Next Steps from the West Virginia School Workers’ Strike

Lessons of the West Virginia Teachers’ Strikeis a very strong article at the World Socialist Website, though its practical use would be enhanced by a few additions and qualifications.

The article omits one of the very crucial factors that caused the school workers to “acquiesce” to the state’s desperate, and successful, gambit to end the strike: the workers lack of specific demands for ending the strike. The workers demanded a “fix” – far too vague – for PEIA health insurance. This left the state free to decide what a “fix” would be (a merciless one year fee hike freeze – the fees are already painful – and a task force creation – an empty promise).

The school workers might well have demanded additionally several thousand dollars per year of salary increase not for one year but every year for the next five years or more, but they failed to be as specific, detailed and focused as they need to be. The workers didn’t make demands for workplace and salary gains big enough or specific enough, let alone detail any demands for the exact solutions, funding mechanisms (specific corporate taxes), available and necessary. Fiscal demands necessitate fiscal solutions as part of those demands to prevent the state from dividing various worker funds to conquer all workers, all the while sparing corporate, One Percent funds. This failure of the workers to insist on specific and sizable worker-detailed gains along with worker-friendly solutions basically gutted the ability of the workers to clearly understand what they would be voting for if they would vote to extend the strike.

With their far too-limited and far too-vague initial and ongoing demands, the workers ultimately left themselves nothing clear and specific to vote for. And the corporate state (and union) officials attacked that weakness. And as those weaknesses were attacked relentlessly, including by the corporate media, the workers were unable to adjust into any clear or strong defensive let alone proactive position. The World Socialist Website article misses this crucial analysis regarding the importance of effective demands in time-limited actions such as strikes.

And while “Lessons of the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike” seems to me generally well observed, it badly undercuts itself at the end where it asserts that “The critical question, not only for teachers, but all sections of the working class, is the building of a socialist leadership, which will encourage the independent organization and initiative of the workers.” In a sense, this gets the situation precisely backwards and largely contradicts everything the article previously analyzed and put forth. Good, effective leadership is important but this can only arise, in any sustainable sense, if the workers themselves collectively, mutually, grow and cohere into healthy, knowledgeable, and self-directing groups. Only then can any effective leadership (ideological or otherwise) appear to become prominent, and only because the workers are doing all of the growing and the work – the physical, intellectual, emotional, and social growth and work – in the struggle for social change.

The widespread flowering of social media has made any notion of “the building” of a “leadership … of the workers” less and less useful or needed, or even possible, which is a very fortunate social development. It has been shown time and again that workers have to grow and build themselves in groups. Any overarching leadership or leaders that workers come up with (must very much … come up with) are important but should be almost an indistinguishable part of the groups and the growth and building they have already achieved.

Possibly the best thing to come out of the WV workers strike is the utter lack of any real, distinct, prominent individual leaders. Leadership, though limited, was clear and present and remains; distinct leaders, not so much. Good prominent leaders can make a difference, but their roles seem historically always fleeting (that is, non-sustainable) and in any case of limited use and effectiveness.

What will matter going forward is what happens in the various types of groups, by the groups, of the groups, for the groups and by and for the public in general. Any leaders should be almost an afterthought, for a wide variety of reasons, though much group leadership must continue to come to be, as an inherent, inescapable part of the growth of the groups, small groups and larger groupings.

What is needed beyond the organic growth of worker groups is for those groups to increasingly reach out and be reached out to by other public groups, for those groups to grow and come together to form larger healthy and strong public organisms that can restructure and renew the life of the public and vastly improve living conditions for all.

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