We have a guest post today, talking about the illegal strike that’s ongoing in West Virginia. C. formerly tweeted as @thehousered and works as staff for an education union in rural America.
Labor militancy isn’t a novelty in West Virginia.
It’s almost poetic, then, that West Virginia’s public school employees are on the fourth day of an illegal strike as the Supreme Court—at the behest of the bosses—comes for the rights of working people.
The emerging struggle doesn’t fit anyone’s narrative. Liberal elites have eagerly devoured narratives from right-wing shills like J.D. Vance about the reactionary, racist white working-class of rural Appalachia. In the coastal liberal imagination, West Virginians are Exhibit A of the category of so-called “deplorables” that elected Donald Trump.
Nor does it fit the right’s preferred tale, of red states wholeheartedly embracing ‘pro-growth’ capitalist public policy. West Virginians are in a populist uprising in defense of public institutions, and against predatory corporations and corrupt pro-business politics: hardly the characteristics of the Republican Party’s long standing agenda. The populist uprising—something that seems to fit cleanly into the Left’s political imagination—is in rural Appalachia instead of the coastal metropolitan enclaves Left “thought leaders” inhabit.
Yet for the second time in 28 years, West Virginia’s public school employees have drawn a line in the sand in defense of public education, and turned to militant industrial action to fight for the common good.
I drove down to Wheeling, West Virginia, for the third day of the picket. I arrived at Wheeling Park High School just as Governor Jim Justice departed—as I would later learn, he had been present for a town hall with nearly 900 attendees, where he weakly defended his inaction to an angry audience. What seemed like half of the sheriff deputies in Ohio County were parked right outside. Facing angry teachers must have been too much for the billionaire Governor; he cancelled his next two town halls.
I pulled in behind a group of teachers as they were loading home made picket signs into the back of an SUV, stacked on top of crates of water bottles. When I asked them where they were headed, the five teachers—by then in the process of piling into the SUV—yelled back that they were driving the 140 miles to Charleston for a rally on the steps of the capitol, headlined by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) president Cecil Roberts.
After briefly looking at Google Maps to see whether I could make the drive down—too long, on top of my seven hour round trip—I found my way to the picket line in front of the high school.
It’s important to understand something. Folks don’t want to be out on the line, not a single teacher or paraprofessional. Every single one of them would rather be in the classroom. In fact, even while they were holding the picket line, much of their talk was about their students: who was doing well, who was struggling, celebrating successes, thinking about how they could support their students better.
Teachers proudly told me that their debate team was among the best in the state, and that they consistently performed well academically despite low pay and always-scarce resources. I heard, “we’re a poor state,” more than once. They enthusiastically talked about an engaged, supportive community; in fact, many stayed in West Virginia for that very reason. Teachers in the panhandle wouldn’t have to go far to reach Ohio or Pennsylvania, where they’d get substantial raises.
For many teachers, this is their second time out on the line. One senior teacher remarked that it was her second time and that it was less scary than the first time in 1990, when she was young and new to the profession. She remarked in sadness about receiving a letter ordering the teachers back and recalled that all of the teachers paused at the flagpole for a prayer before returning to work, remarking, “I’ve never felt that kind of unity.”
Talking to a younger colleague, she shared that it was different for her now. Healthcare is a concern—she’s later in life, and more scared about medical costs. The proposed changes to the Public Employee Insurance Agency would hurt her; for another teacher, it’d raise his family’s costs over three thousand dollars—without factoring in future premium increases. For younger teachers, just paying the bills is a struggle. One remarked that accidentally paying the balance of a small credit card statement, rather than half, made her worry about making it to the next paycheck.
They also said that they had had enough of being forced to do more with less, and that they weren’t going to be pushed around any longer—and that in their mind, they weren’t just standing up for themselves. They were standing up for all West Virginians. As one 42-year special education teacher put it, they’re out on the line on a wing and a prayer because West Virginians can’t take any more.
West Virginia’s ruling elite is little removed from the vicious capitalists fought by the United Mine Workers—in some instances, they’re the literal heirs. Their billionaire governor, Jim Justice — elected as a Democrat in 2016, only to switch parties nearly seven months into his term — is a coal baron who traces his family fortune back through the same industry fought by labor militants a century ago. According to Justice, there just isn’t money in West Virginia for real raises, or to better fund schools. And the answer from teachers is simple: bullshit. The money is there, but you’ve been paid—along with our legislators—to funnel it to the pockets of corporations, instead of communities.
