American Teacher Union Insurgency and the Creation of a New Militant Minority

In May this year there were teachers’ strikes North Carolina. In Arizona recently, 70,000 teachers marched in the capital Phoenix. Similar scenes in Oklahoma, Puerto Rico and of course West Virginia. It is possible to speak now about a teacher insurgency in the US. Many of the activists who have played leading roles in these historic strikes met in Chicago in April at the Labor Notes conference, the most important gathering of trade union activists in the United States. This year 3000 unionists attended from transit, construction, health, waterside and public sector unions. There was a powerful belief that unions were rebuilding, that activists were becoming more confident and that strong industrial action could achieve results.


The Labor Notes Project

The Labor Notes project was launched in 1979, the beginning of a very difficult time for the US working class. Tens of thousands of manufacturing jobs would be destroyed by a recession and the fight seem to drain from the trade unions. Labor Notes took stock of the situation and set itself a straightforward task – produce a regular newsletter and put rank and file activists in contact with one another. They did not want to be seen as merely a front group for the far left. They wanted the project to be real and trusted.

Labor Notes publications contained a number of common themes.  Newsletter articles looked at the way divisions along racial and gender lines had to be overcome. There were many reports on the experiences of African-American workers and women. The bulletins ran hundreds of stories about initiatives taken by rank-and-file workers and often described the way the leadership of unions simply gave in, accepting many concessions. Articles were highly critical of the way unions participated in workplace union/management forums.

The audience were rank-and-file leaders in the workplace. A staff writer for Labor Notes between 2002 in 2007 said that ‘Labor Notes readers are workplace leaders. What struck me both editing articles for organising conferences was the relentless focus on winning power at work.’ Mark Brennan describes the significance of the project in this way: ‘promoting union reform as a strategy for revitalising the labour movement is one of our biggest contributions both theoretically because it injects politics so squarely into discussion but also practically [because it] helps generations of reformers think strategically about how to run for office and win.’ Probably the most well-known publication is A Troublemaker’s Handbook: How to Fight Back Where you Work. Its ideas are used to guide weekend Troublemaker schools aimed at workplace organising. The book is loaded with real life examples of organising and winning.

Labor Notes took their unique approach to organising across borders and formed strong relationships with Canadian auto and electrical workers as well as union activists in Mexico. Next year Labor Notes will be holding a regional Troublemakers conference in Japan. The cross-border initiatives seem full of promise but Kim Moody, one of the founders of Labor Notes, admits that, for the moment, the biennial conference is really the most significant point where international dialogue can take place.

Moody writes in his latest book, On New Terrain,  that ‘the Labor Notes network is a 21st-century democratic current within what is still in many ways a mid-20th century bureaucratic labour movement.’ I encountered this vibrant, successful, democratic current in Chicago over Easter.

The conference featured incredibly detailed discussions. Even the larger sessions held in the ballrooms focused on participants sharing stories about how to build campaigns in the workplace. The formula that these inspirational trade unionists have developed is to select a workplace issue to place at the centre of a campaign, ensuring that the majority of workers share the grievance and that they had a reasonable chance of winning. Participants described how to map a workplace in order to identify who could be relied on to carry an argument and do some legwork for a workplace campaign. A lot of time is invested in mapping the movement of power through the workplace. A strategy then evolves to ‘raise the temperature’ about the issue. You have to cause trouble to be an effective union activist.

The American labour movement is being rebuilt workplace by workplace, lunchroom by lunchroom. It was clear that participants at the conference understood that this painstaking and very necessary work cannot be avoided.


The Teachers’ Strike in West Virginia

The overall mood at the conference was very upbeat. This was largely a consequence of the historic West Virginia teachers’ strike. All unions paid tribute to their courage and vision. Often, it seemed like the conference was a celebration of the 13-day strike in West Virginia and the teacher strike wave it inspired.

When the chair, convening a 2000 strong meeting in a conference ballroom, introduced the panel of strike leaders from West Virginia, she told them: ‘we owe you a lot.’ They had created history and possibly played a key role in revitalising the US labour movement. For many years unions have been paralysed by anti-union legislation. The Trump presidency accentuated the gloom.

Striking teachers cast aside fear and pessimism and defied unjust industrial laws. The strike was illegal. But the scale and confidence of the strike guaranteed that draconian anti-union laws could not be used. A strike leader shared with the conference a conversation she had with her husband about the strike. They were watching the news and listening to threats to charge strikers. This could have meant prison. They had four children under six years of age. He asked her if she was doing the right thing by her family. Her response was: ‘somebody has to do it.’ The ballroom erupted in applause.

Early in the dispute there was talk of just using rolling stoppages. This was quickly replaced by a determination to get all 55 counties out at once. It seems that what fellow unionists ‘owe’ teachers from West Virginia is thanks for dusting off a strategy that belonged to a time when unions were able to champion entire communities: the strike. Between the 1970s and the first decade of the 21st century strikes in the US fell by 95 per cent. Teacher unions are turning this trend around.

