A Strategy to Win

Eric Blanc
Jane McAlevey

The victory in West Virginia and the impasse in Oklahoma raise important questions for the Left. Drawing out the strategic lessons of these strikes is crucial for the fights ahead.

Putnam City West band director Edward Hudson leads the The Oklahoma Teacher Walkout Band, an improvised group of music teachers from across the state, in a pep rally on the steps of the state Capitol on April 4, 2018 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Scott Heins / Getty

Contributors
Eric Blanc (EB)
Jane McAlevey (JM)

On March 29, the threat of a looming strike forced Oklahoma’s Republican state government to concede a $400 million funding bill granting a historic teacher pay raise of $6,000. Inspired by the example of West Virginia, Oklahoman educators nevertheless decided to push forward with their strike. But two weeks of striking proved insufficient to force an intransigent Republican government to concede to the educators’ demands for increased school funding. Schools reopened this Monday.

As education struggles continue to spread across the US — from Arizona to Colorado to North Carolina — there is an urgent need to learn from the experiences of both Oklahoma and West Virginia. Jacobin’s Eric Blanc sat down with organizer and scholar Jane McAlevey to discuss some of the major strategic lessons of these recent strikes.

Workplace Power

EB

Even though Oklahoma’s strikers weren’t able to achieve their funding demands, I think it’d be wrong to minimize the victories that they did win. Getting a $6,000 pay raise for all teachers is a big deal in a state where no new taxes have been raised since 1990. If they hadn’t pushed for a strike, there’s no way the Republicans would have made that concession.

In that sense, I think the big lesson from Oklahoma, like in West Virginia, is that strikes remains the most important weapon of our class and that workplaces remain the most strategic place for the Left to organize.

JM

Let’s take a step back. We had a global protest wave that began in Tunisia in 2011 and it’s taken different forms in different places. In the US, we had the Madison occupation, then the Occupy protests. All these were good proteststhat raised working-class issues. There’s also been a very big stress on elections, the best example of which in the US was Bernie.

But the truth is that we haven’t had enough of a focus on this thing called the strike. And Oklahoma again brings us back to the workplace as the central place of contention for struggle — a site that, to be candid, the progressive movement has moved away from for decades now. Strikes are a very particular form of protest, and certainly the most powerful.

EB

Even many radicals today aren’t oriented to workplace organizing. One of the most exciting things about these recent strikes is that they’re bringing back to the fore strategic positions that used to be widely shared on the Left, but which for various reasons have been dropped or put on the back burner.

JM

It’s across the board. People have really given up on workers, and on unions, even though the workplace is such an undeniably crucial source of power for our side in this country and beyond. A lot of people thought mass protests on their own would be enough. They aren’t.

The big lesson of Oklahoma and West Virginia is that workers, their families, and their communities were able through these strikes to win more in a shorter period than any comparable struggle in a hell of a long time. And the reason they won these gains is that they focused on the workplace, they withdrew their labor, and they created a crisis. There’s just no better way to create a crisis than a 100 percent withdrawal of labor. Capitalists have been creating crises for working people for decades — what strikes do is that they reverse who is creating a crisis for who.

Striking to Win

EB

At the same time, the recent Oklahoma experience also shows that going out on strike isn’t automatically sufficient to win all of your demands. Now we also have to relearn how to be as effective and strategic as possible when we prepare for, and call, a strike.

I’m concerned that activists are drawing some of the wrong lessons. For example, many people seemed to get the impression from West Virginia that all you need for a successful strike is a lot of anger and a Facebook page. But I think the course of the Oklahoma walkout proves that you need more organization, and more militant politics, to win.

Other people painted the victory in West Virginia as solely the product of strong labor traditions. West Virginia’s union legacy was definitely important, but it’s also true that by early 2018 these traditions were dormant or fading away. It took many months of savvy organizing to revive a militant working-class movement. It didn’t just happen spontaneously.

If you look at Oklahoma, the amazing thing about the strike is how massive it was despite the absence of living labor traditions, or strong unions, in the state. Its capitol protests — peaking at 50,000 on Monday, April 9 — were actually way larger than in West Virginia. Likewise, popular support for the Oklahoma strike was astounding: over 72 percent, according to the most recent poll. So the divergent strike outcomes in West Virginia and Oklahoma can’t be explained by differences in workers’ willingness to fight or in different levels of community support.

JM

There’s a hell of lot that goes into winning a strike. Let’s clarify this: there’s holding a strike and there’s winning a strike. And winning matters. In my own experience, to be successful in a strike requires what I call structure tests. What we’re testing is the workers’ level of organization and mobilization — is it ready enough to sustain a strike?

