Inside the West Virginia teachers’ rebellion

March 5, 2018

Tyler Barton and Lori Boegershausen report from West Virginia as an all-out strike by the state's public school teachers makes history.

WEST VIRGINIA teachers are continuing their statewide strike into a second full week in a struggle that is galvanizing people around the country who support the cause of labor and economic justice.

The strike began on Thursday, February 22, and was expected to last two days, but the teachers--determined not to end their walkout until their full demands for a wage increase, a fix for the state's insurance system for public employees and other issues are met--stayed out into the following week.

On Tuesday, leaders of the two teachers' unions stood alongside Gov. Jim Justice and announced an agreement to return to work based on a compromise deal over wages.

But the unions' rank and file rebelled against a settlement that didn't guarantee any change to the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA)--and that wasn't guaranteed to pass the Republican-dominated state legislature anyway.

Eventually, school superintendents in all of the state's 55 counties announced that schools would remain closed--and the protests and picketing continued, with the state Capitol building in Charleston serving as a magnet for angry teachers, their families and supporters.

Teachers stand together in solidarity in outside the state Capitol in Charleston
Teachers stand together in solidarity in outside the state Capitol in Charleston

By Friday morning, several teachers who had been in the Capitol during each day of the strike said this was the largest and loudest crowd so far. The central rotunda of the building echoed with loud chants and cheering. Outside the main door to the Senate chambers, a huge crowd of angry workers yelled, "Knock, knock! Who's there? State employees everywhere!"

But on Friday and again on Saturday, Senate Republicans, led by despised Senate President Mitch Carmichael, blocked passage of a 5 percent pay increase that teachers insist is necessary before they will go back to work. The battle will continue into another week on Monday, with the stakes growing higher every day.

Meanwhile, this struggle is having reverberations around the country. Union members and social justice activists rightly see the West Virginia strike as a bolt out of the blue that holds hope for a fighting labor movement.

In West Virginia, strikers know that people are looking to them. As Tug Chamberlin, a teacher from Fayette County, said:

What you can do

Make a donation in support of striking teachers through a rank-and-file-run Go Fund Me account.

The United Educators of San Francisco has set up a Pizza Fund to deliver pizzas to teachers protesting at the state Capitol building in West Virginia.

Pass a resolution in your union in solidarity with West Virginia teachers.

If you are in the New York City area, come to a solidarity meeting on March 10 at 6:30 p.m., 131 West 33rd Street, 4th Floor, New York.

This started off grassroots, with teachers and service personnel being the ones who had the ability to walk out and draw attention to the problems that are involved in our insurance and pay and other legislation coming down the line. But it has grown far beyond that. Kentucky is watching us. Pennsylvania is watching us. People all over this country are watching to see what goes on here. That's why it's important that we do the right thing and hold firm.

As the West Virginia school workers continue their fight, teachers in Oklahoma are discussing a similar statewide strike in the face of a legislature that has stonewalled their demands--and telecommunications workers at Frontier Communications in West Virginia and Virginia began a strike for a fair contract on Sunday.

All eyes are on West Virginia today--but we can't stand by and watch. Supporters of this struggle need to build solidarity across the country as the teachers fight for all of us.

LAST FRIDAY, the gallery of the Senate chambers was already packed with striking teachers by 7 a.m., well ahead of the Senate's 11 a.m. session. Throughout the morning, school workers and their supporters arrived from all over the state--many with children and other family members--to join the crowd.

Most teachers wore red T-shirts custom-designed by each union local with their home county emblazoned across the back. A large number of strikers also wore red bandanas around their necks, embracing the "redneck" label that is rooted in West Virginia's militant labor history.

Signs and T-shirts frequently included the hashtag #TownRedneck--mocking Gov. Justice's condescending remarks at a recent town hall meeting when he referred to one angry teacher as the "town redneck."

Many of the Capitol protesters reported splitting their time between walking local picket lines and driving up to two hours to rally in Charleston.

The protesters were demanding that the Senate vote to pass House Bill 4145 as written to grant all public school employees and state police an across-the-board 5 percent pay increase.

After the Senate session ended without the bill passing, strikers continued to protest in the Capitol ahead of a Senate Finance Committee hearing scheduled for 3:30 p.m. That meeting was later cancelled, and consideration of amendments to House Bill 4145 was postponed to a special session on Saturday.

Carmichael met with more than 40 of the state's 55 school superintendents on Friday afternoon to discuss a possible deal, but no progress was made.

On Saturday, another crowd assembled outside the Senate chambers for the 9:00 a.m. Senate session. After that came the 10:30 a.m. Finance Committee meeting.

The spirited chanting gave way to a tense but quiet atmosphere of strikers listening to audio of the meeting on their cell phones. A crowd of strikers gathered around a television that had been brought into the rotunda to watch the committee meeting on live video. Disappointment sank in as it became clear that the bill would still not advance to a vote.

By Saturday night--after a mix-up in which the Senate accidentally voted to pass the bill the teachers have supported--the Republican-dominated chamber passed an amended version with a reduced 4 percent increase.

It was absolutely clear after the vote that the teachers wouldn't accept the amended bill and would continue the strike until they won the full 5 percent.

THE STRIKE has been largely organized directly by rank-and-file workers at the grassroots level. One veteran teacher described the situation as a "powder keg," explaining that resentment had accumulated over years of stagnating pay and skyrocketing health care costs.

When news spread across the state that job actions and walkouts were occurring in some Southern counties, it didn’t take long for the conflagration to spread across the entire state.

The connections that teachers are making with West Virginia’s rich history of militant labor battles have also fueled their determination.

