Socialist Alternative

Rebuilding a Fighting Labor Movement – The Lessons of the Teachers’ Revolt

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In what will go down as an historic moment for the American labor movement, the education workers of West Virginia walked out in February 2018, setting in motion a national educators’ revolt. This reflected the pent-up anger against years of cuts in education alongside tax cuts to corporations and the rich, as well as a broad attack by both Republican and Democratic political establishments on public schools, public school teachers, and their unions. The teachers were sick and tired of low pay, disrespect, and the theft of resources from their students.

After decades of decline in the power of unions, the teachers and school support workers of West Virginia boldly staged a statewide, illegal strike, shutting down the entire public K-12 education system for eight days and winning a wage increase for themselves and all public sector workers as well as defeating various threatened attacks. The educators’ rebellion that began in West Virginia then led to eruptions in a number of other states, both “red” and “blue,” including Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Colorado, Washington State, Oregon, and California. It has also had an impact on how workers in other industries view going on strike.

While teachers have been at the forefront in the return of the strike, workers from a variety of other sectors, including hotel, tech, and grocery workers, have also taken action. Squeezed between outrageously high housing costs and low wages, workers are not feeling the benefits of the supposedly strong economy. Developments in social struggle such as the #MeToo campaign are also being expressed through workplace action. We are living through a pivotal moment, when working people, both unionized and not, are beginning the process of relearning the lessons of earlier labor battles, and a new generation of activists is emerging and starting to rebuild union power.

It must, however, be acknowledged that there are real obstacles that could cut across a broader revitalization of the labor movement at least temporarily. Low unemployment gives workers confidence to take risks, and a recession, which is looming, could reduce strikes, at least in the short term. The Supreme Court’s Janus decision, while it hasn’t resulted in the kind of decimation to public sector unionism that its right-wing sponsors envisioned, has created new difficulties for unions. With a right-wing administration and court, further legal attacks on unions are likely.

There have been important victories but also defeats such as the United Auto Workers losing a recognition vote in the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee for the second time in five years. Last year UPS workers voted down a sellout contract, but the Teamster leadership refused to follow through with strike action and forced the contract through on a technicality.

In looking at the still challenging terrain facing the U.S. labor movement, socialists and union activists need to take stock of how the teachers and the other workers who went into struggle won what they did in 2018 and 2019, how they might have won more, and how these lessons can be applied in other sectors.

The year 2018 saw an about-face in strike statistics. A total of 485,000 workers went on strike, more than in any year since 1986. This compares with 2017, when a mere 25,000 went out on strike, lower than any year on record other than 2009, when the Great Recession was ravaging the economy. Of course, this labor revolt remains heavily concentrated in the education sector. 2019 is already keeping pace with 2018 with a series of teachers’ strikes in Los Angeles, Oakland, and Denver as well as a major strike by grocery workers in the Northeast.

Lessons of the Revolt

Drawing inspiration from the 2012 Chicago teachers strike as well as the Mountain State, the teachers’ strikes have featured enthusiastic picket lines and mass demonstrations with a high level of participation by workers and significant community support. This is because the teacher activists politicized their struggle in a way that challenges the pro-corporate, anti-working-class priorities of the political establishment.

In Los Angeles and Oakland especially, not only have teachers fought for better wages and school funding, they’ve also led an ideological counteroffensive against the privatization of the public education system. This has had a profound impact on the consciousness of teachers, parents, and students. West Virginia teachers have also challenged privatization, going on a one-day strike this year against a bill that would have brought charter schools and private school vouchers to the state. The bill was quickly scuttled.

The story of the teachers’ revolt of 2018 has been chronicled in Eric Blanc’s book, Red State Revolt. Blanc, as a correspondent for Jacobin magazine, was on the ground during several of the teachers’ strikes. He had unparalleled access to strike activists and union leaders in the three strikes detailed in the book: West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona. Red State Revolt combines play-by-play accounts of some of the most pivotal episodes, along with insider details that were not previously available, and analyses the key factors that made the strikes unfold as they did. It is essential reading.

