West Virginia put class struggle back on the map

March 15, 2018

One week after West Virginia teachers returned to work, Khury Petersen-Smith reflects on the lessons of a fight that has the potential to galvanize the labor movement.

THE NINE-day West Virginia teachers' strike ended in a victory on March 6, securing a long-overdue 5 percent raise, not only for teachers, but all public employees in the state.

But the struggle has achieved much more than a wage increase. It inspired workers across West Virginia to mobilize and make further demands--and it's leading teachers elsewhere to plan for action against similarly low salaries and attacks on their unions. Time will tell how far the wave will go.

The strike has done something else: It has brought some clarity in uncertain times.

With Donald Trump and right-wing politicians dominating mainstream politics and waging an all-out war on working people and the planet, with the "opposition" Democrats doing little else than tell us to vote in November, with resistance movements facing a variety of challenges, life can be disorienting and demoralizing for our side.

But the West Virginia teachers drew an unmistakable line in the sand--and called on people to be on the right side of it. Many in the state rose to the occasion. Others took the wrong side.

West Virginia teachers crowd into the State Capitol rotunda
West Virginia teachers crowd into the State Capitol rotunda

Republican state Sen. Mitch Carmichael, one of the clear villains of the strike, claimed to be unfazed by the teachers' resistance.

Asked on the first day by local news station WSAZ what he thought about the teachers taking over the Capitol, Carmichael said, "That doesn't bother me a bit. That doesn't intimidate me...We're not going to sacrifice the state of West Virginia's fiscal condition."

Asked how to solve a funding crisis of the Public Employees Insurance Agency (PEIA), the health insurance provider for West Virginia public workers, that has pushed the burden further and further onto workers and their families, Carmichael had this to say: "That's a great question that nobody really can answer."

Carmichael may not have an answer about how to provide for the basic needs of state workers, but teachers found a solution: Resistance and solidarity.

THEIR RESOLVE--and their unity--was tested throughout the strike. The sticking point became the teachers' demand for a 5 percent raise--for themselves and all public-sector workers.

West Virginia teachers ranked 48th in pay among the 50 states and the District of Columbia. Many teachers live within driving distance of neighboring states, where salaries are higher, and this has contributed to a teachers' shortage in West Virginia.

On February 28, after the initial two-day walkout stretched into a second week, Gov. Jim Justice--the billionaire coal and agribusiness magnate and Republican-turned-Democrat-and-back-to-Republican-after-Trump-came-to-power--stood with the leaders of the state's two teachers unions and announced they had come to an agreement on the teachers' terms.

Only they hadn't. Justice's offer was that the teachers would get their 5 percent raise--but at the expense of other public workers, who would only get 3 percent. Union leaders celebrated this as a good deal that the teachers should take.

But the rank and file had other plans. Their unity, in defiance of the politicians and their own union leaders, forced schools to remain closed for the rest of the week. The teachers were subsequently offered a 4 percent raise for all public employees--which they also rejected.

Carmichael and the other state Senate Republicans proved to be the most intransigent obstacle of all, seemingly refusing to accept the 5 percent across-the-board raise as a matter of principle, even after Justice himself had caved.

But the teachers refused to budge, and their resolve proved greater than that of the politicians.

The teachers weren't alone. The West Virginia School Service Professional Association, which represents cafeteria workers, clerical staff and bus drivers, joined the strike movement. The bus drivers' refusal to move students was critical in convincing county school superintendents to keep the schools closed.

The school workers also enjoyed the widespread support of students--some of whom also mobilized to the Capitol in Charleston or organized protests in their towns--parents and other members of their communities.

In short, the teachers led the way in a wildcat strike that became a magnet of protest and solidarity--and a struggle that lived up to West Virginia's militant labor history.

That's a very different picture than the one Donald Trump and other politicians love to present: of West Virginia workers as one-sidedly conservative and enthusiastic supporters of reactionary policies.

West Virginia hasn't been a "red state" for very long--not too long ago, it was dependably Democratic. But Trump's lopsided victory in the 2016 presidential election and stereotypes about white workers in the South make it easy to give West Virginia the label "Trump country."

The struggle of the teachers tore off that label--and started writing a new one.

DRIVING SOUTH into West Virginia on Route 7, the region's historic place in the U.S. economy is clear.

Route 7 runs along the Ohio River, and barges laden with coal crawl along the waterway. They feed generators along the way, such as the massive, coal-fired Mitchell Power Plant in Moundsville, the Pleasants Power Station near Belmont and the Mountaineer Power Plant in New Haven.

West Virginia is in the heart of "Coal Country," and generations of residents have worked in the mines that have proved so lucrative for U.S. energy companies. Timber, steel and natural gas have also shaped West Virginia's economy, and continue to do so today.

All these industries tend to extract natural resources--and profit--from the state, while returning nothing.

In 2013, for example, the biggest 25 landowners held 17.6 percent of all private land in the state. In six counties, the top 10 owners had 50 percent of the privately held land. But not one of the top 10 private landowners is headquartered in West Virginia.

The state's economy has undergone a devastating restructuring. Coal and natural gas extraction is notorious for producing short booms alternating with prolonged busts, which has made the lives of West Virginia workers and their families precarious for many years.

