West Virginia’s Political Strike Wins Big

Eric Blanc

Yesterday was a very good day for educators and working people. Only a few hours after Bernie Sanders announced his presidential candidacy, striking West Virginia educators forced their Republican legislature to “indefinitely postpone” a reactionary omnibus bill legalizing education privatization. Though they will remain on strike through Wednesday to ensure that the Republicans do not attempt to revive the bill, the House vote was major victory for educators in West Virginia and across the nation.






Teachers pack the gallery above the West Virginia state legislature ahead of elected officials’ arrival on Tuesday.

(Photo by MeriBeth Underwood)

West Virginia has yet again taught working people across the country a critical political lesson: strikes work.

Events over the past twenty-four hours have moved at a lightning pace. On Monday afternoon, the Senate sent to the House a particularly vicious version of the Republicans’ omnibus bill. While cynically granting public employees a 5 percent raise, the legislation would have simultaneously legalized school privatization for the first time in West Virginia. Katie Endicott, a rank-and-file teacher from Mingo County, explains why educators were so invested in stopping the introduction of charter schools and vouchers into their state:

Our students are not for sale, West Virginia is not for sale. It’s infuriating that people would try to profit off us: privatization would give millions of dollars to elites and it would create even more haves and have not. We’ve seen the charter school system fail students all across the US and that’s why we risking our pay raise to defeat this bill. We want better funding, and better schools, for all students. All students are worthy.

The intransigence of the Republican Senate leadership forced the hands of top union leaders, who for weeks have been pushing back against the intensifying calls of their ranks — and many county unions — for a work stoppage to kill the bill. As late as last Thursday, AFT-West Virginia president Fred Albert was encouraging educators to accept the House version of the bill, which would have legalized charters in West Virginia, though with a more limited number initially: “It is by no means perfect or everything we wanted, but the political reality is we do not have a majority in either chamber to kill the bill.”

Rather than promote workplace action to create a new relationship of forces, Albert stressed that the absence of a Democratic legislative majority, and the lack of support from superintendents, “presents a completely different scenario than last year with serious legal and financial consequences for our members.” AFT national president Randi Weingarten similarly issued a letter encouraging her members in West Virginia to accept the House bill.

These attempts to avoid a strike by reaching a bipartisan “compromise” were blown up both from pressure from below — Mingo county voted last Friday to strike beginning this Tuesday — and the intransigence of Senate Republican leader Mitch Carmichael. To their credit, the heads of the three educators’ unions swiftly announced on Monday evening that a statewide strike would begin the next day.

By early Tuesday morning, it had become clear that the Republicans had vastly underestimated the resolve and militancy of West Virginia educators. Katie Endicott explains why the state was able to get strike ready virtually overnight:

Legislators thought that “55 Strong” ended last March. But last year’s strike, and the strikes across the country like Los Angeles, taught us just how much power we have. It feels like last year was a practice round. …. And since last March, the rank-and-file leaders in West Virginia have continued to carry the torch, and we’ve become more mobilized and organized and connected than ever before. So “55 Strong” is not just a strike — it’s a movement. We were more confident in ourselves this time and that’s why we were able to flip the switch so quickly.

Though many superintendents had for weeks threatened to keep schools open, the overwhelming majority quickly caved in the face of the walkout announcement. Only in Putnam county did district leaders attempt to open schools Tuesday morning. With the help of hundreds of educators from neighboring counties, real picket lines went up beginning at 5am. Like last year, bus drivers played a critical role by refusing to work. Ultimately, only a handful of students, and even smaller number of teachers, crossed the picket lines. “To see that outpouring of love and solidarity was extremely inspiring,” notes Endicott.

The scene at the state capitol in Charleston was electric. Hours before the House session began, the gallery was already full and thousands of educators were crammed into the rotunda singing, chanting, and stomping.

The power and breadth of the strike — and the ability of educators Tuesday morning to paralyze Putnam — forced a size-able layer of House Republicans on Tuesday morning to reverse their previously made commitment to supporting Carmichael’s final bill. Indeed, the Senate leader Tuesday afternoon lamented to the Charleston Gazette that his House colleagues had jumped ship at the last minute: “We had an agreement, they had committed to 52 votes … What I’ll say is one’s word is all you have in this building. You need to honor your word.” Like events one year ago, Carmichael’s reactionary agenda was defeated by the power of mass workplace action.

