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The West Virginia Teachers’ Strike Has Activists Asking: Should We Revive the Wildcat?

Wednesday, March 14th, 2018

The stunning success of the recent statewide West Virginia teachers’ strike makes it one of the most inspiring worker protests of the Trump era.

The walkout over rising health insurance costs and stagnant pay began on Feb. 22 and appeared to be settled by Feb. 27 with promises from Gov. Jim Justice of a 5 percent pay raise for teachers. Union leaders initially accepted that deal in good faith, along with vague assurances that the state would work with them on a solution to escalating out-of-pocket costs for workers’ healthcare.

Dramatically, rank-and-file teachers refused to end the walkout. Every public school in the state remained closed for nine days due to the strike, until the West Virginia legislature voted to approve a 5 percent pay increase for all state workers as well as a formal labor-management committee to deal with the healthcare problem.

The entire experience leaves many labor activists asking variations of three questions: What is a wildcat strike? Was West Virginia a true wildcat? And should we have more wildcat strikes?

What is a wildcat strike?

Wildcat strikes are job actions led by rank-and-file members in defiance of official union leadership. Why would leaders try to stop a job action that members want to take? The answer, generally, is that the strike is either against the law or in violation of a contractual no-strike clause (and, often, the leaders are in some way legally compelled to discourage it). In either case, workers who strike could be fired with no legal recourse for the union to win them their jobs back. This is a peculiar feature of America’s post-World War II labor relations system.

Prior to the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), a strike was a strike. It was not uncommon to have multiple unions vying for workplace leadership and engaging in a kind of one-upmanship of job actions. While these actions occasionally produced small gains in pay or reductions in hours, they rarely ended with union recognition—much less signed contracts.

That’s because employers didn’t have to deal with unions. They might have begrudgingly made a unilateral concession to the workers’ wage or hour demands in order to resume operations, but bosses almost never formally sat down with elected union representatives.

The NLRA changed that status quo by compelling employers to “bargain in good faith” with any group of union members that demanded it. As Charles J. Morris documents in his 2004 book, The Blue Eagle at Work: Reclaiming Democratic Rights in the American Workplace, the NLRA did not include any provision for certification elections of exclusive union representatives. The framers of the NLRA wrote it for the labor movement that existed at the time: a collection of voluntary associations that made bargaining demands for their members only.

Compelled to bargain with unions, employers quickly developed a preference to deal with only one as an exclusive representative. That way, bosses could have contractual assurance that all outstanding disputes would be settled (or at least channeled through grievance and arbitration procedures) for the period of a contract that also guaranteed no strikes (or lockouts or other forms of industrial actions) would occur during the terms of labor peace.

Under that framework, the wildcat became a unique kind of worker protest. The etymology of the term “wildcat” can probably be traced to the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and their unofficial symbol, the sabo cat.

Wildcat actions are not common and are rarely full-blown strikes. More often, they are temporary slowdowns or quick work stoppages in a smaller segment of a wider operation. They could be sparked, for example, over a sudden change in work rules or the belligerent actions of a supervisor. Usually, an official union representative rushes to the scene to attempt to settle the dispute with management and encourages the workers to return to their jobs.

Wildcats were more common in the early 1970s, during the last great strike wave in the United States. Those years saw a large number of strikes by teachers and other public-sector workers to win collective bargaining rights. Many of those strikes were technically illegal, but not wildcats as they were organized and led by official union leadership that had few alternatives in the absence of formal union rights under the NLRA.

However, in that climate of greater worker protest, many private-sector workers also went on strike. Many of those strikes were wildcats sparked by out-of-control inflation and intolerable speed-ups. In a sense, workers weren’t just striking in violation of their collective bargaining agreements but against their terms.

The most famous example was the 1972 rank-and-file rebellion at the General Motors factory in Lordstown, Ohio, which has fascinated generations of labor writers. In her 1975 book All the Livelong Day: The Meaning and Demeaning of Routine Work, Barbara Garson captured this illustrative conversation between workers:

“It pays good,” said one, “but it’s driving me crazy.”

“I don’t want more money,” said another. “None of us do.”

“I do,” said his friend, “so I can quit quicker.”

“The only money I want is my union dues back – if they don’t let us out on strike soon.”