So you do tests to see whether you can get 100 percent of workers to sign a petition saying we demand better funding for our schools. You see whether you can get 100 percent of workers to donate to a strike fund. You do mock strike votes. All these structure tests allow you to gauge where you’re strong or where you’re weak. And on this basis you can decide whether you’re ready to strike. Usually, you need at least 90 percent of workers to be willing to strike.

Look at Chicago’s school strike in 2012. This was really the preeminent strike in the post-2010 protest wave. It’s worth pointing out that in some ways West Virginia and Chicago couldn’t be more different. One is urban, the other rural. In one, the students and parents are overwhelmingly Black and Brown, in the other overwhelmingly white. But there are big similarities between the two actions. Both places had 100 percent of workers out on strike. And this happened because organizers did a lot of preparatory work; they did systematic radical education in the workplace and with parents and students; and they held many structure tests before deciding to walk out.

Preparing for a real strike means you’re preparing to lose pay. It also means you’re preparing to potentially be in legal trouble since effective strikes in the US need to be ready to break the law — I actually spoke about the centrality of this question last November. So you can’t just gather people on Facebook and ask how many people are willing to go out. Oklahoma never got to 100 percent and that matters a lot.

West Virginia’s organizers built up to their strike for months. In January, they still weren’t ready yet on a statewide level. One of the crucial things they did — and that didn’t happen in Oklahoma — was that they held strike votes in February, school by school. All the teachers and all the staff, regardless of whether they were in one of the three unions, participated in industrial-model, all-worker, school-by-school votes. So the organizers built momentum and they built pressure — and they decided to strike only after they knew their coworkers were ready.

EB

I agree that the absence of strike votes in Oklahoma was a big limitation. And it wasn’t only a question of testing how ready people were to strike. Not having strike votes resulted in a very different relationship of forces between workers and superintendents — and between the rank and file and the top union officials.

West Virginia’s school-site votes made it clear to everybody that the strike’s legitimacy and authority rested on the workers’ democratic decisions. And this set an important precedent, because it placed the decision to continue the strike in the hands of the ranks when they decided to vote school by school to defy the call on them to return to work. The absence of similar workplace decision-making in Oklahoma not only weakened the strike, but it also made it easier for union officials to end the strike without giving the ranks a chance to vote on whether or not to continue.

JM

I think that’s right. And it’s important to stress that West Virginia was a truly industrial strike. Not just the teachers, but also the bus drivers, the cooks, and all of the support staff went out 100 percent. It was actually the bus drivers’ strike that most impacted the superintendents’ decision to close the schools.

People also need to keep in mind that in West Virginia, like in Chicago, strike organizers had a real union structure to work off of. It made a big difference.

EB

Right — a lot of folks underestimate the importance of the unions in West Virginia. Though it’s true that the unions were weakened by the absence of collective bargaining and years of retreats, some of most influential rank-and-file strike leaders were actually elected local school-based presidents of their unions.

These presidents were more like shop stewards, since they were still full-time workers. But they were able to lean on the existing union infrastructures to organize the strike and to overcome the initial hesitations of the top union officials. In contrast, Oklahoma’s rank-and-file activists had virtually no base in the unions, which made it harder for them to cohere a militant network to drive the strike forward — and to insist upon democratic votes to decide when to begin and end the work stoppage.

JM

The infrastructure of the local school union presidents throughout West Virginia also played a key diffusion role in helping some of the more left school leaders understand that the settlement offer from the Governor was actually one that they could all live with, if not feel really proud of. So these local school leaders played a key role mediating between the top position-holders in the statewide unions and the more militant folks who initially pushed hard for the strike. Their role was key, actually.

Though Oklahoma hasn’t won its funding demands yet, it was still absolutely a victory. Workers won a lot and we should congratulate them for putting up a good fight in round one of their struggle. But there wasn’t enough of an understanding of the power available on our side because there weren’t school-by-school strike votes.

And there also wasn’t enough clarity about the power that was required to win. The fact that you need a 75 percent vote in the Oklahoma legislature to pass new taxes is a big obstacle. So the strikers had a harder threshold to meet and they were less prepared.

The Militant Minority

EB

I’m on board with the strike strategy you’ve laid out. But this also raises a question: Who is going to push for this political perspective in the labor movement? The initiative for work stoppages in both Oklahoma and West Virginia clearly came from rank-and-filers, not the top bureaucracy.

In a lot of the mainstream debates over how to revive the labor movement, what often gets left out is the role that organized socialists have historically played in building strong, militant workers’ movements. And we can see the importance of a “militant minority” of worker-radicals in these recent strikes.

In West Virginia, some of the key teacher leaders were organized socialists. They had a basic understanding of capitalism and the class struggle; they studied the Chicago teachers’ strike and consciously sought to implement its key lessons. Though there were not many of them, these young socialists were able to intervene collectively in West Virginia’s movement and they played an important leadership role in the strike.

