The “subterranean fire” is blazing this May Day

May 1, 2018

The "red-state" revolt is honoring International Workers' Day in the best possible way.

"[I]f you think that by hanging us, you can stamp out the labor movement...then hang us! Here you will tread upon a spark, but here, and there, and behind you, and in front of you, and everywhere, flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out. The ground is on fire upon which you stand."

THOSE ARE the words of Haymarket martyr August Spies, defending himself in court from false charges of conspiracy in a bombing during an eight-hour day demonstration at Chicago's Haymarket Square in 1886. Spies and seven other leaders of the radical movement were convicted--four were executed by hanging, and a fifth cheated the hangman by committing suicide.

Spies' courtroom speech has always been associated with May Day, the international workers' holiday that honors the nationwide strike for the eight-hour day that began on May 1, 1886.

But his words have come to characterize the spirit of the working class movement, especially in the U.S., with its eruptions of struggle blazing up in unexpected places, but from the same source of defiance against exploitation, poverty and oppression.

Teachers on the march in Phoenix
Teachers on the march in Phoenix

May Day 2018 arrives with the perfect example of the "subterranean fire": A revolt by educators, striking across the country in supposed conservative bastions, organized from below by new activists who formed new organizations to meet their needs, embracing many issues beyond wages, with protests inside and outside state Capitols directing attention at the intersections of political and economic power under capitalism.

And most important of all to celebrate this May Day: The teachers are winning. Not on everything, but more than anyone would have predicted just a few months ago.

The center stage of the struggle has moved on to Arizona, where the #RedForEd walkouts by educators and Capitol protests are in their second week. Even before they began, Republican Gov. Doug Ducey made an incredible concession of promising a 20 percent raise for teachers by 2020, and lawmakers of both parties have since agreed to a concrete proposal.

But in the best traditions of solidarity, Arizona teachers are continuing their struggle to win fair wages for other school workers and to restore drastic funding cuts so their students can have the schools they deserve. Ducey "tried to go around us," said Noah Karvelis, a leader of the grassroots educators group in Arizona, "but...hopefully, we'll be speaking a language he understands now."

Socialists across the country can celebrate May Day by organizing solidarity with the educators' struggles in Arizona and elsewhere. But we should take the opportunity to learn the broader lessons of this revolt of the teachers.

MANY TIMES since Socialist Worker was founded--our first issue came out 41 years ago last month--articles about May Day had to state the irony that a workers' holiday marking the May 1 eight-hour day national strike in the U.S. was celebrated all over the world, but not here.

That changed in 2006 when nationwide strikes involving millions of immigrant workers on May Day marked the high point of a movement that stopped vicious federal legislation that would have criminalized all undocumented workers.

The tradition of May Day was revived in struggle--and now, in 2018, the teachers' uprising has re-established one of the main lessons of 1886, 2006 and countless times in between: the importance of the strike weapon for the working-class movement.

The first May Day was called by unionists and radicals who had tired of appeals to employers and legislative efforts to win the eight-hour day. They set a day for a national strike that would be "an enactment by the workingmen themselves." About 200,000 workers walked out on May 1, 1886, and nearly that number won shorter hours just by threatening to strike.

That power in even just threatening to strike has been obvious in the teachers' rebellion.

The labor movement's strategy--especially for public-sector unions--of lobbying lawmakers and endorsing Democrats has failed spectacularly to stop, much less reverse, the neoliberal tide of funding cuts and declining living standards for workers.

By contrast, after less than two weeks on strike, West Virginia teachers didn't just stop the backslide, but won a 5 percent raise for themselves and all other public employees in the state. In the process, they inspired teachers in other states battered by the neoliberal assault to organize, which pressured the governors of Oklahoma and Arizona, for example, to promise significant salary increases even before strike action.

The key to the power of the strike weapon is the unity of the strikers. West Virginia educators stayed solid in all 55 counties, even when their union leaders hesitated, and they kept the schools closed until they won.

