How We Organize to Win – Our Five Principles Explained
By Brendan Muckian-Bates
West Virginia United is a unique group of dedicated organizers, activists, and everyday educators who happened to find one another as a result of the 2018 walkouts. We found that what set us apart as individuals, and the reason for our caucus ultimately, was that we understood our larger goals were to transform our unions and, consequently, society. It was almost a year ago that a small group of us came together from across the state to set up the common principles of what would become the West Virginia United caucus. Below, I have tried my best to explain what each of the five principles mean so that everyone who is interested in the caucus can better understand why we organize.
1. Worker Empowerment
All members of the West Virginia United caucus must be members of WVEA, AFT, or WVSSPA. Those of us who came together to organize before the 2018 walkouts were active members in our unions, and we continue to be active members today. When we discussed the need for building a worker movement, the most logical place to start was where we felt our power most acutely – in our unions.
Raises, benefits, funding are all important components of our labor. But neither Democrats nor Republicans alone have the potential for pushing policies which benefit public education. This was the case in the 1990 strike when public education workers banded together to demand better pay and benefits from a Democratic Governor and Democratic Attorney General, and it was the case in the 2018 strike when we did likewise under a Republican Governor and Republican Attorney General.
Power is the ability to win fights. It is the ability to dictate the course of your life. We found that in the history of our state, both parties will serve the interests of a small elite if given the opportunity. This is why our caucus was not formed within a political party, but within a union. It has only ever been the case when unions are strongest that they can demand better and better conditions for the workers. It has only ever been the case when education unions are strongest that they can advocate for public education workers, students, and families alike.
When we talk about worker empowerment, we mean having the ability to win fights for workers and communities alike. Caucus members can be members of any political party or ideology. That is less important to us than our common fight to strengthen unions as the building block for a new labor movement both in West Virginia and across the world.
2. Solidarity Unionism
The Wobbly historian and scholar Staughton Lynd has described solidarity unionism as, “…relying, not on technical expertise, or on numbers of signed-up members, nor yet on bureaucratic chain-of-command, but on the spark that leaps from person to person, especially in times of common crisis.”
There are two components to solidarity unionism – rank-and-file democratic decision making and working alongside members of other unions for a common purpose.
In the first component, we all saw what can happen when educators are given a say on when to call a strike. In 2018, that looked like the southern counties going wildcat in advance of the upcoming statewide walkouts, showing counties in the rest of the state that this fight can be won. Cast ballots calling for a statewide walkout in 2018 and 2019 were far higher than any had imagined. Yet because of this democratic process, everyone felt a sense of collective decision-making, because they were, in fact, playing a large role in determining how our unions are run.
However, we also saw with the wildcat on our “cooling off” day what can happen when workers are not given a say in how our unions are run. It was union and non-union members who called for the strike, and it was union and non-union members who said when to return. This process showed everyone – from union leadership down to the newest dues-paying member – that it is the rank-and-file who make the call on actions.
Because we do not have collective bargaining in West Virginia, all of our actions must be done in such a way as to build up for the next fight. Every act is a warning shot to the elite that we are here, and we are prepared to act in our and our communities’ best interests. Every period of relaxed tension is a temporary ceasefire. We know that our fight continues regardless of who is in power, and therefore, we continue to build a movement that is rank-and-file led.
The other component of solidarity unionism is working across our unions for a common purpose. The clearest way that our caucus exhibits this trait is in the fact that we work across the three main education unions – WVEA, AFT, and WVSSPA. Whatever our union affiliation, we are still fellow workers first and foremost. The titles separating us have more to do with union dues than they do anything else.
Furthermore, we have already seen what power we can wield when we don’t let affiliation separate us from working hand-in-hand with one another. The UMWA has repeatedly come out in support of us before and during our strikes. Likewise, teachers and service personnel stood on picket lines with the CWA immediately following the 2018 walkouts, and Northern Panhandle education workers joined IAMAW workers on lockout in Marshall County.
The longer the picket line, the shorter the strike.
Solidarity unionism is about recognizing the strength collective labor has in itself, without relying on others to mediate our disputes for us.
The West Indies historian C. L. R. James once said, “Every cook can govern.” We believe that every member is a leader. So what really is a union? It’s you and I fighting for a common cause.
3. Progressive Taxation
No one likes being taxed, but everyone likes when public services are fully-funded and run smoothly. A few years ago, there was a common metaphor floating around online about how to run a government and it went something like this: “If you treat your government’s budget like your family’s budget, you wouldn’t accrue so much debt to pay for things you didn’t need. Cut down on your expenses and rein in your debt before you go bankrupt.”
The problem with this metaphor is that it treats a budget as if everyone is contributing to the family equally. Instead, some members of the family are contributing most, while others are receiving enormous tax breaks and exemptions, claiming they are the ones contributing most to the family. The family budget doesn’t work not because we’re spending too much, but because the few who do so little are demanding so much.
Progressive taxation treats a budget like this: The people who have the least shouldn’t be asked to contribute the same as someone with more. A few hundred dollars is a lot to a family barely scrapping by; it’s far less of a burden for a family making six figures.
