Learn From Teachers

Book Review:

Blanc, Eric, “Red State Revolt. The Teachers’ Strikes and Working-Class Politics.” Verso, London, New York, 2019.

The book is a collaboration between Verso Books and Jacobin magazine, jacobinmag.com

“In the Spring of 2018, teachers and school staff across the United States fought back and won.” That’s the beginning.

The book purports to tell how they did it, which is something that everybody in America needs to know.

Blanc mentions other labor actions, but his main reporting comes from the strikes by school employees in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona. At the time, and even now, the victories seem incredible! In all of these states, what they did was illegal. None of them had a great deal of union density, and none of them had a single school employees’ union with a commanding majority of workers signed up. In West Virginia, there were three competing statewide unions claiming jurisdiction. (page 60)

Unity Sounds Easy, But Isn’t

Here’s the basic strategy on page 47: “…the basic challenge for a successful education strike is to close schools by building up and maintaining employee unity in action, while simultaneously seeking public support.” Would that every union and progressive organization in America take that to heart!

Overcoming Divisions

If working people could unite, we could win anything we wanted. Everybody knows that, but, so far, none of us knows how. Blanc treats some of the causes of our disunity: laws, racism, and red-baiting.

Page 54: “…at moments of struggle, legality comes down to a relationship of forces.” On page 76, Blanc says “Labor law in the United States is uniquely structured to divide working people.”

The number one divisive issue in American labor is racism. Blanc treats the problem around page 65 and concludes that it was not a major problem for the school employees.

The Bernie Sanders presidential campaign of 2016 had seriously changed people’s attitudes. Even though socialists took leading roles in the strikes, there was very little red-baiting. The bosses’ propaganda campaigns were not decisive. On page 80, Blanc says “…public support actually increased after the strikes began.”

Unions and Allies Cooperated

The strikes were generated from the rank and file employees, not by their unions. The unions, however, generally cooperated with the process. Other unions, such as construction workers in Oklahoma, significantly helped. As for the main school employees’ unions, Blanc says on page 84, “…though the AFL-CIO, National Education Association, and AFT unfortunately failed to organize any systematic national support campaign, solidarity messages and photos from individual unions across the country similarly bolstered the educators’ spirits. Churches proved to be no less politically important.”

On page 92, Blanc describes the reaction when major West Virginia union leaders announced that they had made a settlement and were calling off the strike. When details of the very inadequate settlement emerged, the strike went wildcat! Workers stayed away from work in spite of their unions!

Technology Changes Strategy

Traditional union actions may not have yet fully grasped the changes in communications technology, but the striking workers in this book did. The West Virginia strike actually began as a Facebook page. On page 115, Blanc says “Without social media, there’s no chance that the red state revolt would have developed as it did.” At the same time, it would be a big mistake to think that the entire campaign came about because of social media. On page 150, Blanc says flatly “…establishing real workplace power can’t be forged solely through Facebook.”

The “Magic” Was Hard Work

It is my considered opinion that Blanc’s main point is found around page 140: that success did not come from some magic formula, nor from social media, nor from brilliant leadership. It came from hard work. “Lost in the breezy national media reports were the months of organizing – and the political strategies that informed these activities – that made West Virginia’s success possible.”

Here is the concluding paragraph: “No one has any illusions that it will be easy to reestablish an influential Left rooted in a fighting working class. This will require patient organizing over many years. Our enemies are powerful – and we’ll certainly experience many defeats along the way. But never underestimate the ability of working people to turn the world upside down.”

–Gene Lantz

I’m on KNON’s “Workers Beat” talk radio show at 9 AM Central Time every Saturday. If you are curious about what I really think, check out my personal web site

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