The wildcat strike in West Virgnina was "illegal" or, technically, unlawful, too. But we may have reached a pivotal point in the degradation of labor where that question no longer has any power.Hundreds of Kentucky teachers cheered Friday as Republican lawmakers decided not to vote on a bill that would cut retirement benefits for one of the nation's worst-funded public pension plans.The GOP-led Senate was scheduled to vote on the pension bill Friday, but lawmakers quickly called a recess to talk about the bill in private for several hours. They finally emerged shortly after 1:30 p.m. to announce they were sending the bill back to committee for possible changes."Individuals wanted more time to consider the position that we are in," Republican Senate President Robert Stivers said.Outside, teachers cheered when they got the news before erupting into chants of "we won't back down." The showdown comes at a time of growing unrest among public educators across the country, led by thousands of West Virginia teachers who walked off the job for nine days to secure a 5 percent pay raise from the state legislature.Teachers in Arizona and Oklahoma are considering similar action. In Kentucky, some teachers say they are willing to strike. But Stephanie Winkler, president of the Kentucky Education Association, said striking is illegal in Kentucky. She said the only way it could happen is if superintendents agreed to close the schools, adding: "We hope it doesn't have to come to that."
Though it is illegal for public employees in West Virginia to strike, they struck anyway. Highlighting the long tradition of taking illegal action to win a righteous cause, many strikers here made homemade signs saying, “Rosa Parks was not wrong.” The state initially threatened to file injunctions to end the strike, but it was forced to back down. At moments of mass struggle, in other words, legality becomes a question of a relationship of forces. If a strike has the strength, the momentum, and the support of the public at large, it is hard for the ruling elite to crack down.Teacher evaluations and job security are on the agenda in the Louisiana legislature this session. Lawmakers ought to know this may not be a good year to antagonize them.
A willingness to flout the law will be particularly crucial over the coming period. The constraints of the legal and institutional structure of US labor relations have already set up the union movement to fail. This will become even more the case if, as expected, the Supreme Court eliminates crucial labor rights in the public sector. But as the experience of West Virginia shows, it is possible to fight and win even in the face of the most draconian legal obstacles.