By Don McIntosh
Are we witnessing the beginning of a strike wave? On April 2, school teachers in Oklahoma walked off the job statewide, shutting down 200 school districts and gathering 30,000 strong outside the state Capitol. The strike came after a decade in which Republican state lawmakers cut school funding dramatically, even as they reduced taxes on top income earners and oil and gas firms. On the same day, teachers in Kentucky gathered at the state Capitol, furious about a law that cuts teacher pension benefits. Most of the Kentucky teachers were off for spring break, but teachers walked out and closed 20 school districts where school was scheduled. The Oklahoma and Kentucky strikes came the week after teachers in Arizona held a mass demonstration to demand a 20 percent pay increase and increased public education funding. And all of them were inspired by the example of 19,000 West Virginia teachers who struck for nine days, shutting schools statewide from Feb. 22 to March 6, and giving 277,000 students a lesson in union power.
And what an inspiring example they set. By any measure, the West Virginia teachers strike stood out: the overwhelming unity of the strikers, the broad public support they found, their reasonable demands, and their stunning success. And all the more remarkable, the strike took place in a state where teachers and other public workers had no legally recognized right to strike, nor even any process for collective bargaining.
The West Virginia teacher strike started when the state Legislature decreed inflation-trailing raises of 2, 1, and 1 percent for the next three years — after four straight years of no raises — in a state that already ranked fourth from the bottom in the nation for teacher pay. And even those paltry raises looked likely to be gobbled up by increased health insurance contributions.
And what a cast of villains they were up against. Republican Gov. James C. Justice is a billionaire coal baron — and a tax delinquent whose coal companies owe millions in back taxes. The state’s Republican-led Legislature had for years cut taxes on oil and gas companies while telling teachers to tighten their belts.
On the fifth day of the strike, unions and the governor announced a deal: a 5 percent raise and a task force to come up with ways to reduce health costs. But rank-and-file teachers weren’t in a trusting mood, and resolved overwhelmingly to stay out on strike until the Legislature passed it into law. They were right to be leery: State Senate President Mitch Carmichael, his campaigns funded by gas companies, balked at the deal, and then tried to cut the raise to 4 percent. But teachers continued to stand firm, and stayed out on strike. Carmichael buckled.
The Legislature, which had earlier said it couldn’t afford more than 2 percent, now gave 5 percent, and not just to teachers, but to all state workers, at a cost of $110 million a year. If that was intended to send a message that teachers would not get special treatment for striking, it flopped: It sent an unintended message that all public workers are in it together, because state workers knew they wouldn’t have gotten the raise if the teachers hadn’t struck.
In an era when the strike seemed all but dead in America, the West Virginia teachers strike is a reminder to working people from coast to coast just how much power they can wield by stopping work.
American workers were once the world’s most active strikers. From the 1950s to the 1970s, millions of American workers took part in strikes every year. During the 1950s, there were an average of 350 large-scale work stoppages each year involving more than 1,000 workers, a record which more or less continued through the end of the 1970s. Strikes were part of the common experience of working people: Even if a worker had never gone on strike, they were likely to have a friend or family member who had.
United in their unions, working people sacrificed on the strike picket line, and reaped greater prosperity, dignity and security as their reward — for 40 years.
But strikes in America plummeted after 1980: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), 1981 was the last year there were over 100 large work stoppages (strikes or lockouts involving over 1,000 workers). There have been fewer than 50 large stoppages a year since 1990, fewer than 30 a year since 2000, and fewer than 20 a year since 2007.
Last year, the BLS reported just seven large work stoppages, the second lowest on record.
Today’s large strikes are also more likely to be short, symbolic, strikes, more like protests than the bold production-halting throw-downs of previous decades. Take last year’s biggest strike, for example, which didn’t even end up on the BLS’ official tally of large strikes. The AT&T strike in May 2017 by 30,000 members of CWA failed to make the government’s annual list of large work stoppages because the list only counts stoppages that last for one shift or longer based on a Monday through Friday workweek. The AT&T strike took place over the weekend, and did not include a full shift on Friday.
Could the rash of teacher strikes signal a return of the strike? One encouraging sign: Public opinion polling shows unions rising in approval. Up from a historic low of 48 percent in 2009, Gallup last year found now 61 percent of Americans approve of labor unions, and in what may be a sign of things to come, young people are the most pro-union of all. One recent poll showed that among Americans under 30, unions’ approval rating is 76 percent.
Question: What did you think of the West Virginia teachers strike?
“They really stood up, all of them, whether they were Republicans or Democrats. School teachers and their families stuck together and made up their mind that no matter how long it would take, they were going to stay out on strike. I hope it sends a message nationwide.”
— Ed Barnes, retired IBEW Local 48 business manager (and native West Virginian)
— Jamie Partridge, retired member, Letter Carriers Branch 82
— Will Lukens, Machinists District Lodge W24 organizer