The West-Virginia Teachers’ Strike and a Socialist Movement

The social-reformist left like to claim that what they are interested in is class struggle from below–the self-organization of the working class that opposes the power of the class of employers. In a podcast, David Camfield’s analysis of the West Virginia teachers strike is an example of such a claim by the social-reformist left (This Is How to Fight!, recorded on March 29, 2018).

There were undoubtedly innovations in the strike that make it different from other strikes. Firstly, the context is different from most other teachers’ strikes. West Virginia teachers do not have a typical collective-bargaining system since West Virginia is a “right-to-work” state, with no legal right to collective bargaining. Secondly, the degree of solidarity among teachers that was shown during the events leading up to the strike and during the strike is much deeper than normal  (such as throughthe Facebook coordination of more than 20,000 . Thirdly, the degree of solidarity between teachers and other school staff was also much deeper than normal. Fourthly, the degree of solidarity displayed by both teachers and other workers in the public sector was much deeper (by, for example, the refusal to end the strike unless all public-sector workers received the same pay raise). Finally, the recognition of the needs of the poorest sections of their students for continued provision of breakfast and lunch programs through the continued provision of food during the strike indicated a consciousness of addressing the needs of a vulnerable section of the community while they were on strike.

Undoubtedly there are other notable features of the strike that make it stand out from the typical strike.

These distinctive features of the strike should, of course, not be downplayed. In the face of a difficult situation (facing the reactionary billionaire Governor Justice, on the one hand, and a lack of collective bargaining rights on the other), the teachers and support staff stood fast and forced through an agreement that goes beyond what they would have achieved if they had engaged in collective bargaining separately and legally.

However, David Camfield, as a social-reformist leftist, idealizes this situation. Firstly, the results of the strike were mixed. The across-the-board five percent increase for all public-sector workers was certainly a win for solidarity at one level, but at another level it indicated uneven wage and salary increases since five percent for those near the top of the wage and salary schedule means a greater absolute gain than those at the bottom. A demand for an across-the-board increase for all public-sector employees, with the total amount distributed controlled by workers democratically, would have been a demand more consistent with a socialist vision. That there is no reference to such a demand in Camfield’s presentation indicates one of the limitations of Camfield’s analysis.

Secondly, the issue of adequate health-care insurance paid by the employer rather than the workers remained unresolved and was shuffled off to a “task force.” This is a typical stalling tactic by management and employers in order to diffuse a situation and often does not resolve an issue for workers, or the solution becomes watered-down and more acceptable to management.

Thirdly, although there may have been some socialists who aimed at the abolition of the power of employers as a class in the movement, there has been, as far as I am aware, no indication of any explicit expression of a rejection of the power of employers as a class by Virginia teachers. The social-reformist left do not do so, and even the radical left often fear doing so out of fear of isolation from the working class.

Mr. Camfield claims that this form of class-struggle from below makes such workers more susceptible to socialist ideas. That may or may not be the case. It would require investigation to determine whether that is true. Camfield does not investigate whether that is true, so his assertion is pure speculation. It may, however, be a convenient ideology, since it may then be used to divert attention from the need to fight against current social-reformist ideology (such as “decent jobs,” “fair wages,” “economic justice”) and other such rhetoric in the here and now. That would require opposing union ideology in its various forms consistently and more assertively.

Mr. Camfield also does not refer to and hence does not take into account the specific situation of teachers in general in relation to other members of the working class nor the specific situation of the teachers in West Virginia (and in some other states). In relation to the first point–the specific nature of teachers in relation to other members of the working class–teachers’ jobs, as Beverly Silver, in her work Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalization since 1870, argues (pages 116-117), are not interdependent in their work like autoworkers technically; on the other hand, they are linked to the social division of labour via the disruptive impact of strikes on the routines of workers as parents, which in turn can have an impact on other employers. Furthermore, unlike the auto industry, it is difficult to increase productivity through changes in technology; teaching is still relatively labour-intensive. In addition, the labour of teachers is difficult to export geographically (unlike, for example, jobs in the auto industry); Consequently, teachers have, potentially, a certain kind of economic power–a spatial fix–lacking in other industries (although workers in other industries may have different forms of economic power–a technical fix in the case of auto workers, for instance).

