By HUGH STEPHENSON
— CHARLESTON, W.V. — West Virginia teachers stunned politicians, the media, and labor officials across the country when they launched a nine-day wildcat strike demanding wage increases and better health-care benefits for all state employees. Some 27,000 teachers from all 55 counties of West Virginia walked out of their classrooms on Feb. 22. They never wavered on their demands.
On March 6, a tentative agreement was reached, giving all state workers a 5% increase in wages. The contentious issue of health insurance was related to a committee for further study.
This win is a great victory for labor, even if the agreed increase in wages isn’t much money. West Virginia state workers will still be at the lower end of pay scales. Moreover, the legislature threatened to obtain funding for the wage gain through cuts to Medicaid and other social programs, although Governor Jim Justice denied that the cuts would take place.
But the win sent a shock wave through boardrooms and state capitols across the nation. And they aren’t happy. West Virginia GOP politician Lynn Arvon was overheard saying to an aide, “The teachers have to understand that West Virginia is a red state and the free handouts are over.” As if pay for working, and being a teacher in particular, is a free handout!
The victory was largely the product of tireless preparation and organizing work by the rank-and-file teachers and other school workers. Labor union members and leaders would do well to take note and follow the teachers’ example.
Teachers’ strikes are “unlawful” in West Virginia, as in many other states. In addition, collective bargaining is not provided for in state law; instead, the legislature is empowered to regulate school labor issues by statute. But conditions were so bad that the teachers struck anyway.
Initially, Gov. Justice tried to offset the teachers’ anger by signing a bill giving a 2% increase in wages with an additional increase of 1% in 2020 and another 1% in 2021—hardly enough to offset increases in health-care costs and inflation. In response, the teachers walked off the job, demanding a 5% immediate increase and caps on insurance premiums.
West Virginia is one of the poorest states in the Union, and teachers rank 47th in pay compared to other states. Teaching is predominantly “women’s work,” and low salaries reflect the value politicians place on women. To make ends meet, teachers, bus drivers, and school service workers often hold down one or two additional jobs.
Low wages also force experienced teachers to seek employment outside of West Virginia. Many teachers said they had nothing to lose by striking. They’re right. One teacher said, “If they fire me, I’ll just go to Target and get a job there for more money.”
Teachers recognized their action would harm students that get nutritional needs met by food programs offered by the schools. According to CNN, “Before they made the decision to strike they wanted to make sure their students’ needs were taken care of,” said Jennifer Wood, with the American Federation of Teachers union in West Virginia.
Support for the strike from within the state and across the country shows just how important this strike is to workers everywhere. On March 5, San Francisco’s teachers union donated pizza to feed those at the rally. A gofundme site raised $320,000 to help teachers cover lost wages. Students formed the group, #SecureOurFuture to show that they stand with their teachers.
A March 5 rally was held at the West Virginia state capitol building in Charleston. About 5000 teachers and supporters occupied the capitol building, forcing it to close due to its having reached maximum capacity as permitted by the fire marshal. An overflow crowd of at least another thousand filled the outside grounds. Pro-union music and passionate speeches by labor organizers and activists highlighted the rally.
Dale Lee, head of the West Virginia Education Association (WVEA), announced to the cheering crowd, “The world is watching, the world is watching, and our being on national TV for something positive is igniting a revolution across the nation.”
Jerry Goldberg, a visiting teacher from Detroit, told the strikers, “You have inspired people in Oklahoma, the struggle is spreading. It is time for working people to take back our rights, to take back what has been taken away.” Teachers in Oklahoma and Pittsburgh, energized by events in West Virginia, are making preparations for their own strikes.
One teacher in the crowd, Kim, pointed out to Socialist Action, “We have to learn how to organize again, we’ve been de-educated. My mother was an AFT union member. It is ironic because West Virginia is a mythical place in the labor movement”—a reference to the Mining Wars of 1912 to 1921, when workers fought a war for the right to organize.
The mining wars were on the minds of many of the striking teachers. “We come from an area that is known for standing up for what they believe in,” Katie Endicott, a high school teacher who brings home less than $650 per week, said to The New York Times. “The union wars, they originated in the South in Mingo County. We believe we’re following in their footsteps.”
The crowd chanted pro-labor slogans between speakers while raising their fists in unison. Flashing five fingers twice and then a fist, they referenced “55 Strong,” a slogan capturing the unity of all 55 state counties for the labor action. Bob, a science teacher, told Socialist Action, “We learned from state workers in Wisconsin. We won’t demobilize until documents are signed. We won’t fall for their bait and switch.” Bob was referencing two issues:
- Wisconsin workers occupied their own capitol building in 2011, protesting union-busting legislation by Governor Scott Walker. The protesters demobilized when union leadership agreed to resolve Walker’s anti-union plans in the courts. In a blow to labor, the courts ruled for Walker and against the unions.
- West Virginia’s governor, Jim Justice, announced an agreement with the West Virginia Education Association on Feb. 28 for a 5% teacher’s raise and a 3% state worker raise. Significantly, the agreement failed to address the insurance issue, which infuriated many teachers. The walk-out continued. Moreover, the House approved the raises but the Senate didn’t, on the alleged grounds that there was not enough money to cover costs. Instead, the Senate offered a 4% increase for teachers. Union leaders and politicians expected teachers to agree to the 4% raise. But they didn’t fall for the state government’s tricks and again voted to continue the strike.
At the same time that West Virginia’s Senate claimed funds weren’t available for a 5% raise, the legislature passed tax cuts for the Mining industry. Even Gov. Jim Justice, himself an owner of several mine companies, agreed with rescinding recent mining company tax breaks to pay for the raises. Many of the teachers are demanding funding of their wage increases by rescinding mining company tax breaks.
Unions have been on a long retreat in the United States. In West Virginia, even miners have suffered defeats. According to The New York Times, only 5% of miners are unionized. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 10% of workers are in unions nationwide. This is down from 33% union membership 50 years ago.
West Virginia teachers have taught lessons that were long lost to the workers’ movement. It doesn’t matter if reactionary laws exist to block labor organizing. It doesn’t matter if a state is “right-to-work” or bans strikes altogether. It doesn’t matter when the U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of big business. If labor is united, like the WV teachers, labor can use its power to move the world.
Photos of teachers’ rally in Charleston, W.V., March 5. (Hugh Stephenson / Socialist Action)