Reviving traditions of solidarity and struggle

March 28, 2018

What lessons does the West Virginia teachers' rebellion hold for the labor movement and the left today? Sharon Smith is a veteran of the U.S. socialist movement and author of Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States and Women and Socialism: Class, Race and Capital. She talked to Elizabeth Schulte about how the West Virginia struggle fits into the history of the U.S. working-class movement.

THE SUCCESS of the West Virginia teachers has inspired other educators to talk about similar action in Oklahoma and elsewhere. The struggle seems to have put the strike weapon back on the table for a new set of workers.

IT'S BEEN a very long time since the labor movement scored such a clear victory as the West Virginia teachers did. They showed how workers can win by relying on the power of solidarity and struggle, even when the deck is stacked against our side.

The refusal of teachers from all 55 counties to accept a settlement based on an empty promise; the unity shown between school bus drivers, cooks, clerical workers and teachers; the support from miners, steelworkers and other unions; the strikers organizing to feed students who rely on school lunches to eat--all these hark back to the time when workers built the unions to begin with.

This is a lesson that has been sorely missing in the U.S. labor movement during the last four decades of union setback and retreat. Now, new generations of working-class people are learning these lessons for themselves. It's been a long time coming.

Teachers stand together in solidarity in outside the state Capitol in Charleston
Teachers stand together in solidarity in outside the state Capitol in Charleston

It's also fitting that the coal counties in the southern part of the state played such a key role in starting and sustaining the struggle.

Many commentators have taken to ridiculing these communities as "Trump country," without regard to their strong union history and traditions of class consciousness. There's a reason why Bernie Sanders won the West Virginia Democratic primary in 2016, even if the state went to Trump in the general election.

IN WEST Virginia, a "right-to-work" state where there are restrictions on the right to strike, I saw a picket sign with the slogan: "Rosa Parks wasn't wrong." In your book Subterranean Fire, you write a lot about workers who have gone strike and taken other action even when it was illegal to do so. Could you say something about that?

YES, UNJUST laws are meant to be broken. The only way that Jim Crow segregation could have been brought down was through the courageous actions of those like Rosa Parks who sparked the mass civil rights movement.

Keep in mind also that U.S. workers were denied the legal right to even form unions for more than the first 100 years of the labor movement, until the strike waves of the Great Depression era finally won this right in 1935.

The U.S. corporate class has always fought tooth and nail to prevent workers from organizing--with the full cooperation of their allies in government. So even when workers technically have the right to strike, corporations can go to court for an "injunction" to declare the specific strike as illegal.

In the 1894 Pullman strike, for example, the company worked hand in glove with federal judges to pass an injunction against the strike, on the grounds that it was a conspiracy "in restraint of trade"--immediately putting the 150,000 strikers in violation of the "law."

Once an injunction is passed, law enforcement is called in to attack the pickets and arrest these sudden "criminals." This pattern has been repeated over and over throughout U.S. labor history--exposing the intertwining interests between corporations and political powerbrokers in maintaining the class status quo by undermining workers' right to withhold their labor.

The legendary working-class leader Eugene Debs led the 1894 Pullman strike, and his experience of that terrible defeat turned him into a lifelong socialist.

But the legality of a strike can become an entirely secondary factor when workers are willing to stand together as a united force.

One of the most important labor victories in U.S. history, the Flint sit-down strike of 1936-37, was declared illegal twice by court injunction. When the sheriff read the first injunction to the strikers occupying a General Motors plant, they laughed him out of the building. The strikers continued occupying on the inside, while mass picketing continued on the outside.

After the second injunction nearly a month later, the workers held a meeting and decided to continue the sit-down even if troops were called in to force them out violently.

The next morning, strike supporters from Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania arrived in Flint and formed a human ring around the plant to protect the strikers. The sheriff refused to enforce the injunction, which would have produced a bloodbath. The governor, who had been planning to call in the National Guard to attack the strikers, changed his mind when faced with the massive support the strikers obviously had throughout the region.

Within a matter of days, the fiercely anti-union General Motors backed down and signed a six-month contract with the United Auto Workers (UAW). The example of Flint shows exactly how solidarity is the key to maximizing the effectiveness of the strike weapon.

THIS IS particularly true of the history of public-sector unions, right?

MOST PUBLIC-sector workers, including teachers, are prohibited from striking by laws that vary from state to state. But that is hardly the end of the story, as the West Virginia teachers just showed us.

In 1970, postal workers went out on a mass illegal strike that was also a wildcat--and they won. The strike started with workers in New York City, but very quickly spread to 200,000 strikers in over 30 major cities--in the largest strike ever against the federal government. This strike won the largest pay raise in postal workers' history, and the strikers never faced retaliation when they returned to work.

