Striking teachers give lessons in labor struggle

Inspired by the victory of the statewide teachers’ strike in West Virginia, Oklahoma teachers are preparing to strike on April 2.

West Virginia, a state with a population of less than two million, found itself in the spotlight thanks to the brave struggle of 20,000 teachers striking for better pay. In all 55  counties of the state, schools were closed for nine days until a deal was struck for a pay increase. It is as though a spark has been lit and the prairie has caught fire, with teachers in other states following the example led by their colleagues.

In Oklahoma, despite of the passage of a bill that will raise teachers’ salaries – a deal that only could have been reached thanks to the mass uprising of Oklahoma’s teachers – the Oklahoma Education Association says that it is still not enough. Their Twitter account (@okea) tweeted on March 26:“April 2 is still on. Our ask is still our ask. The House is considering a number of bills tonight that could be a step in the right direction. We’re still asking for a complete package, including funding for years 2 and 3. More details as they become known. #OKwalk4kids #oklaed”

Adding to this, Deborah Gist, Superintendent of Tulsa Public Schools, tweeted:“Yes. It is historic. Yes. It matters. Yes. It is a step in the right direction. Yes. It was hard. Yes. We’re grateful. But, no. It isn’t enough. The cuts our schools have endured are having damaging effects on children & our state. We can do better. #oklaed”

To many, these stirrings come as a shock, as the United States has experienced a profound anti-union campaign over the past four decades. But strikes have a history in this country that should not be forgotten, as much as the ruling capitalist class would like us to – and it wants us to forget this history precisely because it is in the interests of their class to keep wages and benefits as low as possible for workers, teachers included. Along with remembering the grand achievements of the U.S.  labor movement, we must understand the role that strikes play in the class struggle, and strive to maintain a connection with the workers fighting for what is essentially survival – in many cases literally for their lives as well as for their dreams and aspirations as human beings.

West Virginia sets the example

What were the material conditions for the West Virginia strike? What inspired thousands of teachers to walk out of their classrooms?The general situation in West Virginia is a reflection of the worst the United States has to offer the working class – a poverty rate of 17.9 percent in which a family of four makes less that $24,250. Although it has the third lowest median income in the country, this is not reflected in the cost of living, which is close to the national median at the 23rd  lowest in the country. Children are especially affected, with close to 25 percent living in poverty and 45 percent of single-parent families living below the poverty line.

One teacher speaking to a writer for Viewpoint Magazine said, “It’s not legal but I know of teachers in my own school who
have taken kids into their homes or found other families to do so.”

The salary of West Virginia teachers reflects the state’s poverty rate at fourth lowest in the country, but that is not the only reason these teachers organized a strike. Just as much importance has been placed on the state’s health insurance plan. Since the late 1980s, public employees have gone from having to pay nothing to $400 a month, or $4,800 yearly. This combination of low wages and an ever-increasing cost of living has led to  one-fifth of all West Virginia teachers leaving
the state after teaching there for only one year.

Even under these conditions, conservative elements continue to label the striking teachers as selfish for “thinking of themselves over their students.” It would be wrong to take such reprehensible accusations seriously, as these teachers not only risked their livelihoods by striking, but made a personal sacrifice by using donations and their own resources to continue providing lunches for impoverished students who rely on their schools for food. CNN quoted one teacher: “We want to continue to show our love for our kids, even when we can’t be there because we are fighting for our rights.”

In a shining example of what organized labor can accomplish, the teachers emerged victorious, winning a 5 percent pay increase not just for themselves but all state employees, a halt to increasing health insurance costs, and the ceasing of a health-monitoring system through which the state could potentially deny them their insurance, or raise costs in individual cases. This was accomplished after union leaders had already agreed to a lesser deal with the state’s governor, only to be met with boos when the deal was announced to the rank-and-file. Their decision to continue the strike in spite of union leadership shows a kind of militancy not seen in labor battles in recent years. But that appears to be changing.

Other states follow their lead

The success of the strike in West Virginia has set off a wave of interest in organizing among teachers in some of the most conservative states.. In Arizona, teachers have started the #RedForEd movement, wearing red in protest of their stagnating wages and insufficient benefits. According to the Morrison Institute at Arizona State University, Arizona elementary school teachers are the lowest paid, and high school teachers are the second lowest paid in their categories  in the U.S. when the cost of living is taken into account.

On March 28, Arizona teachers are planning to host a “teach in” at the state capitol to present their demands to the state legislature. If their demands are not met, and negotiations fail, there is a good chance they will strike.

In Oklahoma, some teachers have been organizing “sick outs” where they call in sick in protest. Teachers have been using the Facebook group “Oklahoma Teacher Walkout—The Time Is Now!” to organize. They are planning to go on strike on April 2 at the start of statewide testing. Teachers in Oklahoma have the lowest average pay in the country, and this is causing a brain drain as in West Virginia.

Third-grade teacher Molly Jaynes told Labor Notes, “Teachers are fleeing the state. You can go to Arkansas and make $15,000 more; you can go to Texas and make $20,000 more.” As qualified educators leave, it is Oklahoma’s students who suffer.

Kentucky is another state where teachers are considering a strike. The budget proposed by the Kentucky state senate would kill off funding for family-resource centers in schools, and many retired teachers will be forced to pay more for health insurance, while funding for charter schools increases. Schools were closed in seven school districts as teachers mobilized to the capitol building, and the facebook group KY120 United are making preparations for a walkout in all 120 districts. In response to actions like this, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin has said the teachers have a “thug mentality,” and called them “selfish and short-sighted” for their opposition to cuts in retired teachers’ pensions.

Bevin claims that the opposition to the changes is just “noise” created by the Kentucky Education Association. Judging by similar movements fighting in other states, it would be fair to say it is not just “noise” but a battlecry spreading across the country.

The role of unions and strikes

What is the  true role of strikes in the class struggle? It is to maintain or increase wages, improve working conditions and fight for equality at the workplace. In their quest for ever-increasing profits,  the capitalist class wants to pay workers the absolute minimum they can get away with–the bare minimum for our survival.

If it were not for unions and strikes, the capitalists would get away with this, and they would keep lowering the bar on what is considered “the minimum.”  Under capitalism, there is a constant cycle of struggle between classes. It is through organization in unions, and the ultimate weapon of organized labor–the strike–that workers can defend and improve their standard of living against the relentless push of the capitalist class to increase profits at our expense.

The victories won by strikes give a breath of air to the masses suffocating under capitalism.

Getting to take a breath is wonderful when one faces death, but it is not enough so long as the ruling class keeps its hands around our throats, ready to choke the life out of us whenever it is able. That is why we can’t stop with defending and improving wages and working conditions. We need a new system, one based not on exploitation but on meeting the needs of people and the planet–we need socialism.

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