Long term factors were behind the strike: cuts to public education, the introduction of a market mechanism into public education in the guise of ‘choice’, and the humiliation of ‘merit-based pay’. Across the US wages had declined against cost of living increases. The sustained neo-liberal assault on public education, which became an all-out war on schools and teachers following the global financial crisis, created a lot of combustible material.

The spark was the dramatic rise of health insurance costs. The union leadership appeared unresponsive to teacher demands that something be done about the premiums. A Facebook page began on 6 January, and someone floated the idea of a strike. They asked ‘why aren’t we doing anything.’ Commentators have speculated where the concept to strike came from – a possible answer is that it came from the history of union militancy in the West Virginian coal mines. As the strike swept through counties people joined the union in record numbers. One speaker on the panel said that the ‘service provider model of unionism was broken.’

The American labour movement is being rebuilt workplace by workplace, lunchroom by lunchroom. It was clear that participants at the conference understood that this painstaking and very necessary work cannot be avoided.

After five days out on strike union leaderships met with the governor. A deal was cobbled together – a five per cent increase for teachers, three per cent for other state sector employees, and a review of the despised health insurance premiums. The leadership urged members to accept the offer. Teachers outside the Capital Building said no. They chanted ‘55 unite’, ‘Fix it now’ and ‘Back to the table’. Ashlea Bassham from Logan County told Labor Notes: ‘After the unions announced the deal with the governor we were kind of upset. This was for not just teachers – the fact that this was five per cent for some and three per cent for others, we didn’t like that idea.’ The wildcat strike began. Rank and file teacher unionists became the drivers of the action. One of the eventual leaders of the strike was not even a union member at the start of the year – she joined during the strike.

The strike achieved a five per cent increase for all state sector employees, not just those who work in schools, but teachers have yet to resolve the issue of health insurance. A committee of enquiry has been set up, but teachers are highly sceptical because representatives of the health insurance companies sit on the committee. Strike leaders spoke about the importance of maintaining connections over the summer. They said: ‘people need to be prepared to take more action when school returns in the next academic year.’

The leaders were rank and file members. They made key strategic decisions, such as launching wildcat action and shaping the politics of the campaign. They are cheerful, confident and incredibly humble. They seemed surprised that they had ended up in the centre of a labour conference and a teacher strike wave. Jay, one of the key organisers, said that last year he had stumbled across some information about Labor Notes, perused the past programs and thought it sounded like his kind of people. Very strange, he said, that he had become a keynote speaker in a packed conference ballroom.

Years of negotiating saw teachers wages stagnate. Unions offered concessions but that didn’t stop the attacks on public education. The strikes have changed everything. Teachers are winning. Teachers in Oklahoma won a $6000 a year pay increase and remained on strike for nine days to restore public funding to public schools which had lost $350 million to tax cuts. Surprisingly, union leaders called the strike off before additional funding had been secured, but the wage increase is a clear victory. On 26 April, 75,000 teachers in Arizona went on strike and rallied in the capital, Phoenix. The governor, Doug Darcey, had said he would agree to a 20 per cent pay increase. Teachers went out on strike anyway, because the increase had not been accounted for in the budget.

Identifying sources to boost funding for education is a key feature of teacher union militancy in the US. For instance, there were fears in West Virginia that the governor would try to cover the pay increases by cutting Medicaid. Unionists responded by arguing that the revenue can be raised by taxing fossil fuel companies in the state. When state governors cry poor, teacher unions carry out the research to show that the issue is not lack of resources in the economy but failure to prioritise education. The task is getting corporations to pay proper taxes.

It is notable that, by and large, the strikes are taking place in Republican voting states. Arizona, a state that has seen spending on education drop by 36 per cent since 2008, has been solid Republican for years and many on strike are Republican voters. But they are sickened by the way the Republicans have attacked public education. Jamie Woodward, a registered Republican voter for 17 years, told the New York Times: ‘I’ll be voting for anyone who supports public education. We have impoverished teachers living in camper trailers.’ The Republicans, like conservatives everywhere, rely on misery, cynicism and division in the community to get them into office. The strikes have given people hope, enabling them to view politics in a different way.

The teachers at the conference were committed to ‘social justice unionism’. They believe that unions are strong when they not only look after their own members but reach out to fight alongside those parts of the community under attack. In the US this means teachers helping to build a rapid response when ICE agents – Immigrations and Customs Enforcement – swoop on a school or neighborhood to deport a student. Teachers have also teamed up with writers from Rethinking Schools to design curriculum material to support the Black Lives Matter campaign. Teachers from Philadelphia ran a brilliant workshop about ways to stand with black students and their families.


