A century before teachers in the US launched their wildcat strike wave this spring, workers in the war industries did the same during World War I. Self-organized teachers are using high profile wildcat strikes to turn back decades of efforts to dismantle public education. What has been overlooked in much of the news coverage is that these strikes parallel another wave of wildcat strikes in the war industries that rocked the country 100 years ago during World War I.

From March to May teachers, and in places joined by school staff and even school district administrators who canceled classes, called in sick or walked off the job shutting down much of the public education systems in the states of West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, North Carolina, Puerto Rico, and the largest school district in Colorado. In every wildcat strike except Puerto Rico teachers won an assortment of increased funding, higher pay, re-investment in underfunded pensions, small class sizes, and longer school weeks where it had been cut back to four days per week.

At the start of World War I, self-organized women textile workers without a formal union struck across New England in opposition to the union trying to organize them. Over the next few years their wildcat strikes spread to workers in iron, weapons, clothing, timber, shipping, coal, and other critical war industries, picking up steam once the US entered the war in 1917. Those strikes emboldened workers across the country and prompted years of strikes into the early 1920s. While the 1920s are remembered for the dearth of working class conflict the WWI era wildcat strikes are the now forgotten precursor to the 1930’s depression era wildcat strikes that prompted the New Deal reforms.

Much like the WWI wildcat strikers, the 2018 teachers strike wave may be an indicator of resurgent working class self-organisation that is recomposing working class power. In the six states where the shutdown was statewide, as well as Puerto Rico, teachers have been reduced to contingent annual workers whose wages have dropped so low many are forced to take second jobs. As they successfully strike in states considered hostile to unions, we should examine their tactics, strategies, and objectives to see if their efforts portend a newly emerging recomposition of working class power that can alter the balance of power between capital and workers.

The Labor Planning State is Born

Nearly two decades before the much heralded New Deal, the Wilson administration responded to the strike wave by embarking on an experimental new policy of mandatory arbitration that required workers and and employers to submit their dispute to a government referee. An array of newly improvised federal boards were set up to oversee war production and set wages in iron, weapons, textiles, timber, shipping, coal, and other critical war industries. President Wilson soon settled on the National War Labor Board (NWLB), co-chaired by radical labor lawyer Frank Walsh and former President William Howard Taft, as the central coordinating body for labor relations. The NWLB became a short-lived embryonic prototype for what would later become Roosevelt’s famed 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Perhaps the NWLB’s longest lasting impact is its introduction of mandatory arbitration continues to constrain working class organizing to this day.

While the historical consensus is that the Depression era strike wave pushed the Roosevelt Administration to pass the NLRA, workers had already done so nearly two decades earlier. The WWI wildcat strikers demonstrated that the strike could be used to disrupt critical industries providing the crucial leverage for concessions and reforms that are otherwise blocked, defeated, or repressed.

The NWLB ushered in mandatory arbitration between workers and business, often in the middle of snap wildcat strikes that threatened war production. Workers directly petitioned the NWLB to intervene in a labor dispute, umpires were sent in to investigate, and the board issued ad hoc rulings sometimes in days or weeks. These rulings delivered significant concessions in higher wages and shorter hours relatively quickly that got the workers back to work. The short time from from strike to concessions offered a strategy for other workers to emulate. Before long, self-organized workers seized upon the wildcat strike to extract concessions that years of previous efforts had utterly failed to achieve.

What came out of the rulings were hardly radical. The board explicitly sought to maintain the existing relations between workers and capital, often splitting the difference by shortening work hours and raising wages in exchange for getting the workers back to work under the same conditions. The board mostly ignored workers demands to reign in Taylorism which usurped control over their work and tied pay to productivity. The NWLB also adamantly refused to recognize newly self-organized shopfloor committees as unions or sanction collective bargaining to negotiate labor contracts. Instead, the board mandated elections for new shopfloor committees as a tactic to redirect workers from organizing and striking. While some committees became company pawns, others became de facto unions.

The NWLB’s awards failed to stem the strike wave as workers repeatedly struck soon again after successfully achieving a concession that lacked a legally binding contractual period. From 1915 to 1917 the number of strikes tripled to a stunning 4,359, and the number of workers on strike rose by 250 percent. Many workers under American Federation Labor (AFL) contracts also wildcatted despite the wartime ban on strike issued unilaterally by AFL President Samuel Gompers. In the mere 16 months of its existence, a little less than half the time during the war, the NWLB held investigations, conducted hearings, and issued awards, findings, recommendations, and orders concerning 490 cases. Many of the awards raised pay, particularly for lower paid unskilled workers and women, simplified complicated wage scales, and reduced hours.

NWLB awards effectively compressed the wage hierarchy among the workers and put them all—men and women, skilled and unskilled—under one wage scale and work rules not only in a single work site but an entire company and even industry. One of the most important principles it pursued was equal pay for equal work for women in critical war industries. In doing so the NWLB inadvertently created the conditions facilitating working class cooperation unseen since the American Railway Union and the Knights of Labor organized all workers into a single union decades earlier. While the number of strikes declined a bit in 1918 the number of workers on strike remained steady.

