The 2016 election left many liberals hopeless. To them, the battle seemed over, and the good guys had inexplicably lost. For anyone further left than Clinton, the run-up to the 2018 elections has been equally depressing. The plan for the Democrats has been to focus on a combination of the Chuck Schumer strategy (“For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia…”) and betting hard on anti-Russian fervor to drive turnout. None of this bodes well for the future if your ideal future features either a Democratic party capable of winning, a legitimately leftist Democratic party, or both. Yet the last month has given new hope of resurrecting the dying labor movement, and maybe the left as a whole.
February 22, 2018, may be remembered by future generations as the beginning of a new labor movement in America. Why? Because on that day, teachers across West Virginia signaled their unwillingness to have their insurance and healthcare compromised, and their pay set to levels that failed to cover the cost of living increases. They did this via a statewide strike which brought the education system to a halt for over a week until the West Virginia Senate finally passed a 5% pay raise for all state employees. Their strike was not only significant because it occurred in a state ranked 48th in the nation for teacher pay, or because West Virginia law prohibits work stoppages by public employees, or because West Virginia has been a right-to-work state (in which employees do not have to pay union dues to the union in their workplace) for years now. The strike was also significant because it worked, and it kicked off a series of labor strikes nationwide.
Unlike the 2011 Wisconsin teachers strike, that developed into a recall election effort against Governor Scott Walker, the West Virginia strike stayed focused on a specific policy goal and got it. Maybe just as significantly, their strike didn’t just fade away once it ended. No, the show of force from organized labor in one state was contagious, and it spread overnight. There were strikes in Oklahoma, Kentucky, Indian, Arizona, and Chicago and one recently here in Southern California.
What does all of that mean if you’re not a teacher? It means a lot of things, but we can isolate two. First, that protests and organized popular action don’t need to be focused on electoral politics; we can achieve objectives that better the lives of those fighting for them without turning every issue into the next recall election. Second, it suggests the left in America is coming back. It’d be sheer wishful thinking that it is back, that labor is as strong as ever, and that the economic base of the old left has returned. However, the left is coming back, and its first step is the establishment of a strong labor base.
It’s not enough to pick up two moderate Republican women in the Philadelphia suburbs for every factory worker lost, not least of all because that’s a strategy that’s never proven to work. Making long-term gains comes from cultivating a powerful message and a base willing to fight for it. If the teachers on strike across the country can teach us anything going forward, it’s that there are real problems in America, problems waiting to be solved. The left is rebuilding itself around fixing those problems, and it’s doing so from the ground up, based on a core audience that experienced those problems every day and is willing to fight for a permanent solution. The picket lines in front of schools, and the state capitals filled with hundreds of protesters, and even the unions sending pizza to their striking comrades in other parts of the country should be signs that middle America is foreign to the left; on the contrary, they’re home.
The people are ready for a change, and they aren’t waiting for 2020 to make it happen. The beginnings of a new and stronger left are born now, in those places where all hope for a better future once seemed lost.
Daniel Kim, Grade 10