This region is home to some of the fiercest battles in U.S. labor history, including the 1921 Battle of Blair Mountain, in which 10,000 miners fought a pitched battle with company goons and strikebreakers in an effort to win a union—or the 1989-90 walkout in Appalachia against Pittston Coal Company, in which miners organized work actions and civil disobedience against the termination of health benefits.

Along with this rich history comes a strong identification as working-class people standing together in solidarity. As Josh Maddie of Fayette County said:

I walk out from my house, I look to the right: working lady, raising kids by herself. I look to my left: small business owner. Across the street: retired small business owner. Next door to him: another working person. Blue collar all around. So as soon as you see something happen to one person, and you’re like “Wait, that’s me too.” Boom, everybody jumps together. That’s how this got taking off so fast: we’re all working class.

Tug Chamberlin agreed. “I was telling my buddy on the way up here [to Charleston]: two weeks ago, I never thought in my life that I’d be sitting in a church with a bunch of 300 other people going, “Are we going to walk out? Are we gone?” I never would have envisioned that.”

Cliff Sullivan from Fayette County noted that it was important to understand the leading role of women workers in carrying out the strike: “Who’d have thought the labor movement in this country is going to start with a female-powered teacher workforce that’s now driving this?”

Maddie thought this point holds important lessons for the rest of the labor movement: “Other states and everybody, they need to realize that not only is it teachers who are fighting for everybody, but it’s female teachers. We men are not the majority here at all.”

WHILE THE strike is clearly driven by rank-and-file workers, union officials and some Democratic Party politicians have played important--albeit contradictory--roles.

After the agreement with the governor that broke down last week, the relationship between union officials and rank-and-file teachers is strained but far from broken. Most teachers continue to believe that the union officials are on their side, but also see themselves and their co-workers as being the primary authorities on how to conduct the strike.

Elizabeth Cecil from Jackson County said her own feelings about the union leadership are complicated. “I think that a lot of people are saying that we’re sold out by our union,” Cecil explained. “I trust my union personally, and I was all for going to work by their advice.”

“But at the same point, we’re 55 united, and we can’t lose that,” Cecil continued, referring to the 55 counties who are out on strike. “So when it came down to a grassroots vote, it was a hard decision for me. But ultimately, once I saw that the other counties were going out, I knew we all had to stick together.”

Lauren Evans from Mingo County believes that the union officials and the workers have different roles to play in the strike. “Our unions have really stood strong behind us, and we’ve tried our best to stand behind our unions,” Evans says. “I think they have our best interests at heart, but they have a job just like we have a job.”

Evans says she believes that union officials have a responsibility to negotiate a resolution, but the workers will decide for themselves whether to accept or reject their proposals.

Ultimately, she has faith that the union will follow the workers, even if the workers defy the advice of the union officials. “If we decide not to do what they have suggested, then they will have our backs,” Evans said.

While the Democratic Party has been notably absent as a force within the strike, there is one important exception. State Sen. Richard Ojeda is widely seen as a key legislative ally.

Ojeda, a populist Democrat, represents the southern coalfield counties of Logan, Boone, Lincoln, Wayne and Mingo--counties with a long history of labor militancy. These were among the first counties where teachers staged walkouts on February 2, a full two weeks before the first official rally organized by the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and West Virginia Education Association (WVEA).

Ojeda is widely supported among strikers for his proposals to impose a severance tax on the natural gas industry in order to raise revenue for the Public Employee Insurance Agency. At one point during the Senate session on Friday, Ojeda walked out of the Senate chambers to rapturous cheers from the crowd.

After the cheers subsided, the crowd fell silent, seemingly in expectation that Ojeda would make a speech. Instead, Ojeda led the crowd of strikers in a chant of “We are worthy!” before returning to the Senate chambers.

Teachers have found more allies in the 55 superintendents of each county public school system.

To date, the strike has remained legal due to the superintendents’ decision to close the schools in the same way the schools would be closed for a snow day. This decision gives the strike legal grounds to avoid suppression—and the teachers have continued to get paid.

On Friday afternoon, superintendents walking out of their meeting with Senate President Mitch Carmichael were greeted with emphatic cheers of “Thank you, supers!” Minutes later, when the governor walked out of the same room, the crowd jeered and booed. Justice had to go back into the room until the crowd dispersed.

FROM THE beginning, teachers have been clear that their main goal isn’t just a pay raise. The primary concrete measure that has rallied the teachers is a fully funded PEIA, the insurance plan for state employees that covers one in seven West Virginians.

“The reason I’m on strike is not for the raise; it’s for the PEIA—I want a funding source,” explained Summer Drake from Kanawha County. Drake, like many of her co-workers, sees the strike developing into something even bigger. “I believe that we are part of an uprising in education right now,” she said.

Carol Roskos, a music teacher in Monongalia County, says she believes the issues raised by the strike are just the surface of a much deeper problem:

I feel that West Virginia has been taken advantage of for the past 150 years. We’ve allowed big energy companies to come in and take and take and take, and look at how poor we still are. That’s not right and it needs to be fixed. So yes, this is not about a pay raise—this is about a movement to do something better for our state.

Jenny Santilli from Harrison County hopes that the strike will continue to gain momentum the longer it goes on. “The longer the strike continues, the more support we get from other unions, including the Steelworkers and Communications Workers, as well as other state employees who have taken personal days to come to the Capitol.”

Others have made similar observations to Santilli’s and believe the strike could begin to see a more active presence from other workers this week, especially from other state employees.

At least some workers outside of the schools seem to agree that the strike is resonating more broadly.

Shannon Fink, president of Communication Workers of America (CWA) Local 2009 in Huntington, sees the potential for real solidarity between the teachers and CWA members who are striking at Frontier Communications this week.

“The solidarity that we’re doing and that these teachers are doing impacts all government and state employees,” said Fink. “They’re having a real impact.”

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