It remains to be seen whether the Republicans will attempt within the next day to convince some of these legislators to reverse course and vote to “resurrect” the bill. Union leaders on Tuesday night announced that they will stay out stay out on strike Wednesday to ensure that the bill is dead.

But, for now, educators are justified in celebrating in their remarkable victory. Endicott describes the scene inside the capitol rotunda when it was announced that the bill had been voted down: “It was even more intense than last year. Honestly, that was the loudest I’ve every heard the capitol — and we’ve already been through a lot in there. Educators from their early twenties to their late sixties were literally jumping up and down, hugging and crying. It was amazing.”

And Endicott was quick to note the significance of the fact that teachers and support staff were celebrating a victory that could potentially cost them their promised pay raise. “It was not lost on us that this was a real sacrifice,” she explains. “But our slogan this year is ‘Our students first’ — and we really meant it. What I always ask my co-workers is to remember their responsibility: ‘How do you want history to remember us?’”

Of course, the struggle is far from over. Republicans may again attempt to push through a more watered-down version of the privatization bill. From below, rank-and-file educators are clear that they want a clean bill that grants public employees their pay raise without tying this to charters or ESAs. And there’s growing talk about turning this defensive strike into a offensive struggle to win better schools for West Virginian students and a real fix for the PEIA health insurance program — the pending demand from last year’s strike that has yet to be resolved.

No matter what happens over the coming days and weeks, West Virginian educators have again made history. What could have been a major blow for the nationwide teachers’ upsurge has, in less than twenty-four hours, become a resounding victory and a spur for further working-class militancy. With Oakland teachers going out this Thursday, and a strike now looming in Sacramento, there’s no sign that this revolt is going away any time soon. And that’s a very good thing: for the “political revolution” promoted by Bernie Sanders to come to life in this country, we’ll need many more workplace actions like yesterday’s inspiring victory in West Virginia.

This article was originally published in Jacobin on February 19, 2019

Eric Blanc writes on labor movements past and present. Formerly a high school teacher in the Bay Area, he is the author of Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics.

L.A. Teachers Win Big and Beat Back Privatizers

Barbara Madeloni

January 28, 2019

In a joyful, rain-drenched strike, 34,000 Los Angeles teachers won things no union has ever won.

They forced Superintendent Austin Beutner, a former investment banker, to accept concessions even on topics he had previously refused even to bargain over.

Rather than retreat or get cautious in the face of corporate attacks, the union went on offense, demanded fully funded public schools, and did the organizing to back up its demands with action.




Photo: Joe Brusky

L.A. will reinstate limits on class size—and for most classes, reduce those limits by four students by 2022.

Despite a pro-charter school board majority, the nation’s second-largest school district agreed to move a board resolution to support a statewide moratorium on new charter schools

It will hire more nurses, librarians, and counselors; reduce standardized testing and random police searches of students; create an immigrant defense fund; and hand budget control of 30 schools over to local communities.

It’s a very different vision from what Beutner had in mind. In November the L.A. Times and Capital & Main had leaked his plan to carve up the district into clusters of schools run like competing stock portfolios. Any school judged to be an underperformer would be sold off like a weak stock.

Teachers were weeping at the mass rally outside City Hall January 22 as United Teachers Los Angeles Secretary and Bargaining Chair Arlene Inouye reviewed the high points of the tentative agreement.

President Alex Caputo-Pearl told the crowd that this strike was “one of the most magnificent demonstrations of collective action that the United States has seen in decades.

“We did not win because of a single leader,” he said. “We did not win because of a small group of leaders. We won because you—at 900 schools across the entire city, with parents, with students, with community organizations—you walked the line.”

Members returned to their school sites that the afternoon to review the tentative agreement—which was published online in full—discuss it with their co-workers, and vote on whether to accept the deal and return to work the next morning.

Some teachers around the city were frustrated at a process they felt was rushed. But members voted a resounding 81 percent yes on the agreement, and returned to their classrooms January 23.

In the face of the union’s demands, the district had cried poverty—it said it was running a deficit. But that didn’t appear to be true, since its reserves were growing each year.

The teachers set out to force the district to put its stockpiled cash into creating the “schools Los Angeles students deserve.”

HOW THEY DID IT

From day one of the strike, huge majorities of teachers showed up at their schools every morning to hold the picket lines, together with parents and students. Then strikers and their supporters headed downtown for rallies that topped 50,000 the first day and kept growing.

