Have strikes become fundamentally reactive in nature, or can they be done proactively in the service of something more?
This question poses a challenge to the mass of education workers who have since, or are preparing to, go on strike. Since the historic victory in West Virginia last year, the country has witnessed mass strikes by education workers in otherwise calm or less strike-prone regions of the U.S. In each of the areas where a strike has taken place, however, the organizing efforts there have been fundamentally reactive in nature. As a brief run-down:
• West Virginia (2018): Nine-day walkout to secure an increase in pay and block cuts to the state’s insurance agency (PEIA).
• Kentucky (2018): Periodic and intermittent walkouts to protest Governor Bevin’s attempts to privatize the state’s pension plan.
• Oklahoma (2018): Eight-day walkout to redirect state funding towards underfunded schools for new infrastructure investment and wage increases.
• Arizona (2018): Five-day walkout to significantly increase wages for education workers over a two-year period.
• Los Angeles (2019): Six-day walkout to increase salaries for education workers, reduce class sizes, cap charter school growth, and increase amount of support staff.
• Denver (2019): Three-day walkout to increase pay for teachers based on the city’s increasing cost of living.
• Oakland (2019): Seven-day walkout that secured an eleven percent pay raise over four years and an agreement to hire more school counselors, psychologists, and special education teachers.
• West Virginia (2019): Two-day walkout to protest an omnibus education bill that would have introduced charter schools and educational savings accounts in the state.
• Kentucky (2019): Intermittent walkouts to protest alterations to the state’s pension board.
In states where a walkout took place to secure better wages or investments in schools (Oklahoma and Arizona), strikes were a necessary tool used to return to pre-recession levels of state funding. The walkouts there were reactive in nature in as much as the others (West Virginia, Kentucky, Los Angeles, Denver, Oakland) because of the need to fight back against a hostile legislature and/or board of education that had, over the course of more than a decade, reduced state investment in public education. The technocratic approaches that we saw take place across the country during the height of the recession sought to decrease the tax burden on corporate interests so as to stave off unemployment numbers.
According to a report from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities at the time, between October 2008 and September 2009, states collected $87 billion less in tax revenue due to alterations in state tax brackets that provided for new exemptions for larger corporations. The flipside of this has been that, with a decrease in tax revenue, public services declined over that period as well. According to Dr. Sylvia Allegretto, an economist for the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at the University of California, Berkeley, “In real terms… the average U.S. teacher today makes $30 less a week than they used to” from 2000 to 2017. This is actually worse than what private sector workers have witnessed over the past forty years, where real wages have remained stagnant overall.
As state investment declined, public schools began to falter as well. In 2015, over half of all states were still spending less for total school funding per student than they were pre-recession, in 2008. States where charter schools began expanding in that same time period – Kansas, Arizona, Mississippi, and Oklahoma – also saw income tax rate cuts that cost the states millions in potential education funding. Naomi Klein describes this process in her book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (2007). Disaster capitalism is an effort by neoliberal free market policy makers to 1) create a crisis, 2) push for private investment to resolve this crisis, 3) profit considerably from this privatization of public services, and 4) institute the “shock doctrine” whereby this small group can reinvest their capital into this repeat process and slowly starve the public from their much-needed social services.
Such is the case currently with charter schools and vouchers. In New Orleans, for example, Hurricane Katrina decimated the infrastructure of the otherwise underfunded, predominately Black and Brown city back in 2005. Public schools in the city had a graduation rate eighteen points below the national average, while sixty-eight percent of seventh graders were testing below basic proficiency in English, and seventy percent were testing below in Math. Schools had never been fully-funded, and the result was a lagging education system teetering on the bring of collapse. When Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005, the Orleans Parish School Board laid off 4,000 teachers and 3,000 staff. The city’s tax base had been disrupted, its schools damaged beyond repair, and the city’s infrastructure was decimated. Corporate educators had been consulted to provide for what has been described as “the most expansive overhaul ever seen in the history of public education” (http://inthesetimes.com/article/18352/10-years-after-katrina-new-orleans-all-charter-district-has-proven-a-failur).
