West Virginia Teachers Are Showing How Unions Can Win Power Even If They Lose Janus

Lois Weiner February 24, 2018

Today’s Work­er’s Day of Action, orga­nized by AFL-CIO affil­i­ates and labor groups, aimed to show the labor movement’s oppo­si­tion to a ver­dict for the plain­tiffs in Janus v. AFSCME, which begins oral argu­ments before the Supreme Court on Mon­day. Unions fear their pow­er will be dimin­ished if the Court rules against AFSCME, as it is expect­ed to do, and restricts pub­lic-sec­tor unions from col­lect­ing fees from non-mem­bers to pay for col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing. The Right intends to use Janus to gut pub­lic employ­ee unions, weak­en­ing what is the strongest con­stituen­cy in orga­nized labor. This in turn will great­ly dimin­ish labor’s strength as a pro­gres­sive force. 

Pub­lic employ­ee unions are right to be wor­ried, and yet, as today’s demon­stra­tions evi­denced, on the eve of oral argu­ments labor is still grap­pling with how to pro­tect work­ers’ rights. The protest’s slo­gan, It’s about free­dom,” mim­ics the Right’s own lan­guage when it argues that unions shouldn’t be able to col­lect fees from work­ers who don’t want to pay. In fact, it’s about social jus­tice: The strug­gle to pro­tect col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing is a fight for the dig­ni­ty of work and work­ing people. 

How then can pub­lic employ­ee unions and the labor move­ment tran­si­tion from defense to offense, win­ning eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal demands? Must a defeat in Janus mean the end of pub­lic employ­ee unions? A move­ment of school employ­ees in West Vir­ginia is pro­vid­ing answers to these ques­tions, show­ing orga­nized labor how work­ers can defend their rights with­out the legal pro­tec­tions that unions rely upon: the right to strike and the right to bar­gain collectively.

West Vir­ginia bars strikes by pub­lic employ­ees and, as a so-called right to work” state, bans unions from requir­ing that every­one rep­re­sent­ed by a bar­gain­ing unit become a dues-pay­ing mem­ber. Yet, despite this hos­tile legal envi­ron­ment, school employ­ees, led pri­mar­i­ly by teach­ers, orga­nized walk­outs that result­ed in clo­sure of schools in every coun­ty on Thurs­day and Fri­day. School dis­tricts could not remain open because school employ­ees had shown they would not come to work. Although offi­cers of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers –West Vir­ginia (AFT-WV) and the West Vir­ginia Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion (WVEA), the state affil­i­ates of the two major teach­ers unions, are quot­ed in the press and are wide­ly seen as the movement’s lead­ers, they are not the force behind the job actions.

As when Detroit teach­ers orga­nized sick outs” about appalling con­di­tions in their schools, the West Vir­ginia teach­ers who took the lead in orga­niz­ing this move­ment did so inde­pen­dent of the union appa­ra­tus. They invit­ed teach­ers in both AFT-WV and WVEA, which many activists felt had wast­ed resources wran­gling with one anoth­er. As one teacher-leader explained to In These Times, the strat­e­gy from the start was keep­ing it open.” For this rea­son, teach­ers brought in oth­er school employ­ees in plan­ning actions and demands.

School work­ers were frus­trat­ed and angry about low wages, fur­ther dimin­ished by grow­ing health insur­ance costs. With­in months, the move­ment mush­roomed, with the closed Face­book page expand­ing to 17,000 mem­bers. (Although I am not a West Vir­ginia school employ­ee, I was invit­ed to join the closed group because my writ­ing about teacher union­ism has informed the orga­niz­ing. I have com­ment­ed and post­ed, mak­ing clear that I am a vis­i­tor to their site.)

West Vir­ginia is a red state, but one in which union pride and an attune­ment to class inequal­i­ty still bub­ble up. Bernie Sanders won the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry, and mem­o­ries of the state’s his­to­ry of labor bat­tles in the coal fields still res­onate. Many teach­ers in the state iden­ti­fy as work­ers and with unions, not always the case among teachers.

