Makings of a Strike Wave

Mhou

Three Months Into 2018

2017 was a bad year for the working-class. Really, it was just the latest in a very long series of bad years. The combination of the political shock therapy in the rise of Trump along with a stable of viciously reactionary politicians and a sharp escalation in the multi-generational attacks on workers’ living and working conditions all contributed to making 2017 an extremely disorienting year for the working-class in the US.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers for 2017 paint a bleak picture:

“In 2017, there were 7 major work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers and lasting at least one shift, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported today. Since the series began in 1947 this is the second lowest number of major work stoppages recorded in a year, the lowest annual total was 5 in 2009.

Major work stoppages beginning in 2017 idled 25,000 workers, the second lowest number of workers idled annually since 1947. The lowest number of workers idled was 13,000 in 2009.”

It’s no exaggeration to say that the disorientation and dislocation of the 2016 election and all that came with it– from the threat of large scale-generalized international war to an overnight resurgence of fascist violence and attempts to take over the streets — was as disorienting and dislocating for the working-class as the acute economic crisis of 2007-08.

Workers were slow to react to the crisis of 2007-08. The reaction to 2016 has been infinitely faster, more concentrated and explicitly on the terrain of class struggle. As of March 2018, the statewide strikes at West Virginia public schools and Frontier Communications (the latter still ongoing) have “idled” between 30,000-35,000 workers: more than the entire total for 2017.

As of this writing, approximately 4,000 workers at Jersey City, New Jersey schools are now on strike.

Public employees in Oklahoma are committed to strike in the next 2 weeks, giving the state government a deadline of April 1 to meet their demands. There are more than 250,000 public employees in OK, of whom 40,000 are union members (with an additional 14,000 non-members working under a collective bargaining agreement). It is hard to estimate how many will take strike action.

Kentucky public employees are mobilized to defeat a pension-stripping bill, creating the potential to join a nascent strike wave.

Arizona teachers are beginning to mobilize in response to the strike in West Virginia, with a significant likelihood of striking. West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona form the bottom of rankings by state of teacher and public employee compensation.

Non-tenured faculty in Maryland have issued a strike notice for April 4th if their demands are not met.

From Washington to Indiana to Pennsylvania, teachers and other public employees have been quietly pressing and winning their demands through the changing balance of forces sparked by the West Virginia public school strike. Not just strike deadlines or threats to strike, but basic mobilization and organizing has been enough in many cases to compel the employers to give in– because it is no idle threat. Any mobilization and any form of organizing has the potential to become a strike in the present moment.

1,800 electrical workers, members of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 3, remain on strike against Charter Communications/Spectrum.

Another protracted strike remains ongoing in Idaho, where 250 members of United Steelworkers Local 5114 are still walking the picket lines at Hecla Mining Company a year after walking-out.

The strike at Frontier Communications, encompassing all of West Virginia and one city in Virginia, is becoming especially bitter. Scabs are being paid between $90 and $125 an hour by a company that says it can’t afford to pay living wages locally, and now Frontier has requested (and been granted) an injunction . Frontier claimed the strikers have made, “threats of violence against Frontier’s employees and contractors and actual violence against Frontier’s employees and contractors,” while the only violence during the strike occurred when a scab pulled a gun on the strikers!

On the front of lock-outs, West Virginia is again at the center, with 71 members of the Glass, Molders, Pottery, Plastics and Allied Workers (USW-GMP Local 152M) locked-out by Tecnocap as of March 5th. The plant is located outside Wheeling in Glen Dale, WV.

There is a real chance for an organic and conscious growing-over of these struggles in this specific window of time. Even in 2017, a year of dislocation and disorientation for the working-class on par only with the extreme dislocation and disorientation of the working-class in 2009, there were the signs of this potential for growing-over.

The Hidden Potential of the Class Struggle in 2017

February 2017 saw the Day Without Immigrants strike, boycott and demonstrations, in which working-class immigrants identified the source of their oppression (and the source of their power) as flowing directly, immediately, from their labor. It formed one front in the general resistance to the Trump administration and all that it entailed (and still entails).

The protracted organizing campaign by retail store custodians in the Twin Cities resulted in a massive victory, totaling over $4.5 million in material gains for a fraction of the most degraded and oppressed workers in America. This victory was made possible through the solidarity forged between citizen and immigrant workers in the class struggle.

On February 17, 2016, Service Employees International Union Local 26’s 4,000 members in Minneapolis struck all city employers to facilitate their demands for wage parity between full and part time workers, raises for everyone and stronger work rules. The next day on February 18, 2016, the immigrant workers organizing through Centro de Trabajadores en Lucha / Center of Workers United in Struggle (CTUL) launched their 7th one-day strike in Minneapolis and St Paul, Minnesota in as many years. The results of this citizen/non-citizen alliance among building service workers in the Twin Cities resulted in victory, finally, in 2017.

On August 23, 2017, members of International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 10 in San Francisco voted to stop work and march to confront a fascist gathering planned for August 26.

