Building on the Fight For $15: Lessons from the West Virginia Strikers

Will Bloom —

In a week chockful of major news about the American labor movement, no story has captured the imagination of workers and labor activists across the country like the West Virginia teachers’ strike. Despite having no legally protected right to strike or collectively bargain, and despite facing Republican control of both houses of the legislature and a newly Republican governor, teachers and school support staff have been on strike since February 22. They have enough statewide support to keep schools in all 55 counties shut down. The union leadership even cut a deal with Governor Justice in which he pledged to support legislation giving teachers a 5% raise, and still the workers refused to end the strike, holding out until the bill is passed and until the state addresses ballooning costs to workers of PEIA, the state employee health system.

Many have written about what this battle can teach us about the future of American class war. In light of the Supreme Court’s impending decision in Janus v. AFSCME, what happens to teachers in a non-fair-share state like West Virginia is especially significant for public sector workers nationwide. But it also has lessons to teach about a new form of labor organizing previously best exemplified by the Fight for 15 campaign (FF15). Though the two may seems very different in terms of industry and geography, both take a sectoral approach to collective bargaining that breaks out of the traditional employer-employee dyad and enlists public political actors . The West Virginia teachers’ surprising success shows what can happen when that structure is combined with a mass, militant movement of workers expressing their power through direct action.

Both the West Virginia strikers and FF15 have approached collective bargaining as a sectoral issue. As Kate Andrias argues, FF15 is embodying, or even establishing, a new framework for unionism, one that “rejects the old regime’s commitment to the employer-employee dyad” and instead “locates decisions about basic standards of employment at the sectoral level . . . advanc[ing] the interests of workers generally.” In short, Andrias diagnoses a shift from bargaining privately through contractual collective bargaining agreements toward bargaining publicly through the codification of labor settlements in legislation, administrative action, and other direct exercise of state power. Rather than dealing with individual employers, unions deal with entire regional industries. Rather than dealing bilaterally between workers and employers, unions triangulate workers, employers, and local and state governments.

The basic layout of the labor struggle in West Virginia looks remarkably similar, although there this approach is taken by necessity, rather than by choice. West Virginia affords no legal protections for state workers’ union activity: state employees are forbidden from engaging in strikes and cannot enter collective bargaining agreements with state employers. As a result, West Virginia state employee unions (or rather, “workers associations”) are forced to seek legislative and regulatory solutions from the state government. They deal with both statewide government actors and the instrumentalities of the state that are their direct employers, such as the county school boards. As a result, these fights for legislative action are necessarily regional and sectoral, covering the entire state rather than individual employers. West Virginia law has forced the state’s teachers into following FF15’s model of bargaining.

West Virginia’s teachers are achieving surprising success with this model, despite facing a difficult set of circumstances. While FF15 has accomplished incredible victories in a number of states and cities across the country, many of those victories have come from governments run by Democrats sympathetic to labor. As Republicans have taken control of more state and local government, FF15’s successes have slowed. The West Virginia teachers, conversely, have managed to win widespread support for their cause. They moved Republican leaders in the House of Delegates and Republican Governor Jim Justice, himself a corporate billionaire, toward a settlement, and have managed to keep their strike going statewide for two weeks. This would be a daunting task in normal circumstances, but is even harder given the lack of any legal protections for striking. While there are clearly many differences and caveats between the two labor campaigns, this suggests that FF15 might have something to learn from the West Virginia teachers.

Using Jane McAlevey’s taxonomy of theories of power, FF15’s model of action could most accurately be described as advocacy with elements of mobilizing. They focus on changing perceptions of the issues they advocate for, such as the minimum wage, and convincing those in power to make the changes they seek. Media-directed public actions are a primary tactic, meant to generate press coverage and influence politicians. Many of these actions are billed as strikes, but most last less than a day and involve a fraction of the fast food workforce in a given city. These work as signals to political actors as to the seriousness of the campaign’s purpose, but pose no threat to continued production in the fast food industry. FF15 staff members find and mobilize a small group of workers, most of whom are already supportive, and train them to speak for the campaign, telling stories of their unacceptable workplace conditions to journalists and politicians. Yet the vast majority of fast food workers remain unorganized.

West Virginia teachers and support staff, on the other hand, have built the core of their power on strong workplace organizing, exemplified by their ability to stay out on strike in every county in the state. Despite bargaining through legislation, they conceive of their power as emanating from their labor, and their ability to shut their workplaces down by withholding it. West Virginia teachers are not merely working to convince state politicians that they deserve decent wages and affordable health care (an understandably tall order in a state under unified Republican control); they are building power in their workplaces and using direct action to force politicians to capitulate to their demands.

This organizing work is hard because it requires workers to win over coworkers who may not already be on board. A workplace is a closed universe of people, and you need overwhelming solidarity to make a strike successful. These workers haven’t shied away from that challenge, and have organized not only themselves but their communities. There is widespread support for the teachers’ strike throughout West Virginia. The rank and file rejection of last week’s deal between the Governor and union leadership reflects how deeply these workers understand their own power. The West Virginia model of sectoral bargaining approaches something like “social bargaining,” in which the mass movement these workers are building is fighting for changes that would benefit not only themselves but the broader community (PEIA covers 1 in 7 West Virginians).  The labor fight is transformed into a community-wide consciousness raising struggle, and may ultimately lead to something approaching the kinds of general strikes that are virtually unheard of in the United States. We are already seeing elements of this, with 1,400 West Virginians working for Frontier Communications beginning a strike on Sunday and Oklahoma teachers discussing a statewide walkout.

Again, there are many distinctions between the West Virginia strike and FF15. It is easier for fast food workers to be replaced than teachers, and high turnover rates in fast food make building lasting mass organizations incredibly difficult. On the other hand, fast food workers enjoy legal protections when they strike and bargain that West Virginia teachers do not enjoy. Reporting that much of the strike organizing was conducted by rank and file members on lunch breaks and online suggests that the West Virginia organization was built with far fewer resources than the SEIU-backed FF15. Even with these differences, the inspiring success of teachers and support staff in West Virginia in a bargaining structure similar to the one used by FF15 suggests some important lessons for FF15. If FF15 were to combine their sectoral bargaining approach with a dedicated focus on building a militant mass worker organization, they could accomplish the kind of social bargaining that would transform American unionism and American society.

Will Bloom (@WillWBloom) is a Skadden Fellow at the Community Activism Law Alliance.