As I write this article, the West Virginia teachers strike has entered its second week. The strike comes in the wake of the gutting of collective bargaining rights, brought about by a Republican legislature. The legislature passed a “right to work” law, a trend that is becoming far too common today in state legislatures, which prohibited mandatory union dues and hammered down the ability of laborers to collectively bargain for their wages and self-determination. The state of West Virginia, once famed for its militant labor rights movement, seemed to be on the decline.
But the voice and defiance of the teachers strike has not ceased. The strike began and continues, in defiance not only of state law (which prohibits teachers strikes) but in the leadership of their own unions. After state legislators and the West Virginia Education Association struck a deal, teachers rebuked the bargain and have stated their intent to carry the strike to the very end. And that action — the adoption of what is commonly called a “wildcat strike” — is aiming to be a milestone for the declining labor movement in the time of a dangerous political climate for working people.
The significance of the wildcat strike is not just that laborers are defying oppressive laws to see that they get what they deserve, but that they do not need union leadership or political opportunists to tell them when to heel. The workers do not need anyone to tell them what they want or how to get what they want; they can do it themselves and on their own conditions.
West Virginia’s reprehensible treatment of teachers, which ranks 48th in the nation, lies not just in their low wages but in their lack of protection against rising healthcare costs. The West Virginia governor, ironically named Jim Justice, ran on a Democratic ticket with seemingly center-liberal policies in mind. Not long after taking office, Justice became a turncoat and retreated to the Republican Party, betraying his voters and constituents in an act of political pragmatism. He now plays yarn to the cat of Republican legislature in West Virginia.
As previously mentioned, the passage of “right to work” laws provide a mountainous challenge to workers not only in West Virginia, but in 28 other states. These laws, designed to undermine unions and nullify their collective bargaining rights, are now the most apparent affront against working people, promoted in the shadow of the Trump political movement. But it provides a new chance, a new opportunity for laborers everywhere to stand for what they are owed. The answer must be defiance, the attitude must be bold and the goals must be set and determined by the workers who wish to attain them. An affront to workers somewhere is an affront to workers everywhere and now the time for labor unity in America to rise again is nigh.
If our elected officials will not stand for us as workers, we must vote them out. If they dangle carrots in front of our faces to silence and appease us, we must reject them. And if they will not fight for us, we will fight for ourselves, together.
There must be no capitulation, no sacrifice of principle, but only a demand for working people to be given what they are owed. We should all follow in the path of the West Virginia teachers and take nothing less than what we deserve: labor rights, as human rights, under no pretenses. The spirit of the West Virginia labor movement lives on; do not let it die. Organize to live and strike to win. The only other option is downtrodden and oppressive surrender.