West Virginia teachers’ strike: mobilizations in the education sector show the proletariat is not defeated

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KT
West Virginia teachers’ strike: mobilizations in the education sector show the proletariat is not defeated
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The discussion that follows was prompted by the article: West Virginia teachers’ strike: mobilizations in the education sector show the proletariat is not defeated. The discussion was initiated by KT.
Below is the discussion so far. Feel free to add your own comments!

KT
Important Movement - Important Article

Trying to keep this brief, I think this is a tremendous article correctly situating the West Virginia teachers' strike and other movements in their historical and immediate context, including appreciations by other revolutionaries as well commentary and critiques of bourgeois coverage. I agree with the essential point made: “In this regard, keeping the overall historical context in mind, the West Virginia teachers strike showed important signs of a proletariat that remains undefeated and is looking for ways to struggle on its own terrain despite the political and social headwinds of the period.”

It’s perhaps unavoidable that the article has too much ground to cover, from the subsequent teachers’ strikes elsewhere in the US (no less militant or important than the West Virginia movement but facing a bourgeoisie that is now alert to the dangers of the situation – the class struggle is a fight between two classes); the mass mobilizations against the shooting of schoolchildren (whose importance I feel is somewhat under-represented in the article and should be taken up elsewhere) as well as the evolution of the bourgeois political terrain (decadence, decomposition, populism, etc).

An excellent platform for further discussion, it is to be hoped.

 

zimmerwald1915
Important Movement - Important Article

KT wrote:

(whose importance I feel is somewhat under-represented in the article and should be taken up elsewhere)


I'll second that, with a caveat. Care must be taken not just to emphasize the humane feelings animating this movement, but also 1) the reality that it represents a recuperation of those feelings into support for the Democratic Party in electoral politics and 2) the possibility that it could provide cover for even more stringent policing of schools than already exists (whether that is in the form of increased actual police presence, the arming of teachers, what have you). I appreciate that the reference to the Our Lives movement was in passing and part of a sweeping article, but its treatment seemed a little too rosy to me.

Quote:
(decadence, decomposition, populism, etc)

If anything the teacher's and allied workers' strike wave gives decomposition (as a phenomenon and as a theory of that phenomenon) new life. It was tempting to see in the wake of 2011's social movements a historic defeat of the working class and a renewed march toward war. But the working class being "still undefeated" without yet posing its own historical alternative only means that decomposition will continue. So says the theory.

KT
More on the movement of youngsters

Let’s leave for the moment the important questions of decomposition/populism and the historic course posed by zimmerwald 1915 above and look again at recent events.

First; the teachers’ strikes in the US continue: Oklahoma, Kentucky, perhaps Arizona. It’s important to note this. Maybe others will write on these?

Second, the lecturers’ strikes in GB are ‘suspended’ pending ‘talks’. It’s a derailment of the movement.

Third, the mass movement following the February Florida school shootings about which we feel more should be said...

The comrade said: “Care must be taken not just to emphasize the humane feelings animating this movement, but also 1) the reality that it represents a recuperation of those feelings into support for the Democratic Party in electoral politics and 2) the possibility that it could provide cover for even more stringent policing of schools than already exists (whether that is in the form of increased actual police presence, the arming of teachers, what have you). I appreciate that the reference to the Our Lives movement was in passing and part of a sweeping article, but its treatment seemed a little too rosy to me.”

Let’s look a little closer:

Leaving aside certain bourgeois analyses that purport to show school or other ‘random public mass shootings’ in the US have actually diminished vis-as-vis 20 years or so years ago, the February 2018 murders of 17 with injuries to a further 17 at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida at the hands of a lone, disturbed ex-pupil was of course shocking but hardly exceptional. Last year, 59 dead and 851 injured at a Las Vegas music concert; the previous year, 50 dead and 58 injured in a Florida nightclub massacre; 28 (including the perpetrator – all these hideous incidents feature lone perpetrators) died in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting of 2012.

So perhaps the first question to pose is why now? What accumulation of social conditions and contradictions have garnered such an unprecedented reaction to this particular, dare it be called “mundane,” massacre?

