On Saturday, members of the Virginia Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (VCORE) voted to unionize schools in Richmond, the state’s capital. The vote took place over two days, with 99 percent of educators in favor. The Richmond Educators Association (REA), of which VCORE is a part, will serve as official bargaining representative. This is a major victory for public-sector unions in the South, and it comes amid a wave of unionization across the United States and labor militancy among educators.
A December vote to grant Richmond public school employees collective-bargaining rights paved the way for yesterday’s victory. That month, the city’s school board voted 8-1 in favor, making it Virginia’s first school district to reinstate collective-bargaining rights. For 43 years, the state had prohibited local government workers from collective bargaining, but in 2020, the state legislature lifted the ban. Teachers are still prevented from exercising this right in several southern states, including Texas, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia.
VCORE’s victory was the result of powerful rank-and-file organizing from below. The caucus was formed after the teachers’ strike wave in 2018 and 2019 during which, in one year alone, nearly 400,000 educators were involved in work stoppages across the country.
The Richmond teachers’ vote is the latest in the current grassroots unionization trend in the United States which also includes Amazon and Starbucks. These unions eschew lobbying and top-down organizing, and repudiate the labor bureaucracy’s failed strategies.
As VCORE describes its strategy, “We are committed to rebuilding our union from the bottom-up, creating a space to train a network of education workers who are leaders in their unions, schools, and communities. … A labor union should be run directly and democratically by its membership, and act independently of politicians, bureaucrats, and corporations.”
As we have written before, there is no substitute for the power of a combative rank-and-file movement.
Indeed, VCORE is reaching out beyond its union to engage workers across school districts. It has advocated for district-wide assemblies where workers can discuss issues facing the district and democratically decide which course of action to take.
Virginia educators have their work cut out for them, given that the forces aligned against public education are enormous. Their pay ranks 50th in the country, and teachers earn over 10 percent less than workers in similar professions in the state. As highlighted in the recent teachers’ strike in Minneapolis, instructional support staff — which often comprises people of color — generally earn far less.
Virginia is also one of 28 right-to-work states where workers can get union representation without paying dues. This makes it easier for employers to divide workers and pit them against each other.
For this reason, the fight for Virginia educators cannot be left up to just one union. National unions and unions from other industries need to throw their support behind VCORE and REA. These unions must be fighting tools for teachers and workers across the country, and they must be based in democratically self-organized bodies.
Likewise, these emerging teachers’ unions in Virginia should continue to connect their struggles to other unions to win power for workers everywhere. VCORE’s achievement, as part of a nationwide grassroots movement, could pave the way for even more teacher militancy across the South and the United States as a whole, inspiring workers in other sectors. It deserves our fullest support.