Public schools in New Orleans were sold off to the highest bidder. 107 of New Orleans’ 128 public schools were handed over to the Recovery School District charter program, which currently manages over half of all New Orleans’ schools. Each school became its own district, with separate hiring practices, dress codes, and the like. Management of these schools could be for-profit or non-profit, and even with non-profit status, there were plenty of ways for school board members to get fat off this new tax base. New Orleans became the canary in the mines for public education in an era of rampant neo-liberalism. The expansion of charter schools over the past decade has taken an otherwise manageable economic crisis and ballooned it, disrupting entire communities through consolidations, shutdowns, and layoffs.
If education is the frontline of this battle between neo-liberal capitalism and a revived, militant working class, then it stands to reason that education workers must seize this opportunity to push for greater concessions from their governments and boards of education. A nationwide May Day strike could accomplish this goal of further delineating lines between the working class and the employing class, expanding the reach of this movement to other industries, and redirect this energy towards building dual power at a time when the national election will be most heated. It is of primary importance that education workers across the country begin the process of planning for this action for the following reasons.
1 – A Rise in Class Consciousness
Lenin describes the process of mass action in his Left Wing Communism pamphlet as such:
If you want to help the “masses” and win the sympathy and support of the “masses,” you should not fear difficulties, or pinpricks, chicanery, insults and persecution from the “leaders”… but must absolutely work wherever the masses are to be found. You must be capable of any sacrifice, of overcoming the greatest obstacles, in order to carry on agitation and propaganda systematically, perseveringly, persistently and patiently in those institutions, societies, and associations… in which proletarian or semi-proletarian masses to be found.
With regards to the proletarian desire to engage in parliamentarism, Lenin likewise argues that:
You must not sink to the level of the masses, to the level of the backward strata of the class. That is incontestable. You must tell them the bitter truth. You are in duty bound to call their bourgeois-democratic and parliamentary prejudices what they are – prejudices. But at the same time you must soberly follow the actual state of the class-consciousness and preparedness of the entire class, and of all the working people.
In the midterm elections of 2018, an ominous hype lingered around many education organizers that the new awakening of education workers would usher in a sweep at the state level and a blue wave would rid them of their reactionary, Republican politicians. This did not materialize. In the four main states that held statewide walkouts lasting longer than two days – West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona – Republicans maintained control of the state legislature. One Congressional candidate who had ingratiated himself to the teacher and service personnel movement – Richard Ojeda – was seen as a powerful contender for West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional district. Ojeda, a state senator at the time, had given fiery speeches before, during, and after the nine-day walkout. He appeared in Michael Moore’s documentary Fahrenheit 11/9, was a frequent guest on The Young Turks, and outlined his policies on The Van Jones’ Show. Ojeda’s rise was marked by stigma when he stated that he had voted for Trump in the 2016 election, but had regretted that decision later. Nevertheless, Ojeda’s campaign was to the national media a silver bullet for Democrats in conservative-leaning districts; run as a blue dog Democrat, gain the support of unions, and position your campaign as a shot across the bow to harken back to the days of “working class” Democratic politicians.
Ojeda would go on to lose his campaign to a fairly obscure state legislator, Carol Miller, by a margin of 56.4 to 43.6%, similar to other House races in the state.
I distinctly recall the many sullen faces of my fellow workers on November 9th. The time and energy they had put towards campaigning for Democrats, fighting to unseat hostile Republicans, only to lose races or make minor gains that had no bearing on future legislative outcomes. Months of knocking on doors, rallies, speeches, and phone banking had done little to stem the tide of reactionary Republican takeovers. It was almost like reliving 2016 all over again for many of the same cadre of workers who felt, in those moments, powerless to the forces of the far-right.
The election had another damning effect beyond lowering morale – it divided the workers along party or ideological lines. On the secret Facebook pages where our organizing work has been most present, we witnessed countless attacks on individuals based on their party affiliation or ideology. Posters would state that they could “not vote for a Democrat under any circumstances” because of Obama’s presidency, abortion, or some other stated reason. Those who were most likely to remain committed militants swore off the pages all together, leaving them entirely or blocking their page from seeing future posts to avoid this hassle. Whether or not the conservative-leaning posters were trolls or legitimate accounts, the desired outcome was the same – a reduction in posts that could unite workers towards a common end beyond the electoral sphere.
