Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Don't Mourn, Organize!Busting the Myth of Union Declension

By David LeynovPublished February 16, 2019

Striking Teachers Rally at the West Virginia State Capitol
Recent teachers' strikes in West Virginia and Los Angeles have proven that organized labor from dead. Rather, reinvigorated militancy in the wake of the Janus decision breathes new life into an old cause.

Richard Ojeda, a man best characterized by beefy arms, fiery rhetoric, and a remarkable propensity to refer to lobbyists as “bootlickers,” hardly seems emblematic of the incipient wave of strikes that continues to rock the political establishment and thrash what is left of labor-management “accord.” The gritty West Virginian voted, after all, for Donald Trump. Nonetheless, the nature of Ojeda’s appeal in his home state and across the America stems from his unbridled populism and from his Debs-esque appeals to organized labor. A former paratrooper, Ojeda takes pride in comparing teachers to combatants on the “front line” of a “national attack,” and even goes so far as to suggest that the middle class should be “taking up arms.” Whether he is referring to rhetorical or real arms is unclear. Chalk that up to his elusive charm.

Irrespective of rhetoric, Ojeda helped to commandeer a movement that was able to achieve its material and political objectives. Last year’s prolific teachers’ strike in West Virginia secured a 5% pay raise from Democrat-turned-Trump-lover and Governor Jim Justice. Aside from pay, the strike served as a momentous reminder of the power of withheld labor in the face of a breakdown in collective bargaining. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 stipulated that “the right… to bargain collectively” serves to “restor[e] equality of bargaining power between employers and employees.” Evidently, Justice neglected to recall the existence of a powerful, militant alternative to collective bargaining -- the wildcat strike. The term “wildcat” refers to any strike that is undertaken without the permission of union leadership, but this strike had the added distinction of also being illegal. Indeed, many states, including West Virginia, have laws on the books that preclude widespread organizing in the public sector, but the strike’s success shows that when labor gets cornered, it gets angry.

That militancy became palpable in the wake of the Supreme Court’s disastrous decision in Janus v. AFSCME, which effectively transformed public sector employment into an “open shop” and thus rendered the payment of union dues fully optional. It seems as though Janus has shocked organized labor back into organizing. Just this past January, Los Angeles public school teachers struck for, among other things, smaller class sizes and a moratorium on the expansion of charter schools in the district. The mainstream Democratic Party’s affinity for charter schools, as well as its corresponding love for such words as “school choice” and “incentives,” met the full force of teacher solidarity when the Los Angeles Unified School District pushed that moratorium through. Right there on the “front lines” of that fight, by the way, was Richard Ojeda.

Let’s step back for a second. United Teachers Los Angeles hasn’t struck since 1989, and West Virginia hasn’t seen this sort of labor militancy since the Battle of Blair Mountain (that’s where the term “redneck” comes from). These new insurrections hardly fit the narrative of union declension and labor apathy that academics and journalists have been feeding us. Rather, Los Angeles and West Virginia represent the very beginnings of a nascent radical labor movement that seems ready to stand up to hostile courts and presidents alike.