West Virgina teachers show path forward if Supreme Court hobbles unions

Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The Supreme Court may soon take away a key union tool for protecting workers’ rights. If it does, we should look to West Virginia teachers to show the way forward for labor rights.

West Virginia teachers on Monday entered the eighth day of a strike begun February 22 seeking a salary increase and more affordable health care. Their work is a sign of the labor activism that may be in store if the Supreme Court removes further legal tools from public sector unions.

All strikes by public employees are illegal in West Virginia, one of 28 states with “right to work” laws allowing employees in unionized workplaces to opt out of union dues. In 22 of those states, unions may collect smaller “fair share” fees from workers whom the union is obligated to represent, but who don’t pay union dues.

The Supreme Court is poised to rule that public sector unions can’t collect such fees. The ruling would mean that unions in 22 states including West Virginia, where fair share fees are currently allowed, would have significantly fewer resources to combat unfair labor practices and fight for better working conditions.

As I wrote last month, if the Supreme Court rules that employees can’t be obligated to pay such fees because public sector unions are inherently political, then workers can and should prove just how political they can really be. That means taking action to protect themselves, even if the government decides such action is illegal, just as West Virginia teachers are doing now.

Since West Virginia is a right to work state, not all teachers in the state necessarily pay union dues. But all of them are striking, in spite of the fact that their state doesn’t allow it — and they have good reason for doing so.

As high school teacher Katie Endicott told the New York Times:

[Our] health insurance was going to rise substantially. As a West Virginia teacher — and I’ve been teaching 10 years — I only clear right under $1,300 every two weeks, and they’re wanting to take $300 more away for me. But they tell me it’s O.K., because we’re going to give you a 1 percent pay raise. That equals out to 88 cents every two days.

West Virginia teachers make the 48th-lowest salary in the country. As the Washington Post points out, by some metrics, teachers in West Virginia are doing better than those in plenty of other states. But that doesn’t make things any less difficult for West Virginia teachers — if anything, it proves that all teachers deserve a raise.

Similarly, the cheapest health insurance plans in West Virginia rank about in the middle of states in terms of cost. The absolute cheapest health care plans across the U.S. cost between $181 and $366 per month.

That doesn’t necessarily say anything about the rates for public school teachers, but it does give a sense of how many other states have workers in positions that are just as bad, if not worse, when it comes to health care.

The reality is that employees in every state are paying too much for medical treatment. It’s absolutely unacceptable that people regularly suffer and die purely because they can’t afford health care.

Already, the bravery of West Virginia teachers seems to be spreading. Teachers in Oklahoma met Friday to discuss a possible statewide strike similar to the one currently underway in West Virginia.

And on Sunday, West Virginia communications workers announced that they, too, would be going on strike after Frontier Communications failed to agree to a contract that employees considered fair.

With workers in so many states in precarious positions, it’s no surprise that more and more of them are going on strike, regardless of the law. It wouldn’t be surprising to see an upswing in militant labor activism in the coming months no matter how the Supreme Court rules on fair share fees.

But, as the Supreme Court heard last Monday in oral arguments, “When unions are deprived of agency fees, they tend to become more militant, more confrontational.” And if workers are deprived of union representation, they’ll turn to whatever means they can use.

West Virginia teachers organized the current strike independent from union leadership, and it’s individual teachers who are keeping the momentum going. If the Supreme Court decimates union power, it may open the floodgates to even more rank-and-file activism that will hold little regard for legal systems that were never designed to benefit workers.

The more the federal government takes away workers’ few incentives to follow the law when seeking better employment conditions, the more likely it becomes that workers will stop following the law. If the Supreme Court ends fair share fees — and even if it doesn’t — we should look to West Virginia teachers to show the way forward for labor rights.