‘The union is not a fee for service, it is the collective experience of workers in struggle’– 1199 organising conference 1985 Ohio
Through a series of interviews with rank and file teachers from across the 2018 wave of school strikes in republican states, Eric Blanc captures the joy and political transformation experienced by these workers when they came together in struggle.
In a period of downturn for organised labour and struggle across the western hemisphere, the teachers’ strike wave presents a glimmer of hope for the future of the labour movement.In early 2018, teachers in Arizona, Oklahoma and West Virginia (swiftly followed by LA and Chicago) went on multi-day illegal strikes. Not only to fight for improvement of wages but also for overall better funding for schools. These strikes went beyond workers’ immediate material concerns; as well as fighting for higher wages, educators made political demands for the good of society, winning overall better funding for schools. These were all out battles, not just of teachers but support staff as well.
For any organiser or socialist that needs a dose of inspiration Red State Revolt is a worthy read to light a fire in your belly. Blanc details the lessons to be taken from such inspiring uprisings and explores the necessity of an educated socialist militant minority in pushing for action. It cuts through the myth that unions are inherently useless and have been consigned to the bin of socialist history failures. It provides a timely and necessary reminder that the ability for our class to collectively withdraw our labour has always been, and always will be our most powerful tool in the fight against capital.
Noah Kartvelis, an education union organiser, sums up experience of the strikes that Blanc’s interviews capture so well: ‘Educators saw that they have power. They’ve realised that they’re exploited and that they have structural power. And in this walkout, they made their power felt’
Organising beyond the bureaucracy
The old school business unionism tactic of political wrangling and underhand negotiation wasn’t a tool in these teachers’ arsenal: these were dirty fights, where building community and most importantly industrial power was essential to make their targets capitulate. The workers had created a crisis and only when you create a crisis for the boss do you have the power to negotiate a decent contract. Notably, these were illegal strikes, not the type of battle a risk averse union would traditionally go for. Blanc emphasises the importance of the rank and file in these struggles, a rank and file that included a militant socialist minority of ‘leaders’, encouraging their co-workers to feel able to act for themselves. It wasn’t the union pushing action, but the workers. Katie Endicott, a worker Blanc interviews, states ‘We love our unions…but we did have to overstep them along the way sometimes.’
In fact, in West Virginia Blanc documents how Dale Lee, a union official, declared the strike to be over even though negotiations had fallen wildly below workers’ expectations. Workers stood outside the capitol where negotiations were being held and shouted ‘55 united’ and ‘we are the union bosses’. The strike went wildcat and a week later they won. This is because when workers have power against their workplace bosses and are organised, they have power against their union bosses to hold them accountable as well.
It’s frequently documented that the union bureaucracy and union structures lend themselves to underselling workers, as they need to reproduce themselves by collecting membership subs safely whilst keeping cosy relationships with the state. Only when workers organise industrially can the union bureaucracy be overtaken. We may be able to replace union boss with a fat cat salary every five years with slightly more leftist candidates, but unless there is an educated and empowered rank and file up for a fight – and a strike dispute is excellent training ground for that – democratising unions is an impossible task.
Blanc controversially emphasises the importance of having worker leaders that came from the Bernie Sanders campaign and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) as well as workers that had experience in previous struggles. This is part of what’s commonly known as a militant minority strategy- in which socialists cultivate and organise a committee of worker leaders who are capable of moving their co-workers to action. Muckanian Bates, an organiser for anarcho syndicalist union the IWW, however argues that the strike wave can be attributed to solely social movements – specifically Black Lives Matter and educators with a background in migrant rights and ethnic studies – and that organisers from the Sanders campaign had little to do with it. This reeks of anarcho-syndicalist, movementist anti- electoral politics that further ignores the subtlety of Blancs arguments, it is not that the Bernie Sanders campaign inspired the Red State Revolts, but rather that radical teachers worked alongside less militant colleagues to push masses of workers to action. However, as Blanc argues, having a militant minority – some, not all, of whom were Bernie Sanders supporters – with a strategic vision and organising experience was essential to the success of the strike.
