A working-class revolt in “Trump country”
Organized labor's crisis is one big reason why places like West Virginia are thought of as red states today--but the teachers are showing us that's only one side of the story.
WEST VIRGINIA is often discussed as the symbol of the rightward shift of downwardly mobile white workers.
Decimated by the decline in unionized mining jobs, it's the second-poorest state in the country and spends an incredible 12 percent of its GDP on costs related to the opioid epidemic.
Ten years ago, Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin, who's now the U.S. senator, pushed for massive corporate tax cuts that have reduced annual state revenue by more than $400 million. Among the disastrous results was the severe underfunding of the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA), which is responsible for state workers' health care, and overcrowded classes in public schools due to a shortage of more than 700 teachers.
No state voted more decisively for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Last August, Trump held a triumphant rally in Huntington, where the state's new governor, a billionaire coal baron named Jim Justice, announced he was ending his brief time in the Democratic Party and changing his party affiliation back to Republican.
National reporters went to West Virginia before and since to chronicle the local rage and despair that seems to fuel the rise of right-wing populism. Often, it's unclear why they bother to make the trip, since their stories rely more on a quick read of the condescending Hillbilly Elegy than the actual dynamics at play.
Just last Monday, a New York Times article offered the following sweeping generalization--directly contradicting what many workers quoted in the story had to say--to explain why coal boss Don Blankenship might win the 2018 Senate election in West Virginia, just a few years after a horrific explosion in one of his mines that killed 29 workers:
Coal barons like Mr. Blankenship used to be despised in Logan County, a rugged region in southern West Virginia. The Battle of Blair Mountain happened here in 1921, when miners seeking to unionize clashed with a private army fielded by mine owners, and more than 50 people died.
But as West Virginia has become a deep-red state, the sympathies of many mine families have shifted from unions to mine operators, who are portrayed as job creators.
THIS NARRATIVE of the hopelessly and irrationally right-wing worker is convenient for a Democratic Party that justifies its sellouts of undocumented immigrants and its surrender on corporate tax breaks as necessary to help red-state Democrats like Manchin to stay in office.
But it's a bogus narrative. And the teachers of West Virginia have showed just how bogus.
On the same day that the Times opined that workers in West Virginia no longer support unions, 20,000 public school teachers were unexpectedly continuing their already historic strike into a new week. The teachers' struggle has electrified workers across the state and the whole country.
By demanding a long-delayed raise and challenging the austerity plans of state Republican leaders looking to pass health care costs onto workers--and then continuing the strike even after union leaders called for it to end--the teachers are showing that West Virginia workers know plenty about how to fight in their own interest.
And they're putting left-wing politics at the heart of the strike--by rallying around a call to raise taxes on energy companies in order to pay for health care, and by organizing meals for students in a state where many families rely on the schools to feed their children at least part of the day, to name a couple examples.
All this is a million miles from the stereotypes perpetrated by the New York Times and the rest of the media.
That doesn't mean the recent Republican domination of the state has been an illusion. But it does show the volatility of this political period--both how bitter defeats can lead to wider influence for the hard right, and how collective struggle can build a left-wing alternative.
IT'S BEEN widely reported that West Virginia teachers, particularly in the state's Southern counties, come from communities with a proud labor history. The early 20th century struggles of coal miners, immortalized in the terrific movie Matewan, are the best-known chapters.
But the history of militant struggle in West Virginia is much more recent. Teachers may have grandparents who were part of those miners' battles, but their parents might well have participated in the 1969 wildcat strikes demanding protection from black lung disease.
And they themselves may remember the legendary Pittston strike of 1989-90, when miners occupied a coal facility, women formed the Daughters of Mother Jones to blockade roads, and the union turned a park into Camp Solidarity to house tens of thousands of people who turned out in support.
In part because of the mining bosses' history of setting up company towns, mineworkers have a unique history of building strikes that involve the entire community. What today is known as social justice unionism has a long history in West Virginia that has clearly been embraced by striking teachers.
In the decades since the Pittston strike, the UMWA was decimated by automation and union busting--and the Democratic Party, despite claiming to stand for labor, didn't seem to notice.
This contributed to the state swinging harder and faster to the right than any other in terms of party politics. As socialist author Mike Davis wrote in 2004 after George W. Bush won the state by a then-shocking 13 percentage points:
In West Virginia... the national Democrats had almost nothing to say about the decline of the Appalachian coal industry or the loss of local factory jobs to Mexico or China.
The great achievement of the [Bill Clinton era of the 1990s] was to realign the Democrats as the party of the "new economy," of the bicoastal knowledge industries and high-tech exporters. Instead of an economic rescue package for the heartland as demanded by the industrial unions, Clinton rammed through the job-exporting North American Free Trade Agreement.
After that, the right-wing surge turned into a deluge--especially while Barack Obama was in office, and right-wing demagogues blamed the state's long-term decline on the first Black president, culminating in a historic Republican statewide sweep in 2014.