The idea of teachers going on strike was initially pushed by rank and file activists, and union leaders in all three states actively discouraged strike action. Blanc explains how the very weakness of teachers’ unions in these states contributed to the official leaders eventually relenting to pressure from the rank and file and, to one extent or another, cooperating with the “militant minority” of leading activists to run the strikes. In West Virginia and Arizona, the radical minority created their own structures. Arizona Educators United went furthest and began to take on the character of a union, organizing two thousand “site liaisons” in schools across the state. It was through this organized challenge to the existing union leadership that the massive rank and file support was galvanized which forced the union leaders to respond to teachers’ demands for action or risk being completely sidelined.

Before the strikes, teachers’ unions in the red states were seen by most of their members as somewhat peripheral to their day to day reality. With their members’ economic conditions deteriorating over the past decade, union leaders at the state and national level weren’t putting forward the combative strategies that would have been necessary to begin to turn things around. Instead, the union tops in Republican dominated states tended to focus on lobbying Democratic politicians at the state level for increased education funding, a largely futile strategy.

But where the Democrats have control, have they really been the allies of public-school teachers and students? In California, virtually every elected official in major cities is a Democrat. The school boards in Los Angeles and Oakland have enthusiastically collaborated with the privatizers to defund public education, close public schools, and pave the way for new, privately-administered charter schools. Replacing school board members who are part of the Democratic Party establishment with independent representatives of working people who will stand up to the agenda of public-school privatization is a key task of the movement in public education following the teacher strikes in Oakland and Los Angeles.

The Democratic establishment in general has been a proponent of “school choice” programs that send public education dollars to charters and private schools. It’s in no small part due to the teachers strike wave that establishment Democratic politicians, including those running for president, are now more cautious about openly expressing their support for privatization measures.

Blanc makes many criticisms of the union leadership in his book and correctly underlines the role of the “militant minority”. But he winds up understating the problem posed by the conservative leadership of unions like the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the National Education Association (NEA) who have focused for decades on a “political strategy” of supporting the Democrats rather than basing themselves on the collective power of their members.

Missed Opportunities

In 2011, public sector workers in Wisconsin fought back against the anti-union attacks of Tea Party governor Scott Walker. Thousands of workers occupied the state capitol for weeks on end and there was mass support for a one-day general strike. This was an opportunity to strike a decisive blow against the right and the anti-labor offensive nationally. The refusal of the labor leadership locally and nationally, including the leadership of the teachers’ unions, to call a strike spelled a major defeat for the working class. Instead the union leaders diverted the energy of the movement into the Democrats’ recall campaign against Walker which failed.

If the working class had defeated Walker in 2011, it would have been electrifying and could have been the rebirth of a fighting labor movement. Instead a heavy price was paid, and we had to wait another seven years for an opportunity of equal magnitude in a state where the national labor leaders were not able to exert the kind of negative pressure that they did in Wisconsin.

As Blanc correctly points out, during the 2018 West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona strikes, the AFL-CIO, NEA, and AFT “unfortunately failed to organize any systematic national support campaign.” This is in itself an indictment. He goes on to quote a leading West Virginia teacher activist, Emily Comer: “‘More than anything, the strike changed people’s ideas of what is possible. I now have co-workers asking me about when we’re going to have a nationwide teachers’ strike, which I could have never imagined being uttered even a few months ago.’”

Socialist Alternative at the time was pointing in the same direction, calling on the unions to organize a national day of action to defend public education. A one-day national teachers’ strike would have received enormous support. It could have been a key moment to galvanize the energy of the teachers’ revolt into a national challenge to the right and to the corporate education “reformers.” So while we should in no way understate what has been achieved in the teachers’ strikes to date, which built on years of hard fought campaigns across the country challenging school closings, charterization, and high stakes testing, we also need to say a major opportunity was missed due to the role of the labor leaders.

The key question now is how do we turn the flame that was lit in West Virginia into a roaring fire that mobilizes broader sections of the working class to fight back against the decades of attacks on our living standards and working conditions?