Under­stand­ing this movement’s suc­cess requires see­ing that the WVEA and AFT-WV, which osten­si­bly spoke for teach­ers and oth­er school work­ers, failed to tap into or build this labor con­scious­ness. Instead of mobi­liz­ing actions that addressed anger at poor wages, the unions’ strat­e­gy was to court state politi­cians with dona­tions and votes. As I learned in con­ver­sa­tions over the past sev­er­al months, the activists who built the grass­roots move­ment, many of them social­ists, believed that tra­di­tion­al labor tac­tics, rang­ing from ral­lies to walk­outs, were essen­tial and that their col­leagues through­out the state would respond.

They were right. The move­ment devel­oped at breath­tak­ing speed. Protests and local walk­outs expand­ed to a state-wide strike and mass protests in the state Capi­tol. Teach­ers and school work­ers con­front­ed leg­is­la­tors who had failed to raise wages while ris­ing health­care costs cut into teach­ers’ pay­checks. At each step, the move­ment has made demands on the union and pre­pared to car­ry out actions with­out union endorse­ment or help. In the process they have gone far in mak­ing the union car­ry out its respon­si­bil­i­ties to them — and to pub­lic edu­ca­tion. A key con­cern of teach­ers is that by keep­ing wages so low, West Vir­ginia has cre­at­ed a teacher short­age” that it has solved” by allow­ing peo­ple who have no prepa­ra­tion to teach to become teach­ers — a strat­e­gy being adopt­ed in many oth­er states.

The West Vir­ginia strug­gle has mir­rored the ener­gy of the 2012 Chica­go Teach­ers Union strike, which elec­tri­fied teach­ers through­out the world and set a new stan­dard for mil­i­tant union action in the U.S. But it also resem­bles what occurred in Madi­son, Wisc., when pub­lic employ­ees, with teach­ers in the fore­front, took their defense of col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing to the state leg­is­la­ture, occu­py­ing the seat of pow­er. Labor was bad­ly bruised in that bat­tle because work­ers did what union offi­cials instruct­ed: They dis­band­ed the protest and chan­neled pow­er into recall­ing Gov. Scott Walk­er. The alter­na­tive would have been main­tain­ing the strike while build­ing more pub­lic sup­port by expand­ing their polit­i­cal pro­gram beyond col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing, to oth­er eco­nom­ic and polit­i­cal rights that have been attacked.

This same choice con­fronts the move­ment in West Vir­ginia. One log­i­cal expan­sion of their polit­i­cal strug­gle is to demand more pro­gres­sive fund­ing for schools and a statewide sin­gle pay­er” health plan to cov­er med­ical care for every­one in the state. Pub­lic employ­ees who face high­er health­care costs will find nat­ur­al allies in par­ents who can­not afford insur­ance or are wor­ried about cut­backs to Med­ic­aid and Medicare because the fight will be to alle­vi­ate health care costs for every­one, rather than only pro­tect­ing costs for pub­lic employ­ees. Such an alliance would join the grow­ing move­ment with­in labor for Medicare for all,” a strug­gle that requires tak­ing on Democ­rats who won’t break with their par­ty leadership’s rejec­tion of sin­gle pay­er” as unre­al­is­tic. The demand can also weak­en the grip of Repub­li­cans who won’t break with the GOP’s — and Trump‘s — refusal to fund health­care as a human right.

Offi­cers of large pub­lic employ­ee unions say that Janus has caused deep intro­spec­tion and change. While pub­lic employ­ee unions are reach­ing out to involve,” engage” and hear” mem­bers, the need for the self-orga­ni­za­tion of work­ers is sel­dom expressed in this nar­ra­tive of change — except in unions in which reform cau­cus­es have won lead­er­ship, like the Mass­a­chu­setts Teach­ers Asso­ci­a­tion.

The con­scious­ness and capac­i­ty of work­ers to orga­nize at the work site is what will save labor. West Virginia’s school employ­ees have demon­strat­ed what work­ers’ pow­er looks like with­out col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing or the right to strike. Their les­son is clear to the unions: Either fight for the dig­ni­ty of work and work­ers or move over and let oth­ers show you how it’s done.

Lois Wein­er is the author The Future of Our Schools: Teach­ers Unions and Social Jus­tice (Hay­mar­ket, 2012). An inde­pen­dent researcher and con­sul­tant, she writes wide­ly on edu­ca­tion and teach­ers unions.

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