Two years later, Trump's right-wing populism and empty promises to bring back coal jobs annihilated Hillary "We're going to put a lot of coal miners out of business" Clinton in West Virginia.
But that wasn't the only story of the 2016 election. Earlier in the year, Bernie Sanders had also crushed Clinton's corporate-funded status quo campaign in the Democratic presidential primary in West Virginia. His campaign not only re-hoisted the banner of left-wing politics in the state, but he left behind some organization in the form of increased membership in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
In the current strike, the militancy originated among teachers in the state's Southern mining counties--where Trump's vote was highest, by the way--and was then extended elsewhere in the state, due to the organizing of DSA members, among others.
This is how working-class resistance gets rebuilt.
WEST VIRGINIA is unique in many ways. Not every state--red or blue--has its particular labor history or raw anger at the Democrats' betrayals.
But there are certainly some aspects of the strike, as well as the conditions that gave rise to it, that are generalizable--as evidenced by the fact that Oklahoma teachers are now organizing for a statewide strike of their own.
The relentless attacks on unions and working-class living standards is creating a volatile situation in which, particularly at a moment of relatively low unemployment, some workers are concluding they have no choice but to fight.
The teachers' strike takes place at the same time that the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule against unions in the Janus vs. AFSCME Council 31 case. If it does, public-sector unions will be stripped of their right to collect fees from all workers covered under the contracts they negotiate.
Make no mistake: This ruling will severely weaken the labor movement. But one unintended consequence might be to increase the likelihood of militant worker mobilizations like the strike in West Virginia, where teachers' unions already don't have the right to collectively bargain.
Like Oklahoma, West Virginia is one of many states whose legislatures are dominated by right-wing Republicans--not because voters are universally conservative, but because the right is dominating mainstream politics, while Democrats have long since stopped having anything meaningful to offer working-class voters.
The pressure cooker created by years of political domination by an unrepresentative hard-right minority is also one of the factors behind the dramatic student walkouts against NRA-aligned politicians in Florida and elsewhere after the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High.
The same volatile dynamic exists around many issues in a country where the president is a white supremacist, but the people are going to see Black Panther.
BUT VOLATILITY isn't the same thing as victory. One of the reasons that things are so unpredictable is that working-class anger runs deep, but after decades of defeats, our organization and institutions are weak. Eric Blanc described at Jacobin how this is playing out in West Virginia:
As it stands now, there is a strongly established rhythm of complete school shutdowns across the state, plus protests of thousands all day inside the Capitol. But there is little in the way of political speeches, deliberative assemblies or mass meetings to discuss next steps for the strike, making it difficult for anybody, including the militant minority of radical teachers, to discuss demands or raise proposals for action. In so far as there's organization from below, it largely has revolved around distributing information to parents and food to children across the state.
This level of organization might be enough to get the state legislature to approve the 5 percent raises that is a central sticking point for the moment. Or Republicans in the state Senate could dig in and find a way to raise the stakes until teachers back down.
Then there's the question of PEIA. Even the House bill that teachers seem to accept would kick the solution to the public workers' insurance crisis down the road to be "studied"--which will raise the question of whether teachers should rely on the promises of politicians in either party to fix PEIA or keep organizing to fight another day.
It should be remembered that the 2011 occupation of the Wisconsin state Capitol building in opposition to Republican union-busting legislation--the last large-scale outpouring of militancy to resemble the West Virginia strike--ended when Democrats and union leaders were able to convince strikers to wind down the struggle.
Instead, the unions focused on a recall election against the Republican governor that never came close to putting the same amount of pressure on the right. The result was a disastrous defeat for unions in Wisconsin--and soon most of the Midwest.
It's important to say that even a clear victory for West Virginia teachers--which remains a strong possibility--won't overcome the difficult challenges facing a labor movement that has shown almost no ability to mobilize resistance, even to an existential threat like Janus.
But West Virginia teachers are giving us all a powerful reminder that this is only one side of the story--and that when workers fight, we can potentially not only win, but undo decades of right-wing momentum.
For now, it's critical to build solidarity with West Virginia, both to help the strike win and to spread to as many workers as possible these lessons of the struggle:
One, when they say cut back, we say fight back. The money is there for better wages and benefits--we just have to force them to take it from the billionaires and corporations.
Two, unions belong to their members, not full-time officials--and certainly not Democratic Party politicians. Rank-and-file union members need to organize themselves to make that a reality.
And three, unions are most powerful when they fight not only for their members, but for their entire communities.
One more lesson, while we're at it: West Virginia is showing that rebuilding the labor movement goes hand in with rebuilding the socialist movement. If we're going to defeat right-wing Republicans, it won't be with centrist corporate platitudes, but with the politics of working-class solidarity and power.
In fact, that's what we need to defeat right-wing Democrats, too. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, when the cost of living is factored in, the highest poverty rate in the country isn't in the Deep South or Appalachia, but in true-blue California--where the rhetoric is liberal, but Disneyland workers sleep in their cars.
We are all West Virginia.