Beginnings of a Wider Revolt

When Trump made good on his threats to shut down the federal government over funding for his racist wall on the southern border on December 22 of last year, he probably didn’t spend much energy considering the potential response of federal workers and organized labor. And yet, despite the posturing of Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic political establishment, it was a sick-out by air traffic controllers and the threat of more widespread strike action by workers in the airports that ultimately ended the longest shutdown in history and put federal government employees back to work.

There was nothing conventional about the struggle to end the shutdown. On January 25, what was to become the last day of the 35-day shutdown, air traffic controllers called in sick in enough numbers to force an interruption in arrivals at La Guardia Airport in New York City and delays throughout east coast air travel. Days earlier, Sara Nelson, president of the 50,000 strong flight attendant union, AFA-CWA, called for a general strike to end the shutdown. As news outlets were reporting on the air travel delays, Nelson urged AFA members to protest the shutdown by immediately heading to the offices of members of Congress. When asked if she was advocating flight attendants skip work, Nelson responded: “’Showing up to work for what? If air traffic controllers can’t do their jobs, we can’t do ours.’” Within hours, the shutdown ended without Trump getting the money he demanded for a border wall.

Metoo and the massive explosion of anger around sexual harassment and sexual assault was brought into the workplace by McDonald’s workers who organized women’s committees and went on a one-day strike in 10 cities on September 18, 2018. Weeks later, on November 1, Google workers walked off the job internationally to protest sexual harassment. Google workers rapidly won one of their demands, an end to forced arbitration in sexual harassment cases. That the developing women’s movement has begun to be expressed in strike action is extremely positive. As the right wing takes aim at Roe v. Wade, U.S. women may need to follow the Polish women’s movement example from 2016 and organize walkouts and strikes to protect abortion rights.

A hotel-workers strike at Marriott in 2018 involved hotels in eight cities and nearly 8,000 workers at its peak. Its slogan, “One Job Should Be Enough,” pointed to the economic problems that millions of low wage workers in this economy face. Workers had to stay out for weeks and months in many cases to win their demands, which included management-provided panic buttons and stronger contract language on sexual harassment by hotel guests.

University campuses have also increasingly become sites of labor struggle as neoliberal measures like contracting out jobs and signing adjuncts to short term contract to teach classes rather than creating permanent positions has become the norm in public and private universities. Graduate student and post-doctoral workers have been organizing new unions especially at private universities. A series of major strikes has been waged at the University of California where tens of thousands of workers statewide have fought for improved wages and benefits and to stop contracting out of jobs.

Finally, in April of this year, 31,000 grocery-store workers at Stop and Shop, a major grocery chain in New England, went on strike against threatened cuts to wages and benefits. The leadership of their union, the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), had become known as “the union that cries strike”; in past contract battles the threat of a strike was often weakly invoked, with little to no preparation or mobilization of the membership. This time, a strike was called, but the UFCW officials offered virtually no leadership on the picket lines. Most Stop and Shop workers had never been on strike before, and many were not even aware they were members of a union. Socialist Alternative members actively participated alongside the striking workers in several stores. Our primary aim was to aid and give confidence to the most militant workers as they came to learn, through their own experience, what a strike means and what must be done in order to win it. Through the determined efforts of the rank and file, some of the worst threatened attacks on wages and benefits were defeated.

Building a Fighting Labor Movement

A key question on the mind of many activists is: how can we now move forward to transform the labor movement as a whole? In 1935, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which included autoworkers, steelworkers, mineworkers, and dock workers, split with the conservative craft unionist American Federation of Labor. This decisive step forward was only possible due to the transformative role of three local general strikes in 1934 led by socialists in Minneapolis, San Francisco, and Toledo, Ohio.

We are not yet at our own “1934 moment” when major sections of the working class begin to go on the offensive, but this is implicit in the situation. The biggest fear of the ruling class today is that the revolt which began in West Virginia could spread to the core sections of the industrial working class. As has been documented by Kim Moody in his book On New Terrain, the working class retains enormous potential social power in the U.S. despite all the changes caused by globalization. While “lean methods” of production require fewer workers in manufacturing, Moody points to new choke points particularly in logistics. “Just in time” distribution networks used by big companies such as Amazon and Walmart rely on thousands of workers in warehouses, shipping, delivery, and transportation.

