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  • Writer's pictureWV United

Beyond Bread and Butter Unionism: Towards a Better Union Future

Two statewide strikes in two years. One to combat a rise in insurance costs, the other to combat privatization of public schools.

Sometimes, lightning strikes twice. And in West Virginia, we’ve witnessed what that looks like when educators and service personnel become that lightning, because every member is a leader.

In the Age of COVID-19, we can’t take anything for granted.

State budgets are preparing for millions of dollars in lost revenue. Cuts to public services are being prepared. PEIA rate increases are on the horizon. Privatization through online learning platforms aren’t far off. In essence, the decimation of what we’ve known.

This has been tried before. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, private education firms set up shop in New Orleans at such an alarming rate that no public schools are available in the city one and a half decades later. Education unions were driven from the city and services were slashed.

Likewise, in the wake of the 2008 financial recession, states began slashing budgets for public education. Hundreds of thousands of teachers and service personnel lost their jobs, and it took almost a decade for many states to get back to pre-recession funding levels. Just as had happened in Katrina, private charter schools set up shop in the hardest-hit states to capitalize on this economic decline.

This is what Naomi Klein describes as “Disaster Capitalism.” In essence, large corporations either wait for disasters to start, or create them themselves, so that they can swoop in and take control of public services. They then charge higher fees for these services, bankrupting municipalities and states alike. Fees often get funneled to the owners of these businesses, who in turn use these resources to lobby for no-bid contracts. An increase in fees means greater profit for those at the top, while workers lose union rights and all the benefits they accrued with that.

COVID-19 is no different. In fact, it could be far worse than these previous cases.

At times like this, it is important to remember what history shows us can work, and what does not work so that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past.

Both 1990 and 2018’s strikes showed us something simple: direct action, involving thousands of people, can make a real difference. After the 1990 strike, educators and service personnel saw a dramatic rise in pay and benefits, getting our state out of almost last place in teacher salaries. When years of lobbying and playing nice with the state legislature didn’t work, direct action did. It didn’t matter that the Governor and Attorney General were both Democrats, or that the Democratic Party held trifecta control of the state (and would continue to do so until 2014). What mattered was that WVEA was willing to put the energy into getting members engaged and ready to withstand physical picket lines for the duration of the strike.

In 2018, it didn’t matter that the Republicans had trifecta control of the state legislature; what mattered was that all three education unions (WVEA, AFT, & WVSSPA) were willing to put aside their differences and unite together to take concerted, direct action to win a clear set of demands. The lesson was clear: thousands of people, taking action together, can shift the balance of power. Unfortunately, the special session in June of 2019 proved the inverse of this-- A rally isn’t direct action, it doesn’t force the elite to concede to your demands, and it doesn’t build power that you can draw on in the future.

The successes of the strikes also makes it abundantly clear that when you fight for improved conditions for all, you win.

This is what our vision of a stronger WVEA is: fighting for the common good, in united action, with a focus on building long-term local and state power.

In times of crisis, we need leadership that has been tested in the worst of times and in the toughest actions. Leadership that has been rank-and-file members, working diligently within their locals to push their unions from below. Leadership that has built relationships not with those in positions of political power, but with those who have yet to see their own inherent strength. Leadership that understands the strength of thousands of people, and works as organizers to bring those people together. Leadership that knows what it’s like to be in the trenches as an educator, day-in and day-out, struggling to keep members active while also devoting every waking hour to improving their craft.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a crisis for our country and our state. But we can beat back attempts to relive the history of the past and chart a new path forward, building on the strengths we have developed over these past three years.

We don’t ask that you vote for the United slate to be the leaders of WVEA. We ask that you vote for the United slate so that every member can be a leader, too.

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