How the spark became a flame in West Virginia

March 12, 2018

Teachers were celebrating at the West Virginia Capitol last week, after their nine-day, statewide strike won the passage of legislation that gives them and other state employees a 5 percent raise. Some 20,000 educators in a "right-to-work" state walked out February 22 over wages and the underfunding of the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA), which provides health care coverage for state workers.

The day after the strike ended, 10th and 12th grade English teacher Katie Endicott from Central Mingo High School talked to Dana Blanchard about the story of the struggle.

I WOULD love to hear a little bit more about the Mingo story. I know you've probably told this story a thousand times in the past weeks, but you all kind of started this whole thing.

ON MARTIN Luther King Jr. Day, there was a rally. That's a holiday that West Virginia schools have off, and teachers went to the rally in Charleston.

My little boy had the flu, so I stayed with the kids while my husband went to the rally.

When he came home, he was so dejected because he said there were only about 150 teachers there. And when he talked to state senators and delegates, they were telling him: You should be scared, you have no idea what is coming your way.

They said there were some crazy bills [about the lack of funding for the Public Employees Insurance Agency, for example] that are going to really affect you all, so you need to be thinking about how you're going to approach things.

That was on January 15, and I told him he really needed to tell people, because people in my school didn't know. He was wondering why people weren't outraged, and I said I didn't think people knew about all of these bills, so you need to tell them--tell them that there were lawmakers pulling you into their offices and telling you that this is going to turn really ugly.

Teachers stand united during a nine-day strike in West Virginia
Teachers stand united during a nine-day strike in West Virginia

So he made a Facebook Live video with a colleague, telling everyone what he had heard, and it went viral. It was crazy--there were people from all across the state messaging me.

One of them teaches in Putnam County, which is several hours away. She said she was called into an emergency faculty senate meeting after school, and they watched my husband's Facebook Live video on the huge TV.

The reaction to that Facebook video was just unbelievable. It got all our teachers in Mingo County really riled up.

We started having meetings at the school level, and it was quickly apparent that we were going to have to have an emergency meeting for the whole county, because there was a lot of miscommunication and misinformation.

People didn't know about all the changes with Go 365 [an app that that is supposed to monitor health, which teachers have been forced to download to their phones and penalizes them for not having enough points] and our insurance potentially going from 80/20 to 60/40, and the tiers changing from 10 to five and total family income being used.

We scheduled a meeting for January 23, not knowing who would show up. Hundreds of people did. That's basically our county--all of our bus drivers, office workers, our teachers and cooks. We had our union reps, and we had Senator Richard Ojeda and Delegate Mark Dean.

My husband kicked the meeting off, and he reiterated what he said in the Facebook video. From there, our union leaders took questions, and Senator Ojeda took us to church. He gave an impassioned plea that we have to stand up for ourselves, and you can't take this.

He told us more about what was going on in the Senate. At that point, we were already fired up about the changes to our insurance, but he gave us more clarity on different bills that were attacking public education.

The meeting lasted two and a half hours. Several board members were there, and they spoke up and told us: We have your back.

There came a point where we asked everybody in the media to leave because we had to the use the "s" word--the strike word. It was very apparent that people were angry and frustrated, and some kind of action was at least going to have to be discussed.

It was almost unanimous--everyone was saying we have to do something, and a strike is probably where we are going to end up, but there are several steps we have to take in the meantime.

We emphasized with everyone again that it was so important to send e-mails and make phone calls, let your parents know. Everyone has to know that these are issues we're facing, and we have to have change.

Then we said: Let's talk about step two, which we called that "blue flu" [everyone calling in sick and staying home]. We said what does everyone think about a "blue flu" day? Everybody was in support.

Our union reps were there, and I think they were surprised. They said: Let me tell you about all the legal repercussions, you may lose your seniority, you might lose your job, you're definitely going to lose a day of pay. But everyone was still on board.

The momentum and energy in the room was intense. We decided we needed to plan the day of the "blue flu" and make sure that people knew. We wanted to use this like a bargaining chip--if the plan for that day got out, it might end up making some positive changes because they knew this resistance was a reality.

