The West Virginia Teachers’ Strike Has Activists Asking: Should We Revive the Wildcat?

Shaun Richman

Wildcat strikes are still uncommon in the United States, but we could see more of them after the West Virginia teachers' walkout. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The stun­ning suc­cess of the recent statewide West Vir­ginia teach­ers’ strike makes it one of the most inspir­ing work­er protests of the Trump era.

The walk­out over ris­ing health insur­ance costs and stag­nant pay began on Feb. 22 and appeared to be set­tled by Feb. 27 with promis­es from Gov. Jim Jus­tice of a 5 per­cent pay raise for teach­ers. Union lead­ers ini­tial­ly accept­ed that deal in good faith, along with vague assur­ances that the state would work with them on a solu­tion to esca­lat­ing out-of-pock­et costs for work­ers’ healthcare. 

Dra­mat­i­cal­ly, rank-and-file teach­ers refused to end the walk­out. Every pub­lic school in the state remained closed for nine days due to the strike, until the West Vir­ginia leg­is­la­ture vot­ed to approve a 5 per­cent pay increase for all state work­ers as well as a for­mal labor-man­age­ment com­mit­tee to deal with the health­care problem.

The entire expe­ri­ence leaves many labor activists ask­ing vari­a­tions of three ques­tions: What is a wild­cat strike? Was West Vir­ginia a true wild­cat? And should we have more wild­cat strikes?

What is a wild­cat strike?

Wild­cat strikes are job actions led by rank-and-file mem­bers in defi­ance of offi­cial union lead­er­ship. Why would lead­ers try to stop a job action that mem­bers want to take? The answer, gen­er­al­ly, is that the strike is either against the law or in vio­la­tion of a con­trac­tu­al no-strike clause (and, often, the lead­ers are in some way legal­ly com­pelled to dis­cour­age it). In either case, work­ers who strike could be fired with no legal recourse for the union to win them their jobs back. This is a pecu­liar fea­ture of America’s post-World War II labor rela­tions system.

Pri­or to the 1935 Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Act (NLRA), a strike was a strike. It was not uncom­mon to have mul­ti­ple unions vying for work­place lead­er­ship and engag­ing in a kind of one-upman­ship of job actions. While these actions occa­sion­al­ly pro­duced small gains in pay or reduc­tions in hours, they rarely end­ed with union recog­ni­tion — much less signed contracts.

That’s because employ­ers didn’t have to deal with unions. They might have begrudg­ing­ly made a uni­lat­er­al con­ces­sion to the work­ers’ wage or hour demands in order to resume oper­a­tions, but boss­es almost nev­er for­mal­ly sat down with elect­ed union representatives.

The NLRA changed that sta­tus quo by com­pelling employ­ers to bar­gain in good faith” with any group of union mem­bers that demand­ed it. As Charles J. Mor­ris doc­u­ments in his 2004 book, The Blue Eagle at Work: Reclaim­ing Demo­c­ra­t­ic Rights in the Amer­i­can Work­place, the NLRA did not include any pro­vi­sion for cer­ti­fi­ca­tion elec­tions of exclu­sive union rep­re­sen­ta­tives. The framers of the NLRA wrote it for the labor move­ment that exist­ed at the time: a col­lec­tion of vol­un­tary asso­ci­a­tions that made bar­gain­ing demands for their mem­bers only.

Com­pelled to bar­gain with unions, employ­ers quick­ly devel­oped a pref­er­ence to deal with only one as an exclu­sive rep­re­sen­ta­tive. That way, boss­es could have con­trac­tu­al assur­ance that all out­stand­ing dis­putes would be set­tled (or at least chan­neled through griev­ance and arbi­tra­tion pro­ce­dures) for the peri­od of a con­tract that also guar­an­teed no strikes (or lock­outs or oth­er forms of indus­tri­al actions) would occur dur­ing the terms of labor peace.

Under that frame­work, the wild­cat became a unique kind of work­er protest. The ety­mol­o­gy of the term wild­cat” can prob­a­bly be traced to the Indus­tri­al Work­ers of the World (IWW) and their unof­fi­cial sym­bol, the sabo cat.

Wild­cat actions are not com­mon and are rarely full-blown strikes. More often, they are tem­po­rary slow­downs or quick work stop­pages in a small­er seg­ment of a wider oper­a­tion. They could be sparked, for exam­ple, over a sud­den change in work rules or the bel­liger­ent actions of a super­vi­sor. Usu­al­ly, an offi­cial union rep­re­sen­ta­tive rush­es to the scene to attempt to set­tle the dis­pute with man­age­ment and encour­ages the work­ers to return to their jobs.

