Friday, March 9, 2018

West Virginia teachers challenge the oligarchs and send a message to working people across the country: Stand up for your rights!

The victory by West Virginia teachers in their nine-day strike for higher wages and more secure health benefits has already inspired teachers in Oklahoma, Kentucky and other states to consider demanding the same of their legislators.

The wildcat strike was the latest act of public rebellion against the powerful forces that have taken over these United States--Republican legislatures across the land that starve state budgets in order to feed corporate greed, legislators little more than drones for the Koch brothers and the bills-writing ALEC organization, propaganda-spewing Fox “News” and a compliant corporate media that generally ignores worker needs or rights.

Add to that list, of course, the National Rifle Association, which preaches the 2nd Amendment but is really nothing more than the lobbying arm of a weapons industry more concerned with profits than the lives of school children.

The teachers’ strike in West Virginia is indeed viscerally connected to the public reaction to the horrible shooting at the Majory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. That shooting in February took 17 lives and led to massive protests by students there and across the country against the NRA-spawned madness of our gun laws.

Across the land, people want to know what has happened to this country.

Here’s a hint: comments by West Virginia Senator Lynn Arvon, R-Raleigh, to an aide about the teachers’ strike: “The teachers have to understand that West Virginia is a red state and the free handouts are over.”

Such is the contempt many of our politicians have for regular people like teachers, who’ve gone years without pay raises and who see their pensions and health care plans threatened by legislators who brag about fiscal accountability yet refuse to collect the taxes rightfully owed by corporations, politicians whose own accountability is only to the lobbyists who funnel money into their campaign chests.

Of course, the bipartisan agreement reached by billionaire West Virginia Governor Jim Justice (he is the richest man in West Virginia) and state legislators—with the approval of the American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia and the West Virginia Education Association--to end what was an illegal strike is clearly aimed to make the teachers “look like the bad guy … greedy and selfish,” in the words of one teacher quoted by writer Will Morrow of the World Socialist Website.

The teachers indeed got the 5 percent pay raise they demanded, a pay raise that extended to other government employees such as janitors, secretaries and law enforcement officers. However, they failed to get a tax on energy companies to help fund a health insurance program and got instead a “task force” to look into various options.

To pay for their pay raise, the legislators vowed to cut Medicaid, funding aimed at repairing ailing state buildings, and tuition assistance for students at community and technical colleges. In other words, as West Virginia Senate Finance Committee Chairman Craig Blair said, “there’s going to be some pain.”

And don’t kid yourself. Blair, Justice and the rest of the oligarchy controlling the state fully intend that those suffering from that pain place the blame on school teachers.

What’s encouraging is that the teachers garnered much public support during their strike. West Virginians knew their children’s teachers deserved a pay raise and a securely funded health care plan, and they stood with them despite a mainstream media that here as in most cases either ignores strikes or portrays them through the prism of the inconvenience they cause. So-called “liberal” MSNBC mostly ignored the strike despite its national implications and continued the network’s confounding obsession with finding a Russian excuse for Hillary Clinton’s presidential election loss.

Ironically the strike took place as the U.S. Supreme Court was hearing the so-called “Janus” case aimed at stripping public employee unions of their ability to collect union dues from non-member employees who benefit from their collective bargaining efforts. The ruling could have significant impact on public employee unions across the country.

Back in early 1985, your Labor South reporter covered the historic 11-week public teacher strike in Mississippi. Teachers from across the state marched on the state Capitol in Jackson and finally won a $4,400-over-three-years pay raise agreement. However, in some ways, it was a Pyrrhic victory because the agreement came with a no-strike provision that would fine teacher organizations up to $20,000 a day for future strikes.

As the strike in West Virginia wore on this month, labor historians from far and wide came to the University of Mississippi to participate in a symposium on the 1930s organizing efforts of the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America union in the South and elsewhere.

The union worked hard to organize both farm and factory workers at the height of the Great Depression but eventually focused on factory workers due to the legal and other difficulties organizing field workers.

“Strikes by field workers who can’t pay dues is costly and a problem,” said Jarod Roll of the University of Mississippi.

Field workers were often the most in need of union protection, yet they weren’t protected by national labor laws (thanks to the Southern Democrats in Congress) and the seasonal, nomadic nature of their work as well as their poverty and pitiably low wages made it difficult to organize them into a union.

(To the right, a Depression-era strike banner from the Southern Tenant Farmers Union on display at the Southern Tenant Farmers Museum in Tyronza, Arkansas)

Still, Roll said, one of the most dynamic labor stories of the 1930s was that of the Southern Tenant Farmers Union, a bi-racial organization founded in the Arkansas Delta which joined UCAPAWA and which won key victories against recalcitrant Southern landowners.

Like the SFTU, the school teachers in West Virginia had the deck stacked against them, but they carried the day even if their victory isn’t across the board. What they did was send a message across the land that people are getting sick and tired of what’s happening in this country. They’re ready to stand up for their rights, and the powers that be better listen.