Columns, Opinion

Lessons from the Left: Unions need to do better

On Feb. 22, teachers across West Virginia went on a nine-day strike. Schools were closed. Students stayed home. Twenty thousand teachers and 13,000 school service personnel marched with pickets, chants and strong will for higher wages and better benefits.

Of course, none of this commotion was without reason. West Virginia ranks 48th in the country (including D.C.) when it comes to teacher salaries, narrowly edging out Oklahoma, Mississippi and South Dakota. In terms of how West Virginian teachers compare to the national average, there’s yet another sad and sizable gap. While the average teacher makes around $60,000, a teacher in West Virginia only makes around $45,000. Even when adjusted for cost of living in West Virginia, that’s not a lot. Teachers have families to support, bills to pay, expenses to cover, and since the state underfunds its public schools, school supplies to purchase.

The strike ended successfully on March 6 — teachers won a five percent raise, signed in the form of a bill by Gov. Jim Justice — and made an impact that’s likely to last for a while. It’s a lesson in how bottom-up organizing makes a difference: that it doesn’t end in defeat and that it can be big.

But winning labor disputes with grassroots organizing isn’t a new strategy. Strikes like the one in West Virginia were common and extremely successful in the early 20th century. In 1912, textile workers in Lawrence organized and received fewer work hours and higher wages. There’s also the great anthracite coal Pennsylvania strike of 1902, during which thousands of coal workers stopped working in the wintertime and eventually won a 10 percent wage increase at the end of the ordeal. There’s also the bituminous coal strike of 1946, the steel strike of 1959 and the U.S. Postal Service strike of 1970. All were bottom-up, and all were relatively successful. They were powerful partnerships between union leaders, radicals and rank-and-file individuals. Everyone had a say, and everyone played a part.

Unfortunately, though, union membership went into permanent decline after the second war, and President Reagan’s assault on unions only aggravated that drop. The unions that exist today are weak, often plagued with bureaucracy and appeasement, and they have lost power when it comes to negotiating fair deals, better wages and more comprehensive benefits for workers. In West Virginia, for those exact reasons, the unions weren’t at the center — the teachers themselves were. In fact, many teachers complained that their union had “sold them out,” and that the union tried to end the strike before they got the five percent raise they demanded.

What happened in West Virginia speaks to the power of crowd-source striking and what can happen when you organize effectively. Teachers used Facebook groups and social media to organize, and they kept on despite the advice of professional union leaders around them.

It shouldn’t have to come to this. It shouldn’t have to come to a nine-day strike, which kept teachers out in the cold and kids at home. Teachers do the most important job in the world — educating our kids — and they deserve to be paid accordingly. Even further, the conflict should pit management (the state legislator) against union leaders and their rank-and-file, not management and union bosses against strikers. Leaders should march in step with their workers. They work for them and ought to be sensitive to their interests. And they definitely shouldn’t cozy up with the state legislator, their historical adversaries, whose interests are by no means similar to theirs.

The West Virginia strike was a lesson — a lesson that unions need to do better or else the rank-and-file will trudge on, despite all odds, without them. It’s always better for the two to work together than apart. Together, they strike bigger, longer and more successfully. They have more power, more political efficacy, more agency, more solidarity and more support. The sovereignty is in the worker, while the action and support lies in the union.