The Industrial Landscape in the US

There was also theoretical reflection about the US economy and prospects for the labour movement rediscovering its power. In one session Kim Moody drew on ideas from On New Terrain describing why the pessimism about the American labour movement was unfounded. His book challenges the notion that the working class has changed fundamentally in character over the last 10 to 20 years, so much so that we can no longer expect the labour movement be a key agent of social change, that broader, networked coalitions of the multitude are more likely to subvert capitalism. The rise of imports and the movement of capital offshore has, according to authors like Guy Standing, created a new class within western economies: the precariat. A related trend is the emergence of the ‘gig economy’.

Moody traces the actual contours of the US economy. From 1998 to 2014 new capital investment in structures amounted to $658 billion in manufacturing, just over $200 billion in warehouses and $150 billion in  transportation. It is difficult to imagine corporations leaving all of this sunk capital and moving operations offshore. Since 2014 there has been new direct investment in US manufacturing. Behind this ‘re-shoring’ of industry are strikes by an increasingly confident Chinese working class and improvements in wages in China. US corporations are looking at a restive Chinese working class and thinking, better the devil you know. Moody acknowledges that over the last 30 years manufacturing has shrunk in the US but argues the main cause is not the movement of operations offshore, but the massive growth in productivity within the US economy.

The essential structure of employment has not changed. Eighty five per cent of US workers are still in traditional employment arrangements, suggesting that the expansion of precarious work is not as widespread as is commonly thought. It’s been assumed that the gig economy took off following the great recession of 2008 and that there is a growing army of workers making a living out two or three jobs on a highly innovative platform such as Task Rabbit or Uber. Moody writes that the percentage of multiple jobholders has not changed significantly since the 1970s when they accounted for 4.9 per cent of the workforce. It has always been the case that a number of working class people have had jobs that do not pay enough to buy food, accommodation, clothing and transport. As one economist has noted, ‘you can see the age of self-employment everywhere except in the self-employment statistics.’

According to Moody, the focus on precarious employment misses far more important points, in particular the hideous growth of inequality in the US and the deterioration of wages and working conditions for the majority of working people over three decades. For example, in 1979 69 per cent of all employees had employer-provided health insurance. In 2010 it was down to 53 per cent and we can observe similar falls in employer-provided pensions.

The US working class – the huge majority of the class and not just those on the margins – suffers because of a sustained employer assault and work intensification. The Federal Reserve decision to abruptly crank up interest rates in 1979 heralded the grim dawn of neoliberalism and a concerted ruling class attack on working conditions and trade unions. Within the next three years 2.5 million manufacturing jobs were lost and the number of private sector union members fell by 26 per cent. An ominous calm descended on American workplaces. American capital was determined to extract as much profit out of the workforce as possible. In the 1980s they introduced ‘lean production’ involving brutal measures to eliminate waste, stockpiles of inventory and anything that slowed production, such as health and safety concerns. We saw the emergence of new academic disciplines: human resource management and supply chain management. Labor Notes described all these measures as amounting to ‘management by stress’. In workplaces there has been a bitter struggle over time, which more often than not workers lost. A recent study of work intensification in the US found that between 1980 and 2000 the number of breaks fell by 30 per cent for men 34 per cent for women while the time allocated for breaks decreased by 29 per cent and 25 per cent respectively.

Recently, lean production methods have become more personally invasive for workers thanks to the use of global positioning systems within supply chains. An order arrives at the warehouse and you move quickly with the scanner in hand across the equivalent of two football fields. The scanner counts down the time you have to fill the order and tracks your movements between items. It is no wonder that Amazon warehouses rapidly destroy a person’s health.

Any teacher or nurse or public servant can testify that stress management innovations have not been limited to the private sector or assembly lines that make things that can ‘drop on your foot’. The public sector has also been assailed by management by stress. Consider the impact that the ‘continuous improvement’ agenda has had upon schools in the US, where teachers are judged according to how well students do on standardised tests. And GPS trackers are used to monitor the movement of nurses around a hospital ward. Today, no worker escapes the logic of the production line.

These changes have combined to produce what Moody describes as ‘the biggest job destroying intensifications of labour in the history of capitalism.’

Labour intensification has been a key strategy used by capital to increase productivity since the early 1980s. The other has been the process of mergers and acquisitions producing massive concentrations of capital. There are now in the US three big car companies – Ford, Chrysler and General Motors – employing 733,000 workers. We can see a similar concentration in the steel industry and the logistics network. For example, UPS and FedEx by themselves employee 40 per cent of the nation’s 1.7 million transport and delivery workers. In the air Delta, American, United and Southwest now control 80 per cent of air passenger traffic.

What do the concentration concentrations of capital mean for workers? Workers are confronting fewer and fewer employers.  American capitalism now puts workers alongside each other in significant numbers. In 2008 there were 24.7 million workers employed in workplaces of 500 or more, or 20 per cent of the workforce. Those in workplaces of a thousand or more rose to 16.5 million or 14 per cent of the workforce. If organised and confident these workers could be formidable.

