“Look at the nonunion workers at Walmart,” Scott Whitt, a school bus driver on strike alongside teachers and other school workers in West Virginia, told the Militant. “They have no leg to stand on.”
It’s not only Walmart where bosses are stepping up their assaults and indignities on workers.
“We’re not fighting just for teachers,” said one picket sign held by striking West Virginia teachers. “We’re fighting for all workers in West Virginia.” Their fight for better wages and health care is an example for workers everywhere. The struggle has aspects of a broader social movement. Teachers worked with parents and others in advance to make sure the walkout would not harm those most in need. Day care centers and meals were organized for the children.
The spirit of the teachers and school workers has made it possible to win broad solidarity and gives a glimmer of how a fighting union movement can unite working people against boss and government attacks.
It’s in the towns and mountains of West Virginia that a revolution began in the United Mine Workers union in the late 1960s and ’70s, wresting control of the union from the corrupt Tony Boyle machine. Mineworkers won the right to read, discuss and vote on their contract. They set up union safety committees with the power to shut down unsafe conditions. The union led a social movement that fought for retirees, demanded and won health care for those afflicted with black lung and joined broader social protests.
But over time, union officials have retreated, like the leadership of the rest of the labor movement, looking increasingly to their own welfare and to deals with various capitalist politicians, not the fighting capacity of the workers themselves. The unions have gotten weaker as the crisis of the capitalist system has driven the bosses to sharper attacks on our class. Today only 6 percent of private industry workers are in the union.
More than 100 years ago, Karl Marx wrote that the unions must “act deliberately as organizing centers of the working class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation.They must aid every social and political movement tending in that direction” and act “as the champions and representatives of the whole working class.”
This is true more than ever today as the bosses make working people pay for the crisis of capitalism and where workers in uniform are being sent off as cannon fodder to die in their wars in Afghanistan, Syria and others sure to come.
Socialist Workers Party members knocking on doors in working-class neighborhoods find there is a serious discussion going on about what our class needs to do to effectively challenge the employers’ assaults. We need to learn to think socially and act politically to unite the working class. We have to organize and strengthen unions that can speak for all the oppressed and exploited. And we need to organize independently of the two capitalist parties, with an eye to overthrowing capitalist rule and take political power ourselves, as Cuban workers and farmers did in 1959.
The strike by teachers and other school workers in West Virginia is a harbinger of bigger battles to come. We need to join in, build solidarity with all of these fights, and deepen the discussion among working people on the road forward.