West Virginia Teachers and English University Workers

banners for the ACORN Brighton branch

Brighton    One of the undercurrents of my long slough across Europe and the United Kingdom has been the close attention and excitement roused by the West Virginia teachers and their dramatic, and ultimately successful, strike.  In Bulgaria, one of our number was from West Virginia and first called the plan to my attention as the first of a kind in his state where teachers without even a collective bargaining agreement had decided to take action after being offered an insulting one-percent raise for each of five consecutive years along with an increase in health insurance benefits that would decimate any of those proposed legislative increases.  Given that West Virginia teachers and school workers are always in the race for lowest paid in the country with states in the deep South, the fact that they were saying “enough is enough” was inspiration in and of itself.

Originally, we had heard the plan was for a two-day strike, then more days began to be added on, and I began to follow the whole affair more and more closely, as the teachers’ conviction seemed to be deepening.  When they rejected a negotiated deal between the governor and union leaders that would have given them more money – as well as all state employees – because both houses of the legislature had not agreed and the insurance mess was still not resolved, then I could tell we were watching some real freedom fighters that would change the state of West Virginia and perhaps more.  Finally, they won a 5% increase and the package they needed from the Governor and legislative leaders.  Mossbacks that threatened that they would balance the state budget for the wage increases by taking it out of Medicaid, essentially trying to punish the poor to upbraid their own workers, the Governor had to assure the teachers that this would never happen.

screening and meeting in Brighton Friends’ Meeting House

Part of the reason the strike was being followed so closely in recent days was because many university employees have started a rolling strike in England.  Several of our members in Sheffield had to leave as soon as the screening ended because they had picket line duty the next day.  In Brighton last night ACORN leaders were buzzing and running out to make calls and catch the news since several worked as administrative staff at Sussex and other area universities.  The issue here has been a proposal to change the pension from a defined benefit to a defined contribution scheme, which many have no doubt accurately calculated would cost them thousands of pounds now and even more in lost benefits in the future.  61 of more than 100 universities are participating, and the tactic thus far has been one day out the first week, two the second, three the third, and so on, and now preparation for a week-long strike in coming days.

people filing in

Will they win?  Hard to say, but they want to be West Virginians now, and many are hoping that these pushbacks by labor at the grassroots rank-and-file are a sign of change in the labor movement and a message to employers and politicians everywhere that working families are now drawing the line.

briefing after the Q&A on upcoming ACORN meetings and events

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Standing Room Only in Paris and Interesting Question about Free Speech

Paris     What do I know?  The young organizer was worried that the room we had for screening the documentary on ACORN called “The Organizer” in Paris was too small.  More than 40 people had said they were coming on Facebook.  I assured her we would be lucky to break 20 or 25, especially since the movie was virtually all in English except for some short pieces in Spanish in Honduras, Kannada in Bengaluru, and French in Cameroon, and Facebook “likes” have no meaning any more.  Wow, was I wrong!

I knew something was happening when we already had 8 to 10 people 15 minutes before showtime.  When the movie began we had close to 40 and others trickled in during the first 30 minutes.  And, despite the close, warm room and tightly packed with people sitting on tables and standing along the edges, and the breaks for translation every 10 or 15 minutes, the crowd stayed until the bitter end.  Subtitles, S’il vous plaît !!!

At the end of the movie I was able to give the usual thanks to our affiliate, Alliance Citoyenne and our partner ReAct, but the questions were very interesting in some cases, even for me as increasingly a veteran with a number of these screenings under my belt.  I was asked the usual questions of course.  Was Bernie Sanders making a difference and was there hope there?  What were our plans internationally?  Could we organize all over France, to which I answered, you’ve seen the documentary, so you know we believe we have to be truly national to build national power.  How do we organize, to which I was able to answer:  read Nuts & Bolts, and they were able to rejoin, how soon will it be translated into French – when I answered perhaps in a year, there were actually howls of protest.  I love organizing in France!

Where once in New York I was asked what was the chance of ending capitalism, in Paris I got a question from what of the movie organizers, about where ACORN stood on creating the revolution.  Both questions would stump the stars!

One of the most interesting questions I got was about Brietbart.com, Fox News, Glenn Beck and Megan Kelley.  In the United States, several asked, aren’t there penalties and recourse for the kind of vicious, public media attack ACORN had experienced in 2009 and 2010?  Usually, when ACORN raises the principle of free speech, it is to defend our right to speak as others are trying to prevent our leaders and members from speaking.  This time I was answering that we have free speech and public discourse, even at the top of our lungs, in the United States so the only recourse is speaking back when attached, even if unable to access the same kinds of major megaphones Fox and others have.

There was head shaking and looks of disbelief.  Several said it would have been different in France, setting me back on my heels as I continued to argue that we had to be able to take a punch and keep fighting.

Walking to the Metro later that night, I found myself continuing to mull over the question, but still convinced that less free speech would hurt organizing and our organizations more than some fig leaf shot at damages in some court after blows have already been landed.  Hearing Trump argue for more protection against “fake news,” even as he mass produces it, finds me surprised at how European he must be without realizing it as he shouts, “America First!”

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