Strikes are on the minds of workers in Donald Trump’s United States. After decades of stagnating wages and rocketing living costs, they are back on the cards as a way of winning real gains at work.
An inspirational fight by West Virginia teachers over pay and health insurance payments has inspired teachers and other public sector workers. And walkouts are taking place in states where public sector workers are not allowed to strike—New Jersey and West Virginia are just two examples.
Teachers in Oklahoma were set to strike from 2 April—and workers in other states could join them.
Where the strike wave goes next depends on workers maintaining the independent organisation that has pushed for strikes and won. They have raised the possibility of the US working class as a collective force moving into the fight against Trump and the bosses.
Oklahoma - “Most of the teachers I know are saying ‘no way’!”
Teachers and other public sector workers in Oklahoma are set to walk out indefinitely next month. “We’re starting on 2 April and not ending until our demands are met,” Alberto Morejon told Socialist Worker.
Alberto is the administrator of the Oklahoma Teacher Walkout—The Time Is Now! page on Facebook, which was set up to help organise the strikes. Over 30,000 people joined the group in the first three days of March. Now it has over 70,000 members and is still growing.
By some measures,teachers in Oklahoma are the lowest-paid of any US state. Starting pay for a teacher there is £21,000 a year. And teachers haven’t had a pay rise in ten years.
They are demanding a £7,000 raise over three years, with £4,000 this year.
The state legislature proposed a deal to teaching unions last Tuesday. It included a £3,500 raise for teachers, smaller raises for support workers and other public sector workers, £53 million for school supplies and £175 million for public sector workers’ health insurance.
The reaction to the deal has been explosive.
“Most of the teachers I know are saying ‘No way!’,” teacher Heidi told Socialist Worker.
“The people in my building are planning to walk out and to be at the government Capitol building until they pass something that funds education. It must include not only materials and operating costs, but teachers and support staff.
“We are also pushing for funding for all state employees. For me those agencies and people are part of educating our children.”
Teachers and supporters have rightly pointed out that if they can get half of what they want without striking, then why stop short of strikes?
There are 210 teachers in Jimmy Acevedo’s isolated north western district of Texas County. Some 80 percent of them voted for the strikes.
Jimmy told Socialist Worker, “The energy and excitement are high because the frustration and limitations have
been endured for a long time.
“We have met on weekends, after school, and between jobs—many of us have more than one.
“This is all new to us, but we are determined to not let this opportunity pass. We recognise the advantage of the growing momentum and understand that it is now or never.
“We are all hoping for a fast resolution. But we have been making contingency plans for travel, accommodation, food, care for our own families, students and responsibilities here at home.”
As with the West Virginia strike, right wing politicians and the media are trying to split support for the strike by focusing on the impact on students.
The Oklahoma Education Association union leadership has tried to hamper the strikes, initially suggesting 23 April for the walkout. They were forced to back down by members and moved the strike forward to 2 April.
And the votes to walk out have been so overwhelming, the right wing campaign has had little effect.
The strike plans have received support from parents, but also limited support from the boards of education in districts. These are elected bodies which decide on education policy at a district level.
Alberto explained, “School districts have had board meetings to approve the strikes. All ten of the largest school districts in Oklahoma now support strikes.”
In just one example, under pressure from teachers the board of education for John Rex Charter Elementary voted on Monday to support the strike, but only for the first five days.
Strikers will have to maintain the independent organisation which has got them this far. But school and district administrations backing strikes is a sign of just how bad the situation is for public education in Oklahoma—and across the US. School districts backed strikes in West Virginia too (see right).
“I can’t tell you how many West Virginia teachers have messaged me saying, keep going you guys can do it, we support you,” said Alberto. “I’ve had Arizona teachers asking me for advice.”
The fight over pay and healthcare costs in West Virginia has inspired people across the US to stand up and fight back.
An insurgent movement has sent union bureaucrats, bosses and politicians scrambling in an attempt to contain it. Now the future of that movement hangs in the balance.
West Virginia - “It seems like we started a revolution”
Around 33,000 people struck in West Virginia over pay and health insurance in February.