Mr. Camfield also fails to provide any details at all concerning the specific nature of the West Virginia teachers strike. Firstly, the strikers themselves recognized that there was an imbalance between teacher demand and teacher supply: teacher demand exceeded teacher supply. Secondly, the West-Virginia teachers, as Hakan Yilmaz argues (Public Education, the State and the Crisis, 2018), there has been at least a two-pronged attack against the working class since the early 1970s, when economic crises became more prevalent. One prong has been an attack on unions, wages and benefits to shore up profit and the profit rate (the practical measurement for capitalists of how well they are doing in the economy–it is measured variously, but in general it is after-tax profit divided by total invested).

Another prong has been the shift in the tax rate. At the federal level, in the U.S. from 1981 to the end of the 1980s, the tax rate decreased from 70% to 33%. This shift in the tax rate was not that relevant directly for educational financing (since such financing occurs more at the state and local levels), but it provided the overall ideological climate for such shifts at those levels later on. The federal public debt skyrocketed, which provided the justification for federal neoliberal austerity measures (reduction of federal social services, for example).

When the great economic crisis of 2007-2008 arose, there were further attacks on the working class, including public-sector workers. As investment decreased following the crisis, tax revenues were also hit. In West Virginia, during the last quarter of 2017, for instance, state revenue was still 7% below the pre-crisis level; the state funding formula for West Virginia decreased by 11.4% between 2008 and 2018. Simultaneously, the cost of Medicare and Medicaid increased, and the costs of health care for public employees were being increased directly paid out by teachers, among others: “patient costs” increased from “zero in 1988 to over four hundred dollars a month today” (Kate Doyle Griffiths, March 13, 2018: Crossroads and Country Roads: Wildcat West Virginia and the Possibilities of a Working Class Offensive), page 2.

As Yilmaz points out, “lower state revenues and higher state costs have led to significant declines in teachers’ salaries and benefits” (page 22). This has often had implications for teachers salaries. In the case of West Virginia, teacher salaries declined “from $49,999 to $45,701” between 2003 and 2016 (page 23). With rising health costs and absolutely decreasing salaries, the pressure on teachers’ own livelihoods was increasing. Undoubtedly the movement gained momentum and reached the level of solidarity it did in part because of these circumstances These circumstances, although they may aid in developing class consciousness, a rejection of capitalism and the power of employers as a class and for socialism, need not do so. To do so requires sustained criticism of the power of employers as a class, criticisms of justifications of that power (such as “fair wages,” “decent work,” “a fair contract,” and similar clichés, and a vision of an alternative kind of society.

However, I remember Mr. Camfield being the keynote speaker at one of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society’s meetings (the Manitoba Teachers Society is an organization, according to its own website, that “is the collective bargaining and professional development organization for all of Manitoba’s 15,000 public school teachers”). What Mr. Camfield said was hardly radical. This is not surprising given not only the reformist nature of the Manitoba Teachers’ Society but also its conservative nature. When I was attending the French university in Winnipeg (College universitaire de Saint-Boniface) to obtain a bachelor of education degree, the Manitoba Teachers’ Society presented its services to teacher candidates. It provided scenarios to show what teachers should do in various situations. In one scenario, a teacher could have criticized its employers, but the presenter indicated that under no circumstances should teachers do so.

All in all, Mr. Camfield’s podcast presentation is an example of idealizing the struggle of workers and claiming that such struggles are somehow socialist. He nowhere indicates the need for socialists to make explicit and to challenge those in the labour movement in general and the union movement in particular concerning their persistent justification of the power of employers as a class.

Although such struggles undoubtedly need to be supported, they are insufficient. Such struggles need to become more explicitly aimed at ending the power of employers as a class. Struggles against a particular employer, in other words, need to be generalized and become indeed a class struggle explicitly. Such struggles need to become radicalized through the goal of ending of the power of employers as a class being made explicit and using that goal in the present to organize for the goal of overthrowing that power.

Such a goal requires that socialists–including academics–risk being oppressed in various ways by the diverse powers of the class of employers and their representatives inside and outside the state. It demands that socialists be thoroughly critical, challenging the power of employers any way they can–including their ideology–and that includes challenging the ideology of union representatives. What kind of a socialist is that who does not do that but demands that workers risk their lives? To refer to class struggle from below without risk is hypocritical because it demands that workers risk their lives–but not socialists.

Or are there not objective and subjective conditions required for challenging the power of employers as a class?

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