Wild­cats were more com­mon in the ear­ly 1970s, dur­ing the last great strike wave in the Unit­ed States. Those years saw a large num­ber of strikes by teach­ers and oth­er pub­lic-sec­tor work­ers to win col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing rights. Many of those strikes were tech­ni­cal­ly ille­gal, but not wild­cats as they were orga­nized and led by offi­cial union lead­er­ship that had few alter­na­tives in the absence of for­mal union rights under the NLRA.

How­ev­er, in that cli­mate of greater work­er protest, many pri­vate-sec­tor work­ers also went on strike. Many of those strikes were wild­cats sparked by out-of-con­trol infla­tion and intol­er­a­ble speed-ups. In a sense, work­ers weren’t just strik­ing in vio­la­tion of their col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing agree­ments but against their terms.

The most famous exam­ple was the 1972 rank-and-file rebel­lion at the Gen­er­al Motors fac­to­ry in Lord­stown, Ohio, which has fas­ci­nat­ed gen­er­a­tions of labor writ­ers. In her 1975 book All the Live­long Day: The Mean­ing and Demean­ing of Rou­tine Work, Bar­bara Gar­son cap­tured this illus­tra­tive con­ver­sa­tion between workers:

It pays good,” said one, but it’s dri­ving me crazy.”

I don’t want more mon­ey,” said anoth­er. None of us do.”

I do,” said his friend, so I can quit quicker.”

The only mon­ey I want is my union dues back – if they don’t let us out on strike soon.”

In 1972, the fac­to­ry was churn­ing out Chevy Vegas at a pace that gave each work­er 36 sec­onds to do a minute’s worth of work before the next car moved down the line in the blink of an eye. Work­ers had tak­en to acts of sab­o­tage, like throw­ing a few loose screws in a gas tank, in hopes that the error” would be caught by qual­i­ty con­trol and shut the line down for a few min­utes of blessed relief.

While the Unit­ed Autowork­ers (UAW) lead­ers pri­or­i­tized wages in bar­gain­ing — they won an impres­sive 13 per­cent increase for their mem­bers in the con­tract that was then in effect — the work­ers at Lord­stown want­ed to slow the pace of work. They went on a wild­cat strike that last­ed for 22 days, until man­age­ment set­tled a slew of griev­ances and agreed to rehire a num­ber of laid off posi­tions in order to reduce the pace of work.

By the end of the decade, the com­pet­i­tive pres­sures of glob­al trade put work­ers back on the defen­sive. The Lord­stown plant is still in oper­a­tion despite mul­ti­ple threats to shut­ter it. In a 2010 pro­file, the New York Times called it one of GM’s most pro­duc­tive and effi­cient plants,” and not­ed that 84 per­cent of the work­ers had recent­ly vot­ed to approve con­ces­sions dur­ing GM’s bankruptcy.

Those com­pet­i­tive pres­sures, com­bined with aus­ter­i­ty bud­gets in the pub­lic sec­tor, have severe­ly reduced many work­ers’ liv­ing stan­dards. The West Vir­ginia strike may be a sign that these des­per­ate times have turned many work­places into pow­der kegs of sim­mer­ing resent­ment and desperation.

Was West Vir­ginia a true wildcat?

West Vir­ginia schools have a pecu­liar frame­work: no con­tracts or for­mal col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing, but a degree of offi­cial union recog­ni­tion — includ­ing dues check-off — with­in a high­ly liti­gious tenure and griev­ance pro­ce­dure with statewide pay and ben­e­fits sub­ject to leg­isla­tive lob­by­ing. That envi­ron­ment appeared per­fect­ly craft­ed to sap unions of their poten­tial mil­i­tan­cy, assum­ing the boss­es under­stood they had to pro­vide a min­i­mal­ly-decent stan­dard of pay and ben­e­fits. Instead, teach­ers faced some of the low­est pay rates in the nation, along with ris­ing health­care costs, which helped lead to their deci­sion to walk off the job.

Because the West Vir­ginia strike hap­pened out­side the con­text of for­mal, con­tract-based union­ism, Lois Wein­er argues in New Pol­i­tics that it is inac­cu­rate to describe the statewide walk­out as a wild­cat. Con­fu­sion on nomen­cla­ture reflects how remark­able this phe­nom­e­non is: we don’t know how to name a move­ment of work­ers that is self-orga­nized, not con­fined by the stric­tures of col­lec­tive bar­gain­ing,” she writes, con­tin­u­ing, There is no legal­ly pre­scribed pro­ce­dure for end­ing the strike because the vast major­i­ty of peo­ple strik­ing aren’t union mem­bers and strikes are not legal.”

