Rising Up in West Virginia & Beyond!
(This article first appeared in the May-June 2018 issue of the American Postal Worker magazine)
By President Mark Dimondstein
In late February, 37,000 West Virginia teachers and school employees went on an inspiring nine-day strike – and won! As we go to press, similar strikes are going on in Oklahoma and Kentucky.
The strike was fueled by low pay (WV teachers’ salaries were ranked 48th out of the 50 states), no pay raises in four years and rising health insurance premiums. These conditions were, in part, created by 2006 bipartisan (Democratic and Republican) supported corporate tax cuts that drained needed money out of the state treasury.
At a time when corporate power holds far too much sway over the working class, when collective bargaining rights are under attack (witness the setbacks in workers’ rights in Wisconsin), when the Supreme Court is expected to ban “fair share” fees for public sector unions, and when divisions have been created between private and public-sector workers, how did these education workers win?
• Unity of teachers and all school workers: Members of all three unions representing teachers and school service employees united – the American Federation of Teachers-WV, WV Education Association and WV School Service Personnel Association.
• Statewide Solidarity: Education workers in all 55 WV counties walked off the job together.
• Members led the fightback: They educated and mobilized their co-workers, physically filled the State Capitol and maintained job actions. It was a “bottom up” uprising.
• United front with parents and community: Remi- niscent of the magnificent 2012 Chicago teachers’ strike, workers linked with the community to demand quality education. Striking workers helped feed the children who were missing school meals. Thousands of parents and students joined picket lines and large rallies at the State Capitol.
• Workers refused to be confined by the “law”: It was unlawful to strike, and the workers had no legal “right” to collective bargaining. When “collective begging” at the state house failed, education workers seized the initiative, withheld their labor and engaged in collective bargaining right from the picket lines.
• Keeping their eye on the prize: Workers were advised by some politicians and even some union leaders to return to work with only a tentative deal. Yet, they wisely stayed out until promises were legislated in writing.
• Building on history: West Virginians have a rich union history centered around powerful mine workers’ struggles. This pro-union culture helped build the unity of the workers and the community.
All these factors culminated in victory. The education workers won an immediate 5 percent pay raise and a freeze on any further increases in health insurance premiums. In solidarity, they won these same provisions for all state workers.
Important lessons learned: Workers can claim their rights “in the streets,” even when not “granted” by law. Workers do best when trusting each other, rather than heeding voices telling us to “play it safe.” Workers can build on our marvelous history. Workers can force whichever political wing of corporate power (Democratic or Republican) holds the reins to respond to our united action. Workers can build powerful unions when we mobilize and take ownership of them – and our destiny. Workers can unite with the community, fight “city hall” and win!
In the historic 1970 postal strike, militant postal workers carried out similar illegal job actions. These too were propelled from the “rank-and-file.” This most important event of our postal labor history laid the basis for the many substantial gains in our union contracts and the rights and benefits of postal workers.
Both strikes underscore the truth of the inspiring words of our labor anthem, “Solidarity Forever”:
“When the union’s inspiration through the workers’ blood shall run,
There can be no power greater anywhere beneath the sun;
Yet what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one,
For the union makes us strong!”