USA: The Role of the Union in the Teachers Strikes

A generation ago teachers in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Kentucky walked off the job. In Kentucky teachers shut down half the districts in the state in 1988 to demand more school funding. Teachers in West Virginia and Oklahoma both went on strike in 1990 with the same aim. This was their response to cuts in pay and conditions brought about by the global economic crisis. In most of these states the response of US capitalism was to cut or freeze state spending.

On February 22 this year West Virginia teachers initiated the current wave of teachers’ strikes that have spread to Oklahoma and Arizona with smaller protests in Kentucky, North Carolina and Kentucky, along with a strike of school bus drivers in Georgia. This is déjà vu. The strikes 30 years ago brought some relief at the time but the speculative bubble which allowed the teachers to make some gains back then burst in 2008. Since then we have had austerity for the many alongside tax cuts for the rich, and not only in Republican-controlled states. They have slashed public school funding significantly while also pursuing many tax cuts that have benefited businesses and the wealthy. The intentional budget shortfalls this created have left no money to pump into schools or salaries. This has led to teacher shortages, overcrowded classrooms and even four-day school weeks in Oklahoma. Some teachers were forced to take on second or third jobs but the cuts kept on coming.

West Virginia teachers got no support from their union when they decided to take strike action yet the union took credit for the squalid deal which did not address their main demand of paying for their health insurance.(1) In the three years from 2016 to 2018 premiums deducted out of teachers pay checks increased by $950.(2) A 5% wage increase for teachers in one year when health insurance paid by employees will increase every year indefinitely is just a sop. As in many other strikes the unions are already taking credit for any gains won. And the labor left has not been slow to hail this as a new dawn for a union movement which has halved as a percentage of the workforce since 1983. But this is a fairy tale. Health care costs, in a few short years, will devour any pay increases.

It should be common sense that workers can only use their collective strength if united in some body which includes them all. But that assumes that the unions today are representative of the workers. Under modern capitalist conditions the union exists to mediate wage labour on behalf of the state. The unions’ existence as permanent bodies means they have to comply with the rules of the capitalist game. They have become another layer of management within the system. This means they have an agenda of ending strikes as quickly as possible. When strikes do break out, the unions are tasked with limiting their scope, school district by school district, state by state. Their credibility with the state relies on how they manage labor unrest.

The unions have been able to reassert control because alternate and independent structures do not exist. The unions, in calling off the strikes, have been cutting deals with the state legislatures to get teachers back to work while isolating the strikes so that they don't link together. Even the perception of having to settle with the teachers makes the political class look vulnerable, but the unions, having been weakened, weren't in position to automatically regain control once a struggle broke out. Nevertheless they managed to call off teachers’ walkouts in North Carolina after only one day. The real task of the union is to reroute the struggle behind the Democratic Party in the fall elections. So, whilst the state governments, the employers actually appear to be granting concessions to the teachers, the union grants nothing but "go home and don't forget to vote". The unions are still among the capitalist class' most insidious weapons because many workers still think they are the only organisation they can turn to, but as the teachers’ strikes show this is what workers must break free from.

Puerto Rico is losing its public schools as they get sold off to education corporations. The same capitalists who won’t invest in the electrical grid certainly won't lose the opportunity to make a profit off the privatization of the public schools. Obama's policies caused the layoffs of hundreds of thousands of teachers and privatized hundreds of schools. Before him Bush attacked schools via instituting a testing regime, setting "benchmarks" and using "failure" as an excuse to attack school funding. Attacks on public education systems worldwide have been the norm for decades.

With the settlement in Oklahoma that brought teachers back, the usual answer from the unions is to lobby and vote, go back to work and wait for the next election. The central demands for increased funding for the schools is ignored and the pay increases are used as a way to get teachers back to work without having to put additional resources into the public schools. Sooner or later a deal is struck, but not by anyone that works for the public schools. What gains the teachers have made have come from punitive increases in taxes on workers. While unions haven't had initial control of these strikes they have been able to stop them given time.

Across the country groups like Arizona Teachers United and West Virginia Teachers United appeared on facebook but these were still administered by the union functionaries. The lack of trust among workers for the unions themselves made the seeming independence of these organizations crucial, not simply in organizing the strikes but in routing the struggle back into safe and useless avenues.

The proposed deals that have brought the teachers back into the classrooms have not addressed the fundamental problems that are the result of years of starvation budgets for education. Capitalist society lauds education as the path to success. The bitter truth is that it doesn't need to give a primarily deskilled low wage work force an education. While the initial strikes have been shut down with the primary assistance of the teachers' unions, the strike season has not come to an end but without class political autonomy, without a revolutionary party, the bourgeoisie is left free to recuperate any political struggle that arises. The script the bourgeoisie uses to handle these outbursts from their labor units follows a similar vein. By isolating teachers state-by-state and school district by school district, their demands are swept aside and then buried in a polling booth.

Uniting struggles across state lines, as frequently suggested by striking teachers themselves, isn't something the teachers unions have in mind. Trying to stay in control of the situation and negotiating a return to work are what the unions are about. Even organizations that have some nominal independence from the traditional union structures must still operate within the bounds defined for them by the capitalist class. The efforts of rank and file organizations are easily recuperated by the bourgeoisie.

These strikes add to a contemporary body of experience that demonstrates the need for political autonomy, to unify across job titles, and across state and national lines. The willingness to fight back is encouraging and perhaps with it might come a willingness to stop deferring to the dictates of bourgeois power structures posing as workers’ organisations like unions.


Internationalist Workers’ Group, USA


(1) For our first comment made at the time of the strike see

(2) West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy. WV Public Employee Health Care Costs Have Risen Nearly $1000. Boettner, Ted. March 2018.

Picture: Illustrates the infrastructural lack of investment in education in Oklahoma but other states are just as bad.

Friday, June 1, 2018