“When We Fight, We Win” – A Lesson from West Virginia
It’s no secret that our union has not been functioning effectively. It’s no secret that we will be hit hard by the Supreme Court’s Janus decision, which will rule that people no longer need to pay an agency fee but may nonetheless get most of the benefits of the union. It would be easy to predict disaster for our members and our union; West Virginia shows it may not work out that way.
A word on our own situation before considering the lessons of West Virginia. The MCCC will be hit harder by the Janus decision than any other part of the Massachusetts Teachers Association (MTA). Across the state there are more than 80,000 teachers and educators working in classrooms from kindergarten through high school – less than 500 of those people are paying agency fee, all the rest are members of the MTA and some local association. In the MCCC we represent less than ten percent as many people, but we have more than three times as many agency fee payers.
Among our full time employees, agency fee payers are rare – less than five percent of the total. We don’t show quite the level of solidarity found in K-12, but the great majority of people choose to join the union and become members. In our DCE unit it’s a very different story. There are lots and lots of agency fee payers. Many people do not choose to join the union.
There are many reasons that could be so: lower incomes, not sure they will be around for the long term, never been asked to join, and/or not so sure the union is committed to fighting for adjunct members, a reservation born out of our past history, including the history of the negotiations for our still-open DCE contract, now 690 Days ( 23 months) past its initial expiration date on May 31, 2016. That combination – lots of agency fee payers, a hostile Supreme Court decision, and employees uncertain about the union’s effectiveness and commitment – could end up as a recipe for disaster.
Or then again, maybe not. West Virginia is a right-to-freeload state; often misleadingly called “right to work.” It’s what will apply to public sector employees across the nation if the Supreme Court rules as expected in the Janus decision, coming in May or June. It means that by law, an employee can pay nothing to the union, but the person still gets the wages and benefits negotiated in the contract and the union has to represent the person if they have a grievance. Bizarre, right? It’s illegal to strike in West Virginia. They have a Republican governor (elected as a Democrat, then changed his party) and Republicans control both houses of the legislature. Teacher pay is 48th in the nation, and they haven’t had a raise in ten years. All of which, it’s pretty obvious, makes it “impossible” to go on strike
Except that West Virginia teachers, and support personnel, did go on strike. Statewide. Every single one of the 55 counties across the state. The people who organized and led that strike were mostly building reps and respected workers; very few of them were local leaders or statewide board members. They organized through Facebook. They took a series of escalating actions, beginning by wearing red on Fridays and, in a handful of counties, moving to one-day “Fed Up Friday” work actions. They began to talk about a statewide strike. Their union leadership urged them to have a rolling strike, five counties at a time. The members said “No,” that was too mild; they were all going out together, teachers and support workers. And they did.
A few days into the strike, the governor, the legislature, and union leaders cut a deal: a 5% pay increase for teachers, no raises for anyone else, no remedy for the health insurance issues (which outraged educators). The rank-and-file members were gathered on the steps of the state capitol as these negotiations went on. They received 15 minutes advance warning before the leaders and legislators came out to announce the deal, which enabled them to have a hurried discussion and prepare their response. When the leaders came out and proclaimed a deal, rank-and-file members burst into chants of “TURN IT DOWN.” Amazingly, across the state educators held meetings in any space they could find and, county by county, voted to turn down the deal and keep the strike going, insisting on a raise for all state employees, including the most vulnerable, not just for the full-time teachers. The strike went on for days, the health insurance issue was at least quasi-addressed, and all workers got the raise. No one talked of any punishments for strikers. Everyone – teachers, support workers, legislators, the governor, the media – understood this as near total victory for the strikers.
The lessons for us? Even when things look bleak – and conditions there were a lot more hostile than they are here – action is possible. Even when the statewide leadership is willing to cut an unfavorable deal, worker action can override that and say “hell no.” Even when an offer is made to buy out the most privileged workers, people can stand in solidarity and say “an injury to one is an injury to all,” with full-time teachers continuing the strike to support other state workers. Even when it’s illegal, you can mount a successful statewide strike. Even if the official union machinery won’t lead the action, rank-and-file leaders will do so.
If we want our agency fee paying adjuncts to join the union, the best way to get them to do so is to show them union strength and solidarity. If we – all of us – are fighting for equal pay for equal work, if we lead the battle for health insurance for adjunct faculty, if we show the strength to make real gains – if we do all that, we will be in position to persuade agency fee payers to become union members.