West Virginia teacher Virginia Faulkner Hicks spoke to Socialist Worker about the strike.
“Years ago it was promised that a starting teacher’s wage in West Virginia would be £30,000 by 2019,” she said. “Well, its 2018 and, with the 5 percent raise it’s only up to £25,000, so we are way off that original plan.”
While strikers didn’t win over healthcare, they fought bosses to a standstill over pay, despite the best efforts of their union leadership.
“But, taking into account what we asked for at the beginning of the strike, we’re quite pleased with a 5percent raise,” she said. “And it’s 5percent for all state employees too.”
The American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia (AFT?WV), the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA), and the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association (WVSSPA) reached the deal.
“We are still hopeful that the insurance programme will get fixed,” said Virginia. “A task force has been set up.
“We had some say in who was on it. We forced them to add some women.
“And everything, such as insurance premium increases, has been frozen for 18 months until they can come up with an alternative funding source.
“It’s not fantastic but it’s a start.”
Virginia told Socialist Worker that workers are sceptical about the prospects of bosses keeping to their words. That scepticism can go in a number of directions.
She said, “I think another strike is very possible if the healthcare situation isn’t sorted out within the next couple of years.”
And teachers in the state recognise their achievement in acting as a spark to the current strike wave.
“Now Oklahoma has followed suit, as have parts of New Jersey,” said Virginia. “It seems like we started a revolution.
“If anything influenced us it was the West Virginia teachers’ strike of 1990. Many current West Virginia teachers were also teaching in 1990.”
Then teachers struck for 11 days and won a £3,500 pay rise
Virginia spoke about how teachers “were blamed for being selfish and preventing our students from getting breakfast and lunch at school while we were striking”.
“So we set up public food banks throughout West Virginia,” she said.
“We also had a lot of support from parents and very few negative comments. Several parents joined us in the protests.
“In the end I think as far as public sympathy went we always felt more positivity than negativity.”
The West Virginia example proves that workers can fight off bosses’ attacks if they strike.
Crucially, West Virginia has popularised the idea of militant strikes—often in defiance of union bosses.
Arizona - “Teachers have been organising unofficial strikes called ‘sick outs’!”
Teachers in Arizona were preparing for mass protests from this week. Thousands came to work wearing red T-shirts on several days in March to highlight low pay.
It was partly coordinated through the Arizona Educators United (AEU) Facebook page which now has over 30,000 users.
People are holding meetings and pressuring boards of education. They then contact the Facebook group’s administrators to let them know the results and this is shared.
As of last Wednesday some 70 percent of schools in the state had been recorded as closed from 2 April onwards.
The state legislature has offered teachers and other staff a paltry 1 percent pay rise.
Meanwhile state spending per pupil has dropped by 36.5 percent between 2008 and 2015.
Workers have been coordinating unofficial strikes by calling in sick—called “sick outs”.
Teachers have picketed the state governor on radio shows and held meetings at dozens of schools across the state.
“We want to have events occurring as frequently as possible. We want to close the gap and keep the momentum building,” Rebecca Garelli told the Labor Notes website. “We have to keep people engaged and involved.”
“Our backs are against the wall—we have nothing else,” said teacher Noah Karvelis from AEU.
Teachers in Puerto Rico struck on Monday last week against attempts to use the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria to expand private schooling.
The governor Ricardo Rocello wants to close 300 public schools and axe some 7,000 teaching jobs.
Teachers in a Pennsylvania school district are on strike for pay rises and lower health care costs.
There are 168 teachers in the South Butler school district.
They have been ordered back to work by 3 April or face fines and penalties.
Thousands of teachers protested outside the state Capitol building last Wednesday. They voted to strike at a mass meeting.
They are fighting plans to cut planned pension rises from 1.5 percent to 1 percent.
The plans would leave them down over £40,000 on average over the course of a lifetime.
The same state budget also includes a proposal to drain the state employees’ health insurance programme of funds. This means workers could see their contributions rise by 50 percent by 2020.
Teachers have been holding regular protests at the Capitol building. And now they are preparing for strikes.
Send messages of support to teachers in Oklahoma via bit.ly/OklahomaSolidarity