That unity and determination contradicts the stereotypes peddled by the media and accepted by the political elite about the Trump-voting "red states" as one-dimensional bastions of reaction. This elitist view, as Dana Blanchard wrote for

talks about working-class people, especially those who voted for Trump, like they're an alien species, rather than a group of people who are frankly just sick and tired of being sick and tired--like the rest of us...Many West Virginians thought they could get change through voting for a different party. But some are starting to realize that they have to be the changemakers. That sentiment is what led to the teachers' revolt.

THE TEACHERS of West Virginia didn't collectively decide one day to rise up all at once. In every site of the teachers' rebellion, there have been individuals and groups who got the ball rolling and formed a space for others to join in.

In West Virginia, one center of early organizing was among a group of teachers who already considered themselves socialists, having come in contact with one another primarily through Bernie Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign.

But even before that, teachers in the state's southern counties--shaped by the living memory of the area's history of militant miners' unionism--were meeting, school by school and town by town, to organize a resistance. In an interview with SW describing that process, teacher Katie Endicott said:

I stood up sometime near the end of the meeting and said: "The eyes of West Virginia are on us. In 1990, the last time the teachers went on strike, it was Mingo County that started the strike. So everyone is wanting to know what does Mingo County think." If we had the courage to step out, I knew that other counties would follow us--that we wouldn't be alone.

In Oklahoma, one grassroots teachers' group that won support, among union and non-union educators alike, for taking up the torch from West Virginia was started by two teachers meeting in a Tulsa Starbucks.

In Arizona, Noah Karvelis says he started #RedForEd to meet like-minded teachers on his own campus, on the suggestion of his union president. The network of mostly young educators who followed his example became the basis of Arizona Educators United.

The experiences of these core activists don't have one origin. They're shaped, in different combinations, by the interplay of historical labor traditions, connections to the existing union movement, identification with socialism and other radical ideas--and, most commonly, by the instinctive reaction against injustice and oppression that drives the class struggle at all times under capitalism.

But whether their specific histories and influences are similar or different, the educators' uprisings everywhere have had common themes and directions, especially in recognizing that their success is bound up with other struggles that go beyond labor alone to embrace the wider aim of social justice.

FROM WEST Virginia through to Arizona, Colorado and beyond, the teachers' struggles have all had an obvious political dimension from the start--made clear in every iconic image of teachers rallying outside and inside state Capitol buildings, the very symbol of political power.

This dimension is characteristic of public-sector workers' struggles in general, but especially in "right to work" states, where unions can't bargain for their members, and the compensation and conditions of teachers' work is set by state legislatures.

The four main sites of the teachers' rebellion so far--West Virginia, Oklahoma, Kentucky and Arizona--are laboratories for the neoliberal offensive. Each has seen double-digit declines in school funding per pupil over the past decade, with Oklahoma leading the way at a horrifying 28 percent.

Though the Republicans who rule these states have gone furthest fastest, these conditions aren't unique. They are the result of the politicians' priority--visible in the bluest of blue cities and states, where Democrats run the show--of granting tax cuts to corporations and the rich, with the promise that these will produce greater revenue that never shows up.

This is why the playing field remains tilted against the working majority as a whole, even when teachers are able to claw their way forward.

In Arizona, educators have the promise, though not the certainty, of a 20 percent raise, but the Republican governor is determined to steal from Peter to pay Paul: If he can get away with it, Doug Ducey will cut funding for other desperately needed state programs and shift the money to the schools.

The teachers aren't taking the divide-and-conquer bait. They want Ducey to spell out revenue streams for the additional school funding, and they're supporting a proposal for a November ballot measure to implement a tax on the state's wealthiest households to pay for public education.

But this raises a bigger question that we ought to also remember on May Day--about the fight for a different kind of society, where workers don't have to negotiate over the size of the slices, but together share the whole pie.

It's a question that August Spies took up in his courtroom speech back in 1886:

Socialism, in short, seeks to establish a universal system of co-operation, and to render accessible to each and every member of the human family the achievements and benefits of civilization, which, under capitalism, are being monopolized by a privileged class, and employed, not as they should be, for the common good of all, but for the brutish gratification of an avaricious class.

One hundred and thirty-two years later, teachers are waging the struggle for justice and democracy in a world where the privileged class and its political servants continue to put wealth and profit before human need. Ultimately, the alternative we need--every bit as much now as then--is socialism.

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