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Est. April 5, 2002
March 15, 2018 - Issue 733

WVa Workers Win Big,
Living in Trump’s World


"The strike, which closed the schools across
the state, was not the kind of strike that
would have been expected to be organized by
an industrial union in the heyday of unions
decades ago.  This one was more like an
explosion of anger by teachers who have been
abused for most of their working lives and
weren’t going to take it anymore."

West Virginia’s teachers have shown the rest of the workers in the U.S. that solidarity can provide dignity and fairness, as it improves the lives of all of those who stood together and the lives of their families and communities.

It was a win that will go down in history, since the teachers were fighting for their livelihoods and for their right to demand equity and a fair deal in a right-to-work state that, like so many other states in 2018, have used their r-t-w law to trample working women and men on the job, no matter what the job.

The nine-day strike ended last week, when both houses of the legislature voted to give the teachers the 5 percent raise they were promised, rather than the 4 percent raise the state government tried to force on them. Twenty-thousand strong, the teachers decided that they had had enough, that they were going to stand together and strike. Schools across West Virginia were closed for the duration of the strike, another remarkable course of events that may not ever have been achieved by any union or organization in any other state.

But the times might be changing and the strike by members of the National Education Association in West Virginia may be a sign that workers are just beginning to understand the nature and power of solidarity among those who work for a paycheck. After all, The Mountain State is the location of Harpers Ferry, location of the famous raid of the federal arsenal there by John Brown, who is credited by some as the abolitionist spark that ultimately resulted in the Civil War that destroyed chattel slavery.

For some of the teachers, working at their pay scale must have felt something like at least indentured servitude, since their annual pay was reported by NEA to be about $45,622, while the national average pay for teachers is some $58,353. One striking teacher who was interviewed on NPR during the strike said that her annual income was about $40,000 and noted that she holds a master’s degree and two separate teaching certificates and has been at her school for 15 years. Such is the condition of teachers (and most workers) in right-to-work states, which are derided by union workers as “right-to-work-for-less” states.

The strike, which closed the schools across the state, was not the kind of strike that would have been expected to be organized by an industrial union in the heyday of unions decades ago. This one was more like an explosion of anger by teachers who have been abused for most of their working lives and weren’t going to take it anymore. The effectiveness of the strike was boosted by the use of social media, since the various teacher’s groups in all the counties could keep in hourly contact and just about everyone was able to know what was happening in detail.

When union leaders tried to end the strike when they felt they had an agreement for the state to agree to the 5 percent pay increase, the rank-and-file rejected it and decided to stay out until the 5 percent was in writing. The state legislators had tried to renege on the previously agreed 5 percent and offered 4 percent. Sentiment among the teachers appeared to be unanimous: “No.”

So-called right-to-work laws prohibit unions from having much influence in every kind of workplace, but right-wing legislators in many states, following the lead of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, seek to prohibit even the thought of public workers collectively bargaining with employers over wages, working conditions, benefits, and pensions. This effort has been ongoing in the U.S. for decades and has pretty much worked in the private sector, where unions only represent about 6.5 percent of workers, nationwide. That’s compared with about 35 percent in the 1950-1960s. Now, those same elements, billionaires and millionaires, corporations and politicians on the far right, are aiming for the public sector, which includes the teachers.

About 5 percent of the population in the nation exercise great control of life, in general. They routinely buy politicians with their campaign contributions, they control the bulk of communications media (print and broadcast outlets are controlled by few hands), and they have funded a plethora of right-wing think tanks that constantly pour the views of the very rich into those outlets of “news,” which inform much of what passes as public opinion. They feed it into the system and that’s what comes out in the various national polls taken daily or weekly. It is one reason that even someone of low character like Donald Trump can sustain the support of most Republicans and a smattering of others, many of whom could be considered apolitical. There is great power in the press and it is being used in a most irrational way by the powerful.

The powerful want a neutered population of workers and, that way, they believe they will be able to run roughshod over the nation’s environment, its social and political and even its spiritual fabric and in so doing, maximize their profits beyond their wildest dreams. But there is a limit to what workers will tolerate. Teachers, who are some of the most dedicated workers in the country are there not for the money, but for their desire to teach young minds and to help them grow into strong, thinking adults. Mostly, they do this work in a nurturing way that tends to get the results they are seeking. Therein lies what might be the opposite of the wishes of the powers that be: A thinking adult population.

This time, it’s the teachers themselves who have awakened, in one of the most worker-union-hostile states in the country. They had had enough of what the Mountain State was dishing out and they weren’t going to take it anymore. What they have done in that state is likely to be replicated in other states, like Oklahoma and Kentucky. The deceptively named right-to-work laws have either prevented the forming of unions or have taken from them what little power they had to oppose the depredations of their public employers. What is little known among the general public is that, over many decades, some 98 percent of contracts were settled without a strike, mainly because the workers felt that they achieved their goals through the collective bargaining process. There was what some termed “labor peace.”

The Janus vs. AFSCME that is now before the U.S. Supreme Court is a case in point. A worker represented by extreme right-wingers and their foundations and committees and billionaires’ funds has said that having to pay a fair share (equivalent to some dues) to the union that negotiates his pay and benefits is a violation of his First Amendment rights. It seemed that this issue was long ago settled, but this is brought up in another context and may very well be the companion piece to right-to-work laws in destroying collective bargaining and other worker rights in the U.S., as the remnants of worker-union power are hollowed out.

In the context of the West Virginia teachers’ strike, Ken Fones-Wolf, a professor of history at West Virginia University told the New York Times Service last week that undermining public sector unions will not bring labor peace. Rather, he said, “What it does show is that this Janus decision will force workers to look at other strategies. Without this institutional voice, it does make it harder to sort of organize this kind of thing (the strike). But when conditions do get bad enough, workers will take action without an organization.”

The question remains for the powers that be and their political supporters of very modest means who may not fully understand the implications for their lives as workers is: What happens when workers in all the other occupations and fields realize that they have little power over the direction of their own lives? And, what happens when they decide to take action and those people are not as gentle and nurturing as most teachers are? If that question were asked of themselves by the small ruling class and they answered truthfully, they might not like the possible results. In fact, they might be fearful of the outcome, and rightly so.

(Disclosure: I was a staffer for AFSCME International for many years.) Columnist, John Funiciello, is a long-time former newspaper reporter and labor organizer, who lives in the Mohawk Valley of New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Contact Mr. Funiciello and BC.




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