And what a reaction! Not a state, political party or trade union-sponsored movement aimed at corralling public anger but the largest spontaneous, nationwide demonstrations seen in the US for decades, apparently. After initial outbursts of anger in February, a weekend in March saw 800,000 besiege Washington; 175, 000 in New York; tens of thousands in San Francisco, Florida, with solidarity marches in cities around the world...

Who were these people? Largely the young, the youth, the ‘snowflake generation’; the screen-addicted, alienated and atomised; the apathetic generation, so-called. School kids, college kids, with support from across the generations. Most of the banners were not those of any organisation, but hand-written and spontaneous...

The bravery and eloquence displayed by many youngsters in this movement, speaking out against an institutionalised, gun-fixated, violence-saturated social order, putting themselves into the cross-hairs in the process, should be admired, a potential to be better harnessed in the future. A collective, not individual response to a social disease. “There’s no turning back from this,” one teenager said. Another claimed: “this is a revolution.” It’s nothing of the sort, of course, but 50 years on from May ’68, a time when workers struggles and student protests also melded on the streets of France, symptomatic of a greater awakening, it’s good to hear the perspective being raised once again, even if only by a tiny minority.

What did they want? Beneath the formal cries for the control of this type of weapon or the threat to ‘de-select’ that politician, the demand was quite simple: to live without fear, to assert the right to life, to be educated, free from gnawing insecurity and all-pervasive violence. Even if they must be clear about how such demands can be realised, communists should support them. We don’t disdain the struggle going on in front of our eyes: we seek to explain to the world why it is struggling and what direction these movements must take if they are to gain satisfaction of basic human needs, such as the right to life. This is human. Nothing human was alien to Marx.

Unspoken in these protests, but a ‘fact of life’ anyway, is the rising student debt attached to education, the lack of meaningful jobs, an absence of affordable housing, an unequal and unjust society, the feeling of growing up in a world of guns and war going mad, breeding killer psychopaths as a matter of routine... A feeling of anger and indignation at the status quo. And at the same time, workers’ strikes and protests such as those of the teachers... It’s up to communists to make the links, theoretically and, with whatever resources at their disposal, practically.

Of course the demands are inadequate. Of course the ruling class will and probably already has co-opted this movement which was neither rooted in nor led by the proletariat, the only class which has developed a clear conception of a way out of social decay. But in that quest, the working class will have to take the rest of non-exploiting society along with it, not through coercion but by stressing common goals and solutions. Movements like those of the kids following the Florida shooting in part show how this may indeed be possible as well as necessary.

Maybe leave the small questions of decadence, decomposition, populism, etc, for another post....

 

jk1921
I agree with Zimmerwald to

I agree with Zimmerwald to some extent in his critique of the March for our Lives. I have a difficult time figuring out if it is the expression of an emerging social movement in reaction to aspects of decomposition or if it is more an expression of the seemingly interminable culture wars (themselves a factor of decomposition) that plague US society. Zimmerwald is right to point to the danger of a certain accomodation with the state and even the open forces of repression and the surveillance apparatus. It is hard to tell if this is an expression of the grassroots sentiment of the movement or part of its recuperation. Its striking to me that this movement allies itself politically with the liberal factions of the bourgeoisie, who today seem to best express a certain statist-elitist ethic in bourgeois culture, whereas the instinct to be suspicious of the state and its repressive powers is today more prevalent on the right (although there are clear exceptions to this trend--Black Lives Matter vs. Blue Lives Matter, etc.). Still, the way the media seemed to prop up the students from Parkland as some kind of incipient enlightened leadership class is very telling. But is this just the media doing its thing or does this represent something about the nature of the movement itself?

KT is right also to point to a certain spontaneous revulsion in the population over increasingly irrational explosions of gun violence, for which the dominant class seems to not have a real solution that itself doesn't risk further polarization and social discord. Although it seems that all sides can agree that the mentally ill shouldn't be allowed to buy guns--but even that seemingly "common sense" policy comes with its own risk, such as dissuading people from seeking treatment for mental disease out of fear of losing their gun rights. In any case, whether we like it or not, many people in the US own guns and many regard it as a "right." What would be the social-political blowback to the system if the more extreme liberal proposals to confiscate guns came to pass? I don't know, but who is worse than Trump?

mhou
Comparison

I think the ICC's article is superior to the one published by the ICT.

