The victorious strike by teachers and other school workers in West Virginia, and the preparations put in place beforehand to effectively organize it, unified workers and built a broad social movement. School workers were inspired by the history of independent struggle and distrust for elected officials by the coal miners, who were the heart of labor battles there for decades.
Teachers organized to unite with miners, other unions, students and their families, creating ways for children to have safe places to go and get meals while the strike shut down the schools.
This experience raises important questions for all workers. How can we use our unions effectively to take on the capitalist rulers and win?
In West Virginia coal miners waged a series of powerful battles in the late 1960s and ’70s that fueled a revolution in the United Mine Workers union. Workers regained their union from the bureaucratic grip of union president Tony Boyle and used it to wrest control over safety in the mines and helped push back the spread of black lung disease. While the bosses’ push for profits has weakened the union since then, lessons from this history of combat continue to impact working-class struggles there today.
The capitalist rulers claim that public workers must accept that there’s a “limited pie” of state income and workers have to fight among themselves over who gets what. But it’s false we must accept a trade-off between cuts on teachers’ pay and benefits or higher taxes. What’s involved is a question of social priorities and the relationship of class forces between the workers and the propertied rulers — the profits for the capitalists versus meeting the needs of all working people. We should oppose all taxes that fall on workers, ranchers and farmers.
Teachers, other school workers and all public workers in Oklahoma have faced decades of no pay raises and other cuts. They are organizing in schools and communities across the state to build on some of the things that made the West Virginia strike so powerful. They’ve called a statewide labor rally and strike for April 2 that’s gotten people’s attention.
Oklahoma Education Association Executive Director David DuVall together with other public union officials there unveiled March 23 their own plan for who to tax and impose fees on to raise teachers’ wages and improve conditions. Their plan calls for some taxes on oil producers and includes hefty tax increases on cigarettes, gas, alcohol and other things that hit working people the hardest.
The proposals by the union officials are a body blow to the workers. Instead of charting a course to mobilize the broadest support and involve all workers, they hand the government a tool to pit workers against each other and weaken their fight. They accept the false notion that workers must choose between more taxes or more cuts. History shows that as long as the capitalist families hold power, workers will face both higher taxes and layoffs and cuts.
Our labor power creates all the wealth in the country (and the world!). The capitalist rulers expropriate the lion’s share from us, and fight to continue to do so, from labor battles at home to their wars abroad.
Nothing workers get in schooling, medical care, pensions or anything else is a gift from the employers. We create it all. How much workers get and keep is the result of decades of class struggle.
Our eyes have to be on building a working-class-led social struggle to take control over all the wealth we produce. Along that road we can make the most progress in protecting our conditions today.
Karl Marx, writing about the working-class movement some 150 years ago, said some important things about the role of unions. In a resolution adopted by the International Working Men’s Association entitled “Trade Unions: Their Past, Present, and Future,” Marx explained unions “must now learn to act deliberately as organizing centers of the working class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation. They must convince the world at large that their efforts far from being narrow and selfish, aim at the emancipation of the downtrodden millions.”
Rather than depending on capitalist politicians to solve workers’ problems, as union officials seek to convince us to do, the labor movement needs to break from the parties of capitalist rule — the Democrats and Republicans — and take the road of independent working-class political action. On this road we can make a social revolution and take power, transforming ourselves in the process.
The increasing numbers of teachers’ protests, from Oklahoma to Arizona to Kentucky and elsewhere, inspired by the teachers’ victory and the social movement forged in West Virginia, point the way forward. That course leads to transforming and building unions and strengthening the working-class movement.