Muckanian Bates also rejects the concept of worker leaders and argues the whole movement was leaderless.This fails to understand that worker leaders are essential to any successful industrial organising campaign. In the face of union busting threats and the risky nature of industrial action, workers need trusted rank and file leaders to turn to and rely on in the face of tough decisions. The union organising model of having a strong organising committee of worker leaders has been tried and tested globally as a method to successfully organise a shop for over a hundred years.
The DSA’s class struggle orientation is perhaps best explained in an article from the DSA which outlines why socialists should become teachers and the importance of industrial organising within the education sector, highlighting some of their comrades’ work within the West Virginia teachers’ strikes. They detail why involvement in West Virginia work was part of a strategic vision to organise in workplaces with close community links that can build power and quickly.
“The aim of the rank-and-file strategy is to build organizations of working class people that challenge the power of capital. Organizers on the shop floor with a socialist political vision can help build struggles that draw in large numbers of workers and raise the class consciousness of many. It is out of these struggles that new socialists will arise.” This is a strategic vision that in the UK has been resigned mostly to the Trotskyist organisations. Meanwhile Momentum, DSA’s closest British equivalent, has never used their large membership to implement such a strategic vision, instead choosing to focus on electoral strategy and the defence of the Corbyn leadership.
Regardless of Momentum’s strategic errors, the unfortunate reality for the UK if we were to mirror such disputes is that the power structure and political targets are national, and education workplaces are fragmented, especially after the onslaught of academisation with various pay scales and primary targets. To organise on such a grand scale would take large resources. In fact, in 2018 both UNISON and NEU conducted a national consultative ballot, across primary and secondary schools on funding but didn’t meet the threshold to go on strike. Furthermore, an issue across schools is a lack of organisation, ’ the turnout for the ballot was only 31%. Although union density is high among teachers and support staff, the density of union activists and active reps is low. Yet the story of Red State Revolt proves that with an ambitious strategy it is not implausible that through a combination of rank and file leaders and organisers conducting the slow patient work of school visits and identifying worker leaders, there would be worker leaders in every school in the country that could undertake the work of ensuring people completed petitions and ballots, and attended demonstrations. In LA a group of militants did just that and ran a slate of socialists that overtook the union to build towards striking. For over 5 years they organised towards the LA teachers strike and hired 20+ organisers with a patch of 1000 workers each to conduct that work.
In fact, there is reason to hope: the NEU exceeded its own expectations by holding the biggest union meeting ever with over 20,000 participants successfully passing a structure test that with continued organising work could have led to a strike ready workforce. Despite the size of the meeting, the only action point delegated to willing activists was to write to councillors. Rather than continue to build power in their workplaces by asking workers to petition their colleagues which would indicate how much industrial power they have to dispute going back to work while Covid-19 is still a threat.
This timid approach showed the national government they weren’t a credible threat and frittered away an opportunity for creating a stronger base to build towards a strike ready workforce. Only then would they be able to effectively fight against the incoming onslaught of cuts to public services as a group of workers with huge structural power when leveraged in the right way. Meanwhile in the United States, the Chicago Teachers union, another state that was part of the American teacher strike wave not mentioned by Eric Blanc, are currently consulting membership on a work stoppage around going back to school after summer.
Bargaining for the Common good, an old strategy for the future
Bargaining for the Common Good is a strategy where demands are made beyond the workplace that encompass the interests of our class as a whole and recognises workers not just as workers, but as people with multiple issues and interests affecting their lives. As Blanc states:
‘Labour’s current social justice approach suffers from two critical flaws. First…an abandonment of the strike weapon. Second, this approach had depended on alliances from relatively weak nonprofits and community leaders – instead of relying on rank and file workers to organise and mobilise the broader working-class communities of which they are an integral part.’
Eric Blanc documents how essential demanding increased school funding was in uniting the workers.. He reminds us that labour disputes are frequently not just about wages but most often are fundamentally about dignity and respect for the work people do. Teachers were not just facing paltry wages, but also large class sizes, excessive work particularly around pastoral care and standardised testing models. To ensure workers were onboard with the strike it had to be about more than their own terms and conditions, but the quality of education that the students they cared about were receiving. It also meant they had the ability to bring the community along with them – as Jane McAlevy said ‘the point of production is the community’ – as workers within public sector workforces don’t have to create a crisis in finance, but in fact have to create a political crisis against their targets and that means bringing the community along with them is essential to the struggle. That means not just thousands of workers in struggle, but thousands of parents, churches and communities joining in struggle with them.
