The Republican Party has spend decades eliminating labor unions, and in Red State West Virginia, voters who have continued to support Donald Trump higher than any other state, the last ghosts of unions is rising up, likely for a last hurrah.

The Rising Ghosts of Labor in the West Virginia Teacher Strike


Leah Clay Stone grew up in the shadow of Blair Mountain, the site of the largest of the 1920s West Virginia coalfield labor uprisings. In school, she recalls doing a project on Mary Harris Jones, known as Mother, the labor agitator often called the "miners' angel." She walked picket lines with her parents, a schoolteacher and a miner, as a child.

Along with nearly every other teacher in West Virginia, since Feb. 22, she's been on strike. The teachers unions in the state have gone, in the space of a few weeks, from being embattled and legally constrained organizations to the envy of the entire labor movement.

Strikes as broad as the one in West Virginia are vanishingly rare. But when they do happen, they prove that our labor history is not that deeply buried. If workers are pushed hard enough, those ghosts will rise.

West Virginia's teachers, along with the rest of the state's government workers, never got the legal right to collective bargaining, yet even without that right, teachers and school service workers have united across a largely rural state. The state capital, Charleston, has been a sea of red, as the teachers evoked the mine wars with red bandannas. By rising up against austerity, they have set an example for the rest of the labor movement and made it clear that they fight for the rights of all workers rather than special treatment for a few.

The teachers were on strike as the oral arguments began last week in Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees at the Supreme Court, a case that seems likely to push public workers across the country closer to the lack of protections West Virginians have. Janus would strip away the requirement that workers covered by a union pay something of the costs of their representation, known as "agency fees."

This requirement was instated in hopes of ending the violence and constant strikes that roiled earlier days of American capitalism and bringing about "labor peace." Most of American labor law, beginning with the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, was written for this purpose. Workers in private employment got collective bargaining rights, and employers got a guarantee of some sort of stability. From the start, collective bargaining was a compromise.

Labor conflict didn't stop, though. Instead, we've seen battles to expand union rights to more workers — including many in the public sector, who mostly gained those rights, if they did at all, in the 1960s and 1970s — on the one hand, and a constant effort to curtail unions on the other hand.

The Janus case is just the latest attempt to crush unions. The precedent that is widely expected to be overturned by Janus was decided in 1977. In that case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the court ruled that the government had a compelling interest in promoting stability in the workplace. "The desirability of labor peace is no less important in the public sector," wrote Justice Potter Stewart for the majority.

The public sector remained a place of relative labor strength in the states where it had bargaining rights even as union membership plummeted in a private work force devastated by deindustrialization. Recent attacks like Wisconsin's Act 10 and now Janus paint public employees as overpaid and enjoying privileges that most taxpayers no longer enjoy.

But in West Virginia, where most of the mines are gone and the teachers are near the bottom of the national pay scale, teachers have no special privileges, no agency fees, no bargaining tables at all. Their unions are "associations" that mostly, aside from one other major strike in 1990, lobby for laws to win what other unions bargain over (like work rules).

In Charleston, there is solidarity and resolve to do what it takes. Teachers wear animal costumes and draw signs that make jokes. Their students march by their sides, as do miners, school service workers and bus drivers.

The strike has focused on the public employee insurance system, which has sent premiums spiking. The first settlement that the teachers were offered included a raise not just for them, but for all public employees. They turned it down, however, because it didn't fix the insurance problem, and because without legal bargaining mechanisms, there was no guarantee that the deal would be kept. The rank-and-file teachers decided to stay out, and called for other public workers to join them.

They have even begun to challenge the extractive industries — oil and gas as well as coal — that still profit greatly in the state while employing far fewer West Virginians than they used to. In calling for taxes on the companies digging up the state's fossil fuel resources, they are echoing the miners' struggles not just in style, but in substance, demanding that the energy barons who have so much power in the state government as well as in its economy — the governor is a second-generation coal billionaire — pay more to those they have exploited.

We don't know what the outcome will be for the teachers in West Virginia. The 2011 labor uprising in Wisconsin, after all, looked very similar to this one, and ended in defeat.

But this strike is a reminder of the period of more open class struggle in the United States, the one decades of compromise were designed to soften and control. It was learning that history that taught Leah Clay Stone to be "union proud," and that made her a union activist.

The strike is demonstrating what I call the "Newsies rule," which is: "If we strike, then we're a union!" Oklahoma teachers, who have some protections, now seem to be following the lead of West Virginia's workers and contemplating their own strike.

The labor movement has been pushed back nearly to the conditions of the era before the National Labor Relations Act, and it is to that era that it must look for inspiration, even if today's working class is more likely to provide a service than dig coal from the ground.

Hur Herald from Sunny Cal
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