Workers Vanguard No. 1129

9 March 2018


West Virginia School Strike: Militant Union Battle Ends

No to Medicaid Cuts!

MARCH 6—The West Virginia state government has pushed through a bill to end a historic public school strike by some 20,000 teachers, overwhelmingly women, and 13,000 bus drivers, cafeteria workers and other support staff. Strikers won a 5 percent pay raise for themselves and all other state employees. Left unresolved is the state’s threat to cut health care benefits and hike premiums, the other major issue in the strike. As we go to press, it appears that the strike by the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA), American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and West Virginia School Service Personnel Association (WVSSPA) is over and schools will reopen tomorrow.

The unions have declared victory with the passage of today’s bill, although some teachers know they will have to fight another day for health benefits. Even the pay package comes with a poison pill. The Republican-dominated legislature vows to fund the pay hike by a wide range of cuts, including to Medicaid, in a state where 30 percent of the population depends on that program. The unions should be in the forefront of a fight for quality medical care for all, free at the point of delivery, and today must demand: No cuts to Medicaid!

It is noteworthy that before the statewide strike began, teachers packed lunches for their students so that none would go hungry. This was no mere gesture. Nearly one in four children in West Virginia lives in poverty, and for many, school meal programs are a main source of nutrition. This action was an important counter to the state’s effort to pit the poor against the unions, which is what lawmakers are blatantly doing now by threatening Medicaid.

The strike unified the WVEA, AFT and WVSSPA in a popular, one-out-all-out fight, in defiance of the state’s anti-labor laws. Teachers and other public employees in West Virginia have never had legal union recognition, with their unions designated “voluntary associations.” Furthermore, in 2016 the state legislature enacted a “right to work” law banning union shops, extending the assault on former labor strongholds like Michigan and Wisconsin. But in a state defined by its long history of bloody labor struggle, the teachers and school workers showed determination to fight.

Strikers on the picket lines and at the statehouse blasted the state attorney general and Republican senators who declared their work stoppage illegal. “So what if it’s illegal,” one striker told Workers Vanguard. “What can they do, fire all of us?” Good point, especially given the fact that before the strike started over 700 teacher positions needed to be filled in the state.

Day after day, strikers massed inside the State Capitol in Charleston to demand better pay and health benefits. Teachers’ pay ranks 48th in the country, with starting teachers making poverty wages. After deducting for health care, many make less than $15 an hour. Some teachers’ household incomes are so low that they qualify for government assistance like the WIC food program. With many teachers forced to work second and even third jobs to make ends meet, a number have fled to neighboring states, where salaries are much higher. Pay for school bus drivers is also near rock bottom.

Strikers were fuming over plans by the state Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) to cut health benefits to school workers and saddle all public employees with hikes in premiums of hundreds of dollars per month. One striker, whose family monthly premiums would more than double, held a sign reading: “I’d take a bullet for YOUR child but PEIA WON’T cover it.” Strikers were particularly outraged by the PEIA’s “Go365” initiative, the centerpiece of which is a health assessment app. If workers don’t measure up, they could be penalized with higher premiums and deductibles!

A Solid Statewide Strike

The tradition of bitter labor struggle in this historic coal mining district was on display every day of the school strike. Strikers proudly wore red bandanas, harking back to the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, when armed striking miners, 10,000-strong, wore them in order to identify themselves as they fought strikebreaking thugs. In one of the largest labor uprisings in U.S. history, many miners died and some 1,000 were arrested on bogus murder, conspiracy and treason charges. A striking teacher from Boone County, son of a once-jailed miner, told us in Charleston: “If we’re too cowardly to stand up, then we don’t deserve to call ourselves the sons and daughters of coal miners.”

Trade unionists across the country closely followed this labor battle, with Oklahoma teachers gearing up to strike next month. The strike resonated strongly throughout West Virginia itself. On March 4, some 1,400 members of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) struck against Frontier Communications, the state’s largest internet service provider, over job cuts, health care costs and outsourcing. “Working people like us are fed up,” said Fairmont CWA Local 2004 president Jeff Anderson on February 27. “We saw it last week when the teachers went on strike.” The Frontier bosses’ plans to keep operations going with scabs should be met with solidarity action by the entire union movement. Victory to the CWA strike!

The school strike was provoked by Governor Jim Justice, who in January tried to push through a bill with an insulting 1 percent pay raise for teachers and other state employees, with no fix to the underfunded PEIA. Union activists and AFT and WVEA officials in southwestern West Virginia, the heart of coal country, began discussing strike action and urging on their counterparts in other sections of the state.

On February 2, one-day walkouts closed schools in southwestern Logan, Mingo and Wyoming counties, and hundreds of teachers and school support workers from this region converged on Charleston. A walkout in Cabell County followed. From the get-go, each of these one-day strikes included members of the WVEA, AFT and WVSSPA, as well as education workers who were not members of any union. A grassroots Facebook page started by teachers that had been building for a rally at the statehouse on Martin Luther King Day helped stoke the fires for strike action.

Momentum for the statewide strike grew out of the “illegal” one-day walkouts. Strike votes were held in each county school district, and the results were overwhelmingly in favor. Outside the statehouse on February 17, with 10,000 teachers and school staff belting out the Twisted Sister anthem, “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” union officials called for a two-day strike, which began on February 22, a Thursday.