The best example of Bargaining for the Common Good in the teacher strike wave not documented by Blanc was in LA, in which teachers didn’t just strike for a raise but for smaller class sizes, more school nurses and librarians, expanding green space and less standardised testing improving the quality of education for thousands of working class children in the area. They also demanded Los Angeles Unified School District use vacant land to build affordable housing, which the School District didn’t agree to do during the strike but later released plans to do so.
Bargaining for the Common Good not only appeals to workers interests that expand beyond traditional bargaining matters like wages and terms and conditions, but it also cuts through the onslaught of union busting that will inevitably ensue. With any strike involving workers that look after patients, children or service users, the backlash will inevitably rely on accusations of selfishness, claiming the striking workers are neglecting the people they care for. Blanc mentions workers who sent postcards to their students stating, ‘I love you and that’s why I’m doing this’. So not only can you win broad demands that benefit our class as a whole, but often within the public sector, common good demands are the only way you will get workers to unite and strike with enough density and power to shut down workplaces and win.
This is not a new socialist base building strategy. The Communist Party in 1930s America was a proponent of community organising and broad demands as part of a socialist and industrial organising strategy. Communist Party President William Z Foster emphasises the importance of building community links in a pamphlet about steel workers in 1936 entitled ‘Organizing methods in the Steel industry’ in which he outlines the importance of joining links with churches, building support for unemployed workers. He also specifies the importance of making demands around the rights of Black workers and to oppose the remnants of Jim Crow laws.
Learning to win
In the wake of a socialist defeat with the downfall of Corbynism, what can we in Britain learn from the involvement of the DSA in teachers strikes armed with a Bargaining for the Common Good strategy that Blanc documents in Red State Revolt? During the 2019 election we lost many historic seats in Labour’s so-called ‘red wall’. Mining towns with deep roots in industrial disputes failed to turn out to the poll stations after an onslaught of slander against Jeremy Corbyn from establishment media. Despite an excellent effort from Momentum and Labour Party activists in mobilising thousands of activists to the doors, no two minute conversation over the doorstep was enough to inoculate our class against the corporate media smears or effectively raise expectations that even a social democratic government could possibly implement policies that would alleviate the vicious austerity Tories have imposed for the past 10 years. Building power and putting people into struggle, takes months, sometimes years of meticulous, smart and careful organising that involves building sustained relationships and a sense of collectivity. Momentum did not take seriously any kind of organising strategy, beyond encouraging its activists to attend a few picket lines. Meanwhile, the Labour party itself attempted to implement what seemed like an exciting programme of community organising between 2017 and 2019 but in actuality was merely a mobilising machine just for the doorstep. Rather than something deeply rooted in communities doing the kind of work akin to community organisations like ACORN that links tangible issues into community power.
This is not to say that industrial organising is the be-all and end-all strategy towards worker power. Moreover the question of how to turn industrial struggle into something truly politically transformative is something that plagues communists. In fact, in all the states that Eric Blanc documents, Biden beat Sanders and won every primary. But a return to the workplace strike, and industrial organising within the public sector with common good demands can be seen as one piece of the strategic puzzle for communists as we contemplate our future amidst an astronomical defeat of the Labour Party, a climate crisis, a global pandemic and economic recession. In fact, the pandemic itself may have shone a light onto the sections of the working class best positioned to bargain for the good of all. Care workers in the UK have enjoyed massive support in the public eye during Covid, and their work – providing a social necessity for all sections of society – offers them key leverage. Meanwhile NHS workers have been conducting demonstrations up and down the country campaigning for a pay rise.
Blanc’s book is a fascinating documentation of the strike wave in red states in America, with prescient lessons for the future of the labour movement in the UK as we face up to the challenges of declining union organisation. Public sector unionism has the potential for winning broad based demands and bargaining for the common good of our class all the while building class consciousness. And despite declining strike days and anti-trade union law in the UK mass strikes are still plausible with a rank and file organising strategy.
Eric Blanc’s (@_ericblanc) Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics (Verso, 2019) is available now. To order a copy go to Verso or Jacobin.