Notes from the Class War: the West Virginia Strike Shows That Solidarity Wins

by on March 12, 2018 · 0 comments

in Labor, Under the Perfect Sun

By Jim Miller

In the early days of the Trump administration, most savvy observers were quick to note that, populist bluster aside, Trump’s policies would be a disaster for America’s already historic level of economic inequality. As economist Charles Ballard wrote in The Hill, “the main thrust of policy proposals from President Trump is to maintain, and even accelerate, the anti-egalitarian policies of recent decades.”

A year later, it’s now abundantly clear that the anti-egalitarian nature of this administration has only poured gasoline on the fire. Thus, as Alex Henderson noted in an Alternet piece last week, “The reality is the United States is now home to some of the worst income inequality in the developed world, and thanks to the recent passage of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, this wealth gap will grow exponentially wider.”

Indeed, as Henderson outlines, the gap between Trump’s bogus populist rhetoric and this governing policy is breathtaking:

As a Republican candidate for president, Trump railed against out-of-touch elites, vowing to “make America great again” and revitalize the American Dream. Yet his administration’s proposed federal budget includes draconian cuts to a long list of social programs, including food stamps, housing, and heating assistance. On the campaign trail, Trump insisted he would not touch Medicare, Medicaid or Social Security, but his budget would defund Medicare by $266 billion, Medicaid by $1.1 trillion and Social Security by $72 billion.

What’s more, Trump has opposed raising the national minimum wage significantly, if at all. And by eliminating the Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act will cause 13 million Americans to lose their health insurance by 2027 and increase premiums by 10 percent, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office. Covered California, an ACA exchange program, has estimated that premiums could increase by as much as 30 percent in the Golden State in 2019.

The Trump administration has done everything possible to exacerbate inequality in the U.S. and undermine what little remains of the New Deal’s progressive policies. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich has even praised Trump and Republicans in Congress for making “a great effort to break out of the Franklin Delano Roosevelt model.” If the U.S. remains on its current economic trajectory, there won’t be an economic safety net left to shred.

…this union story is a huge one and offers some hope that “the resistance” isn’t the sole province of blue state liberals.

But, as the torrent of bad news on the national front continues, there are signs that even if Democratic politicians haven’t figured out a winning strategy to respond to this assault, some working-class Americans, teachers in this case, just may have. Not that you have heard much significant about it from the corporate media which, as Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting documented, largely missed or underplayed the significance of this big labor story just as they have with the vast majority of labor news for decades.

Nonetheless, this union story is a huge one and offers some hope that “the resistance” isn’t the sole province of blue state liberals. Indeed, while Betsy DeVos and company might have the looting of public education on their “to do” list, it appears, some red state teachers have another idea entirely: direct action gets the goods.

At the San Diego Free Press, Anna Daniels wrote about the importance of the West Virginia teachers strike last week and since that column, the teachers shocked the world and won in a deep red state—and educators in Oklahoma may be about to follow their lead with Kentucky teachers not far behind them. The West Virginia strike alone represents the most successful mass strike in many years, but if it is followed by two more big strikes in conservative states, it will represent a truly historic surge of union activism not seen in decades.

Why does it matter?

The victory in West Virginia was about more than just one strike and a 5% pay raise. In a great article on the strike in The Intercept, one teacher put it this way:

“I don’t think this is a strike or a work stoppage. I think this is a movement for a better future for West Virginia,” Buford said, predicting a “landslide” win for local pro-labor Democrats. Across the state, supporters of the strike have overwhelmingly blamed Republican Gov. Jim Justice and the GOP-held state legislature for meager teacher pay and shrinking benefits. Signs reading “We will remember in November!” were a common sight on picket lines.

And it’s not just any Democrats that the activists in West Virginia are looking to elect; it’s Democrats that understand the needs of working people. As one Working Families Party organizer, Cathy Kunkel, predicted:

“I think this movement that’s started by the public employees will certainly push the election more in the Democratic direction” . . . According to Kunkel, Rise Up is focused on supporting not just any and all Democrats, but “getting the Democratic party to work more for working people.” Other groups including Vigilance Jefferson County, Mountaineers for Progress, and the Democratic Socialists of America also say they are pressuring Democrats in West Virginia to show up for the working class . . . “Democrats really haven’t been working in the interest of working people for decades,” Kunkel said, “and it may be more obvious in a place like West Virginia than other places. In that sense, I think people here can see pretty clearly when their politicians are not serving their interests.”