It's extremely difficult for anyone to become acquainted with local peculiarities when covering events which, most often, are the result of such peculiarities, when the writer isn't directly familiar with them. It doesn't help that even with the vast access to information provided by the internet, there's a cacophony of noise and bullshit to sift through in the effort to create meaningful and accurate analysis.

If you compare what the ICT put out on Wisconsin in 2011 with what they published about the public school strike in West Virginia in 2018, you can see how invaluable knowledge of local peculiarities is for meaningful political coverage and analysis. It was there on Wisconsin, it is absent on West Virginia.

It's definitely commendable that the ICC put out a more nuanced and detailed article on what was the first in a series of very large strikes from a working-class in America that had the 2nd fewest number of strikes on record last year.

That said, there are a few things about the ICC article that jump out to me:

I No mention of the 1990 statewide teachers' strike (which did not include school service workers and paraprofessionals) that won a number of material gains, Ex:

"Among other results of the strike, teachers received a $5,000 pay increase, phased in over three years. That boosted West Virginia teachers’ salaries from 49th in the nation before the strike to 34th after the raises were implemented. Teachers also got new support and training programs, and money was set aside for faculty senate groups in every school, in an effort to give teachers more of a voice in education policy decisions"

https://www.wvgazettemail.com/news/education/photos-west-virginia-s-first-teacher-s-strike-in-lasted/article_e9b71c49-265a-540d-b3b1-5bb333960909.html

1990 was absolutely the antecedent of 2018. The way it was organized and structured, as an illegal strike, is absolutely the same. However, the context of the class struggle both in the US and internationally was entirely different. 2018 moved beyond being a teachers' strike when service workers and paraprofessionals joined them on the picket line. This forced the closure of every school in the state. 1990 was also not a spark for tens of thousands of other workers across the country to launch their own illegal strikes either.

II No mention of the local strikes in different parts of the state earlier in February, which 'primed the pump' and posed the question for the statewide strike, ex.

http://www.wvea.org/content/teachers-southern-wv-counties-plan-walkouts-rally

These actions built confidence and communicated among public employees generally, and public school workers in particular, that their counterparts feel the same way under the same conditions and are ready to act.

III And in terms of content of the ICC article, this portion is wrong on the facts. This is really the ultimate issue at stake in the struggle and in the lessons to be drawn from it:

"First of all, it is clear that the strike occurred against the initial tepidness of the unions who feared that an illegal strike would result in sanctions against the union and worsen their already tenuous position in the state’s political apparatus. Nevertheless, the teachers walked out anyway, dragging the union bureaucrats behind them, in what many in online alternative media described as a “wildcat strike.”

...

When the strike quickly spread to all of the state’s 55 counties, it began to become clear to more astute members of the state’s ruling class that some contrition would be necessary to contain the anger"

The facts which contradict these passages were widely available before, during and after the strike in the mainstream press, ex.:

https://www.wvgazettemail.com/news/school-workers-across-w-va-vote-to-authorize-action/article_b2423440-3da7-5bcd-af4d-6a9cbbd84459.html

The article linked above has basically all of the details that were more or less available from other sources as well, I'll quote it here in full:

"FLATWOODS [February 11, 2018]— An “overwhelming” proportion of public school employees across the state have voted to authorize leaders of the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association state branches to decide on statewide action in response to concerns about pay, health insurance benefit cuts and other issues.

The exact action that may be taken, however, hasn’t yet been decided, the school worker union state presidents said.

The action could include the first statewide teachers strike in almost 30 years.

More than 100 county union presidents and others met for about two hours in a conference room Sunday at a Days Inn near Flatwoods. The state leaders of the AFT-West Virginia and West Virginia Education Association unions sat together at the front of the room.

“They’ve been played off each other,” WVEA staff member Ben Barkey said of the two unions, noting it was remarkable to see them together now.

AFT-West Virginia President Christine Campbell said “these votes were authorization votes of employees in the counties” to show what proportion of them are “in favor of authorizing the state leaders to take action if necessary.”