In 1972, the factory was churning out Chevy Vegas at a pace that gave each worker 36 seconds to do a minute’s worth of work before the next car moved down the line in the blink of an eye. Workers had taken to acts of sabotage, like throwing a few loose screws in a gas tank, in hopes that the “error” would be caught by quality control and shut the line down for a few minutes of blessed relief.

While the United Autoworkers (UAW) leaders prioritized wages in bargaining—they won an impressive 13 percent increase for their members in the contract that was then in effect—the workers at Lordstown wanted to slow the pace of work. They went on a wildcat strike that lasted for 22 days, until management settled a slew of grievances and agreed to rehire a number of laid off positions in order to reduce the pace of work.

By the end of the decade, the competitive pressures of global trade put workers back on the defensive. The Lordstown plant is still in operation despite multiple threats to shutter it. In a 2010 profile, the New York Times called it one of GM’s “most productive and efficient plants,” and noted that 84 percent of the workers had recently voted to approve concessions during GM’s bankruptcy.

Those competitive pressures, combined with austerity budgets in the public sector, have severely reduced many workers’ living standards. The West Virginia strike may be a sign that these desperate times have turned many workplaces into powder kegs of simmering resentment and desperation.

Was West Virginia a true wildcat?

West Virginia schools have a peculiar framework: no contracts or formal collective bargaining, but a degree of official union recognition—including dues check-off—within a highly litigious tenure and grievance procedure with statewide pay and benefits subject to legislative lobbying. That environment appeared perfectly crafted to sap unions of their potential militancy, assuming the bosses understood they had to provide a minimally-decent standard of pay and benefits. Instead, teachers faced some of the lowest pay rates in the nation, along with rising healthcare costs, which helped lead to their decision to walk off the job.

Because the West Virginia strike happened outside the context of formal, contract-based unionism, Lois Weiner argues in New Politics that it is inaccurate to describe the statewide walkout as a wildcat. “Confusion on nomenclature reflects how remarkable this phenomenon is: we don’t know how to name a movement of workers that is self-organized, not confined by the strictures of collective bargaining,” she writes, continuing, “There is no legally prescribed procedure for ending the strike because the vast majority of people striking aren’t union members and strikes are not legal.”

Given the frontal assault on the entire legal framework of union representation—Janus vs. AFSCME being the massive tip of the gargantuan iceberg—what unionism looks like in the United States is bound to be radically altered in the coming years. Weiner does us a service by breaking the union framework down into its component parts. We need more writers doing this if we are going to have an informed debate about which parts are worth fighting to preserve, and which are overdue for replacement.

Respectfully, however, I would argue that the West Virginia strike was a wildcat. The political dynamics were essentially the same as in the ritualized contract bargaining of the post-war private sector. Union leaders were in the position of “bargaining” with the governor over a legislative fix to pay and healthcare. They took a deal that was reasonable enough in order to demonstrate their own reasonableness to the bosses.

When the rank-and-file rejected that settlement by continuing to stay off the job, the strike became a wildcat. Official union leaders continued to represent the interests of the striking workers and helped harness the continued strike into an even bigger win—all while presenting themselves to politicians as the reasonable negotiators who could help them get the teachers back to work.

That the strike happened in the first place is thanks to a good deal of self-organization among segments of the rank-and-file, aided in no small part by e-mail and social media. Because two unions—affiliates of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association—vie for members across the state like pre-NLRA unions used to, this rank-and-file rebellion appears to have whipsawed the competing union leaderships into a one-upmanship over who could more effectively lead the strike and claim credit for the win.

This example does suggest one model for a new unionism, rooted in our recent past.

Should we have more wildcat strikes?

I recently wrote a piece for the Washington Post on the Janus vs. AFSCME case about how agency fees, which are directly challenged in this case, have historically been traded for the no-strike clause. I’ve been making variations of the same point at In These Times for over two years, but this time it’s created a bit of a stir.

Some commentators are beginning to recognize that an anti-union decision in Janus could spark constitutional and workplace chaos that could make messy protests like the West Virginia teachers’ strike a more regular occurrence.

If deprived of agency fees, it is probable that some unions will cede exclusive representation in order to kick out the scabs, or “free riders.” And one wonders how much longer private sector unions in right-to-work states will continue to slog through unfair NLRB elections in order to “win” the obligation to represent free-riders, instead of embracing Charles J. Morris’ theory that the original 1935 process for card check recognition of minority unions is still operational and demanding “members-only” bargaining.

