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

Joe Burns May 15, 2019

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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