I stood up sometime near the end of the meeting and said: "The eyes of West Virginia are on us. In 1990 the, last time the teachers went on strike, it was Mingo County that started the strike. So everyone is wanting to know what does Mingo County think?"

If we had the courage to step out, I knew that other counties would follow us--that we wouldn't be alone. In fact, there were two or three people from other counties who heard we were having an emergency meeting, and their counties weren't meeting, so they came to ours, just to see what we were going to do.

I said that we can't leave here until we choose a day. We can talk about it, but talking about it and doing it are two different things. We voted with a show of hands, and there wasn't one person in the building who voted against it.

We decided February 2--that was the day. Wyoming County had already said they would be on board for it. Wyoming and Mingo--I always say the spark started here, in the coalfields, with those counties.

From that point, Logan, Lincoln, McDowell and all these other counties started having their own meetings, and our people were invited to go to those meetings and speak, and we did. At one point, I didn't even see my husband for several days. I told him he was on tour, because he was going to other meetings and having dinner with people. It was a grassroots movement. We were organizing it.

Some people were saying that they didn't think our union reps were really on board for this--that they thought it was too early. We would tell them: you don't work for the union, the union works for you. They're going to back you.

Our union reps in Mingo County were wonderful. They told us all the repercussions, they told us the risks, but they also told us the rewards. They were very informative. They did exactly what they were supposed to do.

They told us: if you do this, be aware of the risks, be aware of the rewards, but also know that we'll have your back, and no matter what, we're going to stand there with you. That really gave us a lot of confidence to go ahead and step out.

We took a lot of flack at first from other counties because we're smaller, and we do have that reputation of being hotheads or whatever.


YEAH, the mine wars and all of that started down here. Union strikes, we're known for that.

But other counties were saying we weren't giving them enough time, that they needed more time to organize. We talked about that in our leadership meetings: Do we stop? Do we wait on other counties to get organized, or do we just go ahead and do it?

We decided, no, let's just go ahead and do it. The day before I went, someone looked at me and said are you really going to go to the Capitol with four counties? They will laugh you out. You need at least 45 to make a difference.

I said I don't believe that. I think that it wouldn't matter if it was one county. It's going to start a movement. Wait and see if other counties don't start jumping on board and following our lead.

And sure enough, it happened. It was like a domino effect. We started seeing Lincoln County and Boone and Cabell--they organized their own one-day work stoppage after they saw what we did and how effective it was. It was amazing to see that.

At that point, our union planned this massive rally. Things were spiraling because everyone in the state was now informed, and everyone was willing to take some kind of action. We were organized, and we were ready.

We said in Mingo County that we held 10,000 votes, because every time we decided to do something everybody would have to vote. We voted on Fed Up Friday--that was what we called that one-day work stoppage--and then we had to vote multiple times after that.

Another vote we took was to have our state union leaders call a state work stoppage if they felt it was necessary. At that point, we knew that out of 55 counties, it was almost unanimous that everyone wanted to go out. When they had the rally on Saturday, they announced that February 22 and 23 would be work stoppages across the state.

We were fired up. We were so excited that it was going to be all 55 counties. Someone has to start the spark, and the spark has to be fanned into a flame. But once it's fanned into a flame, you're not going to be able to put it out.

A lot of people wanted to wait until we got all 55 counties, but we knew that's not really how it happens. Somebody has to step out. Somebody has to take the lead, and then unity will come.

So when the announcement was made that all 55 counties went out, we had meetings in our local schools because we were told there would probably be a rolling strike [limited to a few counties at a time] starting on the following Monday.

That didn't go over well. In our school, our county and neighboring counties, based on what my friends have told me, it was almost unanimous once again. Everybody was saying that if we're going out for those two days, we're not coming back until it's finished.

So we communicated that to the union leadership, and when we didn't make any progress after the first two days, they made their announcement that we would be closed on Monday.

They said we've heard loud and clear from our membership. That was because everybody was e-mailing them and saying: we don't want a rolling strike, we want to stay out until it's finished.

