If you want to know what revenge looks like, you don’t have to look much further than the latest version of the “ominous omnibus” education bill passed by the West Virginia Senate. It seems to me that they want to make an example of what can happen to working people when they dare to fight back — especially if they dare to win.
After all, the 2018 strike by teachers and service workers set off a wave of action by school workers across the country and beyond. Crushing the movement here would send another powerful message.
And maybe some people want to make sure kids in West Virginia grow up without ever seeing people stand together to effect positive change.
Along with some harmless provisions, like a raise for teachers and a boost for mental health, the Senate bill includes measures almost universally unpopular among (non-astroturf) West Virginia stakeholders — like charter schools, which are often run as private schools paid for with public money.
A separate bill rolls in the Trojan horse of education savings accounts, another push towards privatization. Both of those were opposed by 88 percent of people at numerous forums around the state.
On top of that, the bill explicitly states that public employees don’t have the right to strike, that striking could be grounds for termination, that days missed due to strikes will not be compensated and that county superintendents will not be allowed to close schools.
This is the third wave in series of attacks on workers and the organizations that represent them, each targeting a different group.
In the first wave, skilled workers in the building trades took a hit when the state’s prevailing wage law was repealed. The repeal promised taxpayer savings that, according to some reports, never materialized, while depressing wages, increasing injuries and reducing the number of people in apprenticeship programs.
In the second wave, other private-sector workers covered by collective bargaining agreements took their hit with the passage of the misnamed “right to work” law, which is more accurately “right to work for less.” This was challenged in court and is likely to go before the West Virginia Supreme Court soon.
That law undermines industrial democracy by requiring unions to represent all workers, including those who receive the benefits of union membership — typically better wages, benefits and working conditions— without paying dues.
Previously, union membership was determined by democratic elections: if most eligible workers voted in favor of union representation, all were covered. Likewise, if a majority wanted to decertify the union, they could vote on that as well. That’s the way elections work. If “right to work for less” is upheld in court, you can expect to see living standards for working families, union and non-union, decline even more.
Now public employees, particularly teachers and school support workers, are the target. They don’t have collective bargaining rights in West Virginia. If they did, they would have other means for resolving disputes beside work stoppages.
Teachers and support workers in West Virginia have only engaged in work stoppages as a last resort. It’s a rare measure, happening only three times in 156 years, and then only when they feel like they’ve been pushed to the wall. And it’s a sure thing that if they didn’t strike during the last two years, they would have been totally ignored.
As for the legal status of such work stoppages, there’s a saying that there are no illegal strikes, only unsuccessful ones. Since laws are generally made by those with wealth and power, actions that challenge their power are often illegal. Until they’re not. The case of Rosa Parks comes to mind, but examples could be multiplied. It’s always been that way.
My favorite response to the proposed legislation came from Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers union, an organization that from bitter experience knows a thing or two about union busting and how to fight it. His statement said in part, “Teachers and school support personnel already do not have the right to strike in West Virginia, but they ignored that and demonstrated the power of solidarity in each of the last two years. Their fight for better education for our kids remains an inspiration to education professionals across the nation, and the UMWA was proud to stand with them.
“Let me make this very clear: If our state’s education workers believe they need to take to the streets once again, we will be there with them. And if someone comes to arrest them, they will have to go through us first.”
If it does come to that, I’d like to think they’d have to go through some of the rest of us, as well.