The corporations were hardly on board with mandatory arbitration. Nearly all of them initially refused to recognize the NWLB until President Wilson threatened to nationalize any company that refused to play along, which he did with the Western Union Telegraph Company And a few others. That did the trick. The companies begrudgingly accepted mandatory arbitration for just as long as the country was at war and not a day longer.

When the war ended, business retaliated by abrogating the NWLB awards and issuing massive layoffs. The NWLB became immobilized and shut down a few months later. The layoffs and wage cuts sparked general strikes in steel and coal and led to workers taking over the city of Seattle. The 1921 Battles of Blair Mountain was the final battle of the miners’ army in West Virginia, marking the final defeat of the WWI wildcat strike wave.

AFL President Gompers also reversed course 180 degrees. He not only embraced mandatory arbitration, which he had once denounced as a form of “slavery.” Gompers became such a true believer that he even called for firing workers who refused to arbitrate or abide by NWLB rulings and endorsed company unions that took over elected shop committees. In exchange for joining the Democratic Party’s big tent, Gompers became the chair of the Council of National Defense (CND) Committee on Labor under whose authority he issued a ban on wartime strikes despite the AFL’s executive council voting against it.

The AFL, now called the AFL-CIO, never relinquished its commitment to arbitration, what we now call collective bargaining, and the Democratic Party.. Understanding the history of the WWI wildcat strikes demonstrates that the harnessing of unions to the Democrats and collective bargaining, which have dampened working class recomposition, didn’t begin with President Roosevelt’s New Deal, as is often mistakenly asserted, but with President Wilson’s NWLB during WWI.

Needless to say, Wilson’s proto-labor relations scheme kept production humming so that the guns on the European front could keep firing. In the West, where the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) entirely rejected arbitration and contracts, their strikes in the timber industry, which was critical for the production of military airplanes, were met with local terrorism and official repression. Mandatory arbitration and repression of the IWW were two sides of the same policy.

The NWLB temporarily slowed strikes, but failed to stop them. Workers used mandatory arbitration to raise their atrociously low wages and shorten their horrifically long hours. Many wildcat strikes led to quick NWLB intervention an concessions which strengthened and emboldened workers. At the same time, the NWLB developed a prototype of what was later called Fordism in which collective bargaining is used to harness labor to state capitalism by exchanging higher wages for higher productivity. The mainstream labor historians have gotten this wrong as well: the classic Fordist wage-productivity deal was born during WWI, not under the New Deal.

Teachers and Working Class Recomposition

The teacher strikes are proving to be widely popular because they confront increasingly unpopular neoliberal austerity and privatization policies that have decimated the quality of public education and working conditions of teachers and other education staff. They simultaneously raise doubts about the tactics and strategies of the labor movement while making the case for worker self-organization without them. The question we should be exploring is whether the teacher strike wave heralds a recomposition of the working class.

To assess whether the teachers struggle will be circulated to other sectors of the working class we need to examine their tactics, strategies and objectives to identify indicators of new forms of working class organization. While we currently lack in depth analyses from those involved in the struggles themselves we can makes some preliminary observations.

A few basic observations about the composition of the teaching labor force in the US is necessary. About 76 percent of primary and secondary teachers are women and 56 percent have a graduate degree. The average teacher wage is $58,000/year and has fallen 1 percent adjusted for inflation between 1990-91 and 2015-16. Because female employees are on average lower paid than male even when doing the same work, this large segment of the US professional workforce is already highly exploited.

Working conditions have increasingly eroded for teachers as well. Workers are weak even in states with union “closed shops” where all workers in a workplace with a union contract are covered by the contract and served by the union whether a member or not. The reason is that we are all “at will” workers who can be fired for any reason although having a contract provides a modicum of due process rights. While 40 states offer tenure or seniority rights, 16 require teachers meet Taylorist performance measurements to obtain it and 11 allow even tenured teachers to be laid off due to such measurements. Tenure is under assault from many directions in both public education and public higher education: performance evaluations, the rapid rise of untenured adjuncts, the erosion of faculty governance powers, and austerity.

Although the national teachers unions, the American Federation of Teachers and National Education Association, have a presence in each of the states they do not appear to have played any substantial role in organizing the teachers wildcat strikes. Initial reports indicate that teachers self-organized in person, at local assemblies, and by social media by school, district, and county. With entirely volunteer efforts they obtained verbal commitments to strike and then replicated their efforts across each state. The West Virginia strike appeared to have stimulated similar efforts in Kentucky, Oklahoma and Arizona. Once the strikes occurred, with the strikes in Kentucky, Colorado and North Carolina occurring with little advanced public reporting, teachers resisted calls by the existing unions, to which a small percentage of teachers belonged, to de-escalate and lobby or pursue a ballot initiative, and accept promises of pay and funding increases. Opinion polls showed high levels of public support for the teachers demands for higher pay, defending assaults on their pensions, and funding for all public schools because they countered decades of neoliberal attacks on public education. In a few states the teachers were even supported by local school administrators who canceled classes saving the teachers from using sick leave to conduct their walk outs. The mass support allowed teachers to not only circulate their struggle statewide in relatively short periods of time but stay on strike for several weeks even after winning their initial demands with little public backlash.

