West Virginia Teachers Offer a Lesson in Organizing
With a deal reached in the West Virginia teachers strike, there is talk of revived labor activism nationwide. But is the deal fair to all, and will anti-union forces push back? We speak to West Virginia teacher Brendan Muckian-Bates and education scholar Dr. Curry Malott.
AARON MATÉ: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté. A deal has been reached to end the teachers’ strike in West Virginia. Governor Jim Justice made the announcement to a hall of striking teachers outside the State Senate.
JIM JUSTICE: Listen to me just one second.
JIM JUSTICE: They’re going to sign. There’s no question they’re going to sign it. I’m going to sign it.
JIM JUSTICE: We’re done. We’re done. Trust me. You’ve got to trust me just a little bit here. It’s solid, we commit rock-solid on 5%.
AARON MATÉ: The deal would see a 5% pay rise for all state employees, including the teachers, but it does not make a final decision on another key teacher demand of tackling the high costs of healthcare. On that front, Governor Justice has only agreed to form a state task force. And even if the teachers’ healthcare is addressed, this new deal could hurt the healthcare of other state residents. Republicans say that to pay for the deal, Medicaid may now be the target for cuts.
The West Virginia teachers’ strike is seen as one of the most significant US labor actions in years, and with a potential strike now looming in Oklahoma, are we about to see a wave of organized labor activism around public education? I’m joined now by two guests, Brendan Muckian Bates is a public high school teacher in West Virginia and Dr. Curry Malott is a professor of education at Westchester University of Pennsylvania. Welcome to you both. Brendan, I’ll start with you. What have you heard so far about this agreement that was reached today and what is the reaction that you are getting from your fellow teachers?
BRENDAN MUCKIAN BATES: So, what we heard is the House and the Senate have both passed the 5% pay raise for teachers, service personnel and police. The scenes on the ground have been jubilant. Teachers are excited. They’re ready to go back to work, but they wanted the assurance of the Senate, which had tabled this bill in the past and had continued to stall on it. So, now that it’s passed the Senate, we’re awaiting Justice’s signature, which we expect he’ll sign and we’re just ready to be back to work.
AARON MATÉ: Talk about how we got here because there actually was another deal reached last week, but it was teachers who rose up to continue striking. What happened there?
BRENDAN MUCKIAN BATES: Right. So, Justice met with union leadership on Tuesday after he made a tour of the state on Monday. And the tentative deal was precisely what they’re voting on today, a 5% raise for teachers, service personnel and police across the board. The issue was teachers didn’t trust that Senate Republicans would pass this bill. They had been talking about trying to lower that percentage to 3% or 4%, whatever the case was. And we were right to continue going on strike, because on Thursday and Friday, the Senate tabled the bill. On Saturday, they decided to add an amendment to it that would drop it to 4%. So, what had happened was rank and file members throughout the state met in counties at impromptu meetings and pretty much forced the county superintendents to call schools for Thursday and Friday.
AARON MATÉ: What is your reaction to hearing that one of the critical issues of the strike, because it was not just about seeking better pay, but also about tackling the soaring cost of healthcare, teachers paying extremely high premiums, that that issue has not been directly addressed beyond Justice promising a state task force?
BRENDAN MUCKIAN BATES: A lot of teachers are suspicious of this task force. We feel we’ve been lied to in the past by the Senate. We feel like we’ve been lied to before by the legislature, this governor. While we’re hopeful that a task force will be assembled and have association leadership on it to find appropriate sources of revenue, we’re afraid that the cuts in Medicaid or other revenue that can help elderly individuals, people on fixed income, we’re worried that they’ll start using that revenue stream to plug those holes in PEIA. So, some teachers are saying to hold out until a natural gas severance tax has been passed. We’re not hopeful that something like that would be passed in the current session. So, we’re kind of looking at possible actions or trying to hold the legislature’s feet to the fire in the future.
AARON MATÉ: The Republican who’s been the face of this pushback against the teachers has been Mitch Carmichael, the president of the State Senate. And he said today that he does not want to pass anything “just to appease a special interest group,” presumably referring to the teachers as a special interest group. Brendan, let me ask you, on the issue of taxing gas and taxes in general, this crisis did not just start recently but actually there’s a history where, about a decade ago, you had major tax cuts in the state favoring corporations, putting the squeeze on the public coffers, getting us to today. Can you talk about that background and where you think, what needs to be reverse in order for vulnerable people not to be the ones paying for this pay raise for teachers and other state employees?
BRENDAN MUCKIAN BATES: Yeah. This state has realized that both parties are by and large in the pocket of large corporations. West Virginia has been a reliably blue state up until 2000 for the presidential elections and until 2012 or 2014, for the state legislature. And even Governor Justice was elected as a Democrat until he switched several months later. So, what rank and file teachers are realizing is the Democratic party, which was in power when the last major statewide strike occurred in 1990, it was a Democratic governor and a Democratic attorney general that attempted to stop the teachers’ strike. Currently it’s the Republicans in the legislature and governor’s mansion that are doing this. So, West Virginians are realizing that neither party really has their best interests at heart.