Giv­en the frontal assault on the entire legal frame­work of union rep­re­sen­ta­tion—Janus vs. AFSCME being the mas­sive tip of the gar­gan­tu­an ice­berg — what union­ism looks like in the Unit­ed States is bound to be rad­i­cal­ly altered in the com­ing years. Wein­er does us a ser­vice by break­ing the union frame­work down into its com­po­nent parts. We need more writ­ers doing this if we are going to have an informed debate about which parts are worth fight­ing to pre­serve, and which are over­due for replacement.

Respect­ful­ly, how­ev­er, I would argue that the West Vir­ginia strike was a wild­cat. The polit­i­cal dynam­ics were essen­tial­ly the same as in the rit­u­al­ized con­tract bar­gain­ing of the post-war pri­vate sec­tor. Union lead­ers were in the posi­tion of bar­gain­ing” with the gov­er­nor over a leg­isla­tive fix to pay and health­care. They took a deal that was rea­son­able enough in order to demon­strate their own rea­son­able­ness to the bosses.

When the rank-and-file reject­ed that set­tle­ment by con­tin­u­ing to stay off the job, the strike became a wild­cat. Offi­cial union lead­ers con­tin­ued to rep­re­sent the inter­ests of the strik­ing work­ers and helped har­ness the con­tin­ued strike into an even big­ger win — all while pre­sent­ing them­selves to politi­cians as the rea­son­able nego­tia­tors who could help them get the teach­ers back to work.

That the strike hap­pened in the first place is thanks to a good deal of self-orga­ni­za­tion among seg­ments of the rank-and-file, aid­ed in no small part by e‑mail and social media. Because two unions — affil­i­ates of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers and the Nation­al Edu­ca­tion Asso­ci­a­tion — vie for mem­bers across the state like pre-NLRA unions used to, this rank-and-file rebel­lion appears to have whip­sawed the com­pet­ing union lead­er­ships into a one-upman­ship over who could more effec­tive­ly lead the strike and claim cred­it for the win.

This exam­ple does sug­gest one mod­el for a new union­ism, root­ed in our recent past.

Should we have more wild­cat strikes?

I recent­ly wrote a piece for the Wash­ing­ton Post on the Janus vs. AFSCME case about how agency fees, which are direct­ly chal­lenged in this case, have his­tor­i­cal­ly been trad­ed for the no-strike clause. I’ve been mak­ing vari­a­tions of the same point at In These Times for over two years, but this time it’s cre­at­ed a bit of a stir.

Some com­men­ta­tors are begin­ning to rec­og­nize that an anti-union deci­sion in Janus could spark con­sti­tu­tion­al and work­place chaos that could make messy protests like the West Vir­ginia teach­ers’ strike a more reg­u­lar occurrence.

If deprived of agency fees, it is prob­a­ble that some unions will cede exclu­sive rep­re­sen­ta­tion in order to kick out the scabs, or free rid­ers.” And one won­ders how much longer pri­vate sec­tor unions in right-to-work states will con­tin­ue to slog through unfair NLRB elec­tions in order to win” the oblig­a­tion to rep­re­sent free-rid­ers, instead of embrac­ing Charles J. Mor­ris’ the­o­ry that the orig­i­nal 1935 process for card check recog­ni­tion of minor­i­ty unions is still oper­a­tional and demand­ing mem­bers-only” bargaining.

That trend would inevitably lead to new work­er orga­ni­za­tions rush­ing to poach the unrep­re­sent­ed work­ers left behind. Some would like­ly com­pete by offer­ing cheap­er dues or by cozy­ing up to man­age­ment. Oth­ers would vie for mem­bers and shopfloor lead­er­ship by rail­ing against dis­ap­point­ing deals. This will be messy. As in the pre-NLRA era, work­place com­pe­ti­tion between unions may not pro­duce last­ing union contracts.

But it will also make a guar­an­teed peri­od of labor peace impos­si­ble — and that could lead to more strikes like the West Vir­ginia wild­cat. Through Janus, right-to-work and the renewed open-shop offen­sive, the boss­es have made clear that they’re not inter­est­ed in labor peace. Let’s give them what they want. 

Shaun Rich­man is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer and the Pro­gram Direc­tor of the Har­ry Van Ars­dale Jr. School of Labor Stud­ies at SUNY Empire State Col­lege. His Twit­ter han­dle is @Ess_Dog.
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