It was only through the mass statewide walkouts that education workers began to realize that their economic anxieties, the stress of their jobs, and the lack of connections to their communities were indeed tied to the same overarching system. Though most did not qualify this system as the result of capitalism, workers could nevertheless pin the blame on those operating the system, the politicians, whom they ruthlessly mocked and ridiculed for their obstinacy. This was the first step in building a measure of class consciousness. Drawing a line in the sand, workers could unequivocally state that those on one side – the workers – were those who did the majority of the labor, while those on the other side – the politicians – managed the crisis as bourgeois onlookers. The politicians could be pegged as outsiders to the labor system, hell-bent on winning re-election or securing donor funds rather than assist in creating truly well-funded public schools. It was a crucial awakening that the system is fundamentally flawed, but the antidote to this was, as always, electoral in nature.
In West Virginia this year, the anger that had built up from the election towards one another dissipated when we were called to go on strike yet again, the second strike in two years. Our fight this time was against the introduction of charter schools and educational savings accounts (vouchers). Animosity between “those teachers who vote against their own best interests” went out the door when we learned another statewide strike had been approved. Building up something after a strike is always harder than building up to a strike; it is easier to divide the workers by telling them to return to their old habits than continue to push against the systemically corrupt nature of our bourgeois electoral system.
A May Day strike would help reunify and mend old wounds that had been torn anew in the midterm elections. It would identify the enemy yet again in a more systematic way and prevent the tribal nature of bourgeois political parties from calcifying an otherwise organic movement.
2 – Expand the Strike to Other Industries
A recent report from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics found that in 2018, 485,000 employees went on strike. This was the largest number of workers engaged in a strike since 1986. Teachers and service personnel accounted for over half of all workers engaged in a strike action in 2018 alone, signifying a powerful trend that had ripple effects across the nation.
The movement of education workers strikes emboldened other industries to do likewise. In West Virginia alone, at least two major strikes occurred during or immediately following the nine-day walkout here in 2018. Communication Workers of America (CWA) went on strike against telecommunication giant Frontier Communications in protest of new classifications and a reduction in employer-funded health insurance. The strike had been some months in the making, but when talking with CWA workers personally at the time, the response had been the same: “We support the teachers and we hope they support us,” a strike leader told me. “We’re all in this fight together.” Likewise, at the Technocap factory in Glen Dale, workers with the International Association of Mechanics and Aerospace Workers (IAMAW) went on a 130-day strike in protest of similar grievances. At a rally in May, speakers there spoke boldly of the inspiration teachers had given them to fight for what is theirs. Food drives and solidarity funds were established between teachers unions and the IAMAW to help defer costs the striking workers accrued over their months-long strike.
Worker empowerment through a strike can rise to meteoric levels as a tidal wave brings innumerable irate workers together in a fight for common concerns, banding together across whole industries. The fear of utilizing a strike has decreased and workers in right-to-work states have now felt emboldened to seek greater demands against an otherwise monolithic giant (capital). What is needed now more than ever is to tie these strikes together into a larger, general strike that can do the task of clearly identifying capitalism as the root of this crisis. We have already seen that strikes can embolden other industries to act likewise; therefore, a nationwide strike of education workers could gain sympathy strikes from other workers in their industries, shutting down cities and states until larger concessions are granted by the employing classes.
3 – Build Dual Power, Not Politicians’ Campaigns
At the moment, socialists have one of two options ahead of them – endorse Bernie Sanders’ campaign, or work outside the system. Unlike his long shot campaign in 2016, Sanders has real potential to win the Democratic primary this election cycle. Sanders consistently polls near the top nationally, behind only Joe Biden, and even then only by a few percentage points. The recent decision by the National Political Committee of the DSA to endorse the Sanders’ campaign has all but ensured that this campaign for the heart and soul of socialism is a foregone conclusion for the center-left and entryists. Whatever the flaws of Sanders himself, his supporters have now taken up the charge to use his newest campaign to bring in a new wave of socialist-inspired members, activists, and organizers.
