4 Lessons for #Umich from West Virginia

The just-concluded teachers' strike in West Virginia is historic. At a time when labor power is assumed to be on the decline -- and when many worry that the upcoming Supreme Court decision in Janus vs. AFSCME will gut public-sector unions throughout the country -- it's a big victory for teachers, for West Virginia public employees, and really for anyone who works for a living. In particular, it reminds us of four things that workers are all too prone to forget.

  • If you're being badly underpaid, and the resources are there, a big raise is both reasonable and doable. The West Virginia teachers asked for a five percent raise. That sounded ambitious to some people, but in the end, the state granted it not only to them, but to all the state's public employees, and fairly quickly too. (The state is currently refusing to tax various energy companies that can't exist without WV's natural resources.) Similarly, the cost of the pay increase we're asking for at all three campuses has surprised some members of the administration's bargaining team. But as large as it may be, it barely rises to the level of a market correction for a school with an $11 billion endowment (over twice the size of the budget for the entire state of West Virginia, by the way). As the writer Marilynne Robinson once remarked, "Plainly bookkeeping is as expressive of cultural values as any other science." Management will always credit to hard math what is actually about politics and morals: how much do we actually value teaching? How much can we make those who pay our checks value it?
  • When workers fight for themselves in the right way, they fight for everybody. The West Virginia situation makes this pretty explicit: the teachers won a raise that will apply to every public employee. But more generally: every time a group of workers reminds a large, powerful institution who it really exists for -- whether that institution is a state government that has turned into an energy-sector-lobbyist's paradise or a "state" university that sometimes seems to forget about students, teachers, and classrooms -- it's a victory for every worker.
  • Workers have power. The West Virginia strike continued even over the objections of union leadership, who reached a tentative and seemingly toothless deal last week, which the membership promptly rejected.
  • Go big or go home. The West Virginia strike worked in part because the teachers abandoned an early plan to do a rolling strike -- a handful of school districts at a time -- and simply all went off the job en masse. The scale of the strike also meant that its technical illegality didn't matter. They can't fire everyone.

All the odds, all the calculation, all the political conventional wisdom went against these teachers. But they won. So can we.

See you at Open Bargaining on Friday. And at the membership meetings next week.

For more on this inspiring and historic strike, see here, here, here for some historical context, and here for a sense of why West Virginia is only the beginning.