Our public education system – and consequently, everything that goes into it – is purposefully underfunded. Large corporations have continued to demand tax breaks from the state under the guise that they cannot continue to operate without these exemptions. In reality, they are pocketing millions while working families are being asked to either contribute more in taxes, or cut the budget for public spending. Since West Virginia doesn’t allow for deficit spending, the money has to come from somewhere.
Would you have it come from the wealthy elite, who have continued to have a stranglehold on this state, its resources, and its people?
Or would you rather it come from the single family struggling to get by, but relying heavily on quality public services to escape systemic poverty?
The West Virginia United caucus believes that our public services must be fully-funded, but that this must come from taxes that only affect the wealthiest among us: the corporations that have run our state like their personal piggy bank for generations, the out-of-state business interests that treat West Virginia more like a resource colony than a place where families live and learn. To ask the poorest among us to fund these services will turn them against us when we need them most.
Don’t shuffle the cards around and tell us you found money elsewhere. Tax the rich.
4. Social Justice Unionism
West Virginia has some of the highest rates of opioid overdose in the country, highest rates of children raised by grandparents, and high rates of ecologically-related disease and illnesses, and one of the lowest rates for median household incomes of all fifty states.
All of this affects education. Students walk into our classrooms affected by each and every one of these factors. Their water quality affects their brain development. Their brain development affects their performance in school. Their performance in school affects their ability to earn good grades and graduate effectively. This in turn affects their ability to have and raise a family on a stable income.
So on and so forth.
We see students affected by these factors and many more. Students who struggle to pay attention because of food insecurity. Students with hyperactivity because they don’t know where they’re going to live next week. Students who haven’t seen their parents in God knows when. These things affect us because they affect our students.
This is the essence of social justice unionism. It places the needs of the community at the forefront of our fight.
Teaching is vastly different from other professions. Our labor directly impacts the development of our community. In turn, where we teach and the issues affecting our community directly affect our profession. We can’t separate the two.
Social justice unionism recognizes the invaluable nature of community support in demanding more and more concessions for schools. At the same time, it recognizes that unions cannot be made up simply of workers within them; they must be bound with the people we serve every day. Thus, social justice unionism seeks to transform the function of unions from fighting solely for bread-and-butter issues to fighting for community concerns.
An injury to one of our students is an injury to all.
5. Grassroots Democracy
When I was in graduate school, I was told by one of my Education Professors, “Teachers steal each other’s lesson plans. But it’s okay. We’re all in this together, and sometimes, you need to lean on others for support.”
For schools to run smoothly, everyone has to do their job well. From the veteran educator with 35 years experience to the newly-hired aide. We all put in our equal share of time – some more than others – because we care about this profession, we care about our students. The only things separating us from one another oftentimes are the four walls of our classroom during periods.
By nature, teachers are social creatures. We crave assistance, often lending services to new hires in our buildings or asking for help from those with greater knowledge on a subject than we. We share lesson plans and ideas, craft cross-curricular activities to build content knowledge, bring in snacks for one another, and listen to the times when another teacher feels like they just can’t do it anymore.
We’re there for each other.
If our unions are to reflect anything about our profession, it is that leadership positions mean that those individuals are first among equals. From Randi Weingarten and Lily Garcia down to the newly-minted Math teacher and school nurse, we’re all doing our part to make education better. However, that means that we cannot rely on elected positions and the titles they confer to legitimize unpopular decisions.
Think about it. Our current electoral system ensures that we get the ability to decide between two candidates, sometimes very similar candidates, every two-four years. Those individuals then have the ability to dictate policy which will impact innumerable people across the world. And when we are told that so-and-so politician isn’t doing their job, the response is too often, “Well, make sure to vote next time!”
This isn’t democracy. Democracy is not just vote-and-see. It is not a spectator sport. It’s an active process by which our desires, our goals, and our futures are fought for.
Too often, our union structures legitimize this type of thinking. Local leadership is under the directive to guide the county union affiliate in ways that align with the state, and the state with the national union. This process ensures that if 49% of members want one thing, and 51% want another, that the 49% should wait until they can sway the other 2% to get what they want.
This is unfair and it is undemocratic.
Instead of creating a system that follows a command-and-obey set-up, the West Virginia United caucus believes in grassroots democracy. Every member has a say in how the caucus is run, and every member can determine the form and function of how they and the caucus relate to the work they seek to do.
We have a steering committee for the sole purpose of helping to guide the caucus and provide support where necessary. The true power lies in the hands of caucus membership. Every caucus member and every school local can determine which event they want to hold and how they want to set it up. As long as it is within keeping of our five principles, they are free to do that work however they want. The steering committee acts to assist them in setting this up and following up to see how it went.
Members do not have to ask permission from us to hold events. They do not have to wait and get approval for actions they seek to take. We actually encourage members to take more actions and to be bolder in their unions, because it is only in those interactions that they showcase what grassroots democracy is all about.
Leadership is about obedience to duty, not elevation to office.