Why Did the WV School Workers Strike Not Achieve More in the Near Term?

This is an important question that many people are asking but no one is directly and specifically answering. Unlike in a traditional strike, the striking school workers lost no pay, because each county school system closed the schools, as on snow days, with the intent of making them up in June. Plus, the teachers raised over $300,000 in 2 weeks with various fundraising efforts to help cover various extra strike expenses. So, the teachers could have held out much longer. Unfortunately, the teachers misjudged how big and how specific their demands and the solutions to their demands needed to be, and this weakness was seen immediately and constantly attacked by the corporate state officials, including the corporate media.

Consequently, when the officials (including union officials) rushed to end the strike with very marginal measures of appeasement (minor salary raise and an insurance task force, mainly), the teachers had no clear idea what could be further gained upon continuing the strike. I go into more detail on this at “Next Steps from the West Virginia School Workers’ Strike. Not difficult to anticipate: I did so at “WV Public School Workers’ Demands Need To Go Up.”

These issues need to be addressed prior to strikes, however, not on the fly, which would be extremely difficult or impossible in the great flux of things. The strike was limited but good as far as it went. The demands ultimately weren’t focused well enough and the organizing seemed to have sort of tapered off too much to be able to sustain things much beyond where they went.

Yes, the PEIA public workers insurance could certainly be “fixed” overnight, if the political will were there, and in the sense that plenty of money is available in the state to restore benefits to what they once were, including going forward. But public pressure was neither strong enough nor well-focused enough to force it. Can it get there via the promised task force? I think it would probably take another strike, one even more well organized, and more imaginative of possible solutions.

Marijuana legalization money should definitely be one of those possible contributing solutions proposed. But mainly: reinstating the temporary severance tax on coal and gas ($125 million annually, more than was doled out with the 5 percent salary raise), and increasing the severance tax otherwise, and rolling the rainy day fund and possibly the state pensions (as the state of Pennsylvania has been considering) into the creation of a state bank, a public bank, like the State Bank of North Dakota (and perhaps somewhat the State Investment Council of South Dakota) which helps greatly to cut financial costs and increase local, state, and community investments and revenues, and on and on.

The political will needs to be found, creatively, determinedly, and with great ongoing organization. The vital public banking movement is on a roll nationally, including in nearby states. West Virginia should join in, rather than go the other way, the wrong way, but it will require striking public workers who go in with big enough demands in the first place and the detailed fiscal solutions (mainly various sorts of corporate taxation) – of which there are many – that don’t split the working class. Because the workers failed to come up with or emphasize these focused and detailed demands for specific gains as well as for specific solutions to bring about these gains this time, the corporate state officials immediately recognized this great weakness and pounced, and the strikers could not recover.

Ultimately, the only thing that will truly “fix” PEIA insurance for WV public workers is when it is thrown into the trash and replaced with national, universal, single payer (free) health care; that is, vastly improved Medicare for all. Short of that, the only thing that the state of WV can do to “fix” PEIA (that is, restore to earlier benefit levels) is to find major new revenue sources to pay for the restoration of good benefits. In WV, that can only come from additional severance taxes on coal and gas and other corporate taxes and otherwise taxing wealth. Now, how on earth is that going to happen, since wealth funds the election campaigns?

Only a new massive strike, probably a general strike, with specific revenue sourcing demands could generate the force necessary, the public pressure to achieve it. In other words, public school workers and all state workers will need to be even much better organized and even more effective in striking than they were this time. 

In Canada, decades ago, unions demanded free, universal, single payer health care for the whole country, everyone, not just for themselves. That’s how that country made that huge advance. WV workers should broaden their demands to cover and include more people, while also pushing for demands strictly particular to their own groups. The workers need to set the terms of debate very precisely, otherwise, they will always be given a pitiful limited offer that they will find themselves trapped into accepting. That is exactly what happened this time, and that is exactly why the WV workers strike did not achieve more in the near term. The money to achieve much more was there and remains there, the public support also, but the workers failed to adequately demand it, and they were mercilessly attacked for showing this weakness.

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