by Mark Gruenberg
Peoples’ World | March 18, 2019
The teachers’ strike in West Virginia last year was a shot heard across the nation with teachers all over the country following suit with strikes and job actions. | John Raby/AP
NEW ORLEANS—The wave of teachers’ walkouts and strikes for almost a year – forced on the workers by penny-pinching and tax-cutting GOP administrations and politicians – represent “successful examples” of community-based action where victories benefit everyone, says Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten.
That’s because those walkouts, in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Denver, Los Angeles, among Chicago charter school teachers and now in Indiana and at Summit Academy in Parma, Ohio, centered not around pay and pensions, but around what’s best for schools and kids, she adds.
That community-centric focus is a model other unions could plan to follow, and she believes they will.
Weingarten gave her analysis in a March 13 interview after a session on organizing during the AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting in New Orleans. The session featured presentations by Weingarten, Food and Commercial Workers President Marc Perrone and other leaders.
Some of those leaders, including Weingarten and Communications Workers President Chris Shelton – chair of the AFL-CIO Organizing Committee – also participated in a “Future of Unions” conference in D.C. several weeks ago. Speakers there discussed engaging with and involving communities, not just unionists, in issues that matter to all. Weingarten said that works for the teachers and it works for other causes, too.
“You’re seeing more and more people engage in issues they care about,” she explained. “Good schools for our kids, keeping our skies safe, health care…You get people more and more involved and you win.”
But they won’t get involved unless they see examples of prior wins using community-based issues, she warned. That’s where the past teacher strike successes come into play. Those strikes were characterized by bottom-up organizing, community concern and involvement and mass action to pressure politicians to change anti-education, anti-teacher policies.
The first strike in West Virginia, over crumbling schools, revenue robbed from them by tax cuts for the rich and corporations, outdated textbooks, a 1 percent raise after a 10-year wage freeze and huge health care premium hikes, kicked the whole wave off.
With eager participation from parents and students, every public school in the entire state closed for nine days until the GOP governor and GOP-run legislature agreed to fix all but one of those conditions. They didn’t repeal the tax cuts.
West Virginia’s impact showed up in federal figures. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in February that 20 major strikes and lockouts, each involving at least 1,000 workers, occurred last year. They covered 485,000 workers, the highest total in years. Eight of them, covering 379,000 of the workers, were in education.
The West Virginia walkout “was a vote of solidarity on issues of common concern,” Weingarten said. “It sparked a recognition of interest. But it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There’s a root cause: Failure to adequately fund public education.”
That can be tried elsewhere and around other issues, Weingarten contended, “even in right-wing states” such as those “where de-funding schools became a toxic brew.” West Virginia, Arizona, Kentucky, Oklahoma and Indiana all fall under that definition.
So does Kansas, where drastic GOP tax cuts for the rich led to de-funding of the schools, roads and other state services, plus an enormous deficit. The GOP-run legislature finally listened to Kansans and reversed then-right-wing GOP Gov. Sam Brownback’s cuts. After Brownback quit to join the Trump administration and his successor lost to an extreme rightist in the party primary, Kansans elected Democrat Laura Kelly, a state senator, as their new chief executive.
“Then people say ‘enough is enough’” Weingarten said.