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.

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Subsidize Worker Organizing

Will Bloom –

Advocates and scholars agree that the labor movement is in dire straits: shrinking union density, fewer successful elections, Trump appointees to the NLRB, and proliferating state free-rider laws all threaten labor’s power.  Everyone knows that there’s a problem.  The disagreement, however, is in the nature of the problem—and consequently, how to solve it.

I submit that, when we think about legislative interventions aimed at revitalizing the labor movement, we have to change the question from “How do we make it easier for unions to win recognition?” to “How do we make it easier for workers to organize?” Policymakers have long felt more comfortable focusing on the former question, brainstorming ways to help workers obtain legal recognition from a government agency, the NLRB. What they find more difficult is developing policies that help workers actually build those particularized, complex social relationships that underlie organizing and enable collective action. But legislation can empower workers and organizers in the most direct possible way: paying them to organize. Continue reading