What Lessons Does the WV Teacher Strike Have for Labor’s Future?by Ken Fones-Wolf
In Roman mythology Janus has two faces; one looking to the future and one looking to the past. He is the god of transitions. Today, Janus is associated with a court case involving agency fees—monies collected to defray union operating expenses from those who choose not to join the duly recognized union that bargains for and protects their rights to fair treatment on the job. Some believe the Janus case would mark a devastating transition for public sector collective bargaining.
Even as lawyers argued the Janus case before the U.S. Supreme Court, West Virginia teachers walked off the job despite living in a state that denies public sector workers collective bargaining rights and just two years earlier had become a right-to-work state. West Virginia is often used as the surrogate for “Trump Country” because it gave Trump his largest margin of victory over Hilary Clinton. But in February, school boards in all 55 counties were forced to cancel school for nine days because the teachers and school personnel displayed such remarkable solidarity across the state. How do the unified, militant, and defiant actions of the teachers fit with the increasingly pro-business politics of the Mountain State? What lessons do those actions hold for the future of organized labor?
These days, most “progressives” don’t expect much from West Virginia. Many, trying to account for Trump’s unexpected victory, turned to J. D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, a memoir written by a modern-day Horatio Alger character, who overcame the culture of violence, poverty, substance abuse, and laziness that Vance believes has settled like a pall over the region. West Virginia ranks near the bottom of the nation in education, income, and health. Obesity, opioids, and government handouts have overwhelmed any hope for the region. It is culture, Vance blithely chants (frequently on cable news networks), that has ruined Appalachia.
The teachers turned the tables on such thinking. After nearly four years with no cost-of-living raises but steadily climbing premiums and co-pays to the state employees’ health insurance (PEIA), teachers were outraged when the governor and state legislature proposed one percent raises for the next five years without guarantees for reining-in PEIA premiums. Particularly insulting was a new PEIA plan that gives points for monitoring personal behaviors so that employees could qualify for slightly lower PEIA premiums. Even as WVEA and AFT-WV (the two teacher unions operating in the state) and the School Service Personnel leaders goaded the billionaire governor into proposing a two percent raise in 2018, rank-and-file teachers began to mobilize on their own, using such social media sites as Facebook to develop their own demands and insure solidarity across the memberships of all three unions.
The results of such grass roots efforts were impressive. Teachers and school personnel reached across unions to close fault lines that had exposed divisiveness when they had walked off the job in 1990. They also worked with food pantries and volunteered to deliver lunches to poor children who depend upon the subsidized nutrition they receive at school (West Virginia has one of the highest percentages of poor children in the country). And teachers presented their message effectively, winning widespread public support and inspiring a student-run social media group, Secure Our Future, to use its voice to lobby on the teachers’ behalf.
This impressive solidarity demonstrates that the mainstream media (and J. D. Vance) had underestimated West Virginians. In particular, they ignored the state’s militant past. Nearly thirty years ago, the United Mine Workers launched one of the most defiant strikes in modern memory against the Pittston Coal Company to protect the pensions and health care of retirees. The following year, in addition to a teacher walkout, the United Steelworkers waged a 22-month battle against Marc Rich when his Ravenswood Aluminum Company locked out its 1700 workers. Union members picketed the plant and hounded Rich to his headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland, where they won the support of European steelworkers and eventually regained their jobs.
We typically associate such actions with the muscular, male-dominated labor movement of the past. Pittston and Ravenswood recalled the brutal battles of the Depression years, the time before the National Labor Relations Act sought to contain class struggle, avoid economic disruptions, and bureaucratize labor relations. But these actions also nodded to the future. They developed new corporate campaign strategies and defied legal sanctions. In many respects, Pittston and Ravenswood are omens of angry workers’ potency when corporate interests and their cheaply bought politicians seek to undermine stable labor relations. But sadly, they are also a reminder that the labor movement has failed to build upon such victories, as well as the fact that the working class of today looks vastly different than the white factory workers of the 1990s (and even then they were hardly representative).
