Militant strikes and mass demonstrations of tens of thousands of teachers, students and community supporters have spread like a wildfire across the states of West Virginia, Kentucky, Arizona, and Oklahoma since the end of February in the U.S. Other teacher actions, demonstrations, and one-day strikes have taken place in New Jersey, Puerto Rico, and recently the threat of walkouts spread to the state of Colorado.
These protests and mobilizations are happening while hundreds of thousands of high-school students stage walkouts and mass demonstrations across the country against gun violence and millions of women have protested against Trump and been inspired by the “Me Too” movement. They are all indications of the further radicalization and “awakening” of the sleeping giant of the working class under the shocks and impact of the deepening social and political crisis of U.S. capitalism.
Teachers win victories
While not achieving all their goals, the teachers’ revolts have made important wage gains and scored gains for public education in general. The movement started with a nine-day strike by 20,000 teachers across West Virginia at the end of February. The outcome was that the teachers and all 75,000 public employees won a 5% raise in a state where Trump got nearly 70% of the vote and that only recently passed severe anti-union legislation. The teachers exposed the mass anger in society against the neoliberal agenda of cuts to education, health care, and social services alongside handouts to the super rich and corporations. When the state legislature attempted to punish the strikers by lowering the raise to 4%, teachers threatened to occupy the capitol building vowing to remain until their demands were met.
Inspired by the victory of their sisters and brothers in West Virginia, 30,000 Oklahoma teachers went on strike at the beginning of April. These teachers have not seen a wage increase in over a decade while funding for schools education and public services have been severely cut. Education funding alone has been cut by 28% per student since 2008 in Oklahoma.
For nine days, 20,000-30,000 teachers, students, and other workers laid virtual siege to the legislature at the state capitol in Oklahoma City demanding not only higher wages but an end to the virtual third-world conditions in their schools, including old and outdated books and the massive overcrowding in the classrooms. As in West Virginia, the teachers enjoyed massive support from the community, with free food being delivered daily by local businesses and hundreds of thousands of dollars raised nationally to support them. Construction workers refused to do any work in the capitol while the teachers and their supporters were there protesting. Alongside the teachers, over 100,000 Oklahoma state employees began to mobilize to demand wage increases. A poll at the end of the strike showed that 72% of Oklahomans supported the teachers’ walkout “until all of their demands are met.” These are astonishing numbers, for a state considered to be a right-wing bastion.
The reactionary Republican state government conceded a $6,000 yearly wage increase for the teachers (who were the lowest paid in the country) and a small increase in education funding but refused to reverse tax cuts for the rich and big business.
Kentucky and Arizona
There were also huge protests, sickouts, and walkouts by the teachers in Kentucky when the Republican-dominated state government tried to impose vicious cuts to pension programs and threatened more cuts to education funding. The crowd at the state capital, Frankfort, was over ten thousand, comprised mostly of teachers but including an inspirational mobilization of other public employees, private sector labor unions, and students. They forced the Republican governor and legislature to retreat and abandon their plans. Thousands of students and their parents and working class communities throughout the state mobilized to support the teachers.
Meanwhile in Arizona, on April 12, Governor Ducey was forced by a month of massive protests at the state capitol and at local schools to concede to demands for a 20% pay raise for teachers by 2020. It is significant that the teachers were not only fighting only for themselves but also seeking increased pay for all support professionals, and a freeze on corporate tax cuts until per-pupil spending reaches the national average. It has been announced that the teachers have voted to walkout on April 26 if Republican lawmakers refuse to reinstate about a $1 billion in education cuts which they implemented over the last decade. Teachers are also correctly pointing out that the promised pay raise is still not included in the state budget.
The strikes and mass mobilizations in Oklahoma, Kentucky, West Virginia and Arizona are all taking place in parts of the country that the liberal left and the Democratic elite consider to be “backward” because they voted for Trump in 2016. These states also have cut public education and other public services to the bone and have the worst pay and conditions for teachers and workers in general. In West Virginia, Governor Jim Justice is a billionaire coal oligarch who has given huge tax breaks to the industries like coal and gas and he owes millions in back taxes.
In Oklahoma, as elsewhere in these states, when there was a budget shortfall, the Republican state government responded by cutting taxes on the rich and giving a $470 million tax break to the profitable oil and gas industries!
The demand for change and frustration with the existing state of affairs in these states – in a supposedly politically backward part of the country – was shown by the outstanding votes received by Bernie Sanders who won all counties in West Virginia in the primary election against Clinton in 2016, on the basis of his call for a “political revolution” against the billionaires, taxing the rich and big business, free education, and a national health care system.
In an article, Socialist Alternative recently wrote:
While much of the American liberal left concluded that the working class in states like West Virginia, which voted 68.7% for Trump, should be dismissed as one reactionary mass, Socialist Alternative explained the contradictory reality and the need for the labor movement to take a stand and build a movement that spoke to the common interests of all working people while also boldly fighting racism, nativism and sexism. The West Virginia teachers, less likely to vote Trump than the state as a whole and also inspired by the emerging women’s movement, point precisely to the class contradictions in Trump country. Led in part by leftists, the rank and file revolt won the support of the mass of the West Virginia working class in a stand-up fight with a reactionary, Republican dominated legislature.