But structural shifts in the U.S. economy have led to the decline of manufacturing and mining that comprised the backbone of the West Virginia economy historically. In their place--when anything has taken their place--is low-wage, retail work. One milestone came in 1998 when Walmart overtook Weirton Steel as the state's number-one private employer, a status that it continues to enjoy today.

THE STATE'S worsening poverty has been accentuated by tax cuts for corporations that starved the government of revenue.

In 2006, Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin--now one of the state's senators in Washington, D.C.--urged the legislature to slash corporate taxes in the interest of making West Virginia "competitive." The corporate net income tax rate went down from 9 percent to the current 6.5 percent, and legislators eliminated the state's business franchise tax.

According to the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, these and other cuts eliminated $425 million in state revenue each year.

The result has been a deep social crisis, as jobs with living wages decline--both in the private and public sectors--and the social safety net to catch people when they fall becomes ever more frayed.

In this context of despair, Trump's campaign to "make America great again" seemed to offer hope to people who never would have considered voting for a Republican previously.

"I'll tell you why Donald Trump won West Virginia," Terri, a teacher who lives in Charleston, told us during the strike. "Hillary was offering people apologies: 'Sorry, you lost your jobs.' Trump was offering people their jobs back."

The "offer," of course, was coupled with a program of racism, sexism and xenophobia. There was a stark reminder of that agenda even as the teachers' strike was underway. Lawmakers in the state House voted--by a clear margin that included a number of Democrats--to put a massive threat against women on the ballot for the next election: a referendum that claims the Constitution doesn't protect the right to abortion or funding for them.

Nevertheless, the success of the strike and its even wider popularity show that the same bitterness Trump exploited to win votes could be channeled in a different direction--into a statewide labor action whose participants were overwhelmingly women, and that celebrated solidarity above everything else.

IT'S CLEAR that the teachers' strike--and crucially, a victorious outcome--has struck a chord that resonates beyond West Virginia.

Oklahoma teachers are preparing for an April strike, and Arizona teachers are talking about it, too. So are teachers in Kentucky--and, in very different economic circumstances, in Jersey City, where the average rent is the third-highest in the country.

The reason the example of West Virginia is inspiring militancy is that many of the circumstances that the teachers confronted exist all over the country.

Years of austerity combined with tax cuts for the rich and businesses have built fiscal crises into state and local budgets everywhere. Health care costs are on the rise, and so are rents and housing costs--all in the context of an unequal society with disintegrating social services.

And don't forget the political leaders who have focused on supposedly overpaid and unproductive public-sector workers as scapegoats for financial and social problems.

On the other hand, it's important to appreciate some aspects of the West Virginia strike that may not play out the same in other places.

One remarkable feature of the walkout was the fact that county school superintendents across the state supported the teachers. The superintendents' decision to keep schools closed--in all 55 counties, each day, for the duration of the strike--allowed the teachers to skirt legal restrictions on striking. We can't expect school administrators to back educators' wildcat strikes every time.

Also, while the state police were present in the Capitol building, they didn't interfere with protesting teachers. The West Virginia strike, therefore, didn't have to deal with police repression. As the history of labor struggle in West Virginia shows, power usually responds to workers' resistance with a range of weapons, including state violence.

These are some of the fortunate aspects of the struggle in West Virginia that may not translate elsewhere. But the teachers also faced obstacles that don't necessarily exist everywhere else--and overcame them.

The fact that West Virginia is a "right to work" state, for example, made unity extraordinarily important for the teachers.

Affiliates of the two main national teachers' unions--the National Education Association and American Federation of Teachers--both organize West Virginia teachers. With the law barring collective bargaining and automatic representation under a union contract, the two unions effectively compete with each other for members--in the same schools.

This division has gotten in the way of resistance in the past--but the unity of the strikers was able to overcome it.

Similarly, the fact that wages and benefits for teachers are determined by the state legislature required statewide unity on the part of educators. They achieved it--the level of solidarity inspired the proud chant: "Not one, not two, not three, not four, but 55 are at your door!"

The success of the strike in these matters holds out hope for the labor movement outside of West Virginia. With the Janus v. AFSCME Supreme Court decision looming--and the expectation of a blow against public-sector workers that will extend some "right to work" conditions nationally--the West Virginia strike shows that it's possible to win, even on difficult terrain for organized labor.

WHILE THE Trump era has clearly been marked by harsh attacks on working people in and the oppressed, it has also been shaped by mass resistance, often of a surprising character.

From the Women's Marches that represented the largest single day of protest in U.S. history, to the uprising of the airports to resist Trump's Muslim ban, to the #MeToo movement against sexual abuse taking down powerful, predatory men, to the emerging struggle against gun violence led by high school youth, there have been important moments of hope in otherwise dark times.

With few exceptions, though, the labor movement has been conspicuously absent from the resistance--until now. The West Virginia teachers have put class solidarity and struggle back on the agenda.

A state where poverty and exploitation have taken such a heavy toll is showing all of us what workers' power looks like. With that comes the hope of a new chapter in the struggle against inequality and violence, and for a better world.

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