Teachers Are Showing The Way to Reinvigorate the Labor Movement

Unjust anti-labor laws are only as powerful as they are enforceable.

While the Trump Administration’s various outrages have led to mass public protest for the reasons one might expect, another series of protests is garnering less attention–but may be more consequential over the longer term.

In red states across the country, teachers are walking out wholesale:

Teachers across the country are striking and protesting en masse, shutting down school systems and putting the pressure on state lawmakers to meet their demands.

At least four states this year have mobilized, often with similar gripes. Educators in West Virginia and Oklahoma are lobbying for more pay while Kentucky’s teachers are fighting proposed changes to their pensions plans. West Virginia teachers forced lawmakers to give them 5% raises.

Republicans who argue that Trump is somehow a perversion of their party must take stock of the fact that “normal” conservative state governments are so crippling their own states that they can’t fund basic services, including reasonable teacher salaries and pensions. Kansas and Oklahoma even had to move to four-day school weeks due to severe budget cuts. Of course, the cuts are necessary because those states implemented tax cuts for the rich under the theory that the cuts would pay for themselves and lead to dynamic growth.

They did not. Now teachers are standing up for themselves and their kids.

Part of what is notable about this is that it’s not clear in some cases that the strikes are actually legal. In West Virginia, it’s explicitly against the law for public employees to go on strike. But those laws are a pattern of draconian laws designed to destroy the labor movement in the U.S., and labor cannot survive if it tries to dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools.

The whole point of the labor movement is that workers have more collective power than owners–if only they have the will and solidarity to use it. Unjust laws designed to inflict pain on the many to benefit the few only have power if they are enforceable. This sounds like dangerous anarchism, but it’s already common practice in many areas of daily life: officers can’t give everyone a ticket for going 70 in a 65 mile-per-hour zone, for jaywalking in Manhattan or connecting to unsecured wifi, among other examples. This is, after all, the rationale gun owners give for the impracticality of gun confiscation laws: that they would be dangerously unenforceable in practice.

Labor’s ability to affect policy has been shrinking in a sea of anti-worker legislation ever since the Taft-Hartley Act. The conservative Supreme Court may deal a near-killing blow to public employee unions later this year.

But that doesn’t mean workers lack collective power, law or no law. Capitalism cannot yet function without workers to grease its wheels and actually produce value, and law enforcement doesn’t get paid if the engines of the economy grind to a halt. The sort of long-ongoing protest that would be required if Trump fires Mueller would look something very like a general strike banned in the United States. The result of that contest would hinge entirely on who had no more staying power: Trump, or the workers across America refusing to stand for his tyranny. The example of South Korea already proved that a people sufficiently angry and engaged can force the resignation of a corrupt ruler, even one democratically elected.

If an extremist government is refusing to pay public employees enough to live on, those public employees can decide not to cooperate. It’s not as if Kansas, which is already hemorrhaging teachers, can simply hire thousands of new teachers to replace ones it fires. The teachers have the power in this equation–as do millions of workers and citizens across this country.

Voting is not the only collective action that can bring about change, and a public protest can be far more effective than a single-day visibility action, if sufficiently targeted and sustained.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.