When asked who would ultimately make the decision on whether, when and what type of “action” would occur, WVEA President Dale Lee said, standing next to Campbell, “Ultimately, the two of us would make that decision. We have processes we go through.”

They said the county-by-county votes happened over the last two weeks. “We’re going to continue to try to work this through the legislative process, you know,” Lee said. “It’s still the 34th day, it’s too early in the [legislative] session, we have several opportunities to resolve things legislatively, and we’re going to do everything we can to solve it legislatively.”

Kym Randolph, communications director and assistant executive director for the WVEA, denied reporters access to the meeting.

“We just want people to be able to speak freely,” she said, but also said, “We’re trying to keep some things internal and develop our plans as we need to.”

State and county union leaders and others emerging from the meeting were generally tight-lipped about what transpired, and Lee refused to reveal the percentages of school employees in each county who voted to authorize action.

County union presidents who didn’t wish to be identified said that, in every West Virginia county, a majority of school employees — including professional personnel like teachers and service personnel like bus drivers — had voted to authorize action.

The percentage was less than 70 percent, the threshold for a county to officially authorize action, in only about three counties, they said.

School employees in several southern counties already didn’t show up to work one day earlier this month, shutting schools down as hundreds of them filled the state Capitol to protest. Employees in Cabell and Wayne counties voted last week to do their own one-day walkout, possibly this Friday."

 

 

In short, this is what happened:

1 Public school employees were balloted across the state by 3 public worker unions. Initially, it appears that this was done to organize one-day or 2-day strikes in certain counties to pressure the legislature as part of the unions' efforts to raise wages and stop the cuts to PEIA. The results were an overwhelming state-wide, inter-trade consensus for strike action (greater than 85% in favor of a statewide strike).

2 In response to this overwhelming support for strike action across the state among all WV public school workers, the 3 trade unions put out a call for an illegal statewide strike.

3 The strike did not 'spread' to all 55 counties and become statewide. It was statewide from the very beginning, due to reciprocity between the union leadership at all levels (primarily at the county-level), rank and file public school union members and non-union public school workers.

Basically, this was a textbook example of how trade unionism works.

Saying that, "the teachers [and service workers and paraprofessionals -- Mhou] walked out anyway, dragging the union bureaucrats behind them," is flat out false. It just didn't happen that way.

And since there is no right to strike, no trade union rights and no collective bargaining for West Virginia public employees, the idea that the unions have some kind of power or leverage to direct the workers simply isn't possible. Every West Virginia public worker who joins and maintains membership in a trade union does so knowing that the state and their individual public employers do not and will not recognize their organization.

Therefore, to say that the unions have something to lose and that this informs their decision making and actions doesn't track. In 1990 the courts issued injunctions against the unions for striking, and it didn't matter, precisely because they really, truly, honestly, don't have anything to lose.

That's likely why there weren't any injunctions this time around. They weren't enforceable then and wouldn't be any more enforceable today. 

The relationship between official, unofficial and sanctioned actions between union leaders, union members and non-union workers all engaged in the same struggle have been extremely informative in the struggles over the past 2 months in the US.

The decision to launch mobile pickets ('Scab Patrols') statewide in WV during the Frontier strike originated in this reciprocity and is ultimately what won the workers' demands despite facing extremely terrible odds for any form of contingent victory.

No different than the organization of the strike in Oklahoma, when the NEA supported an "indefinite strike" and the state workers' union organized a sizable number of their members to walk-out in solidarity with the school workers. In addition, organized members of the building trades in OK also organized walk-outs in support of the school workers. That it was unionized workers who walked-out in solidarity in different trades, sectors and industries, rather than non-union workers (of whom there are far, far, far more in OK, with its 5.5% union density....) is equally instructive.

Of course, it isn't all positive. In Kentucky, local union leaders came out against the spontaneous sick-outs. In Oklahoma, the state American Federation of Teachers opposed strike action while the state National Education Association initially supported an 'indefinite strike' before changing course.

These things happened, so they have to be analyzed on the basis of the fact that they happened.

 

petey
thanks

again mhou for this detail.