It’s a mistake to exaggerate the distinctiveness of West Virginia when we explain the dynamics of the current strike. Of course, it’s clear that the state’s legacy of union militancy has greatly facilitated the spread of this action. But it’s also the case that, like in the rest of the US, it’s been several decades since the last real upsurge in mass action here. People are proud of their history, but the unions in the state have been in sharp decline for decades and are widely regarded as bureaucratic and inept. Strike activity has also been low — until last week.
The initiative for the current action came from a core of young teachers, motivated more by political conviction than tradition. If anything, the current action is helping many people rediscover and reclaim a political legacy that was fading away.
In other words, West Virginia’s labor tradition on its own is a necessary, but not sufficient explanation for the current strike. Without months of active organizing and bold initiatives from a small core of deeply rooted, radical teachers, there wouldn’t be a strike here right now.
Lots of major cities in the United States — from New York City, to San Francisco, to Chicago — have traditions of militancy and labor organizing comparable to West Virginia. Whether this tradition remains dormant or finds an outlet in part depends on whether socialists can root themselves in workplaces and take strategic initiatives independent of the labor officialdom.
This doesn’t mean that a focus on building a militant minority — a layer of rank-and-file worker leaders committed to class struggle — will automatically, or easily, lead to similar strikes everywhere. Conditions need to be ripe. Labor work takes a lot of patience. But without solid roots in workplaces, socialists won’t be able to help spark and intervene in strikes.
Pure spontaneity is a myth. Like in the early 1930s, it’s going to take sustained socialist workplace organizing to turn things around for our class. Kevin Prosen’s recent piece in Jacobin lays this out well.
What is truly distinctive about West Virginia is the extent to which the strike is generalized across the state, including in rural areas and small towns. This statewide unity is rooted in a real working-class and regional identity born from decades of struggle, as well as the geographic and economic particularities of West Virginia. A similar dynamic will be hard to replicate elsewhere in most places, at least in the short term.
But struggle and strikes are contagious, and we should expect West Virginia to have a ripple effect, particularly on teachers. K-12 has already been a relative hotbed of militancy over the past decade. For these reasons, it makes sense for socialists in big urban areas, and particularly in public education, to make a serious turn towards workplace organizing and action.