The streets were full of joy. All week, everywhere we turned there was singing, dancing, spoken word, brass bands, mariachis. Teachers didn’t let the drenching rain daunt them; they suited up in ponchos, and laminated their song sheets and picket signs.

All across the city, people were talking about the strike and its demands—in coffee shops, on the bus, in stores, at the airport car rental.

In an effort to keep schools open for 600,000 L.A. students, the district brought in scab substitutes from private contractors. It offered current subs more than double their regular wage to work during the strike.

But in L.A., the subs are part of the union. Very few chose to cross the picket lines.

Read more about how L.A. teachers overhauled their union and got organized at every school as they built towards this strike.

GO ON OFFENSE

L.A. is the biggest U.S. school district with an elected school board. (The biggest district, New York City, and third-biggest, Chicago, are both governed by mayoral appointees.)

Year after year, its school board elections have broken spending records. Corporate education reformers spent $13 million in the last election, most of it coming from the foundations of the Walton family (the owners of Walmart) and Eli Broad, two of the biggest spenders nationally in support of charter schools, vouchers, and privatization.

That money was enough to win them a majority of the seats on the school board. And after the previous superintendent resigned early last year for health reasons, that majority handpicked a superintendent, Beutner.

But as it turned out, a bought and paid for board and superintendent weren’t as powerful as a good old-fashioned strike.

Readers who work in education or the public sector will be familiar with the claim that “the money just isn’t there.” UTLA refused to buy into it, and named the privatization schemes behind it. Rather than retreat or get cautious in the face of corporate attacks, the union went on offense, demanded fully funded public schools, and did the organizing to back up its demands with action.

The teachers won big—and provided us all a model for how to fight back. The victory, said Caputo-Pearl, renewed “the strike not only as the last resort, but as something you do to build a social movement.”

This article was originally posted on Labor Notes on January 24, 2019.

A version of this article appeared in Labor Notes #479, February 2019.

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Educators for a Democratic Union is Transforming the Massachusetts Teachers Association

Dan Clawson and John Fitzgerald

May 8, 2018

Educators for a Democratic Union (EDU) is the progressive caucus in the Massachusetts Teachers Association in which several Solidarity members are active. Four years ago, EDU ran a candidate for president largely as a vehicle to make connections with those we couldn’t easily reach. As a result of an effective campaign, an unsuspecting old guard, and a disgruntled membership, Barbara Madeloni won a two-year term. She ran for re-election in 2016 with a running mate; she won again, but her running mate lost. Since then our union has been in the process of becoming a more progressive and militant union.

MTA members against Measure 2. Photo: MTA

In the fall of 2016 we defeated a ballot question that would have raised the cap on charter schools in the state.  The pro-corporate forces to expand charter schools (and thereby remove public control of schools), spent $26 million.  In March of the ballot year they were up in the polls by 25 points; the governor (the most popular in the country) and the state’s largest newspaper strongly backed the charter forces.  Our union, together with community and labor allies, organized teachers to go door to door; we eventually WON the measure by 25 points (that is a 50 point swing).

This was a really enormous victory that shocked the corporate ed reformers (see this leaked report commissioned by the Waltons analyzing what went wrong in which they specifically point to a transformed MTA) and has been part of the emerging and growing teachers movement that’s been taking place since the Chicago Teachers Union lead the way.

Barbara Madeloni is terming out. EDU organized essentially a primary to choose our candidates for president and vice-president, choosing Merrie Najimy and Max Page. The vote was May 5 at the MTA’s Annual Meeting (where delegates vote for these positions) and our candidates won a decisive victory. This victory reflects a really well-run campaign as well as a leftward drift of the membership that’s clearly been inspired by our victories under Madeloni as well as by the national walkouts.

This year we (together with numerous allies) have put on the ballot a measure to increase taxes on incomes over a million dollars a year.  That will bring in up to $2 billion a year, which is designated to be spent on education and transportation.  (Comparison:  Massachusetts now appropriates less than $5 billion for K-12 education, and about $1 billion for higher education.)  Our opponents inside the Massachusetts Teachers Association oppose spending any money to promote the ballot question, arguing that since it is up in the polls, it is sure to win without our committing resources.  (Seriously — that’s their argument.)

Had the EDU candidates for president and vice-president of the union been defeated, that ballot question would surely have been lost, as would the transformation process in the union.  Besides the members, a lot of labor and community groups in the state are very happy that EDU won this election and won big.