What can turn the teachers' union around?

Michael Mochaidean, a public school teacher in West Virginia, provides his view on the direction for the union after its strategy for the 2016 elections failed completely.

Public school teachers rally against "right to work" legislation in West Virginia (West Virginia Education Association | Facebook)Public school teachers rally against "right to work" legislation in West Virginia (West Virginia Education Association | Facebook)

CAN LEFT-wing politics and action save conservative unions from themselves?

This April, the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA), an affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA), met in West Virginia's capital for its annual delegate assembly.

Nominally, the NEA is a progressive education union whose mission is "to advocate for education professionals and to unite our members and the nation to fulfill the promise of public education to prepare every student to succeed in a diverse and interdependent world," according to the NEA's website.

Similarly to the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), one of the chief means by which the NEA pursues these goals politically is by courting Democratic candidates whom they believe will advocate for teachers in their state. That strategy has proven to be ineffective, particularly in the current right-wing political climate--and in a state that has tipped more and more to the right along with mainstream politics.

West Virginia acts as a stand-in for all things Appalachian in our national consciousness--rural, exclusively white, poor, bigoted and isolated. To some extent, these caricatures tell us more about the liberal observer than the reality of life in the state.

Upon further analysis, it becomes clear that West Virginian interests and attitudes aren't monolithic. The stereotypes and even the statewide surveys of public opinion miss the critical junctures of a population that historically has been active politically, including around the most left wing of ideals.

It's politically unwise to neglect the state's history of solidarity and struggle, something that WVEA members have learned the hard way.

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A SENSE of paternalism loomed over the 2016 Delegate Assembly, its 150th such gathering.

Dale Lee, president of the WVEA, opened the 2016 assembly with optimism at the prospect of a clean political sweep for the Democrats, nationally and statewide.

Certainly, attendees agreed, voters nationwide would reject Donald Trump's agenda and proceed with the coronation of Hillary Clinton, whom both the WVEA and the NEA had endorsed. Meanwhile, West Virginia Democrats, it was hoped, could focus on making a centrist appeal against the Republican right and make gains in the state House and Senate.

This wasn't what happened. Trump, of course, won the White House, despite losing the popular vote for president. Republicans widened their control in the control of the state Senate from an 18-16 majority to a 22-12 majority, while the Democrats picked up only one seat in the state House of Delegates.

At this year's WVEA Delegate Assembly, a visibly downtrodden Lee remarked that the new order would attempt to enact anti-education legislation. He was right. Payroll deduction, pupil ratios and intellectual freedom bills--all designed to undermine the power of the state's teachers union--have been proposed or already sent to the governor's office for signing.

"The WVEA is broken," Lee told his audience. "Our locals are broken." Indeed, few locals have annual budgets, meetings rarely attract more than 15 members, and monthly meetings aren't held uniformly.

As far as elections and politics, local PACs, which are crucial to the WVEA's process for making political endorsements, were almost nonexistent in the past election. Only one state senator recommended by a local PAC won their race in November.

David Haney, the executive director of the WVEA, echoed Lee's assessments. Besides reporting a decline in membership, Haney, like Lee, excoriated voters who supported conservative Republican candidates against their own interests as union members. According to Haney and Lee, even some WVEA members were persuaded to vote on the basis of right-wing ideology rather than what was best for their pocketbooks.

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IN ONE sense, the WVEA delegate assemblies in 2016 and 2017 took place in wildly different political situations. But in another sense, they were mirror images of the challenges that facing an educator's union that is superficially progressive but substantively centrist and passive. And herein lies the difficulty for teachers' unions in the age of neoliberalism.

Haney's assessment that West Virginian voters were swayed by the political savvy of a right-wing demagogue obscures the larger picture of what was presented to West Virginia voters.

First of all, West Virginians had a strong distaste for Clinton. For one thing, she never effectively articulated how she would assist former coal miners find new jobs, including in renewable energy.