While all the strikers used disruption of education and the economy to get more funding and salary increases, they did not coalesce around demands for rolling back privatization and charter schools, which allow private control of publicly funded schools exempted from most labor and transparency laws, and other critical issues of neoliberalism. In some places the teachers won demands for smaller class sizes but it was not consistent across the strikes. The tactic of the disruptive strike was used for the limited strategy of extracting concessions from each state legislature and governor. While some stayed on site to provide food for poor children who would miss out on their free and reduced lunch, most of the teachers abandoned their center of power, the schools, to march on their state capitals for protests and lobbying for more funding. In doing so the teachers concentrated their power to disrupt on demanding elected representatives, hostile to the very concept of public education, make the changes for them.

While the strikes indicate a first step in a larger strike wave they do not yet have a strategy for reasserting more teacher, community and student control over education. Few schools were occupied, academic governance powers were not restored to faculty and students, and the authority to reject or shut down charters, for example, was not extended to local elected school boards. There was a mismatch between tactics and strategy that is bound to leave their victories vulnerable to being turned into later defeats. For example, if strikers succeeded in getting increased pay and public funding but failed to get a reduction in class sizes their productivity increase from teaching more students will both cancel out their increased pay and the expected gains for improved school funding. In Oklahoma, the tax increased passed by the legislature to fund the concessions is already at risk of being overturned by a ballot initiative.

Most impressive, however, was that the 2018 strike wave bypassed collective bargaining and legal recognition entirely. This is in stark contrast to the better known public sector wildcat strike wave of the 1970s that resulted in extracting state laws that legalized collective bargaining and strikes for public sector workers. As a result of the 1970s strike wave the public sector became the most unionized sector of the economy. But the public sector unions are weak in many of the states where teachers struck this Spring. In the few states where the unions were active this spring it was as minority striker unions, following, rather than leading, the strikes. The lack of union involvement can be seen by the lack of information about the strikes on their websites. While there are reports of some teachers and staff signing up with unions they have not made any lasting gains. The most significant impact of the wildcat strikes was as an assertion of worker power directly on the state not about union recognition and other legalities.

Since all but one of these states are so-called “right to work” states where public employers are not obligated to engage in collective bargaining, workers are able to free ride on the benefits of a contract without paying dues, strikes are banned, the unions lack majority status and a binding contract. Although a few union locals have contracts in Kentucky nearly all the teachers and other school staff who struck have no contract. The lack of a contract means highly educated professional teachers have been reduced to contingent workers on an annual contract with no tenure, legal due process rights, possibility of filing grievances, and virtually no control over academic issues such as curriculum.

But the lack of a contract can be interpreted in other ways, The lack of a contract means no one is driving a strategy of “protect the contract at all costs” conservatism in which the union cherry picks grievances and gives up the strike for limited bargaining over wages and benefits. This approach all too commonly characterizes unions in so-called “progressive” states with higher union density where the unions have become an adjunct to the Democratic Party spending far more money on elections and lobbying than worker organizing. Ironically, the repressive laws that have prevented unions from taking root provided the very lack of legal sanction that harnesses workers to the contract and thus union discipline. The teacher strikes encourage us to look to states where union contracts are rare or non-existent for the most fertile ground for the self-organized resurgence of the working class.

The 2018 wildcat strikes have moved the struggle to a higher level of intensity and sophistication by demonstrating the capacity of workers to thoroughly self-organize across partisan lines under hostile working conditions. If the US Supreme Court rules as expected in the Janus v. AFSCME case this summer the entire country will become “right to work,” establishing the conditions that may facilitate the circulation of the teachers strike wave while it hampers unions ability to fight to defend existing gains.

A Century Old Lesson

In these ways, the 2018 teacher strike wave is analogous to the 1918 war time strikes. Outside the few AFL organized locals, the workers lacked both the coercive discipline of the contract and state and federal collective bargaining laws that so often preempt, redirect, and dampen worker self-organization. By refusing to allow a union election or collective bargaining the NWLB only exacerbated the crisis for capital and the state. The lack of sanctions for organizing, striking and disrupting war production for all but the IWW dramatically lowered the costs while raising the potential gains for the workers to self-organize and strike.

As we head into our fourth decade of neoliberal economic policy we might pause to consider the inter-connected lessons of the World War I wildcat strikers and the striking teachers and school workers today. Then as today workers are discovering how disrupting production provides the necessary leverage to obtain much needed concessions when all other acceptable efforts have been blocked, defeated, and repressed. These concessions re-energize the workers movement opening the way for long overdue reforms that can shift the balance of power for years to come and provide fertile ground for long overdue systemic change.