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(en) Poland, Workers Initiative, Teachers' strike in the USA [machine translation]
Wed, 6 Nov 2019 07:51:11 +0200
We publish an extended version of the interview with Brandon Muckian, a teacher from West
Virginia, a member of the trade union WVEA (West Virginia Education Sector Association)
and IWW (Industrial Workers of the World), an active participant in the largest wave of
strikes in years, which spilled across many US states in 2018. West Virginia teachers
demanded higher earnings, opposed raising the insurance premium and the privatization of
public schools. The interview appeared in the 52 issue of the Employee Initiative. ----
How did teachers protest in West Virginia? ---- For several months, we tried to force
trade unions from the public education sector to organize a rally for us. At the same
time, we set up a Facebook group for teachers in our state so that they can communicate
with each other. Through FB we were able to discuss our problems. We managed to network
not only teachers, but also technical workers, bus drivers, cookers, etc. Then we began to
press the unions to threaten the government with a strike if they did not meet our
demands. We demanded higher wages and opposed increases in health insurance fees.
At first, the government did not want to meet your demands and you stopped work, what did
it look like?
1/3 teachers joined the first strike action. It was to last for several days. On our
Facebook group, teachers were in favor of continuing the protest. After 4 days, the unions
said they had an agreement with the governor and we were going back to work. We discussed
together over the internet how much we dislike the decision to end the strike. Other
counties announced that they did not end it even though the unions had signed the
agreement. It was the beginning of a wild strike. This differed from the plans of our
trade unions, but in the end we forced them to support us. They did it because they knew
they would lose members and contributions otherwise. Realizing this, they began to listen
to the voices of rank members and realize their vision.
Did the unions join the protest then? How else did you press on them?
We organized ourselves independently. Using FB, we created our own events related to
various activities, from pickets to large gatherings in the capital. We organized the
first actions. The group was attended by people who stopped working together and went out
for rallies before the official strike began. This was a clear signal for trade union
representatives that they had to get involved, otherwise the entire protest would be
organized by an informal group, not the unions left behind. The unions did not want to
lose control and control over the protests. Even if the unions announced a protest in the
capital, we discussed with each other what to do best, or, for example, not better press
on some local institutions. Technically, the relationship set up an action plan, but
because we built the tools before, which enabled us to be independent and gave us
strength, we were able to force a relationship that we should follow. It was a huge
challenge for the unions.
What did you win
We got a 5% increase as much as we wanted. That's approx. USD 2,000 a year. We were able
to freeze increases in health insurance premiums for 16 months. We were also promised to
find new methods of paying for our health insurance. West Virginia has a very extensive
industry related to the extraction of natural gas. After the recession, the authorities
significantly reduced taxes for related companies, which translated into lower budget
revenues. We demanded raising taxes for industry to increase the financial resources
allocated to the needs of the local community.
Ultimately, the tax for the industry was not increased, but the fee increase for us was
blocked, so our request was met.
Before the strike, the authorities wanted to force us to pay several thousand dollars a
year for insurance. They also wanted to force us to use software that controls what we do
during the day, whether we exercise, eat well, etc. We could not let this happen. That is
why health insurance issues were very important to us.
Diet and lifestyle control? Has something like this been introduced in other industries or
Of course, e.g. at Disney, employees have watches with an application that checks how many
steps a day or week they take, whether they move and how often. If you don't follow the
steps, they may increase the insurance fee by saying that you are not healthy enough.
Does it look like a big interference in someone's privacy?
We would also need to fill out an online questionnaire in which they even ask about such
private things as the amount of drinks they drink in the evening.
Let's go back to the strike. What was its social reception?
Today I talked to people distributing leaflets and everyone said that they are still
behind us and will support us. A year has passed since the strike, and people are still
friendly and ready to help.
West Virginia has a very long history of the workers' movement, trade union support and
employee protests. It was here that the largest uprising against the authorities took
place since the Civil War - then the miners took up arms. In the city where I live, there
are many factories along the river that have been closed. But people still remember the
strikes of iron workers. The locals know that if a professional group calls for large
protests, you have to stand behind them. This is what history taught them, their parents
told them. We also received a lot of support from the local community. Other trade unions
also helped us, e.g. the union of miners and the union of public sector employees.