It is important to remember, however, that the goal of the strike was not, at base, about electoral politics. It was about serving the interests of working people, by any means necessary.

Nonetheless, it is still illustrative that if the Democrats can finally wean themselves off of the toxic neoliberal policies (such as frequently embracing corporate education reform rather than addressing economic inequality) they might actually be able to win back a key portion of the working-class voters they have been losing—like some of the strikers in West Virginia:

“After the strike, I’ll definitely be voting differently,” said James Pickron, 39, who teaches diesel technology in Elanor, West Virginia. An 18-year veteran of the Marine Corps with conservative views, Pickron voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential race. On Tuesday, Pickron stood in the rotunda of the capitol in Charleston, protesting the state GOP. In his hands was a homemade sign demanding health care funding for a dozen West Virginia public worker groups, from teachers to the Division of Forestry to the DMV.

“Most of the time, I voted a straight Republican ticket,” he said. Now, he said, he will support local Democrats that vote to fully fund the state’s Public Employee Insurance Agency, or PEIA. “This time I will dig down, look at the yeas and nays, and make a more conscious decision.”

How did the West Virginia teachers find solidarity with Trump voters? As Jay O’Neal, one of the leaders of the union, explained in a Jacobin interview, it wasn’t rocket science:

First of all, if we can do it, anybody can do it. It’s not like we’re a special group of activist teachers who have been studying for twenty years about how to mobilize the working class. We’re not.

Another one of the big lessons I’ve learned is that you need to organize people around a specific issue. For us, it was the insurance. That’s a big-tent issue that affected one in seven West Virginians. It meant that we had a large base of support.

His union sister, Emily Comer, had this to add on how to build solidarity:

For a successful mass movement, people don’t have to agree on partisan politics, on religion, or anything else for that matter. But they do have to come together and fight in solidarity around a shared issue. We’ve learned that people will push the other differences aside in the name of solidarity.

If you have enough working people who are pushed to the breaking point, and who are angry about a specific grievance, then it’s the duty of activists to let them know that they deserve better — and that their lives can get better if they take action on that issue. If you lead the way, people will respond.

Solidarity is the only antidote to the hate and division that the right has used to successfully build power.

The shared issues, in this case, were centered around working-class bread and butter issues: decent pay, adequate benefits, supporting the public sector that serves everyone and giving workers some autonomy over their lives. Perhaps, if those on the progressive side of the ledger can learn to talk about class again in a way that encourages people to feel connected to each other across other differences, we can start building the bridges that will help form the kind of grand coalition of ordinary folks that can win a better future.

Solidarity is the only antidote to the hate and division that the right has used to successfully build power. To build solidarity you need “big tent issues” that allow people to recognize what connects their interests with those of their neighbors.

This is the key lesson of this strike and of American labor history as a whole: when working people can find common cause across differences, they win. When they allow themselves to be divided, they lose. That’s why bosses and undemocratic leaders of all kinds hate solidarity.

The plague of economic inequality is not a technical issue in need of technocratic “solutions.” It is one of the grand moral dilemmas of our age—how do we live together in a way that provides fairness and dignity for all? The simple answer lies in putting working people’s issues first rather than the desires of Wall Street and the billionaire class.

The neoliberal hegemony of the last 30 years, with its unquestioned love of one market under God, inequality be damned, has been a net loser for the Democratic party and, more importantly, the majority of working Americans. If we listen to the New Democrats and offer more of the same economic neoliberalism dressed up with watered-down social liberalism, the populist right will continue to win by cynically stoking the anger born out of conditions they have created. If, on the other hand, progressives seize the day and pivot to a politics of class solidarity, there just may be a light at the end of the dark tunnel in which we are presently lost.

Listen to the people in West Virginia: solidarity wins.


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