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(en) Poland, Workers Initiative, Teachers' strike in the USA [machine translation]

Date 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 workplaces?

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 visible.

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.

http://ozzip.pl/teksty/publicystyka/walki-pracownicze/item/2535-strajk-nauczycieli-w-usa
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