That trend would inevitably lead to new worker organizations rushing to poach the unrepresented workers left behind. Some would likely compete by offering cheaper dues or by cozying up to management. Others would vie for members and shopfloor leadership by railing against disappointing deals. This will be messy. As in the pre-NLRA era, workplace competition between unions may not produce lasting union contracts.

But it will also make a guaranteed period of labor peace impossible—and that could lead to more strikes like the West Virginia wildcat. Through Janus, right-to-work and the renewed open-shop offensive, the bosses have made clear that they’re not interested in labor peace. Let’s give them what they want.

This article was originally published at In These Times on March 13, 2018. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Shaun Richman is a former organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers. His Twitter handle is @Ess_Dog.

What #MeToo Can Teach the Labor Movement

Friday, December 29th, 2017

My first #MeToo memory is from the kitchen of the Red Eagle Diner on Route 59 in Rockland County, N.Y. I was 16 years old, had moved out of my home, and was financially on my own. The senior waitresses in this classic Greek-owned diner schooled me fast. They explained that my best route to maximum cash was the weekend graveyard shift. “People are hungry and drunk after the bars close, and the tips are great,” one said.

That first waitressing job would be short-lived, because I didn’t heed a crucial warning. Watch out for Christos, a hot-headed cook and relative of the owner. The night I physically rebuffed his obnoxious and forceful groping, it took all the busboys holding him back as he waved a cleaver at me, red-faced and screaming in Greek that he was going to kill me. The other waitress held the door open as I fled to my car and sped off without even getting my last paycheck. I was trembling.

Although there were plenty of other incidents in between, the next time I found myself that shaken by a sexual assault threat, I was 33 and in a Manhattan cab with a high-up official in the national AFL-CIO. He had structural power over me, as well as my paycheck and the campaign I was running. He was nearly twice my age and size. After offering to give me a lift in the cab so I could avoid the pelting rain walking to the subway, he quickly slid all the way over to my side, pinned me to the door, grabbed me with both arms and began forcibly kissing me on the lips. After a determined push, and before getting the driver to stop and let me out, I told the AFL-CIO official that if he ever did it again I’d call his wife in a nanosecond.

These two examples underscore that behind today’s harassment headlines is a deeper crisis: pernicious sexism, misogyny and contempt for women. Whether in in our movement or not, serious sexual harassment isn’t really about sex. It’s about a disregard for women, and it shows itself numerous ways.

For the #MeToo moment to become a meaningful movement, it has to focus on actual gender equality. Lewd stories about this or that man’s behavior might make compelling reading, but they sidetrack the real crisis—and they are being easily manipulated to distract us from the solutions women desperately need. Until we effectively challenge the ideological underpinnings beneath social policies that hem women in at every turn in this country, we won’t get at the root cause of the harassment. This requires examining the total devaluation of “women’s work,” including raising and educating children, running a home and caring for the elderly and the sick.

It’s time to dust off the documents from the nearly 50-year-old Wages for Housework Campaign. The union movement must step in now and connect the dots to real solutions, such as income supports like universal high-quality childcare, free healthcare, free university and paid maternity and paternity leave. We need social policies that allow women to be meaningful participants in the labor force—more of a norm in Western Europe where unionization rates are high.

Sexist thought is holding our movement back

Sexist male leadership inside the labor movement is a barrier to getting at these very solutions This assertion is sure to generate a round of, “She shouldn’t write that, the bosses will use it against us.” Let’s clear that bullshit out of the way: We aren’t losing unionization elections, strikes and union density because of truth-telling about some men in leadership who should be forced to spend out their years cleaning toilets in a shelter for battered women. And besides, we all know the bosses are far, far worse—and have structural power over tens of millions of women in the United States and beyond.

Some of the sexual harassers who see women as their playthings are men on “our side” with decision-making roles in unions. This mindset rejects real organizing, instead embracing shallow mobilizing and advocacy. It rejects the possibility that a future labor movement led by women in the service economy can be as powerful as the one led by men in the last century who could shut down machines. Factories, where material goods are produced by blue collar men are fetishized. Yet, today’s factories—the schools, universities, nursing homes and hospitals where large numbers of workers regularly toil side by side—are disregarded, even though they are the key to most local economies. Educators and healthcare workers who build, develop and repair humans’ minds and bodies are considered white and pink collar. This workforce is deemed less valuable to the labor movement, because the labor it performs is considered women’s work.

