Forging solidarity from Mingo to Manhattan

March 14, 2018

Eric Ruder describes how unionists, activists and socialists came together to organize a solidarity meeting featuring three West Virginia teachers to talk about their struggle.

AS COLLEGE basketball fans poured into Madison Square Garden for the Big East tournament a half block away, hundreds of fans of working-class solidarity descended on the offices of the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA).

They came to hear three strikers from West Virginia recount how they fought and won a 10-day teachers' strike that captured the attention of the labor movement.

The event--which was broadcast via livestream to watch parties in at least a dozen cities across the U.S. and many other viewers around the world--provided a glimpse inside the West Virginia teachers strike through the eyes of three of its leaders.

Emily Comer and Jay O'Neal teach in Charleston, the capital of West Virginia, and Katie Endicott teaches in Mingo County, in the heart of coal country in the southern part of the state.

The meeting was a joint effort by activists in the International Socialist Organization (ISO), Democratic Socialists of America and Jacobin magazine, along with sponsorship from Labor Notes, Barnard-Columbia Student Worker Solidarity, Labor for Palestine and Labor for Standing Rock.

Left to right: West Virginia teachers Jay O'Neal, Emily Comer and Katie Endicott speak at a solidarity meeting in New York
Left to right: West Virginia teachers Jay O'Neal, Emily Comer and Katie Endicott speak at a solidarity meeting in New York (Eric Ruder | SW)

Jen Roesch, a member of the ISO in New York City, worked with Eric Blanc, a journalist who traveled to West Virginia to cover the strike for Jacobin, to take the first steps in pulling together the meeting by extending an invitation to Comer and O'Neal, two well-known organizers among the teachers.

"The meeting came together quickly because it was obvious to all of us that this was a story that needed to be heard," said Roesch. "This was a rare opportunity to hear strikers themselves tell the remarkable story of how they helped a statewide strike to materialize and then kept it going, even when union leaders were prepared to return to work on the basis of a mere promise of a raise from the governor."

For his part, O'Neal was humbled by the invitation. "Jen got in touch with me and Emily through Eric Blanc the week before our victory," Jay said, "and when we heard that she wanted to bring us to New York for a solidarity meeting, we were like: Right, come on, us? Are you serious?"

Endicott was a late addition, confirmed just one day before the meeting. "I gave an interview on DemocracyNow! on the morning of March 7, the day after the victory," she said. "Two days later, I got a text saying that two other teachers from West Virginia were going to New York, and they wanted me to come as well because of my perspective coming from the southern part of the state."

It wasn't until Roesch picked up the three strikers at the airport that O'Neal and Comer met Endicott for the first time. But that was the point: the meeting provided a unique opportunity to forge new ties of solidarity and collaboration between people within and across unions and organizations.

"It was fascinating to listen to these three working-class leaders meet for the first time and put together the puzzle pieces of their own strike," said Roesch. "They began unpacking the parallel but connected processes that initially unfolded county by county and eventually culminated in a statewide walkout."

THE EVENT opened with a welcome from Judy Sheridan-Gonzalez, president of NYSNA, and Kevin Prosen, a rank-and-file teacher activist with the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators (MORE) in New York City. Both expressed their gratitude for the example of a successful public-sector strike driven forward by the courage and tenacity of workers across West Virginia.

Next came the reading of greetings sent by teachers and other public-sector unions from around the world, including Puerto Rico, Canada and Britain. The Mexico City teachers union sent the following greeting, which was read aloud by Julian Guerrero:

It is with great joy that we heard the news of your successful strike. Once again, you have demonstrated that when thousands of teachers unite in defense of our rights and education as a right, we can win. That's right, we said WIN! A simple word that, after decades of attacks on workers around the world, becomes more than a concept. It means life, it means struggle, and it is our only acceptable goal.

What's more, you have won during the Trump era, which was touted as a period when we wouldn't be able to fight back against anti-worker attacks. And you, the brave and dignified educators of West Virginia, have shown that the only certainty is struggle, where victory lies in our own hands.

During his campaign, Trump made promises to West Virginia miners that he would bring back the coal industry and decent-paying jobs, which in part explains why West Virginia went for Trump by the highest margin of any state.

During the teachers' strike, however, Trump said nothing about the educators or their campaign for decent wages. What's more, high-profile figures in the Democratic Party stayed away from the strike.

In this context, it's hard to overstate the political significance of a solidarity meeting for West Virginia teachers hearing a statement of solidarity from teachers in a country viciously maligned by Trump during his campaign and during his presidency, with its all-out war on immigrants.

THEN, COMER, O'Neal and Endicott began speaking, and they riveted the crowd as they told their story with humor, humility and honesty. They talked about the fear and uncertainty that led up to the first walkouts, and how teachers across the state came to understand their own power when all 55 counties walked out together.

As Endicott explained, education workers today still remember the names of the seven counties that didn't walk out during the 1990 teachers strike in West Virginia. "No one wanted to be the county that made it 54 strong instead of 55 strong," said Endicott.

But, the strikers said, communication among rank-and-file workers in the weeks and months leading up to the strike built up their courage--and once they found it, their newfound strength shaped their understanding of what they had done and what came next.

Endicott said that the teachers began by thinking that they had to find sympathetic politicians to meet their demands. But the politicians they approached treated them with contempt, not understanding. This forced them to change their thinking. "Instead of looking at a politician to change things, we looked at each other," said Endicott.

After the strike, Endicott asked her students what they had learned from their vantage point in the struggle. Their conclusions: "Number one, we gotta be careful who we vote for. And number two, we can't just vote; we have to be active."

The mainstream media reported widely on the legislation that ended the strike, granting the teachers their demand of a 5 percent pay raise--but Comer explained that this was just the beginning of what was accomplished:

This has been great for our unions. Participation has soared...All across the board, people are stepping up to fill leadership roles. Also, our membership has soared. In my county, the last count was 100 new members, and around the state, 1,000 new members, and that's in my union, the AFT. I don't know about how many joined the other unions.

Comer added that the everyone plans to stay engaged because there's still a fight around adequately funding the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA), the health care fund for state workers--as well as a fight to secure the revenue needed to pay for the 5 percent raise.

But Comer also pointed out that the strike won more than just a raise for teachers. First of all, the salary increase applied to all state workers. And second, there were a number of legislative bills that took aim at teachers' compensation and working conditions. According to Comer:

We managed to kill a bunch of bad bills. We didn't just get a 5 percent and the PEIA task force. We also killed paycheck protection, which would have required re-signing up for union dues deduction each year. That would have killed the unions. We killed charter schools this year--no big deal! We killed attacks on seniority. This was one of the legislature's priorities--they wanted to eliminate the business inventory tax. It was $140 million in the budget to fund schools, and they wanted to get rid of it.

Finally, the meeting took a phone call from Larry Cagle, one of the 40,000 Oklahoma teachers who are planning to strike on April 2 if legislators don't meet their demands for pay raises. Oklahoma teachers haven't had a raise in 11 years.

The audience then joined with the West Virginia teachers in chants of "West Virginia now, Oklahoma next!"

The effort to bring the message of solidarity and the lessons of the West Virginia is ongoing. Several West Virginia teachers plan to speak at the Labor Notes conference in Chicago in early April.

And while the unions won the strike in West Virginia, they incurred debts that have yet to be paid. Donations are still being collected for the teachers' strike fund.

In the end, the meeting itself became part of the process of generalizing the power of rank-and-file initiative and rebuilding the labor movement as a whole. We will need many more such events in order to put human need before corporate greed.

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