A quarter century later, West Virginia workers faced an even more daunting task. In the last six years, state politics has changed from blue to red. Legislators repealed prevailing wage laws, cut taxes, slashed the public sector, and passed a right-to-work law. The billionaire governor, Jim Justice, ran as a Democrat in 2016 but switched parties just seven months into his first term. Justice, who offered teachers a one percent raise based on “fiscal responsibility,” owes the state more than four million dollars in back taxes.
Still, the predominately female teachers drew upon a rich vein of tradition that runs counter to current Republican trends. Women in Appalachia (as in many other settings) have played significant roles in what appeared to be male labor struggles. In the Pittston strike and the Ravenswood lockout, women mobilized to sustain workers, forming groups named after Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, the fiery labor organizer who was jailed for her defiance of state and federal authorities during the West Virginia mine wars of the 1910s. Women were also central to using the War on Poverty to fight for rural health care clinics, reproductive rights, and adequate child nutrition in the region. Those who would write off West Virginia as Trump country also forget that Bernie Sanders got more votes than Trump during the state’s primaries.
So what lessons might we glean from West Virginia’s teachers? It seems obvious that workers should prepare for more of these sorts of actions. The Trump Administration, the Republican-led Congress, and the conservative majority on the Supreme Court seem intent on destroying the stability that collective bargaining was designed to cement. Such sentiments may be even stronger in Republican-held state legislatures. If the Janus decision succeeds in weakening public employee unions, public sector workers may have little recourse but to strike in defiance of attacks on their wages, benefits, and working conditions. Some point to the West Virginia teachers and suggest that this may be a good thing; that workers will be better off without institutionalized bargaining. But the conditions in West Virginia are not easy to replicate. Teachers here knew that they had power because the state already had 700 vacancies that they could not fill in addition to the ten percent of teachers who were either inexperienced or uncertified.
The example of unified, mobilized teachers, however, does point to labor’s need to recognize that women should be an increasingly vital part of its leadership and its strategies. More than three quarters of West Virginia’s striking teachers were women. The teachers have strong community ties, evidenced in their work in helping feed those students dependent upon school meals. Their caregiving roles in many communities helped keep the public on their side despite the inconveniences that came with the strike. Moreover, the networks they created were the driving force behind the rank-and-file mobilization. When the governor promised union officers a deal three days into the strike, they told teachers to return to work. But many local activists were not convinced; they knew that the governor’s promises did not bind the legislature to the deal. Their social media-based networks went into action. Hurriedly-called meetings by local activists (many of them women) maintained defiance and teacher solidarity for five more crucial days, thus averting the state senate’s attempts to reduce the five percent raise. If labor is to recapture the vitality it has lost and return to importance, the lesson from West Virginia teachers is that women must be featured more prominently in its agenda.
West Virginia teachers also demonstrated the power of social media in connecting workers. In fact, a sizable minority of West Virginia teachers do not belong to either the AFT or the NEA. Yet, they were in touch with teachers throughout the state through social media and they sustained greater solidarity than most union-led strikes. Facebook groups gave them a sense of purpose and power that union membership once provided for New Deal-era factory workers. When unions expanded beyond highly-skilled, white, male craftsmen in the 1930s, they had to adopt new strategies to build solidarity. The West Virginia teachers have demonstrated how workers can build connections among themselves to create their own voice within the movement. Top-down mobilization by unions will not likely entice the loyalties of an educated working class that toils in classrooms, hospitals, and offices, rather than factories.
The Janus case, like the Janus of Roman mythology, might be a transition for a new labor movement. Like the god, labor can face both forward and backward. There are certainly lessons from how workers built a union movement in the past that can help resurrect the future movement. But those lessons will show that workers adopted fresh strategies and incorporated different workforce demographics. We are in a new era requiring just such innovation. If those lessons are heeded, perhaps West Virginia teachers can help point the way.
KEN FONES-WOLF is Professor of History at West Virginia University. He is also a member of AFT and a former labor educator.