We have a guest post today, talking about the strikes spreading across the country that started in West Virginia. C. intermittently tweets as @thehousered and works as staff for an education union in rural America.
When the West Virginia teachers and support staff won their strike, elements of the Left heralded it as a sea-change with all of the fervor of fundamentalist hot gospellers. It’s hard to fault this kind of enthusiasm. There’s been precious little reason for it for decades; the horizontalist insurgencies against the World Trade Organization and Wall Street captured imagination, but failed to create enduring movements with the power to arrest the forward march of neoliberal capitalism. With labor teetering on the brink of ruin and a rising reactionary tide at all levels of politics, signs of militant life are like an unexpected oasis in the desert.
Surely, a big strike’s victory means that the tide is turning, even only just a little bit, right?
It’s reminiscent of nothing so much as the radical Scots Presbyterians of the late 19th century: Ulster men and women that believed that the social and political unrest that would soon erupt in armed rebellion was a sign of Christ’s coming. Occasional millenarian thinking isn’t new to the Left: there is always some crank predicting that the workers’ revolution will manifest itself when the social conditions are just right. This analysis falls apart because it treats politics as a game of signs and portents, rather than a discipline requiring careful analysis. With such thinking layered on top of the dogmatic disputations between Left sects, one could be forgiven for mistaking some Left currents for Reformation theologians engaged in bitter dispute over John Calvin’s writings or the particular meaning of religious scripture.
To believe that the West Virginia strike was a natural expression of the correct alignment of social forces isn’t just wrong, it sells West Virginians short. The teachers, paraprofessionals, and support staff in West Virginia didn’t win because of the bending of a cosmic arc; they won because of months of preparation and organizing, an impressive level of community outreach, and the strategic leveraging of county-level school management to provide political cover for the strike. In other words, as detailed by Bryan, West Virginians won because they did what strikes need to do: carefully and painstakingly build and organize a potent expression of working-class power.
Their success of the strike was predicated upon years of miserable decline, but that success is hardly reducible to the conditions that led them to walk out. It was a victory, and one rightly celebrated. It was also won because of the willingness of teachers and support staff to dig in for the long haul and buck a bad deal foisted on membership. There’s no way around it: they won not just in defiance of the law, but their own state-level leadership. Moreover, their victory showed the potential of the strike in a way that even the rightly celebrated 2012 Chicago teachers strike did not: it showed that even in deep-red areas thought of as bastions of reactionary politics, workers can fight and win in the face of slash-and-burn austerity. Since then, action has spread to Kentucky, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, Arizona, and Colorado, with rumblings of militancy elsewhere.
What it didn’t show is that the fight would be easy, and the seeming collapse of the Oklahoma strike should be a sharp reminder that no road to progress is easy or guaranteed.