The recent strike by 35,000 teachers and allied school employees in West Virginia showed the political power of solidarity. These wildcat strikers impelled lawmakers to deviate however momentarily from neoliberal austerity. The Republican trifecta in the Mountain State conceded a 5 percent pay raise for teachers and other state employees and deferred pending increases in health care costs. These stalwart public servants gave labor one of its few victories in recent memory.
What does the West Virginia strike portend? Is it a watershed event or simply a passing interlude on a downward path? The answers require examining the nature of the dispute, how the strikers prevailed, and the possibility of replicating these circumstances. The strike also offers insight on how to mitigate the potential impact of an unfavorable U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the pending case of Janus v. AFSCME, which would essentially render the entire public sector open shop.
Two issues drove the teachers and other school employees to strike. In the first place, they had not received a pay raise in four years, notwithstanding that the average salary of teachers in West Virginia ranked 48th in the nation at $45,622. Strikers sought legislative redress because the Legislature sets school pay in the state. Pending increases in health care premiums provoked even more disaffection among the ranks.
Against this backdrop, it merits note that West Virginia is a “red” state, having given President Donald Trump his largest voter margin (over 42 percent) in 2016. It is a recent (2016) convert to right-to-work. And it does not have a law permitting collective bargaining among public employees, including teachers.
Yet, the state is steeped in the tradition of coal-mining unionism. It ranks 49th in the nation in median household income. At $43,385 in 2016, the median household income in West Virginia is almost 25 percent below the national median of $57,617.
The strikers’ success stemmed from an innately just cause behind which they constructively mobilized in several distinctive ways. First, the politically inspired walkout originated at the grassroots; it was literally crowd-sourced. Second, the collective action sidelined union leaders; there were no union bosses for the anti-labor forces to villainize. Third, the strikers engaged the community, including students, to support their cause. Finally, they focused on attainable goals.
In this vein, the West Virginia teachers and allied school workers demonstrated both strength and savvy. They showed that the real power within the labor movement rests with the rank and file. The striking protesters also aligned their goals with the broader societal interest in promoting economic justice for the working class, which has been hammered by adverse public policies for decades. And these vocal dissenters fought for goals which are essential to a thriving middle class.
The prospect that this particular strike can be replicated elsewhere depends on the degree to which union rank and file galvanize and channel support (within the house of labor and the community at large) purposefully. Given the decades-long stagnation in wages, rising economic inequality, increasingly contingent work and rising student debt (which mortgages the future for many), the seeds of economic discontent and protest are firmly planted. What is needed is a bottom-up social activism that will harness the might of multitudes focused on a common goal.
A final takeaway from the West Virginia experience applies to the prospect that the Supreme Court invalidates the agency shop in its forthcoming Janus ruling. The real strength of labor lies not in its power to compel dues (though this is arguably just and equitable given the obligation of representing all employees of a recognized bargaining unit, regardless of union-membership status) but rather in its capacity to mobilize.
Grassroots activism is the heart and soul of a genuine labor movement. Conventional thinking holds that an unfavorable (to unions) ruling in Janus will devastate the ranks of labor. Bear in mind, however, that a sizable chunk of the public sector is already open shop: only 22 states allow the agency shop in that sector and the federal and postal services are already open shop.
Free-riders undermine the institutional viability of unionism and deflate the chances of economic advancement. The challenge, therefore, is for the rank and file to see their future betterment as resting on serving a cause as a unified force for positive change. There is no substitute for the willingness of workers to act in concert toward advancement of the good of society.