When workers in the San Francisco building trades learned that a member of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 6 was a fascist who had participated in the Charlottesville, VA demonstration that ended in the murder of Heather Heyer and dozens more wounded, he was chased off the job by union tradesmen and IBEW Local 6 members pressured the local union to expel him and revoke his right to the hiring hall.

Longshoremen from ILWU Local 10 and electricians from IBEW Local 6 marched in the August 26 anti-fascist demonstration– where the IBEW members chanted, “Up with the workers, down with the fascists!”

Over the summer of 2017, at the same time that the workers of Missouri were collecting enough signatures to put the recently passed “right-to-work” law up for a statewide referendum, the NAACP issued a travel advisory to all black people to avoid the state, or at least exercise extreme caution when traveling to, through or within the state, due to the extreme racial disparity in police action and recent chiseling of the state’s legal protections from discrimination.

At the same time that the black community and allied individuals, organizations and communities were organizing against the liquidation of discrimination protections and ferocious police violence, the labor movement was fighting against a law that was originally designed to facilitate Jim Crow and further degrade black labor. For what might be the first time, the AFL-CIO in 2017 explicitly connected “right-to-work” laws to their original purpose.

Up to that point, the primary arguments against “right-to-work” laws put forward by the labor movement were centered on the question of trade union property. Opposition to “right-to-work” in West Virginia from 2016 to 2017 was typical of this framework:

“Four days before the act was to take effect in 2016, several labor unions sought an injunction in the Circuit Court of Kanawha County against the act’s enforcement. The labor unions argued, in part, that the act was unconstitutional as it violated their associational rights, represented an unconstitutional taking of property without compensation and violated their liberty interests by requiring them to expend their labor for nonunion employees without the ability to charge a fee. The unions argued that if the law took effect, they would be unable to bargain for compulsory membership and fees in new collective bargaining agreements without violating the law”

Thousands of workers were mobilized in Missouri, for the same purpose, even if the participants didn’t know it. Working-class unity necessarily confronts the degradation of black labor and the oppression of black people; the fight against “right-to-work” is essentially a fight for working-class unity and a fight against a law that was designed and implemented to degrade black labor and deepen the oppression of black people.

The first nationwide coordination of the Black Lives Matter and Fight For 15 social movements occurred in 2017, which reflected the early days of both movements when this connection was made in an explicit manner at the local level in Ferguson, Missouri:

“Fight for $15 and Black Lives Matter first came together in Ferguson. The nearly all-black workforce at the neighborhood McDonald’s had been on strike before Brown was killed. After Brown’s death, those workers used their organizing skills to protest police department practices”

The potential for growing-over of struggles into other struggles, and/or their transformation into something beyond where they started or their stated purpose, was displayed throughout 2017 even though the general response of the class to the events of 2016 at the point of production was muted.

The Significance of Growing-Over

Whenever working-class unity becomes a central element of a given episode in the class struggle; whenever workers begin their fight on a given terrain (economic, political, social, production, reproduction) and it develops onto other terrains; whenever a given episode of the class struggle provides an inspiration and a model that is acted upon by other workers; whenever two or more struggles take place at the same time or in the same region — there is the potential for growing-over.

The revolutionary movement for the abolition of wage labor, oppression and exploitation and for a classless, stateless human community built upon equality and dignity requires that the working-class actively breaks down the barriers constructed by capitalist society that separate us into a plethora of subdivisions. These subdivisions can be broad (citizen, race, age, gender) or extremely narrow (trade, locality, shift, regular/temporary, full-time/part-time, etc.). It also requires the working-class to actively break down the barrier between production and reproduction.

These barriers must be broken down on the basis of reciprocal solidarity: the recognition of the particular interests of segments of the class and the process of locating potential links within the class struggle. The synthesis of these particular interests into actions which reflect the interest of the whole class is fundamental to success in both local struggles and on the international terrain.

In 2017, the potentials for this growing-over were evident. In 2018, the potentials for growing-over are becoming urgent to the immediate needs of existing struggles. The public school strike in West Virginia is an example of this potential and this urgency.

Prior to launching the statewide public school strike in February 2018, education workers brainstormed, organized and implemented their own program to collect and distribute food to their students. West Virginia ranks among the poorest states in the country while being a top recipient of social service and welfare programs. As such, the workers recognized the need to feed students during the strike, since so many children are dependent on the free or subsidized breakfasts and lunches they receive at school for their daily needs.

Here was an explicit broadening of the terms of the struggle. It was not about just the workers and their particular demands. They took over one of the social functions of their workplaces as a facet of their struggle. Efforts to collect and distribute food across the state was more or less decentralized and lasted for the duration of the strike.

From its first day, the statewide strike was not just a teachers’ strike. School service personnel, including bus drivers, food service workers, custodians and paraprofessionals were an integral part of the work stoppage. This solidarity was made possible because of the broad offensive launched against workers in the US generally and in West Virginia in particular. The needs and interests of the school service workers were the same as those of the teachers; and the needs of the workers in public education were the very same issues affecting all West Virginia pubic employees. This is an issue of primary importance in the ongoing Jersey City, New Jersey teachers’ strike right now. Substitute teachers are being used as scabs while it appears that school service workers continue to work.

