Category: Organizing and Strategy

West Virginia And The Coming War For Labor’s Survival

We have a guest post today, talking about the illegal strike that’s ongoing in West Virginia. C. formerly tweeted as @thehousered and works as staff for an education union in rural America.


Labor militancy isn’t a novelty in West Virginia.

It’s almost poetic, then, that West Virginia’s public school employees are on the fourth day of an illegal strike as the Supreme Courtat the behest of the bossescomes for the rights of working people.

The emerging struggle doesn’t fit anyone’s narrative. Liberal elites have eagerly devoured narratives from right-wing shills like J.D. Vance about the reactionary, racist white working-class of rural Appalachia. In the coastal liberal imagination, West Virginians are Exhibit A of the category of so-called “deplorables” that elected Donald Trump.

Nor does it fit the right’s preferred tale, of red states wholeheartedly embracing ‘pro-growth’ capitalist public policy. West Virginians are in a populist uprising in defense of public institutions, and against predatory corporations and corrupt pro-business politics: hardly the characteristics of the Republican Party’s long standing agenda. The populist uprisingsomething that seems to fit cleanly into the Left’s political imaginationis in rural Appalachia instead of the coastal metropolitan enclaves Left “thought leaders” inhabit.

Yet for the second time in 28 years, West Virginia’s public school employees have drawn a line in the sand in defense of public education, and turned​ to militant industrial action to fight for the common good.

How To Succeed In Organizing A High School Walkout While Really Trying

Si quiere leer en español, por favor hacer clic aquí.

So you’re going to high school and have decided that you can’t abide the notion of your classmates getting gunned down by yet another perpetrator of domestic violence. You want to walk out of your classes in protest, be it on 3/14 or 4/20, but you haven’t really done anything like this before. Worse, you live somewhere that has Confederate battle flags flying near the Interstate and there’s not many adults you can trust to help you organize a walkout at your school.

Don’t worry, I am here to help guide you through the process of taking your first direct action.

FIRST PHASE: Preparing The Ground

It is astonishingly rare for any kind of direct action to be truly spontaneous. Most of the major marches or pickets you see on the news were weeks or months in the planning and organizing, and this is no exception. Best case scenario at the time of writing is that you have three weeks to plan if you are walking out on March 14. That’s short notice, but very far from impossible. The longer time horizon of April 20 is going to allow you to potentially do more publicly facing actions, like teach-ins, or arrange for speakers. Either way, the steps you need to follow are the same, how much time you have to do them is the only difference.

First, your strongest shield is numbers. The bigger the walkout, the harder it will be for administrators and teachers to retaliate against you for taking action. If 95% of the school marches out the doors and rallies against the violence that infests our society, it will be impossible for Deputy Assistant Vice Principal McMAGAhat to suspend every single one of you. If it’s just six of y’all, well…you might be able to fight whatever the administration does to you in the courts. Likewise, hostility from your peers is allayed if you’re in the majority. If some wannabe Trump White House flunky that always wears a suit to school is in the far minority and doesn’t want to walk out, they aren’t going to be able to get away with harassing you the next day. They can’t bully all of you if you stick together.

Capitol Disobedience

Capitol buildings are citadels of power.

Their ornateness and their discongruity from the neighborhoods that surround them tends to engender equal parts awe and hatred, and this is by design. They could also be a place, however, where the working class captures the attention of those who have long ignored their voices. A place where we make democracy something tangible, something real. However, there are few moments in our political process that crystallize the limits that are placed on popular participation in our government than the public comment period of legislative hearings.

On Practical Political Education

For a lot of socialist groups, political education has a tendency to linger on abstracts.

This is something of an unfair stereotype, as plenty of socialist formations expand what they teach their members and supporters beyond the usual list of Lenin, Marx, Engels, Mao, and interpretations of the above. Inevitably, though, all socialists have to reckon with the legacy of Marx and the soaring achievements and miserable failures of the Soviet Union and these political education efforts return to reading Capital, or The Little Red Book, or The State and Revolution. Most groups structured along democratic centralist lines in the US have a new member vetting process and an intensive political education program that involves reading some or all of those thinkers.

This is not to say any of these books are unimportant, or the ideas in them lack vitality in the current times, or even that the kind of thorough political education that groups other than DSA engage in are bad. They absolutely are not. They are merely a different political approach that the one DSA uses, the difference being largely created by DSA’s looser and more open organizational structure and the political inexperience of your average new DSA member when compared to the average new member candidate for a democratic centralist group.

A More Progressive South? You can find it in Virginia.

What a night.

In my native Virginia, voters across the Commonwealth sent Republicans packing. Not only was there a second consecutive sweep at the top of the ballot — the first occurrence of this since the 1980s — but the state House of Delegates appears to have been fought to a 50-50 tie, though this might shift into Democratic control of the House as provisional ballots get counted and recounts occur. Even with the present composition, however, it would be the first time Republicans did not have control of Virginia’s lower chamber since the 1999 elections.

It was a landslide unlike anything we have seen in recent memory in the Commonwealth, and, contextually, anywhere else for that matter. There have been other Southern legislatures that have flipped heavily — all to the GOP — but those elections were less of a realignment than a predictable sorting: legacy Democrats who had long voted Republican at the federal level simply made their ballots a straight ticket in a political atmosphere where every election is nationalized. What happened in Virginia was much different, as Democrats won in places — like Virginia Beach and Prince William County — that are not typically seen as swing districts or even remotely friendly to their candidates.

And all this occurred despite a gubernatorial candidate whose campaign seemingly did its level best to give the whole damn thing away.

The Commonwealth Network In Practice

Last time, I wrote out a model around which the Left could organize cooperative enterprises into a more coherent base upon which to build more powerful, more confrontational politics.

One thing I didn’t do is address how the commonwealth network could remedy historic iniquities, or how it would be able to defend the gains it makes. I didn’t discuss how a commonwealth network could be formed and expanded.

All of these are topics that need to be addressed if this model can ever be put into place.

The Commonwealth Network: A Theory And Model For Political Production

One of the fundamental problems preventing the American left from growing is a lack of political-economic infrastructure.

This has been one of the premises that Douglas and I have organized our writing about labor around. Be it a call for a second assault against the bosses in the South or an idea to defragment the labor movement and finish off the last vestiges of craft unionism in the US, we have sought to suggest actions that build working class power sustainably. While it is easy to propose strategies of disruptive protests, it is far harder to actually implement those ideas. Disruptive protests faces down brutal violence from the police, which frequently causes job loss and eviction through the arrest of those brave enough to participate.

And this is before we say anything about the basic miseries of life under the current system. Affording medical care, shelter, food, and other necessities is increasingly difficult as the prices of these basic fundamentals of life go up and wages do not. The life of the working class has grown increasingly tenuous, dependent on low-wage work for predatory employers like McDonald’s and Walmart that provide their workers little opportunity to live lives of dignity and security.

At the same time, the model of collective bargaining through exclusive representation has broken down beyond repair. The strike has been defanged through bad legal precedent. Attempts to revive its use have seen some success at shifting public policy but not in building power over the long term. There are some good proposals out there to address the glaring problems with labor law, but any push to fix this iniquity in law will require a system of political logistics to back it up.

Any political approach that is going to be successful in this environment will have to meet the material needs of the working class and encourage the expansion of working class power. The good news is that the seeds of such an approach already exist.