Biggest Wildcat Strike in Decades Hints at New U.S. Labor Unrest

(Bloomberg) -- A week ago, thousands of public school teachers in West Virginia went out on strike, a rare but familiar union-organized action to protest low wages and rising health-care costs. Tuesday night, state union leaders and the Governor Jim Justice reached a deal, and the teachers were expected to be back at work on Thursday.

They didn’t go.

Unsatisfied with the resolution, they stayed on the picket line, mounting one of the country’s biggest unauthorized “wildcat” strikes in decades. “I think that teachers had just finally had enough,” said striking English teacher Erica Rodeheaver.

As uncommon as work stoppages have become in the U.S., big wildcat strikes like West Virginia’s are almost unheard of. It arrives at a moment when organized labor, already in steep decline, is facing a new emergency: The Supreme Court heard arguments Monday in a case that’s expected by June to end mandatory union fees for all government employees, an outcome that would slash unions’ budgets and power.

Against this backdrop, the strike in West Virginia, where unions lack both mandatory fees and formal collective bargaining rights, has become for some a beacon, an example of the type of disruptive activism that could keep the labor movement alive.

“I think it’s the most important thing going on in the labor movement in recent years,” said Joe Burns, the director of bargaining for the Association of Flight Attendants. “I think it presents a path forward for the labor movement: solidarity and strike action.”

West Virginia teachers say several factors convinced them to take the risk of striking. In addition to rising health-care costs and unusually low pay -- the state’s average teacher salary was $45,622 in 2016, about 22 percent below the national average -- they found safety in numbers. The state already has hundreds of teacher vacancies, made existing employees that much more valuable. And the lack of formal collective bargaining rights, along with the state legislature’s years-long refusal to address their grievances, left them without much recourse.

“What’s the worst thing that could happen – they fire me and I have to go get a job that pays more money than this?” said Catherine Pizzino, who’s in her 29th year teaching math. The attitude of many teachers, she said, was “you’re losing right now – you have nothing to lose.”

For some teachers, deciding to stay out on strike - despite a deal their union leaders reached that was supposed to get them back in the classroom – was easier than deciding to strike in the first place. Many doubted that the legislature would actually sign off on the governor’s agreement to raise their pay by 5 percent, and they weren’t happy that the deal created a task force to address escalating health costs in lieu of a concrete solution.

Some said they also felt responsible to the teachers who planned to keep striking, because they wouldn’t cross a picket line. “Even though they said that we’d go back on Thursday, nobody was ready to go at any school that I visited – and I visited a lot of schools,” said history teacher and local union officer Greg Phillips.

This kind of workplace turbulence could become more common if the Supreme Court gets rid of mandatory fees, a decision that would make more of the country “right-to-work.” Many states legalized collective bargaining and mandatory fees in hopes of averting wildcat disruptions and securing “labor peace,” and they largely have.

If more moderate members decline to fund their unions, the remaining members could prove more eager for aggressive action. If unions can’t get the state to guarantee they can collect fees from everyone they’re representing, they could be more hesitant to give the state a guarantee that their members won’t strike. And if some unions give up their right to represent non-members and reboot as “members-only” groups advocating just for those who pay dues, unions could end up in competition with one another, trying to outdo each other with more militant, demonstrative protests.

“What we could see is multiple organizations competing for membership and for shop floor leadership in these workplaces, and as a result making it harder for employers to settle controversies,” said Shaun Richman, a former organizing director for the American Federation of Teachers. “West Virginia is a good example of what this could look like: you’ll have competing unions, competing over who can take the bigger action.”

On Thursday, Governor Justice told a crowd of teachers he was trying his best to reach a resolution. “I’m not king,” he said from his SUV. “I’m doing what all I can possibly do.” But while the 5 percent raise he proposed was passed by a supermajority in the state house Wednesday, it’s having a harder time in the state senate, which referred it to the body’s Finance committee.

“We’re all in a state of limbo,” said striking teacher Kristina Gore. But the experience of flooding the state capitol and chanting and holding hands with thousands of former strangers has imbued her with a sense of power, she said. “If I were standing there alone, it would be different – but I’m not.”

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