There is no shortage of articles, columns, posts on the web about, if not directly titled, “The Lessons of the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike.” That’s good. We never outgrow our need to learn, particularly when the teachers have put body and soul into the lesson plan.
No one can deny the electrifying impact your actions have had on the terrain of…speaking frankly now…class struggle. For forty years, give or take, the rulers of this country, that is to say the owners of this economy, have imposed austerity on workers and poor while granting themselves rewards, awards, tax breaks, dividends, stock options, and other emoluments too boring to mention. For forty years workers, unionized and non-unionized, in the private and public sectors have been attacked. This bit of nasty farming has brought forth its particularly bitter fruit. The poverty rate in the US today exceeds the 1979 rate; wealth is more concentrated than ever, with the smallest percentage of the population controlling the greatest wealth. We’re not telling you anything you don’t already know, because we’re not telling you anything you haven’t already lived.
What used to be called the “fabric of society” has been pretty well shredded by what we like to call the “attack of the entrepreneurs” whose catechism is, was, and will always be, “what’s mine is mine and so is yours.”
You, the teachers of West Virginia electrified this bleak landscape, not just in your resistance to the politician/preacher twisted gospel of proliferating poverty, but with your demonstrations of collective responsibility, compassion, concern that were and are intrinsic to that resistance. We all learned that in preparation for your strike you took measures to ensure the distribution of meals to your students at locations outside the schools so that the children would not suffer. You did that collectively as a class with a responsibility for all of society. That’s no small feat. In doing that, you addressed the needs of others as integral to your own needs. In doing that, you find your own voice when you speak for others. The voice you raise in the corridors of power echoes not just because of the acoustics inside the building, but the acoustics outside, when real human needs are pursued. You find your voice when you speak as the tribune for all the people, speaking out for a higher wage, better living conditions, better education, better healthcare.
Now those things, education, healthcare, wages, aren’t really things at all, they are relations. Those are the economic relations of people in general, and workers in particular, to a system that always says, “We can’t afford that.” That’s been said by Republican and Democrat alike– “We can’t afford the best public education for all. We can’t afford the best healthcare for all. We can’t afford to protect all children from poverty. We can’t afford safe drinking water for all. We can’t afford it.”
They can’t afford it. We believe them. They can’t afford it because their relation to the economy, their relation to you, is the commitment, the obligation to profit at the expense of everything, and everyone, else. Profit is threatened if all the people have access to the best education, the best healthcare, the safest environment. Profit is not only quantitatively diminished by the prospect of such an “optimal society,” but worse, or better, profit is qualitatively overthrown as the governing principle of the relationship of people to the wealth that they have in fact produced.
You, the teachers of West Virginia, in battling against reductions in healthcare, declines in real wages, are engaged in a battle with the rule of, and rules of, profit. Your interests are not the interest of profit. Your voice, speaking for yourself when speaking for all, is not the voice of profit. It’s the voice of human need; the voice of compassion, generosity, responsibility. It’s a voice that can only sustain itself through its own organizations, free from those who speak in the interest of profit. You don’t need a sympathetic Republican governor, an enlightened Democratic Party. Their voices aren’t your voice. Your voice needs to be transmitted through your own, workers, party.
Historically, throughout the miserable history of capitalism, the rule, and the rules, of profit have been secured through the isolation, fractionalization, the atomization of the workers. That division is essential to the “sub-optimal” society. Today there are three main prongs, separate but joined like the prongs on a pitchfork, used to isolate and fracture the workers. We have the prong of anti-labor legislation, executive action, administrative order, and judicial decision. “Right-to-work” laws are the most obvious example. We have the prong of racism, which today gets all dressed up in the clothes of voter suppression and gerrymandering. We have the prong of anti-migrant action. Those separate prongs are all backed by pretty much the same groups and organizations; and where a group or organization dedicated to profit might demur from some of the most vicious displays of racism or anti-migrant action, believe me, they’ll find a way to accommodate those organizations that engage in just those displays and actions.
So the voice with which you speak, the voice you find for yourself when speaking on behalf of other necessarily opposes all the prongs because they are all part of a single weapon. We oppose anti-labor actions, racism, anti-migrant campaigns because we recognize that at the core of each is a single, and the same, issue which is the emancipation of labor versus the exploitation of labor. When you do that, oppose all those prongs, you change the context and meaning of struggle; you move from “you” to “we”– you take our struggle from the school, the factory, the mine, the hospital, from the point of production, and move it to the arena of social reproduction; to the questions of what sort of society are we going to build for the welfare of human beings. So today, you struggle on behalf of yourselves as a class for preserving and improving your health insurance. But what happens when you focus the same concern that drove your organization of student meals during the strike on the problems of healthcare for all your students, for all the siblings and parents of all your students? What happens when you join with nurses, physicians assistants, medical doctors, public health experts to design and implement a system of locally based, but “globally” connected community health clinics that can respond to the needs of people, rather than the demands and restrictions of profit? What happens? Well, you move the struggle from the arena of compensation, to the question of power. That’s what moving the struggle from the point of production to the arena of of social reproduction does. Your class power then becomes the power for all to overturn the organization of society in the service of profit; the organization of capitalist society in the service of discrimination, ignorance and its need to expand poverty.
That’s the lesson you’ve brought to all of us.
March 20, 2018