What did the strike look like? What did you do during it?
Three things. First of all, pickets, mainly in the city center, in places where there is a
lot of traffic and people could see us. We organized rallies in front of schools, when
buses with children arrived and parents brought children to school. We all dressed in red,
we held boards and banners. When the bell rang to start the lesson, all the teachers came
back to school in a group to show that we stick together and are solid.
Secondly, we went to the capital. Once upon a time hundreds or even thousands of people
gathered in a small gallery and visitors could listen to us. It looked very good in photos
and movies - we all gathered in one place.
Thirdly, we worked as volunteers in homeless shelters, food outlets, and providing dinners
to students. We wanted to show our local community that we are also fighting for them, so
that schools would be better for students. We had to do something to make our commitment
Technical staff joined the protest?
Bus drivers belong to another association. The same for nurses or cooks employed at
school. But they also took part in the strike. When the management wondered whether to
close schools for the period of the strike, they realized that buses would not go anyway,
nor would anyone cook food for them. They were eventually closed.
We may soon be forced to come up with other informal forms of resistance. The government
intends to cut the budget of public schools and redirect it to private education. At the
same time, we hear about plans to introduce legal changes for teachers during the summer.
When we're not at work, we won't be able to strike. In this case, we think of civil
disobedience such as sitting in offices in the capital, hunger strike, or other visible
and strong methods that are not formally a strike.
Has your relationship with students changed after the strike?
After the first strike, we received many positive signals from our students. Young people
appeared at our rallies and spoke through tubes. I am a teacher of contemporary US
history, I teach about the most famous protests and labor strikes in the United States,
how trade unions were formed and what happened in the nineteenth century. Students quickly
combined what they learn from history and what is happening today . Now they understand
better why they all learned it, they know that they themselves have become part of the
history of the workers' movement.
What did you learn during the strike? Certainly you have acquired experiences that are
worth sharing with others?
Do you know what a "caucus" is[circle]? This is a separate group within the union. For
example, we have black teachers. A given circle helps pressure the relationship to deal
with their specific problems, e.g. if the working conditions of black teachers are worse
than that of white teachers, the given circle will press the relationship to deal with it.
We created such a circle from members of two unions from our state calling them United
West Virginia. We decided to close the ranks to fight for public education, not afraid to
use more radical methods than the union bureaucracy. Our circle consists only of regular
members, there are no full-time trade unionists among us. We gather not only teachers but
also technical staff. Putting such a circle turned out to be a great move.
There were elections in November, but the ruling team has not changed for years. The
Democratic grouping that supports us does not have good results in states where teachers
protested and in which informal exits were organized for rallies: in West Virginia, in
Oklahoma, Arizona, Kentucky. State elections are held every two years, after their
completion, the new authorities began to take revenge on the teachers for the strike,
coming up with new regulations. This had a very negative impact on teachers' morale.
Thanks to our circle, however, we were still in touch and still united. In February this
year we went out on strike again. It lasted two days. We protested against the
privatization of schools and their transformation into corporations. The wheels exerted
such strong pressure on the unions that they had to listen to us and do everything to
block this process.
Are you in constant contact with other schools?
United West Virginia includes volunteers whose task is to map schools and people who
support us. They check who is suitable to perform specific tasks, has specific skills or
willingness, but also who knows who, who has what contacts. We have a list of such people
and if necessary we can quickly communicate with each of our state.
It looks like your fight is endless? Are you not tired
We're all exhausted. Teachers have exhausting work, and when it ends we don't have time
off. We hang on the phone all the time, create agitation and information materials,
organize meetings and talk to the local community and parents, etc.
You said earlier that you may be forced to resume protests once again?
Yes, it's possible. We don't know what will happen and we are still discussing various
possible scenarios. In addition, since IWW has put more emphasis on the development of
international contacts, we have been trying to act so that the spark in the global labor
movement of the education sector does not go out. We show solidarity with teachers in
Poland. If there is something you need from us, if we can strengthen you somehow, develop
specific information about how we organized ourselves, let us know. We will support you
with great pleasure.
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