We're in the midst of a brushfire outbreak of labor militancy not seen in decades.
First came a statewide teachers' strike in West Virginia. When the teachers union leadership negotiated a weak compromise (which was tabled by the GOP-held state Senate anyway), the rank-and-file rebelled and started a wildcat (that is, not approved by leadership) strike that is still going. The strike has forced the closure of public schools in the state's 55 counties, leaving more than 275,000 students without classes to attend.
Next, Oklahoma teachers, very clearly inspired by their West Virginia comrades, announced their own statewide strike on Monday.
We may be at the beginning of a very important national labor push. It's time we all paid attention.
So what is fueling the strikes? In West Virginia, the major complaint is the crumbling state employee health-care system, as Michael Mochaidean, one of the teacher organizers in the state, explains in this episode of the Chapo Trap House podcast. Recent changes in the health-care plan have shifted more and more costs onto teachers, more than erasing recent raises. Daniel Summers, a 35-year-old teacher with small children, says his insurance premium has increased by $300 per month. He was already barely treading water with his wife working and him working a second job, and this was simply too much to take.
Or consider the story of this second-grade teacher:
On weekdays, Rebecca Diamond teaches second grade at Kellogg Elementary School in Wayne County, West Virginia.
On weekends, she works a register at Hardee's.
"I never dreamed 19 years ago when I started teaching that I would have to work a second job to provide for my kids," explained the 42-year-old Diamond, who's married to a fellow public school teacher and has two teenagers. "I knew teaching wouldn't make [me] billions, but I thought it would be enough." [HuffPost]
The average teacher's salary in West Virginia is just $45,622, one of the lowest in the U.S. And they've had enough.
At this point, the strikers seem to have united around a demand for the 5 percent raise for teachers, support staff, and state patrol, plus a task force to consider the health-care question. The inclusion of support staff — generally even lower paid than teachers — is especially encouraging, as it tends to indicate a broader social solidarity than the timid, self-interested style of union bargaining over the last several decades.
In Oklahoma, low pay appears to be the main complaint. Teachers there are the worst paid out of all states, with a starting salary of $31,600 and a maximum salary of $46,000 if you accumulate a Ph.D and 25 years of experience.
But these strikes are about more than salaries and health care. It's also about unemployment and leverage.
Joblessness has finally reached a relatively low level, at 4.1 percent nationwide. Even West Virginia, which has one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, is at just 5.4 percent. And yet, West Virginia still has hundreds of teacher vacancies. The state is struggling with recruitment, putting the government on the defensive. Would-be teachers are picking other available jobs that pay and treat them better.
You can see an echo of the Great Depression here. The major surge in labor militancy didn't come during the worst of the crisis, but after things started to improve, and workers had more options and leverage. That may be what we're seeing today.
That brings me to politics. The main politician to seize the initiative is a state senator named Richard Ojeda, an unusual character who combines an intensely masculine military veteran affect with a ferocious, fire-breathing, leftist populism. Before the strike, he had been demanding a raise in taxes on energy companies — they have been flagrantly looting the state for generations — to fund better pay and benefits for teachers, warning they might strike otherwise. When the strike came, he became an instant hero of the teachers. Here's a sample of his rhetoric:
[The] energy people said … we're on the next Saudi Arabia, obviously they want it to be just like Saudi Arabia, where you have about 10 people driving around in Lamborghinis and everybody else eatin' sand sandwiches! That's what they want. Guess what? No! [Richard Ojeda, via Politico]
Ojeda is running for the House of Representatives in West Virginia's 3rd District, a seat the Republican candidate won by nearly 50 points in 2016. He would seem to have a snowball's chance in Hades. However, it is manifestly obviously that the state's political tectonic plates are shifting as we speak, and nobody has a clear idea what is likely to happen. What's more, Ojeda is speaking a language not unfamiliar to West Virginia, where there is a history of labor radicalism going back well over a century. Indeed, Republican dominance of the state is a recent development — fueled as much by national Democratic indifference to the wreckage of the state and local Democratic capture by the energy industry as much as it is by nativist bigotry.
This could be the start of a grassroots revolt against plutocracy in both parties — coming from a place few people expected. Nobody can say where it will lead, but at the very least we all must watch carefully to see.