While it is doubtful that West Virginia could have continued operations at its public schools even if school service workers (and school bus drivers in particular) did not strike, the possibility that at least some schools in some school districts could have remained open would have dramatically altered the course of events and the dynamics of the strike.

Even though no other public workers outside of the K-12 public schools went on strike, the fact remains that the demands of the public school workers were the exact same demands found throughout the West Virginia public sector, regardless of region and trade. It was an example of combined self-interest, in which the teachers and school service workers, in pursuing their own wage and health care demands, were acting in the interests of all West Virginia public workers. This was especially evident in the rejection of the first strike settlement deal which would have given teachers and school service workers a 5% wage increase and 3% for all other state employees. The public school workers demanded that all public workers receive the same raise– and this was won in the final settlement, in which all public workers received the same 5% wage increase.

The public school workers of West Virginia received an overwhelming outpouring of solidarity from across the country and the world, particularly from other teachers and education sector workers. This took the form of donations, support on the picket line by out-of-state workers and above all in the actions taken in other states that were informed by and inherently supportive of the West Virginia strike. But they won the battle for the working-class within the state. The parents of West Virginia public school students were solidly behind them.

From its earliest incarnation in the one-day walkouts in certain counties prior to the statewide strike, the public school workers were not confined to one particular terrain. Their struggle was economic because it centered around wages–both money wages and deferred compensation (health care)– but became a political struggle because public employee wages, hours, working conditions and deferred compensation are determined by the state legislature. It was carried on within and through the trade unions, but involved a tremendous level of initiative and organization independent of the trade union structures because West Virginia public employees have very few trade union rights and no mechanism for traditional collective bargaining. It was a strike at the point of production, at the workplace, but moved beyond production and onto the terrain of social reproduction when the need to feed students who lost their access to school cafeterias for the duration of the strike presented itself. In a less direct way, social reproduction was also raised through the demands related to the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA): that is, the need for quality health care. In addition, the question of how to fund the wage increases and PEIA fix was also a central feature of the strike. The workers demanded that the severance tax on natural gas be raised, thus re-appropriating the profits of the energy industry to the material well-being of the working-class.

Even though the strike is over, the struggle that it embodied is not. Reactionaries in the state legislature are trying to fund the 5% raise by making funding cuts to social services such as Medicaid and the free community college program. The so-called PEIA “task force” formed by the Governor is designed to absorb the boiling anger of public workers in the state by giving labor several seats on the “task force” while structurally stacking the deck against them so that these labor representatives have no chance of affecting the direction of PEIA.

The widely-circulated images of public school workers wearing their picket signs while they distribute food to children in the ad hoc collection and distribution points they organized is what the working-class movement for socialism looks like. Speaking and acting in the interests of all workers, becoming the vehicle for meeting peoples’ material needs and struggling against the forces of capital, capitalist society and capitalism is the real movement of the working-class toward socialism.

This is what growing-over looks like. The working-class feels it instinctively, but most often cannot spread and deepen this growing-over without the political influence of its socialist minorities. Indeed, in West Virginia 3 crucial potentials were missed:

Fraternization, solidarity and coordination between public and private sector workers engaged in struggle

Efforts to take the demands which immediately spoke in the interests of all public workers to other non-education public workplaces in West Virginia

To connect the attacks on public education and health care with the attacks on all workers and the oppression of segments of the class based on race, nationality and gender

The tasks connected with transforming these potentials for growing-over in labor’s class struggles into something qualitatively greater is the role of the socialist movement.

These tasks may be extremely modest, such as preparing leaflets to distribute at picket lines and workplaces which make those connections, or publicizing these struggles and their relationship to each other, or actively and enthusiastically participating in those actions which develop organically from the struggle while trying to popularize and expand them (such as the food collection and distribution operation of the WV strike).

These tasks may require significant organization, such as the logistics needed to have comrades attend PEIA public meetings across West Virginia and intervene to keep the demand of the workers to fund PEIA through a severance tax on natural gas alive and reverberating across the state.

These tasks may require national and international organization, to transmit the experience of the struggle across the country and the world, to be capable of analyzing events and changing tactical efforts in real time to escalate the class struggle– to be able to raise enough financial support to sustain workers like those on strike at Frontier or locked-out at Tecnocap so they may last one day longer than the company, to have the networks and resources to be the mediation between the inspiration created by the West Virginia public school strike and the extension of this strike and its lessons to other parts of the country and in other sectors so that the Jersey City teachers and Frontier Communications workers are not condemned to strike alone.

These tasks require us to be and act where all potentials for growing-over exist, wherever and whenever they occur!

Note 1: From the original time of writing, New Jersey teachers accepted a settlement and have returned to work.

Note 2: Frontier strikers are now deploying mobile pickets (“Scab Patrols”) across West Virginia.

Note 3: A tentative agreement has been reached between CWA and Frontier to end the strike in WV and VA. Workers are scheduled to return to work Wednesday, March 28, 2018, and after that formally vote on the new collective bargaining agreement.

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