Massive sprawling distribution centers have been concentrated in “nodes” or “clusters” in and around major cities. Moody estimates there are over 50 such hubs in the U.S., with Chicago, Los Angeles, the New York/New Jersey port, and Memphis having concentrations of over 100,000 workers each – up to four million workers nationally. The locations are based on their proximity to major urban centers (markets), docks, and airports. These are also areas with a high concentration of low-paid workers looking for employment who are predominantly black, Latino, and Asian. This also points to the growing racial and ethnic diversity of the U.S. working-class.

As other developments described above show, there is clearly also enormous potential to unionize in the strategic airports and the tech sector. But all of this brings us back to the question of the existing labor movement. While we have seen unions like National Nurses United and the Amalgamated Transit Union take a more militant, fighting approach in recent years, the dominant approach within the American union leadership remains to try to get along with management, try to mitigate the worst attacks on workers, and, above all, try to avoid any serious conflict with the bosses. Overall union density is now at 11%, compared to 20% in 1983 and 35% in 1954.

Key unions like SEIU continue to give the Democratic Party massive resources despite the party’s complete failure or refusal under Obama to deliver pro-union reforms. If anything, Obama led the charge against the teacher unions and for privatization.
The teachers’ revolt has key lessons with enormous relevance for widening the struggle and rebuilding the labor movement. These include the vital role of the “militant minority,” including socialists, the emergence of a new, wider activist layer, the politicization of the struggle, the mobilization the wider working class, and the preparedness to go around, through, or over the existing leadership.

An alternative leadership needs to be built. A key step in that direction is building caucuses that directly challenge the failed policies of business unionism and developing a strategy to mobilize the membership to fight the bosses. The victory of the Caucus of Rank and File Educators in the Chicago Teachers Union in 2010 was key to laying the basis for the historic teachers strike in 2012 which in turn inspired many key activists in the most recent teachers revolt.

Activists with a class struggle orientation have been winning union elections and moving into formal leadership positions in some urban teacher unions like Los Angeles and Oakland. The Los Angeles teachers strike was launched after a period of detailed preparation. The United Teachers of Los Angeles leadership had a plan to develop teacher leaders in every school building and they hired two union staff to focus on organizing parent support.

Similarly, but in a less developed form, a union of University of California workers, UPTE-CWA, used two-day workshops around labor history and organizing skills to train a new activist corps. The investment in member education rapidly paid off as strike participation grew to record levels and rank and file activists developed their own initiatives to bring more workers into activity.

Most of all the “militant minority” needs to link a fighting strategy in the workplace to a wider political challenge to corporate power as the teachers did. Blanc reports in Red State Revolt, that the single event that most shaped the thinking of key teacher activists in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona was Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign and his call for a “political revolution against the billionaire class”. A number now describe themselves as socialists, some of whom have joined the DSA.

As we explain in the accompanying article on the Sanders 2020 campaign, to win the key demands in his platform requires building a mass movement and a new political party based on the interests of working people. Class struggle oriented activists should seek to use the 2020 campaign to build the outline of fighting caucuses in key unions based on “Labor for Bernie” groups. These groups can then play a dual role in our 1934 moment and in laying the basis for a new political party, the key task that was not achieved in the 1930s.

Without a reforged labor movement, aligned with a new party that reclaims the fighting traditions of the past, there is no way for working people to begin to redress the balance of power in the workplaces and in society that has tilted dangerously to the corporate elite in the past several decades. The labor movement here also needs to link up with workers engaged in struggle internationally, including in Mexico and Quebec.

We can win better wages, better working conditions, Medicare for All and much more. However, any such victories will never be secure under this system. That is why we need to go further. The mobilized working class leading all the oppressed can and must create a new society based on solidarity, a socialist society.

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