Teachers' strikes broke out all over the country between the late 1960s and 1980s. Chicago teachers, for example, went on strike nine times in the 18 years between 1969 and 1987. Sometimes, as in Minneapolis in 1970, teachers went out on illegal strikes in order to win the legal right to strike.

The strike weapon has proven to be invaluable in organizing public sector workers--whatever the legal status of particular strikes at any given time.

ONE OF the things that becomes clear in your book is the explosive nature of the U.S. labor history, with struggles seemingly coming out of nowhere. What accounts for this pattern? Why is the U.S. so explosive, relative to other countries?

SINCE THE time of slavery, the U.S. ruling class has been distinguished by its ruthless brutality--including its aggressive response to potential threats of rebellion from below.

There's a reason why the U.S. is the wealthiest, but also among the most unequal societies in the world: its reliance on extraordinary levels of repression to maintain the class status quo.

I'm reading Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz's book Loaded right now, in which she shows the violent origins of U.S. policing practices in 17th century slave patrols designed to terrorize slaves attempting to escape as an example to deter others. She also describes how the Second Amendment explicitly gave individuals and families the right to form private militias to attack Native people and steal their land.

The rise of capitalism brought the creation of corporate-owned and -controlled private armies to crush strikes--be they hired goons like Pinkerton agents or actual company employees. During the 1930s, for example, the Ford Motor Company employed the world's largest private army, numbering between 3,500 and 6,000.

This level of ruling-class violence, combined with the political repression at the legal level imposed by Jim Crow segregation laws to the outlawing of strikes discussed earlier, raises the stakes involved in working-class struggle at every level.

So, for example, coal miners knew that the owners would inflict armed mercenaries on them and their families when they went on strike, so the miners had to arm themselves in response. The coal companies also evicted strikers and their families from company housing during any strike--meaning that the entire striking workforce became homeless and had to form tent colonies to survive, in addition to stopping scabs.

As you can imagine, miners did not take going on strike lightly--and when they did, they knew it was a life-or-death struggle. Even among other workers, this dynamic certainly contributed to the traditionally explosive character of the class struggle in the U.S. historically--from steel mills to textile factories.

But as we can see from the experience of West Virginia, periods of "labor peace" don't necessarily indicate working-class satisfaction with the status quo. Usually, it is very much the opposite. There is never a stalemate in the class struggle--one side is always either winning or losing ground at the expense of the other side.

The last four decades in West Virginia, as in so many other working-class communities in the industrial heartland, have witnessed an epidemic of job loss and poverty--and all the aspects of social crisis that go with it.

From the outside, even though the labor movement seems calm, working-class lives have been upended to the point that the class struggle provides the only possible way to move forward.

In the history of the U.S. labor movement, union membership has never advanced gradually, but rather during concentrated periods with a high level of strikes and class struggle. Unionization peaked at close to 35 percent of the workforce in the early 1950s, but has been in decline since that time, with the brief exception of the upsurge in strikes between 1967 and 1974.

The decline in union membership accelerated commensurate with the fall in struggle since the mid-1970s, and today is lower than in 100 years, while class inequality is higher than at any time since the Gilded Era.

WHAT LESSONS do you think socialists and others who would like to see a stronger labor movement can take away from this recent struggle in West Virginia? How does it, for example, inform the fight against the Janus decision coming from the U.S. Supreme Court?

THE SUPREME Court's Janus decision is coming on the heels of a sustained attack on public-sector unions over the last decades--including an anti-union rampage across the Midwest and a wave of "right to work" laws that, among other things, allow non-union workers to withhold union dues even when they benefit from union contracts.

The Janus decision is expected to codify this practice at the national level, overturning the Supreme Court's own 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education ruling that allowed teachers' unions to collect fees from non-union teachers.

However dire the state of the labor movement is today, though, the main takeaway from the West Virginia teachers is that the future is far from hopeless.

Their struggle answered a question that has been haunting many of us--namely, after so many years, how can long-standing working-class traditions be transmitted to those who came of age in the last four decades, and have never had the opportunity to experience the highs and the lows of the class struggle that were once commonplace among workers?

Solving this dilemma turns out to be less difficult than we might have imagined, at least in coal country, where union traditions survived long enough to play a role in this new phase of struggle.

These traditions helped guide West Virginia teachers through to victory in their strike, even as they injected new elements such as using social media to organize teachers across the state.

In so doing, they provided fresh lessons that can play a role in rebuilding the labor movement from the bottom up.

It is still too soon to tell whether teachers in Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona will also go on an all-out strike. But at the very least, West Virginia teachers have inspired other teachers to take matters--and their collective destinies--into their own hands, in solidarity with other state workers and the students they teach.

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