The initial strike in West Virginia and the spreading of the mass protests revealed the huge crisis facing the Republican governments of these states. To a significant degree the important victories of the teachers and the support they enjoy across these solid Republican states represents a revolt of a large section of Republican voters against the Republican establishment. On the campaign trail, Trump demagogically talked about “improving infrastructure and public investments, price controls on the cost of medicines, and higher taxes on the rich.” In office, Trump and the Republican Party in Congress have passed massive tax breaks for the rich while attacking health care, especially for poor Americans.
Teachers in their daily work deal with the consequences of the policies of the past decades and the massive social crises engulfing large parts of the United States in terms of poverty, homelessness, unemployment, social displacement, and the opioid crisis. At the same time, three corporate oligarchs have equal wealth to the bottom 50% (150 million people) in the United States.
The teachers who moved into action have recounted in the national media how they are forced to have two and three jobs, are unable to pay their student loans, and face ever increasing cost of health care and cost of living. These experiences are shared by a large section of the working class in the United States even during this supposed economic “upturn.”
It is important to note the role of women in these movements. The West Virginia and Oklahoma strikes were led in part by radical women in the rank and file. Predominantly female workforces such as teachers and nurses have been on the forefront of militant labor struggles over the last period, part of the emerging women’s movement around issues like equal pay and sexual harassment in the workplace.
Anti-union laws mean that teachers in these states have no right to collective bargaining or automatic union representation. This also meant, however, that when the teachers rose up, there was no labor relations machinery to tie them down and the movement took the form of a rebellion against the state government. The only way to secure a wage increase was not through collective bargaining, but through forcing the state legislature to make it into law and find funding for the increased spending.
As one teacher in West Virginia said: “If the strike is illegal, all that means is that we don’t have to play by the rules they made for us.”
The existing union leadership’s strategy, along with local Democratic politicians, was not to prepare for strikes or militant actions but to try for some sort of a deal. But this was completely rejected by the rank-and-file teachers who effectively started organizing in their schools and included other school service personnel in their discussions. When the strikes began, the union leaders could not stop the rank-and-file movement that was exploding under their feet. Several times in the course of the struggles in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona the union officials were eager to accept the first vague, paltry offer that was offered by the politicians rather than really fight for substantial gains. Again and again, the rank and file of the teachers and their supporters in mass assemblies and in social media rebuffed them and forced the struggle to continue until the Republican politicians retreated in the face of overwhelming popular support and a bold, escalating struggle.
During the strikes and mobilizations, the Democrats played the role of middlemen between the teacher unions and the Republican-controlled state legislatures. Their strategy, along with the union leaders, was not to support and build the rank-and-file revolts against the political system but to deflect them and channel the anger into next November’s elections and the effort to elect Democrats in office. But the record of the Democratic Party in these states has largely been one of collaboration with the Republicans in passing the budget cuts which were demanded by corporate America to make the working class pay for the crisis of their system. In some states, like West Virginia, the Democrats were in power until recently. On a national scale, the Obama administration presided over the loss of hundreds of thousands of teacher jobs during the Great Recession and promoted the privatization of public education while handing over trillions to bail out Wall Street.
But this fall, the Democrats are likely to be major beneficiaries of the teachers’ struggles in these states as people seek to “throw the bums out.” In a significant development, many teachers are running for state-wide and other public offices. Teachers and working people generally need their own independent political representation which refuses any money from big business and we urge all teachers to run independent of the two-party system. But while a more developed expression of working class political independence may not materialize before this November, teachers already realize through their own experience that they cannot rely on the word of politicians but will have to keep their movement going even if or when the Democrats are in charge to win their full demands.
New forms of struggle
Commenting on the spectacular mobilizations and actions of thousands of teachers with red bandanas the NY Times said that the strikes were “organized by ordinary teachers on Facebook.” Bloomberg News correctly cautioned the ruling class that the strikes have the potential to spread across the country with the teachers prepared to take strike action against the wishes of the union leaderships.
Social media and widespread use of the internet played an important role in the successful organizing of the teachers. In several cases, social media allowed teachers to overcome the conservatism of their leaders and to extend or continue their actions.
The key organizing in West Virginia, Kentucky and Oklahoma has been through new informal networks, mainly through Facebook, where rank-and-file teachers are discussing strategy. One example was the Facebook page “Oklahoma Teacher Walkout – The Time is Now!” which quickly grew to over 60,000 members with vibrant discussion. In West Virginia, 20,000 teachers were signed on to a strike-participation Facebook page. Social media can play an important role bringing the struggle forward, and linking it to the broader community, especially among young people and workers in the private sector who face similar attacks from the same establishment.
This reflects the current early stages of political awakening of hundreds of thousands of working people in the U.S. Social media, however, is not a substitute for real, on the ground, organizing and building local fighting and democratic organizations rooted in activism, democratic assemblies, and open debate. In some cases, this will involve reforming existing unions but in others building new organizations.
The momentum coming out of the historic revolts and victories of teachers and public sector workers in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky represent an opportunity to start a serious fight back of public sector workers across the U.S. The Supreme Court will soon rule on the Janus case which if upheld will extend the anti-union “right to work” conditions which exist in states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona to the entire public sector nationally. While this would be a significant setback, the boldness and heroic resistance of the teachers and their ability to win in right to work states shows this ruling does not have to be a death sentence for public sector unions. We have urged that preparations be made for a national day of action in opposition to Janus and for other demands including taxing the rich to restore the cuts and fully fund education. This would put the labor movement on a collision course with Trump and the Republicans. As the teachers have done at state level, they would need to broaden out the struggle and work to galvanize a true mass movement of all working people including the poor, people of color and immigrants against this rotten regime.