2 Strikes, 1 Struggle: The Significance of the Communications Workers Strike in West Virginia

March 4, 2018

At 12:01am today, Sunday March 4, 1400 workers across the state of West Virginia and in Ashburn, Virginia have struck Frontier Communications, the regional phone and internet company.

Frontier got its start in the telecommunications market primarily in underserved rural regions of the United States. In 2009-10, Frontier purchased Verizon’s West Virginia operations, which Verizon had taken over when Bell Telephone broke up. Since then, Frontier has chiseled the communications workers, laying off hundreds of skilled technicians, refused to invest in infrastructure upgrades and allowed the company’s reputation to become perhaps the most hated company in West Virginia. Hell, it’s bad enough for ConsumerAffairs to call this large national corporation and industry player an “unaccredited brand“.

As of 12:01am today, there are now 2 statewide strikes in West Virginia. Even though the negotiations between the Communications Workers of America members and Frontier have been ongoing for 10 months for a new collective bargaining agreement, it seems likely that the statewide strike by public school workers has played a role in the decision to strike (and to strike now).

We see something similar across the state line in Pennsylvania. Just prior to the West Virginia public school workers’ strike, 3000 American Federation of Teachers members in the Pittsburgh school district took a strike authorization vote when negotiations stalled. The workers voted, “2,309 in favor and 144 against striking, as 94 percent of the union members voted in favor of the authorization” on February 12. It isn’t a coincidence that a new contract was agreed to and ratified by the workers on February 28, when just over the border in West Virginia the teachers and public school workers had been out on strike for nearly a week. The material gains won through collective bargaining in Pittsburgh were underwritten by their counterparts in West Virginia who are walking the picket line.

These are the tangible results of the illegal statewide strike in West Virginia. It is giving real, measurable confidence to the working-class. It is the first major episode of traditional-workplace-based-resistance to the Trump administration and its allies in local governments across the country.

After November 2016, the main narrative peddled across the political spectrum was that West Virginia represented “Trumpland”; that West Virginia was the best example of the so-called “white working-class” who supported the wave of reaction sweeping the country. I didn’t believe that then (and wrote as much at the time of the election) and now we are witnessing the first major workplace-based opposition to the policies of the Trump administration and its local affiliates breaking out in an area that had been written-off and abandoned as too far gone.

The contours of working-class resistance and struggle in the era of the Trump administration have now all become highly visible. Anti-Capital has identified the terms of the attacks by the capitalists on the working-class since the crisis of 2008 as the mutually reinforcing passage of anti-union, voter suppression and anti-immigrant legislation; specifically, right-to-work laws, voter ID laws and Arizona SB1070-type bills.

There has also been a growing tendency to combine these attacks along with cuts to social programs (Medicaid, public education) and raising the sales tax rate. As a consequence, such broad attacks by capital directly affect large segments of the working-class and simultaneously affect multiple distinct segments within the class, even if in different ways. It builds on the legacy of attacks on public education and welfare programs since the 1960’s and 1970’s. Ferocious police violence against racial minorities and immigrants is but the most visible form of this offensive.

West Virginia is a flashpoint for the cumulative effects of these broad attacks to create the basis and potential for mass action dynamics across the public and private sectors, among union and non-union, employed and unemployed, full-time and part-time, temporary and regular workers.

That there are now ongoing statewide public and private sector strikes, directly and indirectly affecting hundreds of thousands of workers and millions of residents, is a fact. We must build on this to create a new fact: the unification of demands across sectors, trades, geography and backgrounds. As in the case of the public school workers’ strike, the communications workers strike has made the quality of their work a primary point of the struggle.

Teachers and school service workers know that their jobs provide an essential social service. They know that winning raises and fixing PEIA is a necessary step for the state to train, hire and retain qualified and skilled education workers; otherwise, West Virginia public schools will remain severely understaffed, leaving the state with an inferior education system and inferior education facilities.

Frontier workers know that their jobs also provide an essential social service. Their union has made it a point to present the dire consequences of Frontier’s chiseling, lay-offs and lack of investment: leaving vulnerable pensioners without reliable phone and internet communication while swindling them for this inferior service. Access to communication is, along with health care, housing, food, transportation, heat and air conditioning and education, a right that can only be won through the class struggle and guaranteed by socialism.

This organic growing-over presents challenges for a largely disorganized revolutionary movement. In each specific manifestation of resistance, the limiting factors inherent to the forms and methods of these struggles inhibit and will continue to inhibit, the struggle for socialism by the working-class. We must organize an effort to nurture these emerging tendencies and cultivate them further, to expose the interrelated origins and functions of these attacks on the working-class through an explicit affirmation of the socialist program. The class struggle itself is providing us with the evidence of the material possibility and tangible need for socialism.

The question of organization is the definitive question for socialists today; specifically, how we relate to one another in carrying out our role in the class struggle. An organized socialist movement is the only formation that can facilitate this growing-over by promoting intransigent class unity and in doing so generalize and escalate such struggles.

There are many things that we can do:

Actively promote and organize fraternization between striking teachers, school service workers and communications workers through asking strikers to walk each other’s picket lines and talk to one another; sharing resources and support.

Actively promote and organize informational picketing at other public sector workplaces in West Virginia. Seek to form volunteer groups and formulate short leaflets to bring the energy of the strikes and its ramifications for all workers in West Virginia to the Division of Highways depots, to the water and sewer treatment plants, public colleges and universities, public hospitals, Department of Motor Vehicles and other state, county and municipal workplaces.

Bring the stories of workers in West Virginia to a wider audience by publishing and publicizing their experiences and views, on and off the picket lines. The troubles heard here are the same across the country: can’t afford to eat, can’t afford to go to the doctor, can’t afford medication, can’t afford to retire — can’t afford to live.

Expose both the Republican and Democratic parties for their role in the PEIA crisis, the lack of trade union rights; the multi-year wage decline among public sector workers, their roles in making West Virginia a “right-to-work” state, repealing the state prevailing wage law and how this affects private sector workers; their role in the attacks on immigrant workers and voter ID law that seeks to disenfranchise the poor and racial minorities.

Above all, the members of the 10 Communications Workers of America local unions of District 2-13, the West Virginia Education Association, American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia, School Service Employees Professional Association and non-member strikers need support on the picket lines.

[Note: Picket locations across West Virginia for the Frontier Communications strike have been published by the union]

–A former West Virginia public employee

 

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