While presenting on big healthcare campaign wins at conferences, I’ve had men who identify as leftists repeatedly drill me with skeptical questions such as, “We thought all nurses saw themselves as professionals; you’re saying they can have class solidarity?” I wonder if these leftists missed which workers got behind the Bernie Sanders campaign first and most aggressively. I’ve hardly ever met a nurse who didn’t believe healthcare is a right that everyone deserves, regardless of ability to pay.

When I began negotiating hospital-worker contracts, which often included the nurses, I routinely had men in the movement say things like, “It’s great you love working with nurses. They are such a pain in the ass at the bargaining table.” These derogatory comments came from men who can’t stand empowered women who actually might have an opinion, let alone good ideas, about what’s in the final contract settlement. Many hold a related but distinct assumption: that the so-called private sector is more manly—and therefore, important—than the so-called public sector, which is majority-women. This belief also contributes to the devaluation of feminized labor.

Capitalism is one economic system, period. The fiction of these seemingly distinct sectors is primarily a strategy to allow corporations to feed off the trough of tax-payer money and pretend they don’t. This master lie enables austerity, which is turning into a tsunami post-tax bill. And yet white, male, highly educated labor strategists routinely say that we need totally different strategies for the public and private sectors. Hogwash.

This deeply inculcated sexist thought—conscious or not—is holding back our movement and contributing to the absurd notion that unions are a thing of the past. These themes are discussed in my book No Shortcuts, Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age (Oxford, 2016).

The union movement has increased the number of women and people of color in publicly visible leadership positions. But the labor movement’s research and strategy backrooms are still dominated by white men who propagate the idea that organizing once worked, yet not anymore. This assertion is presented as fact rather than what it is: a structuralist argument. The erosion of labor law, relocation of factories to regions with few or no unions, and automation are the common reasons put forth. The argument omits the devastating failure of business unionism, and its successor—the mobilizing approach, where decision-making is left in the hands of mostly white male strategists while telegenic women of color with “good stories” are trotted out as props by communications staffers.

If you think these men are smarter than the millions of women of color who dominate today’s workforce, then an organizing approach—which rests the agency for change in the hands of women—is definitely not your preferred choice. Mobilizing, or worse, advocacy, obscures the core question of agency: Whose is central to the strategy war room and future movement? As for loud liberal voices—union and nonunion—that declare unions as a thing of the past, the forthcoming SCOTUS ruling on NLRB v Murphy Oil will prove most of the nonunion “innovations” moot. Murphy Oil is a complicated legal case that boils down to removing what are called the Section 7 protections under the National Labor Relations Act, and preventing class action lawsuits.

Murphy Oil blows a hole through the legal safeguards that non-union workers have enjoyed for decades, eviscerating much of the tactical repertoire of so-called Alt Labor, such as class-action wage-theft cases, and workers participating in protests called by nonunion community groups in front of their workplaces. The timing is horrific and uncanny: As women are finally finding their voices about sexual harassment at work, mostly in nonunion workplaces (as the majority are), Murphy Oil will prevent class action sexual harassment lawsuits.

Unions can’t win without reckoning with sexism and racism

The central lesson the labor movement should take from the #MeToo movement is that now is the time to reverse the deeply held notion that women, especially women of color, can’t build a powerful labor movement. Corporate America and the rightwing are out to destroy unions, in part, so that they can decimate the few public services that do serve working-class families, including the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP), Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security and public schools. Movements won these programs when unions were much stronger. It makes sense that unions, and the women’s movement, should throw down hardest to defend and grow these sectors, largely made up of women, mostly women of color, who are brilliant strategists and fighters.

The labor movement should also dispense of the belief that organizing and strikes can’t work. It’s self-defeating. Unions led by Chicago teachers and Philadelphia and Boston nurses, to name a few, prove this notion wrong. The growing economic sectors of education and healthcare are key. These workers have structural power and extraordinary social power. Each worker can bring along hundreds more in their communities.

