Intransigent employers, hostile legislatures, and a pending Supreme Court decision are making prospects for the US labour movement appear grim in the Trump era. The court decision, Janus vs. the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, is expected in June, and could effectively impose so-called ‘right-to-work’ legislation on public sector unions nationally. Yet the grassroots-led strike by the teachers and support staff of West Virginia, over 13 days in February and March, has inspired new hopes.
West Virginia has a proud labour history, but in recent decades, with the decline of the United Mine Workers and rising unemployment, it has become a Republican bastion and a ‘right-to-work’ state. ‘Right-to-work’ has nothing to do with guaranteeing employment. The term refers to legislation enabling employees in unionized workplaces to opt out of paying dues, while continuing to enjoy the benefits and protections of the collective agreement. ‘Right-to-work’ legislation was first implemented in 1947 to help stymy the unionization of workers in the US south by weakening the organizational base of unions. In recent years, pushed by right wing think tanks funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, it has spread to former union bastions in the north including Michigan and Indiana.
Public sector unions in West Virginia are subjected to even more debilitating laws that prevent them from engaging in formal collective bargaining or going on strike. In this context, West Virginia’s funding for education and the broader public sector had entered a race to the bottom with other conservative southern states. But the recent victory of West Virginia’s educators, who won a five per cent pay increase for all state employees and a commitment to remedy the systemic underfunding of their health benefits plan, has inspired their colleagues across the US south and beyond to exercise their collective power.
In April, I attended a conference of union activists organized by Labor Notes in Chicago. Begun in 1979 as a newsletter bringing together grassroots labour activists from across sectors and borders, Labor Notes’ biennial conference, which this year attracted 3,000 participants, has also become the largest cross-union gathering of teacher activists in North America. The victorious West Virginia teachers and support staff were a central feature of this year’s conference, with hundreds attending sessions featuring activists who shared lessons from their strike.
Despite receiving among the lowest teachers’ salaries in the US for years, leading to hundreds of unfilled vacancies annually across the state, perhaps the final straw came in the form of plans by the state government to drastically increase benefits co-payments for West Virginia public employees, which would amount to a significant decline in income. Teachers and support staff began organizing school-by-school and county-by-county, with thousands coordinating through Facebook groups. With strong support from parents, as well as from many administrators and superintendents frustrated by the difficulty of attracting and retaining staff, they walked out and picketed the state capitol. With the help of community groups and churches, they ensured that bag lunches remained available for low income students and families to pick up. They didn’t return to their schools until it was clear that the hostile Republican legislature could not subvert the deal that was reached by the two teachers’ unions and the support staff union with the governor.
Teachers in Oklahoma, whose salaries competed with West Virginia’s for last place, were the first to be inspired. Oklahoma is another ‘right-to-work’ state where many teachers were not part of the union, and organizing began from the bottom up. With the raised expectations of their membership, the state’s American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association affiliates announced a walkout for the first week of April to coincide with the state’s annual high stakes standardized tests. After a decade without a raise, the average high school teachers’ salary was $42,460. Strikers demand a $10,000 raise over three years. The Republican legislature has granted $6,100. With high numbers of vacancies, the strikers appeared unperturbed by the possibility of reprisals for participating in an illegal strike, stating that they could get jobs nearby in Texas and earn far more.
Strikes subsequently spread to Arizona and Kentucky. Both have abysmal pay, as well as specific issues, such as a Republican scheme in Kentucky to cut cost of living increases to pensioners and a proposal by the Arizona governor to implement school vouchers. In each of these states, legislatures had whittled down public revenue for years through income and corporate tax cuts, and then claimed they could not raise education funding. The leader of West Virginia’s Republicans initially claimed that money for salary increases would have to come from slashing social security benefits paid to the state’s retirees. Education workers demanded that it come from raising taxes on natural gas fracking and mining. Oklahoma will be raising taxes on oil refineries.
Unlike these southern states, prior to 2011 Wisconsin’s public sector workers held union rights comparable to those in Ontario. Wisconsin was actually the first state to grant full collective bargaining rights to public sector unions in 1956. In 2011, Republican governor Scott Walker passed legislation requiring public sector unions to hold recertification votes every year (with non-voters counting as a “no”). He also banned strikes and limited collective bargaining gains to salary increases up to the cost of living. Membership in the Wisconsin Teachers’ Association has since declined from 98,000 to 29,000. With dedicated member organizing and creative public campaigns on issues important to their members as well as to students and their families, some locals, like the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association, have managed to avoid this drastic decline.
At the Labor Notes’ conference, a special education teacher from Milwaukee, serving as her union’s vice president, tearfully explained that immediately following the loss of collective bargaining rights, the state implemented “the biggest cuts to the education budget in the history of Wisconsin.” Annual member pay and benefits was slashed by $10,000. A school voucher program led to the proliferation of shoddy storefront ‘credit mills,’ often staffed by uncertified teachers, and the closure of dozens of public schools. At the school level, teachers say the balance of power has shifted to favour bully principals. They had lost nearly all of their prep time to daily staff meetings and PD. They were now quietly organizing their own walkouts. An educational assistant from Milwaukee summed up her anger over seven years of losses: “We want it all back.”
The experience of Wisconsin is a cautionary tale with particular relevance for OSSTF/FEESO members. Well established, strong unions, and the public education system itself, can be diminished or even dismantled with shocking speed by a government committed to an anti-labour ideology.