Her infamous statement that she was going to "put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business" confirmed the suspicions of many people, who had already been fed a steady diet of anti-environmental talking points from Republicans during the Obama years.

At the state level, West Virginians were presented with two choices for governor: Democratic candidate Jim Justice and Republican Bill Cole.

Justice, who won the election, was a Republican until three months before filing to run for office. The wealthiest person in West Virginia, Justice has never served in any elected office--he made his fortune, estimated at over $1 billion, through the coal industry. Bill Cole, then the president of the state Senate, got $98,000 from oil, gas and coal donors and was equally conservative on many of the same economic issues as Justice.

The WVEA ended up endorsing Justice in the Democratic primary against Jeff Kessler, a state senator and supporter of Bernie Sanders. To at least some members, the WVEA seemed to be becoming nothing more than a rubber stamp for blue-dog Democrats.

Now the WVEA is suffering, both for complacency in assuming that its choices at the national and state level would win office and then enact a pro-education agenda, and because the union-endorsed candidate who did win, Justice, is as conservative as they come in the Democratic Party.

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THE WVEA has a different history to waiting and hoping for Democrats to be elected. In March 1990, WVEA members voted to strike against worsening working conditions.

Average annual teacher pay was $21,904, making West Virginia the 49th-worst state for teacher pay. The Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA) had a six-month backlog for medical expenses. The state offered little in the way of financial incentives beyond a simple tiered system for associate, bachelor's, master's and PhDs degrees.

Then as now, state law did not permit teachers to engage in collective bargaining for contracts. A $2 billion hole in teacher retirement funding inhibited adequate resource allocation for retirees.

In March, the union, representing 16,000 of the state's then 22,000 public school teachers, went on strike for the first time. The walkout was declared illegal by the state Attorney General Roger Tompkins, and then-Gov. Gaston Caperton, a Democrat, stated that he would meet with teachers only when "calm and reason are restored and the teaching force returns to the classrooms."

But these threats didn't stop the WVEA. After a strike of only a week, the state agreed to a $5,000 annual salary increase for public school teachers, distributed over a three-year period, from 1991 to 1993. The $2 billion gap in pensions was to be addressed with increased funding over the next decade.

The state added new classifications for teachers based on a sliding scale of educational achievement beyond degree status, giving teachers who pursued continuing education courses a hope that this would with the understanding that this would increase their pay. The PEIA backlog time was reduced with a redirection of funding.

The strike had only last a week, but its effects reverberated as progress was made toward improving conditions for teachers without a single election ballot being cast.

More recent direct action initiatives at the local level show the power of organizing at the local level, and not at the ballot box.

In Wetzel County, hundreds of teachers banded together in early 2016 to protest a dangerous superintendent, Leatha Williams, who demanded that educators who opposed her agenda "resign, relocate or retire."

County board meetings had to be moved to larger venues to accommodate the crowd of teachers, parents and students who called for Williams to go. Police were called to the scene twice. But the teachers persevered, and Williams was forced out. Many teachers became more engaged in their local WVEA chapter during this time.

Similarly, last December, students at University High School in Morgantown protested against their then-Principal Shari Burgess, who was alleged to have threatened lawsuits against teachers and pushed others to resign.

Hundreds of students walked out of school--they were organized via social media over a weekend by Andrue Csutoros, a student who wanted to show support for teachers. The mounting pressure by students helped in getting Burgess removed.

West Virginia may be known now as a conservative state, but its history shows the potential for left-wing politics and direct action.

Discrediting West Virginians for voting "against their own interests," as WVEA officials have done, does little to assist everyday teachers in the state's education association.

Instead, the WVEA should provide locals with greater resources to engage in extra-legislative approaches to their unique challenges, while holding off endorsements of centrist candidates who differ little from the Republicans.

This new approach could help make the progressive aims that the WVEA says it stand for a reality. The only question is if union officials actually want to see them implemented.