This is not uncommon. Although the material circumstances in West Virginia are deeply particular, they follow the general pattern of neoliberalism: deregulate, starve the public purse, and sell off public goods to the highest bidder. If a disaster comes along to help you do it faster, so much the better. West Virginians—at least some of them—are wise to the game.
Folks on the line interpret their fight as intensely political—their job action is more a collective political fight than it is a traditional “boss fight.” Superintendents are sometimes viewed as allies; in fact, the School Superintendents of some counties have called off school instead of forcing people to choose whether to cross pickets. In that sense it’s not unlike the militant provincial level union fights found in Canada, with a corresponding comparative level of conservatism on the local or building level.
Their fight is with their politicians. In a discussion of Justice’s remarks to the teachers in the town hall, one shook his head in disgust. “That good ol’ boy just doesn’t get it, does he?” It was a common sentiment: things are broken, and our politicians either don’t get it, or are paid not to get it. Signs urged legislative action, and targeted local and state politicians; Senator Ryan Ferns ought to be running very, very scared, because the teachers of Ohio County are coming for him.
One thing never came up.
Nobody cared who belonged to what union, and nobody cared who did what job.
In West Virginia, they don’t have exclusive representation, bargaining, or agency fees. People can and do drop and add membership (usually purchased, in large part, for the hefty educator liability insurance policies, much like it is in other states without public sector collective bargaining). Members of the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association work side by side.
It may be the most inspiring aspect of the struggle in West Virginia that the jurisdictional fights, turf wars, and internecine struggles for political power within labor are largely meaningless when stacked against fighting labor’s political enemies. Even if their memberships are different, and their unions don’t reflect it, they’re organizing industrially: teachers and support staff all voted, regardless of union membership or category of work, on taking strike action. It was simple: “It affects all of us, so all of us should have a say.”
One wonders what that would look like in real terms—if unions turned toward the potential of industrial strength, buried the internecine warfare, and fought through unity, confrontation, and direct action. Filling the jails—and clogging the courts with the lawsuits—could be a path toward a different type of unionism, as Moshe Z. Marvit and Shaun Richman have discussed, and away from the handcuffs of currently-existing American labor relations.
But although there’s great inspiration to be found, as of this writing, the strike’s future and success are uncertain. Nervous chatter about the fraying patience of management, a pending injunction, and looming bills made teachers think long and hard about how much longer they can stay out. The message, by and large, was clear: stay out as long as we can. But if the courts order them back, filling the jails isn’t an option. It’d bankrupt the unions to fight the court battles.
There’s a level of fetishization of mass militancy in Left coverage of the strike, and the implication is sometimes that if only we go down such a road, we needn’t even worry about Janus v. AFSCME. It’s said, often by those who stand to lose relatively little, with a note of almost excitement. There’s some element of truth to this: Our future does look like West Virginia. But what that means is engaging in mass action with few institutional resources because we have no other options, and because the only thing left for us is to wager everything and fight.
The teachers out in West Virginia were clear: we’re out and we’re going to fight until we can’t. They know that their fight is just starting. Even after they return to work, the message was clear: “Remember in November.” This won’t be solved this week, or next.
I can’t pretend to fully know what the future holds for labor.
We can survive Janus v. AFSCME. It’ll force us to do what we should’ve been doing, and what unions like the American Federation of Government Employees have been doing all along: relentlessly organize.
But we know it won’t stop there. They’ll come for exclusive representation nationally next. And then the private sector. And they’ll keep coming. Capitalists have forgotten why they begrudgingly accepted the New Deal consensus in the first place, and they’re intent on ripping the scant framework of American labor law away.
I know our future will be a lot of fights, and fights we’ll lose as often as we’ll win them.
I know that the workers of West Virginia show extraordinary bravery in putting everything on the line to fight for their communities, and for the common good.
And I know that their fight is the echo of a coming war.
If you’d like to donate to support these teachers on their strike, please consider giving to their GoFundMe here.