From that point on, it took off. We weren't going to go back until it was signed, sealed and delivered. We stayed 55 strong, and nothing was going to break that. Even if some individuals wanted to break it--some individuals higher up--the membership refused to let it break.

WHAT HAS it been like at your school and in your community since the strike victory? What has the discussion been like?

YESTERDAY WAS maybe the most exciting day I've had as a teacher. The energy level was amazing. The teachers were excited. Usually, this is a time when we're sort of suffering from burnout.

Of course, we were also exhausted. Most of our teachers went to the Capitol six or seven or eight days, and it's a two-hour drive one way for us. There were several days when me and my colleagues would wake up around 5:30 a.m. to go to the Capitol. We would be there from maybe 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., and then we would drive two hours back home, go to sleep and then get right back up the next morning at 5:30 and do it all again.

We're exhausted physically, but at the same time we're exhilarated emotionally. Our kids were amazing. They were clapping for us, high-fiving and giving hugs and telling us we were heroes. That was energizing--to know that our students were paying attention, and that they understood why we were doing it.

For some teachers, there was maybe some apprehension about whether the students understood, but they've been so wonderful. One of the things they kept saying to me was "You're a rock star."

We talked to the students once we got back. In every class I had yesterday, I just threw the curriculum to the side and answered questions--whatever questions they had. They were awesome. They asked thought-provoking questions and wanted to know all about our experience.

They had watched on the news, and I found out they had been following by live tweet almost the whole time. So they knew about parts of it, but they wanted to hear from our perspective what happened.

We've never had that kind of atmosphere in the classrooms before. Yesterday, during hall duty, every kid coming down the hallway wanted a hug. So, yeah, it was a great day.

THAT'S SO great that the students were following what was happening through Twitter.

THEY SHOCKED me because they told me they had turned on notifications for my Twitter. I didn't even know you could do that.

I had a lot of contact with my kids because there was a student march, and a bunch of them came out for that, and one of them spoke at the rally in front of thousands of people. They've been so supportive, and they had our back--they came to local picket lines and to the Capitol, and they stood with us.

That to me is probably one of the most amazing things: This wasn't just us standing together, it was us standing together with our students and our parents and all of them supporting us. That made a huge difference.

NOW WE hear that Oklahoma is gearing up to replicate some of what you guys have done, Arizona teachers have started organizing, and Jersey City and a couple other places have authorized strikes. What do you hope comes next?

ONE OF the things we said from the beginning was that we weren't just standing up for ourselves, and not just for our state. We wanted to stand up for teachers all across the nation. Because we know that this can be a thankless job, and we don't get the respect we deserve.

We aren't viewed as the professionals that we are. That's not a West Virginia problem; that's a society problem. We said from the beginning that we wanted to stand for all teachers.

We're hoping this is just the beginning of a much larger movement and that people wake up. We hope that legislators wake up--that they understand we've put them on notice now. They can't just throw money at an election, get in there and just slide some of these bills through and play politics as usual.

We're not going to let them get away with it anymore. We're not going to be complacent. We're going to make sure we know who our candidates are, we're going to rally for those candidates, and we're going to hold them accountable.

Our county has wonderful legislators. We have the champions of the movement from the legislative side. We have Richard Ojeda--that's my senator. But even though we have great representation, we're willing to drive to Jackson County and rally for someone who wants to dethrone state Sen. Mitch Carmichael.

This has made everybody so much more aware of the legislative process and what we have to do in order to accomplish things. We believe we've put lawmakers on notice, so they know they're accountable to us. They're our representation, and their votes have to reflect that or they're no longer going to have a seat at the table.

We hope that teachers stand up for their rights and realize that they’re worthy. We shouldn't be expected to live in poverty. We should be treated like the professionals that we truly are.

So we're watching. During my planning period today, there were teachers coming by and talking about Oklahoma and Kentucky and Pittsburgh and these different places.

We're watching. We want to encourage them. We've been sending messages to people that we know are from that state. We've been telling them: people are going to tell you about all of the risks, but look at us.

We can tell you: if you stand together, if you do this together, they will not break you. You will break them.

Transcription by Dana Blanchard and Leela Yellesetty

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