It’s based on the individual and it’s based on the community power that we’re witnessing here. So, from my conversations with other fellow teachers and on the online spaces where we’re organizing, we’re actually realizing the power of community organizing, the power of rank and file membership, some sort of industrial unionism that hearkens back to the early 20th-century unionism. It has helped us see the power of collective organizing referencing some of the industrial unionism that we’ve witnessed in the early 20th century. I think it’s starting to rejuvenate in the state with this type of militancy and direct action in our unions.
AARON MATÉ: All right, so as we wrap, Curry Malott, hearing a high school teacher in West Virginia like Brendan talk about his movement recognizing the power of collective bargaining and collective organizing, what kind of a threat to the existing neoliberal economic system does a movement like the West Virginia teachers pose? What kind of pushback do you think we might see against teachers across the country as they pick up the trend and organize more and more? We’re already seeing talk now of another strike in Oklahoma and elsewhere across the country, too.
DR. CURRY MALOTT: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think that state legislators, both Republicans and Democrats, as Brendan mentioned, do not serve the interests of working people. That’s been proven time and time again, whether it’s West Virginia, here in Pennsylvania and across the country. What’s going to be the response? That’s a very good question. A lot of people that I was talking to, when the teachers in West Virginia went on strike, they were expecting some immediate disciplinary procedures from the state, because it’s “illegal” for public employees to go on strike in West Virginia. We’re not seeing disciplinary procedures, we’re seeing gains being made. I think that’s a very powerful message, that in this era of what is about to be a post-Janus era, where fair share or agency fees will not be guaranteed anymore, and that’s-
AARON MATÉ: Well, Curry, explain that. Explain that, because for people who don’t know what that is, you’re talking about a Supreme Court case, right, that’s going to have major-
DR. CURRY MALOTT: That’s right.
AARON MATÉ: -implications for organized labor.
DR. CURRY MALOTT: Right. The Taft-Hartley Act, back in the late ’40s, one of the rulings that came out of that, a piece of anti-labor legislation, basically ruled that if a shop is unionized, then the union has to represent all members, regardless of whether they’re in a union or not. So, if you have a grievance with management, not just collective bargaining fees, but if you have a grievance with your employer, then the union has to use their resources to represent you, to defend you. So, that was designed to bankrupt unions.
In 1977, the Abood case, Abood v. the Detroit Board of Education, ruled that workers have to pay their fair share in a unionized shop in non-right-to-work states. That is, everybody benefits from the unions, so everybody has to pay. Currently, 27, I believe, states are right-to-work. So, the Abood case only applies to non-right-to-work states. Pennsylvania here, for example, is a non-right-to-work state, so when I got a job at Westchester University, immediately those agency fees are taken out of my paycheck, which has nothing to do with politics. They can’t use that for political contributions. It’s only for the collective bargaining fees and for representation fees because we all benefit for it, so we actually have to pay our fair share.
That is about to go away. That is Mark Janus v. AFSCME and the Supreme Count just heard that case on March 26th. Now, with Gorsuch as the new, making it a full bench in the Supreme Court, now it’s four pro-labor, five anti-labor. It’s basically a copycat case from the Friedrichs case, which sort of died with Scalia. That’s on its way, and there’s really no indication that the Supreme Court will rule in labor’s favor. So, we’re about to be facing a right-to-work country, the whole country being right-to-work. That means, in the context of decades of anti-union propaganda, trying to convince workers that unions support lazy workers, that it’s a waste of money, etc., etc. Now agency fees are going to go away and we’re going to have to collect those fees on our own.
The upside is West Virginia teachers are paving the way. It’s a right-to-work state, it’s a state where collective bargaining for public employees is illegal. They’re paving the way, they’re showing us what can be achieved in the most restrictive and punitive context. It’s really hopeful for us that, and public sector unions who are worried, what is the post-Janus era going to look like? Much solidarity and appreciation to our brothers and sisters in West Virginia who have been paving the way.
What will the capitalist class political establishment do in response to this growing militancy? We’ll have to wait and see, but I think that in this context of growing poverty and suffering and a redistribution of wealth upwards, and with the recent history of the Occupy Wall Street movement and the movement for Black Lives, the movement for $15 an hour, I think the peoples’ movements are on the rise and the capitalist class is scared and they should be.
AARON MATÉ: We have to wrap. Just a small correction. The hearing in the Janus case was on February 26, last month-
DR. CURRY MALOTT: Oh yeah, excuse me.
AARON MATÉ: because March 26 hasn’t happened yet. Brendan, we have to wrap it. 30 seconds, last word to you.
BRENDAN MUCKIAN BATES: We hope to disseminate the tactics that we’ve started to use in West Virginia to Oklahoma and hopefully to other states around the country because as we’ve heard, this is not going to go away. These issues aren’t going to go away. Much love and solidarity to teachers and public employees across the country who are fighting right-to-work.
AARON MATÉ: Brendan Muckian Bates, high school teacher in West Virginia and Dr. Curry Malott, professor of education at Westchester University of Pennsylvania. Thanks to you both.
BRENDAN MUCKIAN BATES: Thank you.
DR. CURRY MALOTT: Thank you.
AARON MATÉ: Thank you for joining us on The Real News.