By the weekend, despite thousands of strikers surging in and out of the statehouse, state officials had still not talked with the unions. Schools in all 55 counties remained closed the following Monday, with picket lines up at major intersections throughout the state. On February 27, Justice suddenly announced that he had found money for a 5 percent raise for everybody on strike and 3 percent for the other state employees. As for health benefits, he offered a stopgap, one-year freeze in premiums and promised to appoint a task force, which the heads of the unions had asked for, to supposedly study the problem. That freeze remains in effect.

WVEA, AFT and WVSSPA officials accepted Justice’s offer, despite having no guarantee that the legislature would agree, and announced that schools would reopen two days later. But rank-and-file teachers and school workers smelled a rat and said, “No way!” In fact, the Senate refused to vote on the pay bill. Distrusting the governor and a legislature that had floated bills, since tabled, attacking public employee seniority rights and pushing charter schools, strikers used the February 28 “cooling off” day to rally support for keeping schools closed. Above all, they were angry that skyrocketing out-of-pocket health care costs were being ignored. Under massive pressure from the membership and local leaders, the unions continued the strike.

Labor’s Enemies, and False Friends

Every major labor battle raises the question of who the workers’ friends and enemies are. Many strikers considered the cops as fellow public workers and allies, citing the fact that state troopers’ salaries and health benefits are also determined by the state legislature. This is a deadly illusion. If Governor Justice had issued injunctions to break the school strike, those very police would have been called on to arrest unionists, as they did in the 1990 teachers strike. Or take the case of Bob Buck, a West Virginia steel worker railroaded to prison for defending his union during a 1991-92 strike. Together with the military, courts and prisons, the cops are at the core of the capitalist state that defends the rule and profits of the exploiting class. The cops’ “job” is to repress workers and rain terror on the oppressed black, Latino and poor masses of this country. The whole history of the West Virginia mine wars is one of police forces working with company goons to bloody workers and bust the United Mine Workers.

County and state school superintendents kept schools closed during the strike, often voicing support for union demands. Strikers generally embraced the superintendents as allies, thinking that they have common cause in battling the austerity-minded legislators. But make no mistake: the superintendents are not fellow workers but state officials who answer to the governor. Whatever sympathy they expressed toward their employees was above all a sign of the power and unity of the strike, which generated broad public support. Their real program was expressed by state superintendent Steven Paine, who warned teachers on February 20 about “the economic realities of our state” and declared: “Work stoppages by public employees are not lawful in West Virginia.”

Strikers have directed much of their anger at Republicans in the state government, like the union-hating Senate head Mitch Carmichael. Carmichael & Co. make it easy for state senator Richard Ojeda and other Democrats to pretend to champion labor and the poor when they see fit to do so. But the Democrats are, no less than the Republicans, a party of capitalist rule, from Wall Street darling Hillary Clinton to “socialist” Bernie Sanders and down to the local level. As union officials tell workers angry at the Republicans to “make ’em pay in May,” when election primaries will be held, it is useful to recall the last teachers strike in 1990, when 47 of 55 counties went out for eleven days. The issues then were similar, but the governor, Gaston Caperton, was a Democrat. The state declared the strike illegal, and teachers were arrested on the picket lines.

Governor Justice, a longtime Republican, was elected as a Democrat in 2016 with the support of the labor bureaucrats before switching back to the GOP after Trump’s election. The mine owner Justice was, in the eyes of the union tops, a “good” coal baron compared to his buddy Don Blankenship, the Massey Energy CEO who spent a year in a country-club prison after 29 miners were killed in an explosion at Massey’s Upper Big Branch mine. Today, while Blankenship aims to win the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate in the May primary, the once “friend of labor” Justice has been instrumental in the state’s efforts to squeeze the school unions.

Break with the Democrats and Republicans!

The austerity faced by those who work in West Virginia schools is by no means limited to the Mountain State. For decades, this country’s capitalist rulers, under both Democrats and Republicans, have waged war on public education and the teachers unions. The Obama administration, with its anti-labor education secretary Arne Duncan running point, escalated this war nationally, from vilifying the unions to promoting charter schools. And it did so with the complicity of AFT head Randi Weingarten and other pro-Democratic Party labor chiefs. The attacks on public education show the common interest linking the overwhelmingly white working class in rural West Virginia with struggling families in America’s black ghettos and Latino barrios.

Not a few union members reeling from declining wages and other hardships overseen by a Democratic Party White House looked to Donald Trump in 2016. While Trump postured as an anti-establishment champion of the “little man,” he is in fact a billionaire capitalist whose racist, anti-woman and anti-immigrant bigotry is poison to the working class. The fight against the capitalist rulers’ ceaseless attacks on working people sharply poses the need for labor’s political independence from both the Democratic and Republican parties.

A case in point is the U.S. Supreme Court hearings in Janus v. American Federation of State, Municipal, and County Employees, a case that directly threatens the agency shop in public employment nationwide. Trump’s appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Court, breaking a four-to-four deadlock in the case, all but assures an anti-union ruling. The lesson drawn by labor officialdom is, as always, to mobilize union resources on behalf of the Democrats, with their eyes now focused on the midterm Congressional elections. That class-collaborationist strategy has long undermined organized labor in this country.

The West Virginia school strike gave a glimpse of what it takes to defend and revive the unions. Teachers and staff went out together, and stayed strong and united throughout the strike. This battle shows the need for a new, class-struggle leadership based on opposition to the capitalists, their political parties and their state.

What we need is a multiracial workers party—a party that would mobilize the power of labor at the head of all the oppressed and impoverished in the fight for a workers government. When those who labor rule, the vast riches that are today pocketed by the capitalists will be used to begin rebuilding this society for the benefit of all, including quality, integrated schools from coast to coast.