and-file West Vir­ginia strike leader Emi­ly Com­er told Blanc, The role of the Bernie cam­paign of 2016 on orga­niz­ing in West Vir­ginia real­ly can­not be over­stat­ed. … And it got peo­ple, espe­cial­ly young peo­ple, plugged in who before had been feel­ing hope­less and who would not have made their way into orga­niz­ing before.”

Like any good strike his­to­ry, Red State Revolt delves into the com­pli­cat­ed rela­tion­ship between union offi­cials, the union mil­i­tants push­ing the strike from below, and the rank and file work­ers. As Blanc explains, because West Vir­ginia activists had built a strong statewide net­work lead­ing up to and over the course of the strike, they were able to help shape the final con­tract agree­ment, con­tin­u­ing the walk­out for anoth­er week after the ini­tial out­line of the set­tle­ment was announced until it was finalized.

By cov­er­ing three strikes in three sep­a­rate states, in Red State Revolt Blanc is able to com­pare and con­trast the var­i­ous strate­gies and out­comes. While the strikes in both West Vir­ginia and Ari­zona end­ed on high notes, for exam­ple, the Okla­homa walk­out result­ed in more of a mixed out­come, along with a cer­tain degree of demoralization.

As Blanc notes, the con­di­tions did not ini­tial­ly sug­gest such a result. By vir­tu­al­ly all pos­si­ble met­rics, the chal­lenges to suc­cess­ful strike action were great­est in Ari­zona,” Blanc writes. Its right wing was con­sid­er­ably stronger, and its labor move­ment sig­nif­i­cant­ly weak­er, than in Okla­homa — not to men­tion most oth­er US states.” 

Yet the cru­cial dif­fer­ence, Blanc argues, is that Ari­zona boast­ed a mil­i­tant minor­i­ty of activists who were able to inter­act with Arizona’s rel­a­tive­ly weak teach­ers’ union to prod them into action and ulti­mate­ly helped secure broad vic­to­ries. Okla­homa, mean­while, did not pos­sess such a strong array of mil­i­tant labor activists in the edu­ca­tion field, which served as a lia­bil­i­ty dur­ing that state’s strike. 

Teacher activists across the coun­try will like­ly find Red State Revolt invalu­able as the upris­ing shows no sign of end­ing. Teach­ers in Col­orado, Wash­ing­ton, Cal­i­for­nia and else­where have already since rebelled against decades of Demo­c­ra­t­ic neolib­er­al attacks on pub­lic edu­ca­tion. Even orga­niz­ers liv­ing in such blue states will find Red State Revolt chock-full of con­crete lessons.

The real­i­ty is, how­ev­er, that while these pub­lic-sec­tor strikes should give us hope, the cri­sis of Amer­i­can trade union­ism lies firm­ly in the pri­vate sec­tor. For many labor pun­dits, the lessons of the teach­ers’ strikes boil down to advo­cat­ing bar­gain­ing for the com­mon good or oth­er social union­ist themes. While a broad-based approach to union bar­gain­ing that seeks pub­lic sup­port is nec­es­sary, there’s no indi­ca­tion that cor­po­ra­tions will be shamed into sup­port­ing work­er-friend­ly poli­cies. With union den­si­ty hov­er­ing at six per­cent in the pri­vate sec­tor, it’s time for dra­mat­i­cal­ly new approaches. 

Reviv­ing the labor move­ment in the pri­vate sec­tor will require a strat­e­gy capa­ble of break­ing through legal restric­tions on the right to strike. As Blanc notes, When it comes to polit­i­cal strat­e­gy, there’s no need to rein­vent the wheel. West Vir­ginia and the oth­er recent teacher revolts have con­firmed the con­tin­ued rel­e­vance of an old polit­i­cal insight: strikes are work­ers’ most pow­er­ful weapon.” 

One ques­tion raised by the strikes in Repub­li­can-dom­i­nat­ed states is Why did the anti-union pol­i­cy­mak­ers not respond with repres­sion?’ After all, Ari­zona is a cesspool of reac­tionary anti-labor politi­cians, with essen­tial­ly the entire pow­er struc­ture lined up against unions. Strik­ing was deemed ille­gal in all of three states. Yet, while politi­cians made pro­nounce­ments indi­cat­ing the strikes were ille­gal, they nev­er pulled the trig­ger on pun­ish­ing strikers. 

For trade union­ists, this out­come con­firms the real­i­ty of what we saw in the 1960s teacher rebel­lion. In the 1960s, mil­lions of pub­lic-sec­tor work­ers went on strike despite the fact that strik­ing was ille­gal in every state in the coun­try. Rarely did these work­ers face recrim­i­na­tions, as politi­cians feared they could expand the strikes by respond­ing with repres­sion. The red state teacher revolts demon­strate the con­tin­ued valid­i­ty of the max­im that there is no ille­gal strike, just an unsuc­cess­ful one.’ 

The four main take­aways from the Red State Revolt are the neces­si­ty of reviv­ing the strike; the need for a broad-based approach; the impor­tance of a con­scious mil­i­tant minor­i­ty; and the abil­i­ty of mil­i­tant social move­ments to suc­cess­ful­ly vio­late labor law. This also serves as a pre­scrip­tion for the revival of the labor move­ment over­all — one quite dif­fer­ent from what most labor pun­dits have been dish­ing out for the past two decades. 

Cel­e­brat­ing vic­to­ries is a good thing and Red State Revolt does a great job of reliv­ing the excite­ment of those strikes. Even bet­ter, how­ev­er, is learn­ing from our suc­cess­es so they can be recre­at­ed over and over. That is how big­ger and bet­ter move­ments are built. 

Joe Burns, a for­mer local union pres­i­dent active in strike sol­i­dar­i­ty, is a labor nego­tia­tor and attor­ney. He is the author of the book Reviv­ing the Strike: How Work­ing Peo­ple Can Regain Pow­er and Trans­form Amer­i­ca (IG Pub­lish­ing, 2011) and can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)/*= 0)out += unescape(l[i].replace(/^\s\s*/, &#’));while ( – j >= 0)if (el[j].getAttribute(‘data-eeEncEmail_CLceBbPGHH’))el[j].innerHTML = out;/*]]>*/.
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