Hundreds of thousands of American workers find themselves locked into what Moody describes as a ‘global supply chain gang’, supporting corporate giants like Walmart and Amazon. The new, vast logistics and warehouse systems draw labour from the working class areas of Chicago, Los Angeles, New York and New Jersey. Many of these workers are Latino or African-American. It won’t however be easy for corporations to rely on the oppression of blacks and Latinos to deliver them a compliant workforce. Generally, black workers are more likely to join a union than white workers and Latinos are joining unions in large numbers. Community campaigns for justice are strengthening union activism.  Kim Moody writes that ‘rapid growth in unionisation among immigrants and Latinos probably reflects activism in the Latino community’ and that Black Lives Matter may lead to a ‘growth in union membership and organisation among black workers.’

The conditions for a sustained fightback are evident. American workers are concentrated in large numbers; they confront fewer enemies thanks to aggressive corporate acquisitions; billions in sunk capital mean corporations can’t fly offshore; management by stress is creating oceans of resentment; and key sections of the working class are energised by community campaigns for justice. In the words of Eric Hobsbawm there are ‘accumulations of inflammable material’. If organised well in each workplace and across industries, American workers could be formidable.


A Militant Minority

Much depends now, according to Kim Moody, on a return to the very serious workplace organising that occurred in the United States, Germany, Russia and Britain during and following World War I and in the US and Australia in the 1930s. Anger towards Taylorism or ‘scientific’ management following WW1 produced wave upon wave of rank and file rebellions. Rank and file organising created the Congress of Industrial Organisations, the CIO, in America in the 1930s and the historical labour insurgencies by Minneapolis Teamsters and Toledo autoworkers. Working class radicals were the heart of the new delegates’ networks underpinning the effectiveness of the CIO organising for several decades.

The most extraordinary case of rank-and-file militancy in US in recent times was the nine-day strike by the Chicago teachers’ union in 2012. It was a strike that took on mayor Rahm Emmanuelle and created the platform for a union reform group to seize control of the union. The existing union bureaucracy simply failed to provide any leadership in the campaign to stop school closures. The reform Caucus without any official power organised rallies and created a vast network across Chicago schools that were able to turn each school into a fortress. The Chicago teachers’ union strike in 2012 remains probably the best example of the way rank-and-file unionism can win power from a do-nothing bureaucracy and transform the union structure in the process.

The conditions for a sustained fightback are evident ... If organised well in each workplace and across industries, American workers could be formidable.

The rank and file rebellions amongst teachers, teamsters, nurses and transit and telecommunication workers paused briefly at the Chicago conference to share information and strategies. Out of the Chicago teachers’ strike the teachers formed a caucus of rank and file educators, CORE, which now unites teacher rank-and-file groups across the country. One of the keynote speakers at the conference was the outgoing president of the Massachusetts teachers’ union, Barbara Madeloni, who led a reform caucus into union office. She said that one of the most difficult challenges was not winning office but keeping that movement that won the election mobilised and engaging the rest of the 110,000 members of the union. Structures simply had to be transformed. More serious rank and file challenges are being coordinated right now.

The reform movements focus on the battle for democracy within their union and power within their workplace. This is the way they challenge the bureaucratic processes and the endless compromises with the employer. The battle for democracy in workplace power creates what Kim Moody describes as ‘the leaders without titles’.

Kim Moody and the Labor Notes project call for the creation of a new Militant Minority. Workers will respond angrily and militantly to new stresses at work. With the teacher union insurgency moving across the United States it is possible to speak of very real opportunities to create a new Militant Minority. Perhaps the Labor Notes project is the foundation for this new Militant Minority.

I left Chicago thinking that the parts of the US labour represented at the Labor Notes conference – the transit workers, the reform movement in the Teamsters, the wharfies, the warehouse and logistics workers, the cleaners and the teachers – could achieve remarkable things. Their detailed organising can turn each workplace into a fortress against neoliberalism and Trump’s attacks. What the teachers have demonstrated is that you can be even more powerful by connecting each workplace, each fortress, through practical solidarity. The teachers of West Virginia stayed on strike because they wanted every state sector employee to receive the five per cent pay rise, not just themselves. At a time when the Trump presidency divides communities, targets the most vulnerable and drains public services of funding, union solidarity and militancy are giving people hope.

I would like to thank the MUA, the AMIEU, the office of Senator Andrew Bartlett, the Brisbane Labour History Association and staff at Centenary SHS for donating money and making it possible for me to attend the conference.

Adrian has been part of social justice campaigns in Brisbane over the last 30 years. He has been a union activist since 1992. He belongs to small group of troublemakers called the Cloudland Collective, where this article was originally published.