Oklahoma had a similar number of socialists — great comrades, doing really solid work across the state. But none of them had jobs in the schools. Because of this, the politics and organizing lessons we’ve been describing weren’t transmitted into Oklahoma’s education movement either in the lead-up to the strike or once it began. Isn’t one of the lessons, then, that radicals need to root themselves in strategic workplaces and unions so that we’re able to provide leadership, not just support from the outside, when a crisis or opportunity arises?

JM

I have a slightly different take on this. Clearly, the role of leftists was really important in rebuilding the union in Chicago and in helping lead the West Virginia strike. Bernie Sanders won every county in West Virginia, a bunch of young people got involved in DSA, and that led to a conscious decision to retake the workplace and to organize.

But I think what’s different about Oklahoma and West Virginia — in comparison with many other parts of the US — is the absence of collective bargaining. Say you’re in a state where you’ve got collective bargaining rights. You’re in a union with a labor contract that’s about to expire and that’s now going to negotiations. Workers can decide to elect a really robust negotiating team, they can decide to make more intransigent demands, they can participate themselves in the negotiation meetings — and they can get a chance to radicalize overnight by seeing their boss be an asshole in person by rejecting their demands.

In that environment, maybe the strategic role of radicals is somewhat less important. I feel like in a lot of states where you’re going for a renewal contract, the union can fight and win even without the intervention of radicals. But you need to understand power and you need a credible strike threat — and that’s means you actually need to be ready to strike, you can’t fake it. Bosses, like workers, understand when a strike threat is real.

To transform the US labor movement, it’s going to take radicals from below as well as good staff involved in unions — it’s going to take everyone. And in states like West Virginia, Oklahoma, or North Carolina, where public employees don’t have collective bargaining rights, the role of what you’re ascribing to the “militant minority” becomes even more important.

EB

I agree that you don’t always need socialists present to have successful strikes. But I’m thinking about this more in terms of how we articulate a strategy for the new generation of radicals that has cohered in the last two years. The DSA has exploded in size and other socialist groups have grown as well. And so now there’s a live debate among young radicals about where and how to be a politically effective.

I think we have a historic opportunity to win a whole layer of activists to the idea that the most potentially powerful way to organize is to get jobs in strategic industries like health care, education, or logistics. I’m really excited about the prospects for rebuilding the labor movement with these comrades. But we still need to convince individuals of the role that they can play in that process; it’s not obvious.

JM

Yes, definitely. There’s a huge upsurge happening in places like DSA and in other organizations coming off the Sanders campaign. It’s absolutely central that a whole new generation is trying to figure out how the hell to organize and that many are coming to understand that we have to recommit to strategic sectors like the workplace.

Movement Politics

EB

One of the most positive aspects of Oklahoma’s strike is that it foregrounded the question of funding priorities and progressive taxation. In response to catastrophic cuts to education and public services, striking educators said: Make the rich pay, tax the energy corporations, the money is there. This is a real challenge not only to the Republicans, but also to the Democrats, who’ve been almost as responsible for pushing austerity and neoliberal policies throughout the country.

If there’s going to be a serious reinvestment in public education and social services, it’s going to require forcing a massive shift in wealth to the public sphere, away from the capitalists. Unfortunately, I haven’t seen most union leaders clearly articulate this message or insist on progressive taxation. This is potentially very dangerous, since the right wing is responding to these strikes by saying that any teacher pay raises will have to come from cuts to social services or by raising regressive taxes on working people.

JM

My only friendly amendment to these points is the following: You said that the Democrats were “almost” as responsible for the budget crisis that we’re in. I’d take out the word almost. The contemporary Democratic Party is just as responsible as the Republicans for the terrible conditions that we’re in locally, statewide, and federally.

This has been the case for my whole lifetime, for as long as I’ve been politically conscious. Beginning with the mid-1970s fiscal crisis, it was really the Democrats who refused to put the question of progressive taxation on the table. In the early 1980s I was starting college at the State University of New York, because I couldn’t afford anything else, and the first Governor Cuomo pushed the single largest tuition increase in history of NY public education, for both CUNY and SUNY.

Ever since, the Democrats have continued to shift their loyalties from the working class to the corporations. This got codified, of course, by Bill Clinton in 1992 and through the founding of the Democratic Leadership Council. Basically they said: fuck the workers, we’re all about the corporate class.

So what will it take to win progressive taxation? We can point to some positive examples. In 2012, we had a big movement of unions and community-based organizations in California to put a Millionaires Tax on the ballot, which would have raised income taxes on the wealthy to pay for public schools and services. This meant war with the Democratic Party. And it was Governor Brown, a Democrat, who eventually forced regressive taxation into the measure when he came up with a compromise ballot initiative.