The challenges that this campaign presents are too numerous to list here, and any historical analysis of these factors would become overly cumbersome. Suffice it to say that propelling Sanders simultaneous to, or in lieu of, supporting mass education worker strikes is a poor decision to be made. As mentioned above, the divisiveness sown by right-wing media against parties and individuals is a challenging feat to overcome. Affiliating an amorphous, class-building movement to one individual, or one party, will ultimately doom it to a quick death. We have already seen such movements become co-opted by the Democratic Party. Neutered shells of their former self, these movements eventually divulge into some non-profit or another, acting as a formalized channel through which justifiable anger can be redirected towards less radical means.
The #Red4Ed movement and its ancillary “United” groups should never give up their independence to become an advocating force to any political party or candidate. Doing so would reduce their impact as a powerful unifying coalition of rank-and-file workers, transforming them into, in essence, the cheerleaders of progressive Democratic politicians. The allure of this new power is great. In West Virginia, until relatively recently, the United Mine Workers Association (UMWA) held this power, too. An endorsement from the UMWA carried with it the weight of generations of dues-paying family members. The union’s cozy relationship with the Democratic Party ensured a Democratic majority in West Virginia’s legislature throughout the past several decades. Still a force of relevance and a powerful lobbying group in the state, the UMWA’s power to command has been reduced to one that is more culturally relevant than practically relevant to the state’s majority working class.
The UMWA’s greatest strength had been their optics and their history as one of the more militant unions in American history. Scores of camouflaged-wearing miners rallying together as they listen to one impassioned speech after another could rekindle any fledgling spirit. But in their absence, the void was filled by the other militant majority, a new group of rank-and-file education workers. The natural economic decline of coal meant that fewer dues-paying members could affiliate with the UMWA. Instead of transforming into a union that could advocate for the abolition of capitalism, as this system has been the reason for coal miner deaths and a plague of black lung diseases, the UMWA soon advocated for tax policies that benefitted private coal companies. Their union’s longevity depended upon the fewer and fewer workers who still labored in mines, and so the UMWA saw that they would need to protect these jobs by any means necessary.
This is the danger presented to education workers who have, for the time being, been handed over the keys of a mass movement. Being the charges of this political movement in such a critical stage of revolution could lead to victory or disaster, and we must be careful not to become so easily lead astray by this power into becoming simply another non-profit, advocating for meager reforms under capitalism. Remaining outside the electoral sphere, building up workers for their own ends to manage their workplaces, advancing their own agendas in spite of the desires of bourgeois political parties will ensure the long-term stability of this militant movement. Furthermore, it will prevent fracturing along ideological or party lines before such transformation in revolutionary class-consciousness can take place. We must recognize that the workers who joined us on our picket lines have vastly different ideological beliefs than we, engaging in a strike against Republican legislators one day and voting for them the next. This strategy does not practice a non-ideological intervention; far from it! Instead, such a strategy would substitute the building of class-consciousness through the ballot box, which we understand is a false consciousness, with the building of class-consciousness external to the functioning of the state.
What is to be done?
It must be our goal with this movement to unearth the contradictions inherent in capitalism for the masses of education workers. Direct action has the capability of doing this on a small scale and in periodic steps. For this to be truly effective in the long-term, however, the #Red4Ed movement must fundamentally reshape the labor movement yet again with a proactive strike on labor’s truest of holidays, May Day. The goals of this movement have yet to be written, and it would be of the utmost importance that all education workers have a say in determining what this strike would look like on the ground, in real time, making demands of a system already hostile to even the mention of social democracy.
What I have laid out above is more so the case for why a nationwide May Day strike is imperative, given the power generated by education workers. It is not up to one individual to determine its magnitude or immediate asks, yet the overarching theme of this walkout can and must be the eventual dismantling of neo-liberal capitalism and the building up of a wholly new, wholly independent economic and political system. Our future is not predetermined. Our system cannot last. It is time that education workers begin to work towards a May Day strike now, in this very moment, to hasten the rise of the working class in opposition to capital. To quote the labor leader Mary Harris ‘Mother’ Jones, “Some day the workers will take possession of your city hall, and when we do, no child will be sacrificed on the altar of profits”
About The Author:
Michael Mochaidean is an organizer with the IWW, WVEA, and a member of the West Virginia United caucus