West Virginia teachers and school service workers’ illegal strike sets an example to us all

by Phil Duncan

Teachers and school service workers in the US state of West Virginia are currently setting an example for workers across North America – and here in New Zealand – with a massive ‘wildcat’ strike.  These public employees are defying the bosses (the local state government and governor), the law and the top bureaucrats in their own union.

The workers’ industrial action has been in pursuit of not just their 5% pay claim, but also around worsening living standards due to high insurance and other ‘out-of-pocket’ costs. Teachers in the state are among the lowest-paid educators in the country – West Virginia ranks 48th out of 50 states in terms of teacher pay.  The last time the state’s 20,000 teachers and 15,000 school service workers got a pay rise was four years ago.

They have also been facing rising insurance costs – like other public employees, they pay into the PEIA (Public Employees Insurance Agency) and the premiums have been rising as faster rates than pay has been increasing, thus depressing their actual take-home pay.

As one of the striking teachers reports, “Even with a master’s degree plus 45 credits and 15 years of teaching experience, I bring home an estimated $2,200 a month. P.E.I.A, if thawed, will subtract an estimated $300 additional from this, leaving me with $1,900 a month.”

The strike was scheduled to begin on February 22.  The response of the state’s attorney-general on February 21 was to issue a statement that the strike would be unlawful and the teachers could face legal action.  “Breaking the law does not set a good example for our children,” he added. (Apparently, worsening workers’ living standards does!)

Rather than be cowed into submission by the threat of legal action, the teachers and service workers defied the state government and walked out in all 55 counties that make up the state!  They took to the streets in protest.  They also stated very clearly that their fight would help all public employees, and that therefore they weren’t just fighting for their own sectional interests.  The teachers and school workers also made sure that the high percentage of children in the state who are dependent on school-provided meals would continue to get fed.

As well as having specific pay and other demands – such as around the insurance premiums – this strike reflects something about the state. West Virginia has a long tradition of militant working class struggle based around the mining industry.  Although that industry is now much-diminished, it has left a legacy of struggle.  It would be interesting to know, for instance, how many of the striking teachers come from families whose had members in the mines.

Moreover, something that is somewhat different in West Virginia from other parts of the United States with similar traditions of struggle is that, in recent years, there has been a core of militant teachers organising in their workplaces across this fairly compact state.

According to Eric Blanc, for instance, writing in Jacobin magazine, “West Virginia’s labor tradition on its own is a necessary, but not sufficient explanation for the current strike. Without months of active organizing and bold initiatives from a small core of deeply rooted, radical teachers, there wouldn’t be a strike here right now.”

The first technically illegal strike went on for four days. Then the union brass struck a deal which many commentators regarded as a significant win for the education workers.  However, while meeting their pay demand it didn’t deal with the insurance issue which, for many of the workers is the biggest issue. The result is that in 50 of the 55 counties of West Virginia the majority of the union members said ‘No’.

A popular chant among workers rejecting the position of the respective union leaderships was “We are the union bosses!”

They have continued to strike, in defiance of the state authorities and threats of legal action.

They are showing that it is possible to defy the bosses and the bosses’ law and weak-kneed union ‘leaderships’. By taking the offensive instead of lying down and getting walked over, these workers stand a good chance of a significant win – and not just for themselves but for all public employees across the state of West Virginia.

Watch this space.

Lastly, you can support their strike fund here.


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