Another key lesson for labor is to start taking smart risks, such as challenging the inept leadership in the Democratic Party by running its own pro-union rank-and-file sisters in primaries against the pro-corporate Democrats in safe Democratic seats, a target-rich environment. As obvious as it might sound, this strategy is heresy in the labor movement. Women who marched last January should demand that gender-focused political action committees, such as EMILY’s list, use support for unionization as a litmus test for whether politicians running for office will get their support. No more faux feminist Sheryl Sandberg types.

It’s time for unions to raise expectations for real gender equality, to channel the new battle cry to rid ourselves of today’s sexual harassers into a movement for the gender justice that women in Scandinavian countries and much of Western Europe enjoy. To think of winning what has become almost normal gains in many countries—year-long paid maternity and paternity leave, free childcare, healthcare and universities, six weeks’ annual paid vacation—is not pie-in-the-sky. To fight for it, people have to be able to imagine it.

The percentage of workers covered by union-negotiated collective agreements in much of Western Europe, the countries with benefits women in this country desperately need, is between 80 percent and 98 percent of all workers. This compares to a paltry 11.9 percent in the United States, as of 2013. This is far beyond a phased-in raise to $15 and hour—still basically poverty, and a wage that most women with structural power in strategic sectors already earn.

Women can’t win without building workplace power

There’s enough wealth in this country to allow the rich to be rich and still eradicate most barriers to a genuine women’s liberation, which starts with economic justice in the workplace. Upper-class mostly white women drowned out working-class women, many of color, in the 1960s and 1970s. The results of second-wave feminism are clear: Even though some women broke corporate and political glass ceilings and won a few favorable laws, individual rights will not truly empower women. Unions—warts and all—are central to a more equal society, because they bring structural power and collective solutions to problems that are fundamentally societal, not individual.

Women in the United States are stuck with bosses who abuse them, because to walk out could mean living in their cars or on the streets—or taking two fulltime jobs and never spending a minute with their kids. Similarly, women are stuck in abusive marriages, because the decision to stop the beating means living on the streets. European women from countries where union contracts cover the vast majority of workers don’t, to the same extent, face the decision of losing their husband’s healthcare plan, or not having money to pay for childcare or so many of the challenges faced by women here. This country is seriously broken, and to fix it we must build the kind of power that comes with high unionization rates, which translate into political—not just economic—power.

Naming and shaming is not sufficient. Women need to translate the passion of this moment into winning the solution that will help end workplace harassment. A good union radically changes workplace culture for the better. The entire concept of a human resources office changes when a union is present. For example, when entering the human resources office, women aren’t alone: They’ve got their union steward. Union contracts effectively allow women to challenge bosses without being fired. Good unions do change workplace culture on these and many issues. Why else would the men who control corporations, and now the federal and most state governments, spend lavishly on professional union busters and fight so damn hard to destroy unions?

It’s going to take a massive expansion of unions again—like what happened in the 1930s, the last time unions were declared dead—before we can translate #MeToo into a demand that raises all workers’ expectations that this country can be a far more equal society. If we commit to this goal, we can achieve it. This time, the people leading the unions will be the same people who saved the nation from Roy Moore, because women of color are already at the center of the future labor force.

I went from sexual harassment in male-heavy restaurant kitchens to sexual harassment as a rare woman allowed into the kitchen cabinet of many successful campaigns. Whether it is union leaders ignoring the experience and genius of workers in today’s strategic employment sectors of education and healthcare, politicians following the corporate line or individual bad bosses harassing their employees, all of it comes down to a disrespect and disregard for women, especially women of color. If we focus on the power analysis, the answer is staring us in the face. There is no time to waste. Everyone has to be all-in for rebuilding unions.

This article was originally published at In These Times on December 27, 2017. Reprinted with permission.
Jane McAlevey is an organizer, author and scholar. Her first book, Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell), published by Verso Press, was named the “most valuable book of 2012” by The Nation Magazine. Her second book, No Shortcuts: Organizing for Power in the New Gilded Age, published by Oxford University Press, was released late in 2016. She is a regular commentator on radio and TV. She continues to work as an organizer on union campaigns, lead contract negotiations, and train and develop organizers. She spent the past two years as a Post Doc at the Harvard Law School, and is presently writing her third book—Striking Back—about organizing, power and strategy, forthcoming from Verso.
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