Educators tell the story of #55Strong

October 24, 2018

Ryan Powers reviews a new book filled with the lessons of West Virginia educators have to teach us after their statewide strike sparked off a wave of red-state walkouts.

Was this a counterprotester? We had been shouted at a few times by men who looked an awful lot like this fella. He finally got close enough for us to make out his sign: TEAMSTERS LOCAL 29 SHOWING OUR SUPPORT AND SOLIDARITY FOR WV TEACHERS

My eyes welled up with tears and a hard lump formed in my throat. I watched the man travel down our ranks and shake every single person’s hand on our picket line. When he got to me, I couldn’t help it, hot tears oozed down both sides of my face.

THESE WORDS are from teacher and activist Jessica Salfia’s introduction to the book 55 Strong: Inside the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike, which she edited alongside Elizabeth Catte and Emily Hilliard.

55 Strong is a compilation of firsthand accounts from the West Virginia education workers’ strike that rocked the state for nine days in February. The strike wave spread from West Virginia to many other “red states,” and continues to this day in Washington and California.

Striking teachers rally for their demands in the West Virginia state Capitol building
Striking teachers rally for their demands in the West Virginia state Capitol building

Catte writes of 55 Strong: “We want you to better understand the mechanics of the strike and the issues that compelled it, but we are unapologetically insistent that the most important thing you take from us is how good it felt to be #55STRONG.”

A reference to the fact that all 55 West Virginia counties stood united to win the strike, 55 Strong is a worthwhile read for any worker, whether current organizers and activists or not. As Catte writes, “If you are a person who deserves better, you are one of us. If you love someone who deserves better, you are one of us.”

By going on strike, West Virginia workers helped write a new chapter in working-class history and the U.S. labor movement. Thousands of workers chose collective courage over their individual fears, righteous anger over complacency, and solidarity over despair — and 55 Strong captures these themes in every story it tells.

Socialists especially should study these accounts, and we should discuss them in all their depth and detail. 55 Strong is a vital tool to learn lessons on what class struggle in and after the age of Trump will look like, and how we can fight.

By publishing the voices of rank-and-file workers, illuminating their perspectives as to how and why the strike was fought and won, 55 Strong is a case study of working-class struggle from below.

IT BECOMES clear while reading 55 Strong that the social conditions that led to the West Virginia teacher were long in the making. It was the perceived failure of those in power that led workers to fight for themselves.

It’s also clear that teachers didn’t think of themselves as fighting for themselves alone. This fact is borne out by the fact that teachers didn’t go back to work until all state employees won a 5 percent raise, refusing an initial offer that would have given the raise to teachers alone. As Emily Comer, a South Charleston High School teacher, writes in her essay:

Teachers and school service personnel, in particular, have a unique window into these effects of the economy when we step into school every day. We have students experiencing homelessness, living in an under-funded foster care system, and facing hunger. Lack of funding for education and health care is just one of many failures of leadership that have led to school employees — and the voters of our state — saying enough is enough.

Education workers definitely fought for their own interests in terms of health care and pay. But, as workers who occupy a key position within the social reproduction of the working class, they knew that they were also fighting for their communities.

The class anger that finally boiled to the surface this year wasn’t just the result of the strikers’ worsening social conditions for decades, but also that of the students and communities they care about.

The theme of fighting for a better present and future ran side-by-side with the theme of fighting for the meaning of West Virginia’s past. Mingo County teacher Robin Ellis captures this well in a description of the debates that led the strikers to go from a union-sanctioned strike to a wildcat:

Will the lesson be that those in powerful positions ultimately have all the power or that the power of the people is stronger than a flawed system? When a vote was taken it was overwhelmingly in favor of staying out...I felt encouraged. I felt relieved. I felt scared. Mingo had just gone wildcat. Our ancestors would be proud.

Indeed, many of the essays reference the proud history of labor struggle in West Virginia working-class history, sometimes even mentioning specific relatives or ancestors. Many of these strikers not only use their history as something to learn from, but also internalize it as part of their identity; they use it to inspire them to fight. Mingo County teacher Brandon Wolford writes:

Knowing the role my father and both grandfathers played in these events [past strikes] sparked a special interest. It is also fair to say that I soon learned the true meaning behind the labor movements in Appalachia — it is not strictly about the contracts, wages, or benefits; it is something much deeper. Those people had fought for the dignity they so rightfully deserved, and together they stood in unity as brothers and sisters.

Mingo County was the first West Virginia county to declare a strike day during the education workers’ strike. Wolford himself then visited union meetings in neighboring counties to get them on-board with joining the upcoming strike.

“I was given a directive to stay in my own local, and not attend meetings in any other county,” he writes. Already, the union bureaucracy was trying to contain the ignited flame of the upcoming strike.

But by February 2, six or seven counties participated in the first round of strike action with Mingo County that would culminate in the 55-county strong strike later in February.

55 STRONG doesn’t just detail the accounts of those in the counties which led and inspired the others ones act. It also lets those who followed the leadership of other counties — and who, in the process, became leaders in their own right — tell their story.

Salfia herself is a teacher in Berkeley County, one of the last counties to close its schools once the strike became a wildcat. She documents a messenger group chat conversation before Berkeley officially closed their schools for the strike:

They’re not going to close.

We have to form lines at the entrances and block the cars.

We have to make them cross our line.

Who can meet me at the bus garage at 3:00? We have to have lines at the bus garage to stop the buses from being able to run.

Why do we have to block the entrances?

Because that’s a real strike. You shut it down and make them cross your line or they go home. You stop school from happening.

Oh Jesus, we’re going to see people drive through us aren’t we?


This is awful.

Yes. It just got real.

Despite union officials trying to rein in the movement at this point, Salfia writes that it “was clear the unions had lost control of the movement. The people were leading and I wasn’t sure when and how this was going to end, but of one thing I was certain...West Virginia would stay united.”

Berkeley County did eventually close its schools for the strike, which made blocking entrances unnecessary, but it’s clear that the movement created many new leaders and organizers who could push their struggle forward.

THE CAPACITY for rank-and-file leadership and militancy shown throughout 55 Strong shows that workers don’t need to rely on any savior from above — whether it be a union bureaucrat or a politician.

Despite the clear capacity of these strikers to lead their own struggle, the accounts in 55 Strong show that there are still debates within the movement about the way forward.

For example, while Emily Comer writes about how both Democratic and Republican politicians oversaw the deteriorating conditions within West Virginia, Brandon Wolford writes: “The entire Democratic Party seemed to be standing with the teachers, while the majority of the Republicans bashed teachers and their efforts daily.”

It’s important to remember that any politician who supported the strike, such as Democratic state Sen. Richard Ojeda, only had the opportunity to do so because the striking workers created it. To the extent that any politician supported the strike, they were following the workers’ lead, not the other way around.

In short, 55 Strong is an excellent tool for understanding the first mass strike victory in the U.S. in years. There is much to be learned from it — much more than could be summarized in this article.

Some of these include the logistics of how the strike was carried out; the geographical patterns of who initiated the strike wave and how it spread; the relation between spontaneous rebellion and organization; the uneven development of working-class consciousness; the impact of working-class history as well as current social conditions on workers’ motivations to struggle.

Above all, though, this book shows what it meant on a human, psychological and emotional level for thousands of workers to stand 55 Strong — and it shows how others can follow their example to fight for and win a better world.

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