But even still, that compromise ballot initiative passed and it ended up bailing out the whole state of California. One fraction of a millionaire’s tax — plus a little fraction of a sales tax forced onto it — led to a massive infusion of funds across whole state and into our public schools, health services, and infrastructure. People across the country need to know that story, how we won that. There’s no reason why they can’t do the same.

EB

This also means challenging the widespread view that the political solution is voting in Democrats. West Virginia and Oklahoma strikers were both really into the idea of “We’ll Remember in November.” This is understandable, given how despicable the Republicans are. But a premature pivot to the November elections played a big role just now in demobilizing the Oklahoma strike. I’m concerned that this historic upsurge in working-class energy across the country — including in West Virginia — will get channeled into traditional Democratic Party politics.

Of course, we can’t ignore elections. The whole political dynamic for our class would be different if we had a real workers’ party in the US, something like the Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn in the UK. There you can use elections to run real working-class candidates and build real working-class power. But the turn to electing Democrats this November could really undercut the momentum generated by these strikes.

JM

If all you’re going to do is shift into “We’ll Remember in November” mode, good luck with that. It ain’t going to work. Look at what happened in Wisconsin 2011, where the movement died by turning into a campaign to recall the governor.

Electoral politics is a piece in our repertoire of struggle. A comprehensive plan to win needs an electoral component. But elections are just one piece of the puzzle. And strikes are a more important piece of the puzzle. To build real power, including on an electoral level, you need to be organized at the workplace.

Simply going into the Democratic Party to support the average Democratic candidate is a losing strategy. They don’t motivate people, they leave a lot to be desired. But we can do on the Left what the Tea Party did within the Republican Party. If you have a strong union movement run by the rank and file, you can kick bad Democrats out of office on a local level. We did that in Stamford, Connecticut, where we ran a local slate of trade union members who had just recently won their unions and their first contracts. And we repeated it in several states, including Nevada.

Local elections are important structure tests to see how strong you are to challenge one form of power, political power. You don’t need a Labor Party to do that. It’d be great someday to have Labor Party, but I don’t think we’re organizationally ready for it yet. We’ll know when we’re ready — and when that’s the case we should split off and make it happen.

The Road Ahead

EB

These strikes are winning huge gains for workers, not only in West Virginia and in Oklahoma, but also now in Arizona, where the governor is promising a 20 percent pay raise in the hopes of preventing a strike. And just this Monday workers in Colorado had their first work stoppage. What do you think it’ll take to sustain the momentum of the strike wave?

JM

Honestly, I don’t like the word “wave.” Everybody uses it, but to me as an organizer I see that workers build worker agency through struggle. That’s what happened in West Virginia and Oklahoma.

A wave sounds like a mysterious phenomenon that we don’t have any control over. It implies that the wave can suddenly go back out to sea, regardless of what we do. I don’t believe that. I believe that it’s up to us to figure out how to continue building powerful movements right now.

If anything, we need a further uptick. As you mentioned, new states keep joining the struggle. And there’s no reason to think that West Virginia can’t go out on strike again, particularly around the struggle to fix the PEIA health-insurance program. The same is true for Oklahoma, once they’re more organized.

So thank God for West Virginia. Amazing. But there’s no reason to get defeated in our spirit by Oklahoma — we should simply take away the right lessons. There’s absolutely an appetite for strikes in this country. There’s a massive desire to fight back hard — and there’s a need to fight back smart.

Let’s enable that struggle and stop constraining it. We don’t need union leaderships saying that strikes are not the way to go, that we should focus only on lobbying and elections.

We need unions that help working people understand who is to blame for the ills in their lives — the rich and the corporations. We need to show people that there’s no way out of the current crisis in public education and social services other than re-taxing corporations and the wealthy. Successful strikes give workers the confidence in their power to make these political changes happen. We need more of them.

EB

Agreed. These recent strikes show that a majority of workers are ready to fight when a credible political alternative to the status quo is presented. It’s very exciting, we haven’t seen this kind of dynamic in decades.

Oklahoma, even more than West Virginia, shows the potential for a majoritarian working-class movement not only in the so-called “blue states,” but in all parts of the country. Rebuilding a militant labor movement will be crucial not only for winning broad demands for wealth redistribution, but also in helping beat back attacks on immigrantsAfrican Americanswomen, and all other oppressed groups.

Mass action doesn’t happen automatically. As long as politics was just a back-and-forth between Democrats and Republicans, it’s understandable that people tuned out. I think we now have a historic opportunity to build a serious alternative to business as usual. It’ll require a lot patience and persistence; there’ll be many defeats along the way. But if we have confidence in the working class, we can win.